Grand Seiko just released the new SLGH003 limited edition, the first time the new 9SA5 automatic has been available in a steel watch. That movement, which debuted earlier in 2020, was initially available only in similarly high-end all-gold case that, at $43,000, put it out of the price range of the vast majority of Grand Seiko collectors. But that’s all changed thanks to the SLGH003, or at least, so long as its 1,000 piece run is available.
Before we get to the 9SA5, which will inevitably dominate discussion of this SLGH003, let’s take a look at the design. The first thing we notice is that it has adopted the blue sunburst dial and red seconds motif of the 60th Anniversary collection, along with gold accents for GS. The gold accents seem to reference high-end movements, with more “ordinary” movements (frankly, I think every GS movement is excellent, but that’s besides the point) skipping on the gold. We see the gold accompany the 9SA5, the top mechanical movement GS makes, then we see it on the SBGH285, which has the 9S85 Hi-Beat, formerly the flagship automatic of Japan, and finally the quartz SBGP007 has the coveted gold star, referring to its special 9F85 that’s rated for 5 seconds a year. Together they make for a very bold, high-contrast package, giving the watch a surprisingly sporty feel for something meant to honor the ultra-dressy Grand Seiko of 1960.
The case, hands, and hour markers are all cohesively bold and sporty as well. The hands and hour markers are extra-wide and flat, giving the watch is a more aggressive, almost tool watch feel than we’re used to from GSes in this collection. The case is apparently inspired by the 44GS, and I can see elements of it, but really this case, as well as the gold SLGH002’s case, is actually fairly novel for the brand in more ways than one. The first is the sporty vertically-brushed thick and flat bezel that suggests the subtle influence of Genta, but the second, and more important, is the thickness, or lack thereof. Because the movement is 15% thinner than the 9S85, the case is just 11.7mm thick, far thinner than most automatic Grand Seikos, and indeed well into hand wound GS territory. For GS fans, this is a big improvement and something we’ve been requesting for years now. The size is 40mm, which I think is pretty much spot on for this design, so great credit goes to the GS team where the dimensions are concerned. This is a very everyday-friendly watch.
We can also see that gorgeous new 9SA5 movement in the back. Since I recently wrote an article on the 9SA5 already, I’ll be somewhat plagiarizing myself, but I am updating parts of it to be easier to understand now that I’ve had a little more time to conceptualize the tricky dual impulse escapement and can better explain it (I hope).
The 9SA5 is an entirely new caliber built from the ground up. Like its predecessor, the 9S85, and legendary Hi-Beats before it, the 9SA5 beats at a very Grand Seiko-esque 36,000 BPH. Everything else, however, is a wild departure from GS design.
First, it’s using an entirely new dual impulse escapement. More on how that works soon. Second, it’s clearly using a new free-sprung balance, which is something completely out of left-field for a company that has had a preference for smooth balances going back decades. In fact, aside from its frequency, there’s almost nothing here that would indicate GS design.
The dual impulse escapement is clearly the most technically impressive aspect and certainly the most unique. In an ordinary watch movement, energy is transferred between the balance wheel and the escape wheel by means of an intermediary, the pallet fork. This is only half true in the 9SA5. In one direction, the movement operates fairly normally, which GS calls the “indirect impulse,” but in the other direction, it skips the pallet fork and instead acts directly on the escape wheel (the “direct impulse”), which Grand Seiko claims increases efficiency. Although a mere side-effect of the desired efficiency improvements, the resulting design is extremely compact, almost entirely contained in the footprint of the balance wheel.
Note also that we’re seeing a free sprung balance with recessed screws in the rim, a la Breguet, as opposed to the smooth balance/regulator combination that we’re so used to in Seiko and Grand Seiko. This is an enormous departure for the watchmaker as this marks a fundamental shift in how these watches are adjusted, no small feat for a brand so associated with precision adjustment. However, free sprung balances are well-loved for their stability and are widely adopted by Rolex, Omega, Breguet, Patek, AP, and other highly-revered brands for chronometric performance. I personally prefer free sprung balances, as I find it to be a more elegant design, so this is a really nice perk for me, and it makes the 9SA5 one of extremely few free sprung high-frequency movements, as its closest rival, the El Primero, retains the smooth balance/regulator design. Also fascinating is the adoption of an overcoil, which is very rarely used these days, mainly by Rolex and Breguet.
I feel confident in saying that the 9SA5 is the most radical departure from Grand Seiko movement (and Seiko movement broadly) design in the history of the company. The 9SA5 has the hallmarks of being one of the most sophisticated mechanical movements ever made, at least where timekeeping is concerned. Grand Seiko claims that the hairspring design alone was the product of over 80,000 simulations to obtain the best possible design in all positions.
Although not entirely unprecedented in GS’ history, balance bridges are very atypical of modern GS design. The balance bridge is widely considered to be a more robust design than the balance cock, which is anchored on only one side of the balance, and is common to Rolex, Omega, the latest Nomos movements (DUW 3001), and a handful of others. It remains, like the free sprung balance itself, a relatively uncommon feature of movements, but a desirable one nonetheless.
Furthermore, fans of thin watches, like myself, not only get a better movement, but one that’s somehow 15% thinner than the current 9S85 (and derivations thereof). This is due to a much improved layout of the gear train. It’s also now got sequential double barrel mainsprings, upping it from 55 hours in the 9S85 to 80, an extremely impressive number for a high frequency movement, a genre notorious for energy consumption.
At $9,700, it’s priced substantially higher than the average stainless steel Grand Seiko, but on the other hand, this isn’t your average stainless steel Grand Seiko. Grand Seiko has a lot of fans that come for the movements, and if you’re one of them, you get a chance to own the finest production movement Japan has ever made (and among the best in the world), and it’s vastly more accessible than the more-than-$40k SLGH002 that came out earlier this year. If you don’t want to spend that much, GS still has a wide assortment of mechanical watches to offer you, even Hi-Beat ones, but if you want the very, very best that Japan can do, this is it, and who knows when we’ll see it offered in steel again. It could come back in 2021, but then again, it might return to precious metal cases. Limited to 1,000 pieces, I suspect this will go very quickly, not unlike the SBGY003 did not so long ago, a similar case of a special movement in a steel case.
As for me, I’d really love to see what GS can offer with this movement and case but with a more understated dial, perhaps closer in tone to my beloved SBGH001. I understand the need for these first new 9SA5-powered watches to be bold and striking, but as an old school GS fan myself, I gravitate towards the more discrete designs, so I’m looking forward to what’s to come in 2021 and 2022 for the 9SA5. Click the watch above to learn more.