Sunday Morning Showdown: GMT Wars Part Deux — Rolex Vs. Grand Seiko
In this Sunday morning column, two of our writers go head-to-head in an epic showdown for the ages. Strong opinions and hysterical hyperbole are welcome (so feel free to join in with the fun in the comments section below). And don’t forget to let us know which watches you’d like to see torn to shreds/effusively exalted next week. We’ll try to feature as many of our readers’ choices as we can. This week, we’ve got another head-to-head for you. The focus? Rugged GMT watches from Rolex and Grand Seiko.
The “Part Deux” in the title may confuse some, but long-term Sunday Morning Showdown veterans may recall a very early bout. In May of 2020, Rob and Ben waged war on each other with the best fixed-bezel GMT watches from Rolex and Grand Seiko. If you can believe it, the quartz(!) Grand Seiko SBGN005 bested the Rolex reference 216570 with 53%. Since 2020, the Explorer II received an update at Watches And Wonders 2021 — reference 226570 — with Grand Seiko creating a new Spring Drive GMT reference under the “Evolution 9” banner. Yes, reference SBGE285G “Mist Flake” has the rugged looks of the SBGN005 with a ton more street cred by going mechanical — albeit with a quartz regulator. But still, no battery in sight. Today, we see if the Rolex Explorer II will suffer a repeat defeat or if the latest update can redeem for the win.
Settling the score
But first, a little housekeeping. The last time Ben and Jorg entered the ring, we saw the Rolex Daytona against the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Sport. The Zenith was crowned the victor to Jorg’s delight with 67% of the voting share. Ben has been trying to drive the Daytona to the chequered flag first but has fallen short of the top spot each time. Next was the fantastic plastic showdown between RJ’s MoonSwatch and Daan’s Casio GA-2100 “CasiOak”. Despite the queues outside Swatch boutiques, the Fratelli voted in favor of the Casio at 60%. Staying with alternate materials were the ceramic Tudor and forged carbon Doxa. With its METAS movement and dark aura, the Tudor outweighed the Doxa by 63%. Perhaps a rematch with the new Doxa Army is in order to reclaim the lead.
And just last week, the JLC Reverso hit hard with 78% of the votes to 22% for the Cartier Tank Chinoise. Now on to today’s fight where Ben backs the Rolex and Jorg favors the Grand Seiko.
Ben: Rolex Explorer II reference 226570
In the first part of “GMT Wars,” my allegiance resided with the Japanese camp at Grand Seiko. I still believe the SBGN005 is one of the best buys for looks and provenance. Don’t let that quartz movement fool you; caliber 9F86 is seriously impressive. But I’ve already stood my ground on this and came out on top, so there is no need to push it further. Today, I’m defecting to the Swiss crown of Rolex. The Explorer II was never at the forefront of my mind when thinking about the brand. Even today, I find its proportions a little ungainly with broad hands and a 42mm case. Yet, since the update in 2021, it has grown on me, even though nothing much changed on the surface.
Jorg: I had to rub my eyes and polish my glasses to understand if anything changed on the new Explorer II.
Ben: I agree; it was a little comical seeing Rolex make a big deal about this watch — it was its star of the show! Yet, as Jorg said, you had to squint to see what had changed. But that’s the beauty of it. Rather than a big glaring Cerachrom bezel and minute dashes that recall the original reference 1655 from 1971, Rolex maintained its strategy of subtle improvements. In Rolex’s eyes, the 216570 was already on the right path. It just needed aligning with the rest of the professional collection, namely, an upgrade to the Superlative Chronometer caliber 3285 with ±2 seconds deviation per day and 70 hours of power reserve. The little coronet between “Swiss” and “Made” on the dial gives this away, which began with the GMT-Master II in 2018.
Gently does it
Other than the movement, it’s only very gentle sculpting on the case and lugs that sets the new reference apart. I find it compelling when a manufacturer is set in its way for a particular design. The same goes for the Air-King, over which Jorg and I duked it out in the Showdown arena a few weeks back. Everyone was hounding Rolex to update the Air-King in line with its ’50s and ’60s aesthetic, but that’s not the Rolex way. Maybe, with the Explorer II’s looming 50th anniversary, the enthusiasts felt it was time to bring back the quirky 1655 design elements. While it was a missed opportunity to cement a 50th-anniversary model a la the Submariner “Kermit” and ice-blue platinum Daytona, the big orange hand is already a strong call back to the past.
And I like the GMT hand more than the ’90s reference 16570, where it was a parts-bin special with the red hand from the GMT-Master II. The Explorer II may not be as stylish as a Datejust or as well-renowned as a Submariner. Still, the adventurous aesthetic lends itself to our pioneering endeavors, whatever they may be in life. Jorg disagrees and has brought along his and Lex’s current love interest — the Grand Seiko SBGE285G “Mist Flake.”
Jorg: Grand Seiko SBGE285G “Mist Flake”
First off, going up against a Rolex is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. It usually takes heavier artillery to bring down The Crown in our series of Sunday Morning Showdowns. On top of that, the Explorer II is a Fratello favorite. Resident Fratello polyhistor Gerard owns one, and our managing editor Nacho wants one. RJ and I have often talked about the white-dialed Explorer II, as one of his good friends owns one. Honestly, I have nothing but good things to say about the Rolex Explorer II and the newest generation ref. 226570. I prefer the black-dial version over the white, but both are the perfect understated Rolex tool watch. But what can I say? I do not have the same love for the Explorer II as I have for the Grand Seiko SBGE285G “Mist Flake”.
Ben: Man, you’re hot under the collar for this GS, Jorg. Maybe time to break out the bank card?
Jorg: I remember quite vividly when we received all the info on the new Grand Seiko releases unveiled at Watches And Wonders. First off, it was pretty surprising to see the focus on the Evolution 9 collection that already brought us the “White Birch” and “White Birch II” models. The “White Birch II” in particular made a lasting impression with its great case design, Spring Drive movement, and stunning dial that does not feature the power reserve indicator, creating an elegant style by relocating it to the back.
First impressions are lasting
I remember Nacho talking to me about the impact of the Grand Seiko lineup. I wasn’t listening carefully — my sincere apologies, Nacho — as I could not take my eyes off the Grand Seiko SBGE285G “Mist Flake”. There it was — the answer to all my GMT dreams! Some of you will know that neutral dial colors, predominantly white, are not my thing. But I will gladly make an exception for Grand Seiko with its rich and deep textures.
But also, this wasn’t a clinical white dial. The “Mist Flake” dial is an off-white color best described as a very light gray. I will save you the poetic description inspired by nature’s wonders, Ben, but the color is stunning.
Ben: I had my Blunderbuss at the ready, Jorg, with Grand Seiko waxing lyrical on its “inspired by nature” dial descriptions. I much prefer the bluntness of Rolex — under “DIAL” in the specifications, it says “White” — I like that it’s reassuringly honest.
Jorg: Despite the name, the watch has a very monochromatic feel, which I adore. I understand if people prefer a hint of color to break up the cloudy appearance of the dial in combination with the titanium case and bracelet. It can come across as somewhat bland. But if you know anything about Grand Seiko, you know that the brand ensures its watches are anything but boring. It starts with the sculpture of the case. It was the first aspect that stood out, and I fell in love with it. I think Grand Seiko does a brilliant job of creating exciting new case shapes for the Evolution 9 collection.
A case of GMT design brilliance
Appreciating the 41mm × 13.9mm titanium case brings a smile. The modern angular presence has a lot of attention to detail. I especially love how the wide, stylish lugs effortlessly flow into the crown guards. Additionally, the way the bevel on the lugs continues on the side of the case is a thing of sheer beauty. That case shape immediately caught my eye and was what I fell in love with. A second thing that stands out is the modest titanium 24-hour scale bezel.
Ben: Which, must be said, borrows heavily from the Rolex. And before you say the Explorer II rips off the Glycine Airman, we know which model stands above in provenance.
Jorg: Yes, but many GMT watches feature a 24-hour scale that is somewhat in your face. The trick to making it work is always the visual balance. It balances the case-shape proportions, the bezel, and the dial with all its elements. And with this SBGE285G “Mist Flake”, I found that I was intrigued with the smaller 24-hour scale and the majestic hour markers and hands. The overall dynamic is a lot more exciting than with most GMTs. Especially if you look at the applied indices, it makes sense that the 24-hour scale is slightly smaller. Just look at that double marker at 12 o’clock. That’s impressive!
The overall dynamic is spot-on
The indications make for a brilliant dial that is about so much more than its texture. The handset is another exciting characteristic. The cut-off hour hand, the razor-sharp minute hand, and the ultra-thin seconds hand are dynamic and ideally in sync. Add the straightforward GMT hand executed in black to give it contrast, and the dial is just an excellent composition. The power reserve indicator and the date window at 3 o’clock also slot in nicely. Sure, it’s not a toned-down dial, but it doesn’t need to be. With the monochromatic presence, you need different elements than color to create the much-needed dynamic. And in my opinion, the Grand Seiko designers have done a stellar job.
Inside the case, Grand Seiko equipped the “Mist Flake” with the Spring Drive caliber 9R66. You can see this small wonder of technology in action through the sapphire case back. The brand’s Spring Drive GMT movement was introduced in 2006 and provides 72 hours of power reserve. In terms of accuracy, the movement delivers with a rate of ±1 second per day. I think a Spring Drive watch should be part of every serious watch collection. And as you would have guessed, Ben, this new SBGE285G “Mist Flake” would be my pick. It is my favorite Grand Seiko, and at €8,500, I would love to add this to my collection. But it’s not the separate elements that make this watch great for me. Rather, it’s how all the pieces fit together that really hits my sweet spot!
Jorg: It’s tough to stop talking about the “Mist Flake”, Ben. But despite my love for it, I understand this is not everyone’s top pick. And that’s fine. It’s also okay if people will favor your Explorer II in this match-up. The reason is simple: in my opinion, the “Mist Flake” already won. Usually, I will try and convince our readers that the Grand Seiko is the objectively better watch. In this case, I want to win, but I’m also fine with either outcome. Writing this article made me realize that Lex and I have a trip to plan to the Grand Seiko boutique to pick one of these up.
Ben: It’s hard to argue with your points, Jorg. Being a staunch advocate of the previous fixed-bezel GMT Grand Seiko negates many of my arguments. I can’t even state that GS is piggy-backing off the successful design of the Explorer II. The watch from Rolex is (allegedly) heavily influenced by the Glycine Airman. Although in titanium-and-silver-dial form with matching hands, the”Mist Flake” could potentially lead to the same issues RJ faced with the original Silver Birch. It’s perhaps too many gray/silver tones in one visual space.
With the Explorer II, you have the black surrounds of the hands and indices. The crisp white dial is also a nice contrast, especially with the vibrant orange GMT hand. I see the GS as a less capable explorer’s watch with its monochrome appearance. But then again, how much mountain action would these watches actually see? Maybe a few brave souls would use them for that, but most likely, these will be on the wrists for everyday activities. Still, the Rolex hits the beats of a beater watch better than the GS for me. Although, the higher price tag of €9,000 could sway some of the votes.
It’s up to you now
So, who are you with!? Would you pick Ben’s trusted Explorer II in its newest iteration with all the familiar traits intact and an updated movement? Or would you go for Jorg’s monochromatic new “Mist Flake”, part of Grand Seiko’s expanding Evolution 9 collection? Let’s bring this one to a vote, and down in the comments, please let us know whose side you’re on and why.