Not Just a Quartz: The Grand Seiko 9F Movement

Introduction

The Grand Seiko 9F family of quartz movements is arguably the most sophisticated quartz movement ever made. Developed in 1993, even at the time of this writing, 2014, many of its features have not been replicated by the competition. A great quartz movement, like a great mechanical movement, can have a pedigree worth honoring. The Grand Seiko 9S85 automatic may share no parts with the legendary 1960s Hi-Beats that won at the chronometer trials but to understand the significance of the 9S85 and why it’s so important today, you need to appreciate its connection to the past. So in order to appreciate why the Grand Seiko 9F is so important to Seiko and its fans, we have to go back. Way, way back.

Humble Beginnings

What you’re looking at is the first Swiss quartz clock, manufactured after WW2. It’s impressive. What Seiko did when they found out they would be timing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, however, is more impressive.

That’s the QC-951 Crystal Chronometer, the very first portable quartz clock in the world. Its batteries lasted a then-astonishing 1 year and it established the now-familiar generic accuracy rating for quartz watches. Amazingly, the QC-951 was just 1/400th the size of the next smallest quartz clock at that time. Even when it was released in 1963, it was accurate to just 0.2 seconds per day, or about 15 seconds a month. The great contribution of the QC-951 was its ingeniously low power consumption. That technology would make Seiko’s next great quartz accomplishment a possibility.

By the way, the decision to manufacture everything Seiko could need in house for the 1964 Olympics lead to the following achievements: the 1st portable LCD, the first portable printer, the foundation of the Seiko Epson printer company, the first handheld computer, the first kinetic watch and the first (and only) spring drive. Every single one of those achievements can be traced back to the single decision to create everything Seiko would need for the 1964 Olympics in house. How’s that for an investment? But I digress.

Fast forward just 6 years to 1969. By now Seiko has released the world’s first quartz wall clock and Japan’s first desktop computer. Seiko is not satisfied with only having beaten the world with its mechanical watches in the observatory chronometer trials, and following their founder Kintaro Hattori’s motto, they would be one step ahead of the rest. They didn’t waste a second in releasing the world’s first quartz wristwatch, the Seiko Astron. Two years ago they had created the world’s most accurate mechanical wristwatch, now they’d created the most accurate watch period. It’s amazing to think that the 1969 Astron was accurate to + or – 5 seconds per month, which is actually more accurate than the QC-951 clock and the majority of modern quartz today. For comparison, the next most accurate production wristwatch was the Bulova Accutron with its famous tuning fork movement, and it was rated for a then-amazing 1 minute per month. It was revolutionary, not evolutionary. With that amazing achievement in mind we can start to understand why Grand Seiko values its modern day quartz so much. They correctly consider themselves the keepers of the torch for quartz.

Contemporary Seiko Quartz

Fast forward to 1993. Quartz technology has become utterly commonplace and now virtually every company is competing on features. Having the best quartz movement means everything to many companies. So it comes as no surprise that when Grand Seiko took on the task of creating a new movement, it needed to be a radical new design.

Grand Seiko’s goals were simple: create the single best watch movement ever made. Then, as now, quartz had certain limitations. Although quartz movements were very accurate and immune to isochronism and positional variance, they were still affected by temperature. Quartz movements also couldn’t hold the massive dauphine hands that Grand Seikos were known for. Although quartz movements were already very tough and reliable, they had to have frequent battery changes, which created an opportunity for dust and debris to enter the movement and cause problems down the road. These issues with quartz technology, among others, motivated Grand Seiko to create a radically new movement with features that, 21 years since its introduction, have not been replicated by the competition.

Perhaps the most unique and noteworthy feature of the 9F family is the twin pulse control motor. Grand Seiko was dealing with the apparent compromise between using a more powerful motor to move their massive dauphine hands and shortening the battery life. The ingenious solution was a motor that moves twice per second in a very small amount of time. Looking at a 9F quartz watch ticking, you can only see it tick once, like any other watch. But under super slow motion, you can actually see two distinct movements of the seconds hand. This design allowed Grand Seiko to keep a three year battery life while using full sized hands.

Another unique contribution of the 9F is its sealed cabin. If you compare the 9F to other high quality quartz movements, you can observe many gaps where dust or debris can enter. The 9F, conversely, can have the battery changed very easily yet the rest of the movement is sealed so nothing can contaminate it. Because of this design, this watch has the longest service interval in the world. Grand Seiko suggests that the lubrication in this watch, thanks to the sealed cabin, will be good up to 50 years.

Perhaps one of the most appreciated advantages of the 9F quartz is the anti-backlash mechanism. We’ve all been annoyed by having a quartz where the seconds hand doesn’t hit all the markers or, perhaps even worse, there’s a noticeable wobble every time the second hand stops. The 9F fixes these issues with its backlash auto-adjust mechanism, which adds a regulatory wheel. Thus, 9Fs are much more likely to hit every marker than other quartz movements and there won’t be any vibration when the seconds hand stops.

Yet another advantage to the 9F family is that the date change is fast—really, really fast. In fact, the date change on a 9F takes just 1/2000th of a second. Most watches can take an hour or two to change, but the 9F is so fast that you will literally miss it if you blink.

An interesting, but not well publicized feature, of the 9F quartz (as well as spring drives) is that the coil block is uniformly wound, making it more efficient. On the left we see an ordinary coil block, but on the right we see a cross-section of the coil blocks in the 9F and spring drive movements.

Of course, the most obvious advantage of the 9F is its supreme accuracy. The least accurate 9F is rated for 10 seconds a year, relative to 15 seconds a month for an ordinary quartz. Many 9F movements are rated for an astonishing 5 seconds a year, tying them for the most accurate movement in the world. This achievement is made possible by several technologies, perhaps most notably thermocompensation, which helps the 9F defeat quartz’s worst enemy, temperature. The movement detects changes in temperature over 500 times a day and compensates for these changes in order to minimize the impact of temperature.

But this isn’t all that goes into making a super accurate Grand Seiko quartz. Seiko makes all their quartz crystals in house, which allows them to ensure ideal quality control from the bottom to the top of the corporation. Only the very best quartz crystals are then selected for use in the 9F. Then, the crystals are aged for 3 months. As if that weren’t enough, only the best of those are then selected for certain Grand Seiko watches with a 5 second a year rating.

The 9F is much more easily adjusted for future accuracy as well. Even if the accuracy drifts over time, it is a simple matter to move the pacing switch to compensate, meaning that even in extreme conditions or over a great deal of time, the 9F can maintain its nearly flawless accuracy.

Finally, each of the 9F’s three hands is on an independent axis, assuring that the hands move smoothly and precisely.

Above all, a Grand Seiko quartz is a Grand Seiko. That means it’s still hand assembled and tested by master watchmakers. No corners are cut on the 9F compared to the 9S mechanical or 9R spring drive—it receives the same degree of attention and skill. And yes, even the battery it comes with is in house, although it can accept any brand’s battery.

Not Just a Quartz

So perhaps after all of that you can see why Seiko and Grand Seiko hold quartz in such high regard. The modern day 9F honors the major achievements of Seiko in the 1960s and their continuing innovation. The fact that much of what makes the 9F so special has not been effectively replicated in over 20 years shows just how ahead of its time it was. Grand Seiko decided to focus on the actual performance of the movement rather than a feature set. Other movements, including other Seikos (even before 1993), may have perpetual calendars and other impressive features, but no other quartz movement in the world does as good a job of simply displaying the time. From being able to use full sized hands, to making the seconds hand hit the markers with no lash, to making the date change incredibly quick, and of course, being super accurate, the 9F aimed to create the best simple 3 hander it possibly could, and it succeeded.

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