The “safe queens”

"safe queen" [seyf kween]
noun, colloquial
an item, typically something of use or value,
that is kept locked away in a safe place
so as not to devalue said item

Condition, condition, condition

There’s an age-old adage in the property world that only three things really count when considering what to invest in for the best returns, and those three things are “location”, “location”, and “location”. My father always used to say that if you had a choice between the best house in the worst street, and the worst house in the best street, then the latter would always prove to be the better investment in the long run.

But what you really want, is the best house in the best street.

In the vintage watch world, there is a similar mantra in that when considering investing in a vintage timepiece, the three most important factors to consider are “condition”, “condition”, and “condition”, and what you find in “the best house on the best street” are the “safe queens”.

It simply doesn’t get any better than this

In this article we will explore this concept with regards to what it means when collecting vintage Grand Seiko, and present what we consider to be the absolute “best of the best” pieces that we have available for sale. We actually believe that it is extremely unlikely that you will find better examples of some of these references anywhere else for a long time to come.

Why collect vintage Grand Seiko in the first place?

It’s probably safe to assume that if you’re reading this article, you already have a fairly good understanding as to what exactly it is that makes Grand Seiko “tick”. In recent years – and particularly following the re-launch at Baselworld 2017 as an entirely separate brand from the parent Seiko company – Grand Seiko has been making significant strides in building customer awareness and growing its presence internationally.

It is all to easy to forget that whilst the “modern” era of Grand Seiko started in 1988, it was only in 2010 – less than a decade ago – that Grand Seiko watches began to be marketed and made officially available outside Japan.

A Grand Seiko from the modern era – the SBGR027

In fact, there is much in the modern era back-catalogue that is practically unknown outside Japan, such as the SBGR027 pictured above – a limited edition of just 30 pieces from 2005 that were only available for purchase in the Wako store in Ginza.

I actually started off by collecting pieces such as this Wako limited edition, but the more I researched the history of Grand Seiko, the more interested I became in the vintage era, and those watches created between 1960 and 1974.

As I explained in a 2017 interview with WatchTime Middle East, it dawned on me that I could acquire several vintage pieces for the price of a single modern mechanical Grand Seiko, and so the collecting adventure – which ultimately led to the establishment of this website – began in earnest.

With the increasing international investment being made by Grand Seiko to grow the brand worldwide, more and more people would seem to be on the same journey that I have been on – an awakening as to the quality of the modern timepieces; which leads to an interest in the history of the brand; then to a discovery of the incredible desirability, diversity and quality of watches hailing from the vintage era; and finally culminating in a desire to perhaps just acquire a single reference, or actually start a focused collection of vintage Grand Seiko.

This significant increase in interest in vintage Grand Seiko has had a very obvious affect on the market – currently prices for these watches are only going in one direction.

Later this month I will publish an article that discusses how someone new to the vintage Grand Seiko world might go about selecting their first reference to add to an existing watch collection, but in this article I will be highlighting what are quite simply “the best of the best”.

The problem with “safe queens”

The specific watches that follow probably wouldn’t be the first piece that anyone starting out on their Grand Seiko journey would purchase, simply because – from our experience – collectors new to the brand tend to be on the lookout for a watch that they would actually wear.

What will be presented here are the “safe queens”.  Urban Dictionary defines a safe queen as “an item, typically something of use or value, that is kept locked away in a safe place so as not to devalue said item”.

There is a real dilemma here, because most people who enjoy collecting watches actually like to wear them!

But, there can be no argument against the simple fact that – unless perhaps you are an astronaut, or your name is Paul Newman – if you take two identical vintage watches that are in close to perfect condition, wear one of them, whilst secreting the other away safe and secure somewhere, the one that you wear will pick up scratches and dings, and will not be worth as much as the “safe queen” a few years down the line.

It is very important to recognise that the watch you wear will without doubt give you more pleasure, but from a financial perspective, if (and it is a big “if” – we can make no promises!) you are considering a vintage watch primarily as an investment, condition is the most important thing when you purchase it, and condition will be the most important thing when you come to sell it.

The number of vintage Grand Seikos in perfect condition is very low indeed when compared to the number of watches out there. And whilst the number of “safe queens” can only decrease over time, the number of people in search of them would seem to be only increasing.

After all – until 2010, Grand Seiko’s were only marketed to a population of 127 million. Now they are being marketed to a population that is measured in the billions.

Safe queen number one – Grand Seiko 6156-8040

Grand Seiko 6156-8040

The vast majority of the watches in our collection were actually acquired remotely.

Whilst it is generally possible to get a good sense as to the general quality of a watch without physically handling it, it is fair to say that only once a watch is in the hand can you truly examine it in sufficient detail to understand whether it is merely in “excellent” condition, or as-near-as-damnit “new old stock”.

Purchased from a listing in Japan, this watch looked good from the photos, but once it arrived it just blew us away. The quality of this piece is pretty much unparalleled. We have had more than our fair share of Grand Seiko “Specials” pass through our hands (and passed up on the opportunity to purchase countless more), but this one is simply in a different league to anything else we’ve ever seen.

It’s not just that everything about the watch – case, dial, handset, bracelet – is as close to flawless as you could imagine, but that the quality of the workmanship in creating this watch is almost impossible to believe considering it hails from 1974. The case finishing in particular we would honestly say is on a par with, if not better than, the finishing you would expect to find on a brand new modern reference.

The 6156-8040 reference was the second-to-last vintage Grand Seiko introduced. It first featured in the supplement to volume 2 of the 1974 Seiko catalogue, and made its final appearances – as did the other references of its time – in volumes 1 and 2 of the 1975 Seiko catalogue.

As such, it would make the perfect “end piece” to any collection of vintage Grand Seikos, and given the unparalleled quality of this particular piece – even if it didn’t come complete with its original box and papers (which it does) – we make absolutely no apologies for pricing it at US$6,500.

You can find full details of this piece here.

For those who love the reference, but would rather have an example that would make more sense to wear, we also have a second example available for just a little more than half that price.

Safe queen number 2 – Grand Seiko 6145-8020

Grand Seiko 6145-8020

Much has been written about Grand Seiko’s famous “Grammar of Design”, a design language devised by Taro Tanaka in the early 1960’s and said to be first introduced with the 44GS series. It is a design language that is very closely followed with the modern collection, but one that was not quite so religiously adhered to in the vintage era.

Presented here is a watch that – rather delightfully if you ask me – would appear to adhere to not a single tenet of Tanaka-san’s remit. And it’s all the better for it.

Whilst arguably not as expertly finished as the first watch we presented, there is no doubt in our mind that this particular example of this reference has never been worn, and – save for one detail – is in a close to identical condition as it would have been in when left the watchmaker’s bench in 1969.

That one detail that has changed since production is that the dial – originally white – has taken on a glorious radial-patina that graduates from a creamy colour in the center, to a coffee colour around the edge of the dail. Were we in the habit of naming watches, we’d probably call this “The Cappuccino”. But, fortunately, we’re not in the habit of naming watches.

Full details on this watch are available here, and it is priced at US$4,000.

Safe queen number 3 – Grand Seiko 4580-7010 VFA

Grand Seiko 4580-7010 VFA

It would be hard to argue against a claim that the Grand Seiko 4580-7010 was quite simply the greatest Grand Seiko of the vintage era.

We’d actually go a lot further, and make two claims.

  1. It is the greatest Grand Seiko of all time.
  2. It is the greatest time only watch that was in series production from any manufacturer in the period from the end of the second world war up until the quartz era.

Everything Grand Seiko was established for, and everything that the brand set out to accomplish, was achieved with the creation of this reference.

It is an extraordinarily rare piece that only ever featured in a single Seiko catalogue – the “Seiko Special Luxury” catalogue of 1970. Only two examples in good condition have come to the market in the last 3-4 years. In addition to those two pieces, we are aware of three other examples “out there” with either re-done, or extremely poor quality dials, and one more NOS full set in the collection of a prominent Japanese collector.

The example we have available most certainly qualifies as a “safe queen” – you can see a lot more of it on our listing – and comes complete with original inner and outer boxes, cleaning cloth, and swing tags.

Given its rarity, and the relatively nascent condition of the wider collectors market for vintage Grand Seiko, there isn’t really what you could call a “functioning market” for this reference, and as such its “value” is hard to determine.

However, having said that, everything has to have a price, and for this watch we will consider offers in excess of US$50,000.

It may sound a lot, but when we asked our Japanese collector friend how much he might consider selling his for, the response was in excess of double that amount.

Safe queen number 4 – Grand Seiko 6186-8000 VFA

Grand Seiko 6186-8000 VFA

Every now and then we get caught out by surprise. One such instance was with the arrival of the 6156-8040 detailed earlier in this article, and this 6186-8000 VFA was another.

We had a previous example of this reference that was in absolutely spectacular condition, and even went so far as to say that we doubted we’d ever see a better one. Well, we did find a better one, and here it is.

Barring a scratch on the case-back where clearly the case opening tool slipped when the watch was being opened at some point in its lifetime, this watch is immaculate.

Grand Seiko VFA’s were the pinnacle of the vintage production, and clearly anyone purchasing or owning one tends to take very good care of them. As such, many that we come across are in very nice condition, but it is rare to come across one that barely has a mark on it.

Aforementioned case-back scratch excepted, this watch is presented in close-to-perfect condition, as can be seen from all the photos on the listing that you can see here, and the watch is available to purchase at a price of US$18,500.

As with all the other watches listed in this article, there is no question that this is a “museum quality” piece.

Safe queen number 5 – Grand Seiko 6146-8010 “Idemitsu Commemorative”

Grand Seiko 6146-8010 “Idemitsu Commemorative”

It is believed that the Grand Seiko 6146-8010 was the pre-cursor to the Grand Seiko “Specials”. It is one of the very few vintage Grand Seiko references whose case is made from “Hardened Stainless Steel”, or “HSS” for short (the others being the 6156-8010 “Special”, and the 4580-7000 VFA).

There was a significant premium to be paid to purchase the 6146-8010 over the regular stainless steel cased 6146-8000. The latter retailed for 40,000 Yen, whereas the HSS cased reference cost no less than 50% more – 60,000 Yen. It was only marketed for a single year – it appears in just the two volumes of the 1971 catalogue – with watches featuring two different faceted crystals featuring in the catalogues.

Referred to as the “Arabesque” due to its unique printed motif around the applied GS logo on the dial, these watches are highly collectible due to their relative obscurity.

But it is the “Idemitsu” commemorative examples that are the most sought after of all. To the best of our knowledge, over the entire production timeline of the vintage Grand Seiko era, only two companies actually commissioned Grand Seiko to produce commemorative watches.

The first was Toshiba, who clearly had a long-standing relationship with Grand Seiko as they had specially commissioned references created to present to employees who had completed 25 years service with the company. No fewer than four different references – dating from 1965 through to 1973 – were made with case-backs to mark the occasion.

The second company to commission commemorative watches was the Idemitsu group, who had a number (it is not known how many) of 6146-8010 references created in 1971 with a unique engraved case back that commemorates the 60th anniversary of the founding of the company.

You can see more photos of this reference, including that unique case-back, at our listing here.

The example available is in pretty much unmarked condition – even between the lugs there would appear to be not a single mark, which makes us wonder whether this watch has actually ever been mounted on a strap, let alone worn.

It should be noted that we have seen two examples of this watch. The one presented here, and another example that had a vertical 3-faceted crystal, like those seen on some “regular” references. Given the unmarked case and dial, we think it unlikely that the crystal on this watch has ever been replaced – had an original faceted crystal suffered terminal damage, it is only reasonable to expect that whatever caused that breakage would at least have left some mark on the case and/or dial.

The watch is available from the link provided above, and the price is US$4,500.

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