We’re back with another installment of Three On Three, our series of comparative reviews of three watches that belong in a single category. This time around, we’re going head to head to head with entry-level, in-house automatics from three of the biggest brands in luxury watchmaking.
Our lineup of watches covers a price range of $3,800 to $5,400, meaning that these are watches that would, in theory, be solid contenders for someone’s first nice automatic watch. Of course, new mechanical watches can be had for less, but there are real advantages to spending a bit more for a watch with an in-house movement from a respected manufacture. The watches we have here today are, we feel, three of the best values in contemporary watchmaking.
So, just what do you get by buying into the entry level at Rolex, Omega, and Grand Seiko that you wouldn't get with a comparatively less expensive watch with a supplied movement? As you’ll see, each of these three brands provides you with something special and compelling, even if you’re only buying their most affordable timepieces, so choosing which of these three watches to add to one's collection is no easy decision.
Despite the fact that these are among the most affordable options from each brand, the personality of each watchmaker manages to come through clearly– whether it's Omega's use of advanced technologies and certifications for its movements, or Grand Seiko's painstaking attention to finishing details, or Rolex's legendary capacity to make products of steadfastly robust quality at scale. Without further ado, here's your Three On Three.
This is about as basic as a Grand Seiko can be. But what really impresses me about the SBGR253 is not only that the watch looks and feels every bit as good as pricier Grand Seikos, but that it compares favorably with any number of luxury watches currently coming out of Switzerland or Germany. While more and more watch lovers are being won over by Grand Seiko, I think that the high quality that these watches deliver still remains less known than it should be to the vast majority of the general public. I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to getting a certain amount of satisfaction from knowing that some people must see the name on this watch, and write it off out of hand.
It’s been only a couple of years since Seiko repositioned Grand Seiko as its own brand, and I have to say that the new dial design, which eschews the Seiko branding seen on the previous generation of watches, is an aesthetic improvement. The watches now have a super clean look that was previously belied somewhat by what I have to call out as redundant branding.
If you’ve ever owned a Grand Seiko, then you know that dials are where this watchmaker really shines brightest, and this model, the entry point for a Grand Seiko mechanical watch, is no exception. You get the same diamond-polished hands and indices on the SBGR253 that come on the pricier models. I’d put this Grand Seiko’s hands and indices up against those found on most of Switzerland’s high end watches with confidence that they are as good or better than most of what's out there. Over the course of this review, I found myself gently turning my wrist to see how light would play off the hands. This is really the kind of watch that you find yourself admiring over and over.
While I know that date windows are among the most polarizing of watch design choices, I think that Grand Seiko should be given credit for their approach. They make their date windows with a reflective metal frame that matches the quality of their hands and indices, and I think the overall effect is a date window that works extremely well.
Another area where Grand Seiko tends to show its mettle is with its movements. Though unlike Omega, which has fully embraced new materials and technologies in its movements, or Rolex, which has done so to a somewhat lesser degree, what you get with Grand Seiko is a pretty traditional high-end automatic caliber. Inside the SBGR253 is the caliber 9S65, an automatic caliber beating at a standard 4 Hz (28,800 vph) and coming with 72 hours of power reserve. Grand Seiko lists this movement’s accuracy at +5 to -3 seconds per day when static and +10 to -1 seconds per day with normal usage. But it’s been my experience wearing this and other Grand Seiko timepieces that these watches tend to overdeliver on what I consider to be extremely conservative guarantees of accuracy. As has become my habit when wearing any watch, I synced this guy up to the atomic clock display on the HODINKEE app when I started my review. By the fifth day, I noticed that it was running only about two to three seconds fast.
In a few words, the case is very nice, and Grand Seiko is well-known for using proprietary techniques to polish its cases, but the bracelet is one important element that Grand Seiko could improve. I don’t feel like this bracelet stands up to the high bar set by the case, the movement, and most certainly the dial. As a pure matter of the personal taste, I am not a fan of the ribbing on bracelet links, and I think that Grand Seiko’s less expensive quartz watches actually come with a better-looking bracelet. As I say in the video portion of this story, I think the bracelet is nice to have, but would switch this one out for a strap. And with the drilled through lugs, that ought to be a very simple fix.
I think all three of these watches represent an appealing value, but the Grand Seiko (particularly in this smallest size) has just leapfrogged right to the front of my favorite watches from this brand. If I were to add a second GS to my collection, it would almost certainly be this one. Grand Seiko totally understands what is so appealing to consumers about its style and its brand, and they make sure to deliver these elements across the entire collection. Sure, the SBGR253 may be the most affordable watch in this episode of Three On Three, and by a considerable margin at that, but it doesn't feel "less than" the Rolex or the Omega, and that's a real testament to the value that Grand Seiko offers with its watches.
The Aqua Terra offers a somewhat uncommon take on an everyday steel sports watch with a defined aquatic (but non-diver) inspiration. Something of an outlier in Omega’s Speedy and Planet Ocean–heavy line up, the Aqua Terra is dressier than a diver but more sports-minded than something like a De Ville. To its credit, this Aqua Terra comes in a bit smaller than you might have guessed for a modern Omega, measuring 38mm across, 12mm thick, and just 44mm lug-to-lug. For the guy or gal more likely to go for a cruise or a sail than don tanks and roll overboard, the Aqua Terra 150M blends numerous fine details and a certain resplendent charm, along with a cutting-edge movement from Omega, to make for a very appealing entry point into the brand’s Seamaster lineup.
The dial, especially compared against the Rolex and the Grand Seiko in this lineup, is decidedly more ornate. With a metallic and iridescent blue coloring and horizontal banding to emulate the teak decking of a fine sailboat or yacht, this Aqua Terra 150M positively glows on the wrist. The markers and hands are razor sharp and manage to catch the light in a very jewel-like fashion. The hands and markers are lumed, but take a closer look at the hour and minute hand.
The hour hand is lumed along its center axis, while the minute hand is lumed at its arrow-head tip. The center section of the minute hand has a lovely brushed segment that helps aid in contrast and breaks up the polished edges of the hands. The brand’s logo and name are applied and there is a lovely date display at six. Well balanced and nicely implemented, the window is subtle but bolstered by a date wheel with large white-on-black text.
Considered as a whole, the dial treatment on the Aqua Terra 150M is bright, super legible, very nicely finished, and helps the watch feel really special on wrist while retaining enough of the function-forward design of a true sports watch.
For those keyed into movements, the Aqua Terra 150M has a lot to offer for the money. Rocking Omega’s 8800 Master Co-Axial movement, even the entry-level gets the goods, including a free sprung balance wheel, Si14 silicon hairspring, and METAS Certification to ensure very accurate timekeeping. Ticking at 3.5 Hz, this very modern automatic movement uses 35 jewels and offers 55 hours of power reserve.
The 8800 can be seen via a wide display case back and I think that at this price point movements begin to become a crucial element in establishing both enthusiast appeal and comparative value. One of the big benefits of Omega moving almost entirely in-house for their movements is that some of the more cutting-edge technologies developed for the brand (and the greater Swatch family) can be implemented into a wide range of watches. This ensures that not only are you getting the prestige and enthusiast appeal of an in-house movement, but also that the movement itself is credible, high performing, and well made - all of which speaks to the value statement of the Aqua Terra 150M.
While a full steel bracelet is optional for the Aqua Terra 150M, this example from Omega came on a nautical-themed blue rubber strap with a patterned crosshatch center element and white stitching. Replete with a folding push-button clasp and metal inserts for a more robust fit between the lugs, this strap option is a bit over-designed for my taste, and I think the Aqua Terra 150M would better suit the steel bracelet, a leather strap, or even one of Omega’s high-quality NATOs. Aesthetics aside, the rubber strap is comfortable, and the color is a strong match for the dial and the overall vibe of this Aqua Terra 150M.
The case, especially in 38mm, is lovely. With simple lines, a wide sweeping polished bevel on the lugs, and a polished bezel, it is unmistakably an Omega and the case echoes the sporty-yet-dressy ethos of the entire design. With a display case back adding a bit of thickness, the Aqua Terra 150M comes in at 12mm but sits nicely on wrist thanks to its smaller overall dimensions. Offering 150 meters water resistance, the Aqua Terra 150M’s screw down crown is large enough to be useful and has been implemented without crown guards (a design element common to many sports watches).
For an entry point to the Omega universe, I think the Aqua Terra 150M is a very successful design. Priced from $5,400 on the rubber strap ($5,500 on the steel bracelet), the Aqua Terra 150M offers a tech-forward package that leverages a great deal of Omega (and Swatch’s) development prowess to offer a great movement in an everyday watch, that manages to successfully tread the line between dressy and sporty in an appealing manner. I’d opt for the bracelet or a NATO and enjoy the Aqua Terra’s 38mm case, detailed dial design, and strong use of color. I like a watch that could easily jump between the office, the pool, the beach, or even a weekend on the boat, without feeling out of place. While $5,500 is no small sum of money to spend on a watch, Omega is one of the best in the game, and as an entry point into a legacy luxury brand, the Aqua Terra 150M has a lot to offer wrapped in a distinctive and very Omega aesthetic.
It's a big challenge, trying to formulate one's first impressions of a Rolex – my own first impression of any Rolex is from the 1970s and over the decades, I've seen so many different models, under so many different circumstances, that it's impossible for me to have any real notion of what a first impression of a Rolex must be like. And yet, that's part of the attraction, I think. Depending on the model, a Rolex can be many different things to many different people but there are certain elements that remain the same, whether you're looking at the humblest Oyster Perpetual, or the most opulent gem-set Daytona, and it's those common elements that make every Rolex a Rolex.
You go to Rolex, on a certain level, not for the shock of the new or the amazement of cutting edge innovation, but rather for the reassurance that comes with a steadfast, nose-to-the-grindstone commitment to making a good watch. Of course, there's more to it than that – often a lot more – but the basic underlying characteristic of every Rolex in the modern collections is a uniformity of unassuming excellence in design and execution which is, lest we forget, quite a bit harder to achieve in practice than Rolex makes it look.
Thus, we have the Rolex Oyster Perpetual, 36mm: a watch that ought to be, if Rolex is what it should be, not merely the least expensive way to get into a Rolex, but in some sense, the most purely Rolex way to get into a Rolex. The name "Oyster" was first attached to a Rolex watch in 1926; the term "Perpetual" refers not to a perpetual calendar (an occasional source of confusion for newcomers to watchmaking) but rather, to the automatic winding system. The 36mm Oyster Perpetual we had in for review is an extremely spare wristwatch: white dial, stick markers (doubled at 3, 6, and 9:00) with the Rolex coronet at 12:00; you are reminded by the dial as well that you do in fact have in hand an Oyster Perpetual, Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified. And that's that – no date cyclops (well, and no date), no fluting on the bezel, a case rather more tank-like than not and the bracelet ditto; the only other detail is the minutes track, with its Arabic numerals at the five minute marks, but it is so diffidently done that it seems largely to be there, not as a design element, but as an aid to accurate time-setting, after which you the owner may go about your business, reassured that you won't have to do that again any time soon.
The dial and hands of the Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36mm seem at first to defy you to see them as anything beyond than the pure execution of a task, which is to show you the time of day without ambiguity or distraction. As with every other aspect of the watch, however, to live with them for any length of time is to have them grow on you in ways that both have everything to do with utility, and nothing to do with utility. We are used to thinking of the utilitarian as also, the somewhat perfunctory; the implication in calling something utilitarian is that you expend just the energy and effort necessary to make it work (whatever that means) and no more.
However, there is another approach to take in making a utilitarian object, which has to do with a concept that is a bit old-fashioned these days: the idea of dignity, and in its own small way, the Oyster Perpetual 36mm is a most dignified watch. On close examination, the dial furniture and hands, as well as the printing, exhibit a kind of slow-to-grow-on-you flawlessness, which speaks in turn to a kind of perfectionism in the people and company that made them. They are not, I should hasten to add, high craft objects like the hands and markers of Grand Seiko watches, but this is merely to say that Rolex and Grand Seiko reflect different sets of priorities, while at the same time both reflecting a meticulous approach to fulfilling those priorities.
There is an inherent dignity in a useful object that has been made with a view to executing each part with respect for the importance of functional excellence as an end in itself, and this, rather than decorative beauty per se (in which the Oyster Perpetual 36mm manifestly has little interest and which, were it a person, it would no doubt regard as somewhat beneath it) is the sort of dignity the hands and dial radiate. In this sense, it is a most resolutely Swiss watch – and a Genevan one. Both the country, and the city and canton, have deep roots in the notion of the inherent value of hard work for its own sake (it's John Calvin's town, after all) and also, a kind of deeply ingrained horror of ostentation (which is why when the Swiss shoot for actual overt luxury, it often goes over like a lead balloon; it just doesn't come naturally).
Not all 36mm Oyster Perpetuals radiate this sort of almost ecclesiastic serenity – you can get them with some rather friskier dials, including Red Grape or Yellow Grape. But in white, the OP 36mm has a vibe rather like that of a competent senior officer on a mid-century cruise liner – squared away and shipshape, and far too busy with real work for fraternizing with the passengers. That the dial markers are 18 karat gold, and that you'd never know it to look at them, merely further cements the impression of very high quality, and zero interest in attracting attention to it as such.
One of the most Rolex features of any Rolex is the fact that you cannot see the movement, despite the fact that more than anything else (arguably) the movement is what makes a Rolex a Rolex. In this case, the movement is the caliber 3130, which was introduced almost 20 years ago, and which is identical to its predecessor, the caliber 3135 (which despite the movement number sequence, preceded the 3130 by almost a decade). The two movements are basically the same engine, except for the fact that caliber 3130 doesn't have a date function. It's 28mm x 6mm and runs at 28,800 vph, with Rolex's in-house Parachrom balance spring, and a Glucydur balance that does its thing under a balance bridge (an arrangement which is generally conceded to offer a more robust mount for the balance than a balance cock, which is attached only at its foot). Notably, the balance is an adjustable mass type, free-sprung, with an overcoil balance spring design; these historically has been a feature of many high-grade wristwatch chronometer movements, and is still something of a rarity especially at this price point. The adjustable mass system used by Rolex is called the Microstella system; Patek Philippe's Gyromax balance is another example, and Omega uses freesprung, adjustable mass balances in its co-axial calibers.
In 2015, Rolex launched a major update to its movement technology with the Chronergy escapement, which debuted in the caliber 3255, powering the Day-Date 40mm. The Chronergy escapement is a variation on the lever escapement found in calibers 3130/35, with a skeletonized escape wheel and optimized-geometry lever; it's more efficient than a standard lever escapement, and offers a longer power reserve and as well, should offer better rate stability and accuracy, thanks to the lower inertia in the escapement components. That said, I think one would be hard pressed, the power reserve aside, to notice a difference between calibers 3130/35, and movements with a Chronergy escapement – Rolex in recent years has begun controlling all of its watches to ±2 seconds per day maximum error anyway, which is one of the strictest general-production accuracy standards in the industry.
Caliber 3130 is as quintessentially a Rolex movement, as the OP 36mm is a quintessentially Rolex watch. If you want a highly robust, very accurate, extremely reliable movement (which has been praised by, among others, Roger Smith and Philippe Dufour, who are two gents who may be assumed to know a little about the subject) that represents the best in classic Swiss lever escapement performance, look no further. It is nothing exotic or adventurous from an engineering standpoint but then, Formula 1 powerplants are both exotic and adventurous, and they struggle to last a single season. When it comes to making a reliable daily driver, there are worse things on earth than overbuilt, time-honored mechanical solutions.
The case and bracelet continue the less-is-more theme – the case makes no bones about the fact that it is there to hold the innards and hold them securely, free from molestation by the elements, and the bracelet likewise radiates a commendable resolve with respect to holding the watch on your wrist. Both exhibit little to no interest in ornamentation per se, unless you want to call the military crispness of the brushed stainless steel ornamental.
It's in the hand, and on the wrist, that the quality of the case and bracelet really become noticeable. The fit of this watch at 36mm on my 7 inch wrist was impeccable – as with every Rolex bracelet I've tried in the company's current production, there is a combination of suppleness and reassuring solidity that most other brands, at any price point, struggle to deliver. I'm not sure what it is exactly in the proportions, construction, and materials used that hits such a very sweet sweet spot (I'm sure it's elements of all three) but there is an undeniable physical and tactile pleasure to wearing the 36mm Oyster Perpetual. Car writers talk about road feel and watch writers ought to talk about wrist feel as a particular element of the experience of owning and wearing a watch. The Oyster Perpetual in steel, on a bracelet, at 36mm offers a near-ideal wrist-feel experience. There is just enough of a sense of mass from the use of stainless steel (rather than, say, titanium, which can under some circumstances seem too featherweight for its own good) to give the sensation of wearing the watch the same sense of engagement and control you get from a nimble, precise-handling car on a challenging stretch of country road.
This particular episode of Three On Three was as interesting an exercise in comparative examination as I've had in a long time – these are, after all, three excellent watches from three manufacturers with some generally very similar objectives, but also some major differences in how they approach those objectives. The Grand Seiko in pursuit of its own brand of excellence, gives us some hand-craftsmanship and an overall obsessive pursuit of perfectionism virtually impossible to find anywhere else at a price of $3,800 (for which price you can find a truly amazing variety of extraordinarily forgettable, or at least, much less memorable watches). The Omega Seamaster, at $5,500 (starting price point) offers something which, likewise, you can't get anywhere else: a movement with the only, and I do mean only, non-Swiss lever escapement ever to be successfully industrialized and produced at scale, and you get a slew of other technically forward looking features as well, including a level of resistance to magnetism unmatched in virtually any other modern timepiece.
The Oyster Perpetual 36mm, on the other hand, eschews wow factor on just about every level, except where it really counts: the delivery of reliable, under-the-radar, near-total satisfaction in just about every element of ownership.
Someone once wrote, on the subject of Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, that it is not a great play, merely a perfect one. I think that sums up the Oyster Perpetual 36mm from Rolex. It's not in any one specific detail that it excels; rather, it's in the uniformity of excellence in all of its details that it excels, and which gives it its character.
There is something deeply, authentically satisfying about being in the presence of something unfussily, and especially, well made. It's as if you'd gone into a hardware store to buy a hammer, wondered why one of the many hammers there is more expensive than the others, snorted at the absurdity of the additional cost, and then picked it up. You note the pleasant heft, the sense of ease coupled to authoritative mass, the overall sense of reassuring solidity, the careful but unostentatious finishing of the steel, and almost without realizing it, you're headed to the cash register, saying to yourself, "Now this, my friend, is a hammer." So it is with the Rolex Oyster Perpetual 36mm. You begin by wondering, if you've never held or worn one before, what all the fuss is about, but end by saying, "Now this, my friend, is a watch."
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