Sunday Morning Showdown: Rolex Explorer 214270 Vs. Grand Seiko SBGH279
In our Sunday Morning Showdown, 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 and feature as many of our readers’ choices as we can. Today’s showdown is all about the practical wristwatches for the every-day-adventurer — the Rolex Explorer 214270 versus the Grand Seiko SBGH279.
Last week was the finale of our silver screen Bond watch mini-series. The ensuing votes resulted in Jorg and the “Spectre” Aqua Terra taking the victory with 59%. With Ben’s win the week prior, we look forward to revisiting the Bond topic to settle the score. But this week, to ween ourselves off the world of 007, we are taking baby steps.
In the Ian Fleming novels, James Bond is credited with wearing a “stainless steel Rolex with big phosphorus numerals.” While it was never credited to a specific model or reference, that description above from the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) book is quite a giveaway. The Rolex Explorer reference 1016 with prominent 3, 6, 9 dial immediately fulfills this definition. But Ian Fleming could have easily been describing the much rarer Submariner reference 5513.
Uncovering the true Bond watch
In 2009, all came to light when Dell Deaton (007 curator) uncovered that Fleming himself wore a Rolex Explorer ref. 1016 on a 7206 bracelet. We brought you the first-ever live pictures of Fleming’s personal Explorer from the Pennsylvania Bond exhibition, on loan from the Fleming estate, all the way back in 2010. It may never be the definitive Bond timepiece of choice, but it’s a fair assumption to appoint the Rolex Explorer as Bond’s novelized ticker with the author’s connection. It was strange for a Fleming novel to not pay lip service to the fine details of his famed spy’s wristwatch. Extensive passages were devoted to the Vesper cocktail recipe in his first book, Casino Royale (1953), and many more for his weapons and cigarettes.
Fleming’s watch is an early reference, but today’s Showdown is all about the modern version. We test if today’s Rolex Explorer ref. 214270 stands up to contemporary rivals. For a close match, we select the Grand Seiko ref. SBGH279 shares a similar ethos as the Explorer — a sturdy stainless steel case that’s unassuming yet carries a sense of swagger. The two even retail at the exact same list price of €6,200. With that bombshell, it’s time we let our writers fight their corner. When the dust settles, we’ll let your votes determine the victor.
Jorg — Rolex Explorer ref. 214270
Here we are, Ben, going from one great watch story to the next one. But not before we shake hands after a draw in the two James Bond themed match-ups. Like I said last week, the true winner of that battle was clearly your father. I loved reading his story. I honestly thought that the next time we would discuss Bond, we hopefully would have seen No Time To Die. Who could have thought that we could slowly ease into a new match-up with Bond still keeping his eye on us?
Both stories were lacking conclusive evidence for decades.
Although Fleming’s Rolex Explorer’s story is intriguing, the even bigger story connected to the Explorer is undoubtedly the conquering of Mount Everest. Coincidentally both stories were lacking conclusive evidence for decades. As a result, both stories have been a beloved topic of discussion amongst watch enthusiasts. But let’s not get into the Smiths Vs. Rolex discussion because we have a task at hand. But after you’ve read this Showdown, you might want to check out another interesting addition to that story that was written last year by Matthew Knight for The Outdoor Journal. For now, back to the Explorer.
The latest generation Rolex Explorer
The current generation Rolex Explorer ref. 214270 was introduced in 2016. It is the second generation 39mm Explorer after the first generation was introduced in 2010. Although many consider the 36mm version the true Rolex Explorer, this modern version of the watch is a worthy successor. It is the perfect continuation of the Explorer lineage. The watch still very much resembles the iconic ref. 1016, which is the quintessential Explorer reference.
More understated than many of its peers.
The current Explorer still features that characteristic round case with relatively slim lugs for current Rolex standards. Rolex, fortunately, did not ruin the silhouette of the Explorer with a Maxi case. Add the black dial with the characteristic 3, 6, and 9 markers essentially define the iconic Explorer. Overall, the Explorer profile is a lot more understated than many of its peers, and why I love it. Its versatility makes it perfect for adventurous trips and a day in the office with a suit and tie.
The modern touch
A modern touch is that the markers and the handset are filled with Rolex’s proprietary Chromalight that shines bright blue in darker light conditions. Rolex also decided to update the handset of the current Explorer, creating a better overall visual balance. The handset of the first generation ref. 214270 looked like the only element not adjusted to fit the new 39mm size. But don’t tell the collectors that, because the hunt for the first generation is on as it was only produced for five or so years. And you know what that means when it comes to pre-owned prices.
The hunt for the first generation ref. 214270 is on!
Inside the watch, we find the Rolex caliber 3132 with a blue Parachrom hairspring and Paraflex shock absorbers. The movement has a power reserve of 48 hours and runs within -2/+2 seconds a day. It’s a movement that is perfectly equipped for the task of being a daily wearer. It is tough, reliable, and easy to service and therefore fits the Explorer’s character perfectly. Now I know the Grand Seiko you are advocating is technically superior to the Rolex Explorer. And although I’m definitely aware of that, it’s not a reason to favor it above the Explorer. Not at all.
The magic of the Rolex Explorer
You see, I love the Explorer for several reasons, Ben. As you know, I’m not necessarily a Rolex fanboy. But the Rolex Explorer is at the top of my list of Rolex models — along with the Submariner and the GMT Master II — in my heart. The Explorer embodies the side I love about Rolex. The Explorer tells the great story of mountaineering. Although I am not a fan of how the Rolex PR machine spun the story of conquering Everest, there is something magical about the watch connected to one of mankind’s biggest achievements.
Ben: Possibly a more significant spin than the first ambassador tie-in with Mercedes Gleitze. The female English swimmer did indeed swim the English Channel. But the attempt with the Rolex Oyster was not successful. History has blurred these facts into a single narrative.
Heritage designs that endure
On top of that, the Explorer is also the perfect example of Rolex designs’ power from the ’50s and ’60s. The incredible achievement of designing watches that almost seven decades later still looks very much like the original watch is incredible. It’s an achievement by the people that designed the watch and, subsequently, the ones that have constantly updated the watch with respect for history and a keen eye on the future. That is a tour de force that not many brands have been able to pull off, and what I particularly love about the Rolex Explorer.
The one watch you need…
And a third reason is that this is simply the one watch you need if you are looking for one watch that will last you a lifetime. It is reliable and tough, fits practically every situation, and is still that understated statement of the world’s most famous luxury watch brand.
So tell me, Ben, what is the attraction of the Grand Seiko SBGH279?
Ben — Grand Seiko ref. SBGH279
Look, the Explorer is a bona fide hero watch. I say “hero” as a way to avoid the “iconic” word you used (well, I tried to), but I do think hero seems more applicable. I enjoyed your assessment and your rather tactical avoidance on the Smiths Vs. Rolex summit ascent. That would have been a slippery slope otherwise. But in the grand scheme of things, and how we view the Explorer, a steel round watch is not exactly a trait unique to a single watch brand.
Even the Explorer design with 3, 6, 9 numerals was seen very recently in one of the configurations for the outgoing Oyster Perpetual. So, in that way, the Explorer does not have to do much to stand out and impress other than be itself. Indeed that is a testimony to a great history and a solid design from the outset. But what about the young contenders snapping at the heels?
Grand Seiko SBGH279, I choose you!
Horrific Pokémon reference there that I hope didn’t make you cringe too hard, but at least it ties-in with the Japanese origin. Before I really get going, I will say the name “Rolex Explorer” certainly has a more evocative ring to it than the SBGH279, which sounds more like a fax machine. Then again, that is Grand Seiko’s thing. The reference SBGH279 does not require a catchy name or a marketing hook; its quality speaks for itself. Firstly the movement is the Hi-Beat Calibre 9S85 that operates at 36,000 vibrations per hour. As much as the Spring Drive is given the gong for innovation at Grand Seiko, it really is the automatic mechanical Hi-Beat that it holds in the highest esteem. This is why the movement is generally reserved for the finest Grand Seiko offerings.
Roping me in
And the SBGH279 is the finest comparative luxury sports watch for the modern-day adventurer I can muster. Sure, it may not be written in the pioneering history books. Still, even the keenest mountaineering watch enthusiast would have to admit the modern Rolex Explorer would serve no purpose in a summit attempt. It possibly may even inhibit the wearer with unnecessary baggage. Digital equipment today provides the support needed for a safe climb. But when preparing and planning an expedition, a mechanical watch provides a motivational spur with its sense of adventure and historical application. But this does not necessarily have to constitute a Rolex Explorer.
Grand Seiko dials take inspiration from nature.
The dial textures of Grand Seiko, particularly this grey dial, lend a reminder of space and environment. We have seen it in other Grand Seiko dials that take inspiration from nature.
Jorg: Ah, the famous Grand Seiko nature references. Mike and Gerard definitely have something to say about the great number of references to Japan’s beautiful creeks, vast forests, stunning skies, majestic volcanos, breathtaking coastlines, and impressive mountains that come with every new dial color.
Ben: I do too, and there is a limit to the inspiration before it becomes a stretch. Yet, sometimes just a glance at the dial can be a portal that transports you to your destination. The brushed dial on the SBGH279 shifts shades from grey to brown to black in differing light. In a way, it reminds me of the ancestral rock beneath a snowy mountain that exists at the peak. If that isn’t encouragement for your goals, I don’t know what is. Blend the dial with the polished and brushed stainless steel bracelet, and the stark whiteness of the brushed elements are offset with the glistening central inner-links.
A quiet heritage
The Grand Seiko can even claim a slice of heritage by referring the 40mm case design to the classic 44GS case by Seiko. This style of case is famed for its larger size and angular facets. Hence why this shape is ideal for today’s modern consumer. But what really fires up my visual senses are the polished and faceted indices and hands. Consequently, there is no luminescence on the indications. The sharp angles and mirror polishing techniques on the applied indices do catch reflections in low light. But in zero light, the watch is rendered useless for self-illumination.
The Grand Seiko has lug holes to easily swap and change between the bracelet and straps.
However, there is a feature of the Rolex Explorer that has fallen by the wayside. In the ad that Jorg included in his initial pitch, you may have spotted the then list price of the Explorer (I know its heart-wrenching to see those prices now). The ad states that the watch is available at $180 and $195 on the “authentic Rolex bracelet.” That means you could purchase the watch head separately with an alternative strap providing the connection to the wrist. To make this easier, the earlier Explorer lugs had holes, making it simple to push the spring bar through. On the modern Explorer, this is now absent. Yet, on the Grand Seiko, you have the tool watch benefit and aesthetic of the lug holes.
A case for the Grand Seiko
Grand Seiko cases tend to be thicker than expected. The SBGH279 comes in at 13.3mm, which is slightly thinner than the SBGJ201, which shares the same architecture. Obviously, that GS reference also comes with the GMT complication, but it still results in a thicker case than what would normally be proportional for a 40mm diameter. This is where the new caliber 9SA5 comes into it. Over the 9S85, caliber 9SA5 slims down the height and takes the Hi-Beat power reserve from 55 hours to 80 hours. This is quite a step up, and I hope to see the movement spread across the range of automatic fully mechanical Grand Seiko pieces.
Until then, it shows that Grand Seiko is striving for perfection at a rate of knots. Rolex, in comparison, moves at a glacial pace. Even something like disproportionate hands that Jorg mentions above took five years to rectify.
Jorg, any final words of defence?
Jorg: More than a few, actually. Let me start by saying that I greatly respect Grand Seiko. The brand released one of my favorite watches of last year with the SBGJ237 GMT. I had the pleasure of wearing it for some time, and it really blows the GMT Master II out of the water. Technically superior, significantly more affordable, and you can actually get one. And with the ludicrous grey market and pre-owned prices, there is no reason to hang on to any Rolex sentiment you might have to actually consider buying a current GMT-Master II.
It’s not a numbers game
Jorg: But when it comes to the battle at hand, I do feel differently. In your piece about the SBGH279, you could have come up with the brilliant rules of Taro Tanaka’s “Grammar of Design”, the great King Seiko Vs. Grand Seiko story, resulting in the 44GS, 61GS, and 62GS amongst others. As you know, I love these stories. And it makes Grand Seiko more than a brand that creates technically superior watches for the “true” enthusiasts.
Ben: I felt I had you on the ropes already, and you thought you needed a breather between bouts.
Jorg: But in a battle of two watches, what makes this particular SBGH279 the preferred choice? I have read your story, and almost every point you make is a Grand Seiko generalization that applies to a large number of watches from Grand Seiko’s collection. So is it this SBGH279 that is the best choice? Or is it perhaps the SBGH205? What is the story of this watch that makes it so much better than the Rolex Explorer?
Ben: Perhaps the advantage is that I could apply any reference to the fight. Perhaps the Snowflake would have been a straightforward antagonist with the connections to freshly fallen snow. But that’s just the point, a Grand Seiko can apply to multiple environments without feeling forced into a historical anecdote. I chose the SBGH279, duly because of the tool watch cred, but also the dial that, to me, perfectly represented a mountainscape.
Buying a watch is not just a numbers game.
Jorg: And I know some readers will say that any Grand Seiko is better than the Rolex Explorer because it performs better in a spreadsheet or simply because it is not a Rolex. Good for them, but I’m not like that. Buying a watch is not just a numbers game for me. And while I strongly object to Rolex’s very questionable business tactics like many of our readers, I do not hate its watches. And I know you don’t either, Ben. I know you have a great love for your Daytona. And I also know you love the black dial Explorer II. And I’m sure their stories are a big part of the appeal of those particular watches.
Ben: Black dial Explorer II “magic hands” FTW!
A hopeless Rolex romantic?
Jorg: And that is what makes the Explorer much better than the SBGH279 for me. Some might call me a hopeless romantic Ben. But I prefer the Rolex Explorer because it’s a watch with a great heritage. I love its design, it is technically perfectly equipped to do the job, but most of all, it tells a great story of the Rolex Explorer as one of the watch industry heroes. And that is what I miss more often when it comes to the specific Grand Seiko models. It’s a great brand that creates superior watches, but its romance often fades in the same generalities. And that also goes for this SBGH279. Where’s the soul? Where’s the story? And it makes the Rolex Explorer ref. 214270 easily the better choice out of the two for me.
But enough from our sides. It’s time to let our readers have the deciding vote in this Sunday Morning Showdown. Cast your votes and add your comments below.