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An Introduction To The Collectible Grand Seiko ‘Special Dial’
Watch 101

An Introduction To The Collectible Grand Seiko ‘Special Dial’

By Randy Lai
2 Aug 2023
6 min read

Stars, compasses, little pronged triangles: if you thought only Swiss watchmakers loved using cryptic symbols to hide their treasure in plain sight, then think again

Way back when, in 2001 - long before many of us had even gotten into mechanical watches I’d wager - Grand Seiko released the SBGW004. A commemorative piece made in the decade prior to the Japanese brand’s meteoric global ascension, that became (for many collectors of a certain persuasion) one of the defining GS references of the 2000s.

The aesthetic and proportion used in its creation were indebted to the GS ‘First’ models (‘GS1st’) of yesteryear; with the tension in the resulting design proving so successful that Grand Seiko would go on to reproduce it - in both limited editions and as standard - in 2013, 2017, and 2020.

Naturally, with the increased popularity of these modern re-issues has come a deeper appreciation (even amongst casual watch enthusiasts) for the GS1st’s original design language.

The Grand Seiko SLGH002 Photo: Grand Seiko GS9 Club
The Grand Seiko SLGH002 Photo: Grand Seiko GS9 Club

After canvassing the more obvious elements - be it impossibly sharp zaratsu hands or the near-perfect size - one may begin to notice those little star-like motifs on the dial: diminutive details which have notably appeared in limited editions ranging from the SLGH002 to SBGZ005 and of course, the aforementioned SBGW004.

As it happens, those markings - traditionally, printed above the watch’s 6 o’clock position - indicate the presence of what Seiko collectors informally refer to as the ‘special dial’ (SD). Not strictly speaking a unique detail to Grand Seiko; these special dials nevertheless impart an additional element of rarity upon GS references - watches that are so often, even in 2023, still an excellent value proposition.

The Grand Seiko SBGW004 Photo: IG/ @kyotoya78
The Grand Seiko SBGW004 Photo: IG/ @kyotoya78

‘S’ for Special Dial…And For Sigma

Before diving into the minutiae of the ‘special dial’ universe it’s a good idea to ground whatever we tackle in a comparison with the Swiss ‘Sigma dial’.

To grossly oversimplify: sigma dials were popularized sometime after 1973, as the result of advocacy by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. On watches, the inclusion of this Greek alphabet (i.e. as printed text on the dial) denoted the presence of gold components - notable things such as a watch’s indexes and hands.

Signaling the signed watch’s status as a “durable investment”, sigma dials would come to be adopted by Vacheron Constantin, Rolex, and Patek Philippe (to name but a few brands) throughout the 1970s.

The broader socio-economic climate of that era - created, somewhat ironically, by the proliferation of affordable Japanese quartz - undoubtedly also played a role: convincing numerous Swiss marques to embrace a strategy which emphasized the luxury and intrinsic value of traditional mechanical timepieces.

Unsurprisingly, Seiko were already closely benchmarking the performance and aesthetic of their own creations against what was leading the charge in Switzerland; and so it felt logical for them to seek their own means of conveying craftsmanship and enduring quality through the use of symbols.

Intriguingly, the first Seiko watches with ‘special’ dials also predate the emergence of the Swiss-made sigma dial. Seiko introduced the SD detail in 1958 - via the first-generation ‘Lord Marvel’. Equipped with a domestically made 21-jewel movement, this line of watches came prior to the GS1st; and can be understood as an important preliminary step in Seiko’s quest for world-class luxury watchmaking.

In 1958, Seiko introduced the SD feature through the initial version of the "Lord Marvel" model Photo: Grand Seiko GS9 Club
In 1958, Seiko introduced the SD feature through the initial version of the "Lord Marvel" model Photo: Grand Seiko GS9 Club

In these now-relatively-plain Lord Marvels (manufactured between 1958-1963) we can discern the earliest, and to this day most iconic, style of SD logo. Taking the form of an 8-pointed compass, these motifs denote the presence of either 14k or 18k solid gold indexes - corresponding in color to whichever metal the watch is cased up in. 

SD, AD, ED: The Three Most Popular ‘Special’ Dials

Somewhat confusingly, today the term ‘special dial’ is used interchangeably by Grand Seiko collectors to: (a) refer to watches specifically branded with the 8-pointed compass; and (b) two other motifs subsequently introduced in the 1960s. 

Photo: Worn and Wound
Photo: Worn and Wound

The first of these, the ‘appliqué dial’ (AD), was used to symbolize the presence of hard gold or - for watches cased in stainless steel - rhodium plating. The motif associated with AD models is a triangular arrowhead, with three lines radiating from its center. 

Meanwhile, the ‘extra dial’ (ED) was introduced into the more affordable part of Seiko’s offering; and consisted of ‘normal’ gold or nickel plating. Again, a motif was chosen to identify these particular models: this time, a simple 4-pointed star (not unlike what you’ll find when you search the ‘sparkles’ emoji).

In addition to a cursory inspection of the logo at 6 o’clock, a watch may be identified as an SD, AD, or ED model by reading the code at the very bottom of the dial. For example: the second variation of the Ref. 43999 57GS sports an 11-digit dial code; and if you look closely, ends in the “-SD” suffix.  

The 11-digit dial code of the second version of Ref. 43999 57GS model concludes with the suffix "-SD" Photo: The Grand Seiko Guy
The 11-digit dial code of the second version of Ref. 43999 57GS model concludes with the suffix "-SD" Photo: The Grand Seiko Guy

Even the manner in which Seiko implemented these three varieties of ‘special’ dial has its own nuance. Taking the example of the original ‘SD’ detail (which, to avoid confusion, we might be better off nicknaming the ‘solid’ dial): watches decorated with this motif are also frequently associated with shokuji (植字).

Utilized by Seiko across 17 different models made between 1957-1964 (including the GS1st) shokuji refers to a kind of watchmaking technique where the indexes are ‘planted’ by hand, using a series of pins, into the dial.

Despite the practice’s intensely laborious nature, Seiko watchmakers persisted with shokuji well into the early 80s: again, offering a point of difference to the vintage watch space for high-end Swiss brands.

Similarly, the creation of the AD and ED models was motivated by certain practical considerations. In the latter case, ‘extra’ dials were utilized as a less costly and time-consuming alternative to the initial SD models: their defining characteristics are plated (rather than solid) gold indexes; with those components being glued instead of affixed using the shokuji method.

Conversely, the AD models - which one can find across both the King Seiko and Grand Seiko range - were conceived as a intermediate option: less costly than the original ‘special’ dials, but often still featuring planted indexes and rhodium/precious metal plating (which Seiko engineers had purpose-built to emulate solid gold).

Collectible ‘SD’ Models

Bearing in mind everything we’ve said above, casual enthusiasts might be surprised to discover just how accessible the pursuit of collecting these SD-badged Seiko and Grand Seiko models remains in 2023.

By way of example: an original GS1st with the carved ‘Grand Seiko’ logo and SD motif, preserved in very good condition, trades for somewhere in the ballpark of US$4,500-$5000. The aforementioned ‘43999’ variations of the 57GS are another cult favorite; and have long appealed to astute Japanese collectors (who prize them for their very understated use of white gold indexes).

Early version of Grand Seiko "First" with a dial featuring a carved logo Photo: The Grand Seiko Guy
Early version of Grand Seiko "First" with a dial featuring a carved logo Photo: The Grand Seiko Guy

Casting an even wider net, those who aren’t necessarily at home collecting vintage will also be delighted to hear that Grand Seiko has carried forth the tradition of ‘special’ dial releases into the modern era. The practice was famously revitalized in 2017 - to celebrate GS’ transformation into an independent business in the US - and since then, has yielded a trio of regular production models - of which two are emblazoned with the classic 8-pointed compass motif. 

Point being: there are now a very substantial number of ways for enthusiasts to scratch the ‘special dial’ itch. Even with the continued mainstreaming of GS in watch communities around the globe, there are still plenty of proverbial gems to be unearthed in this substrata of Japanese watches.

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