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Review: Grand Seiko SLGH003

I’ll cut straight to the point: there aren’t many watches that I actually want to buy. There are plenty that I fancy, a bunch that I don’t, but the list that actually stops me in my tracks and makes me think about abusing my credit card and upsetting Experian is surprisingly short. The Grand Seiko SLGH003 just made that list. Here are three reasons why.

The Looks

Okay, so Grand Seiko can have a little bit of a habit of veering between looking a bit—how do I put this nicely—Seiko-y and—how do I put this nicely—outright weird, but in recent times, the sweet spot in the middle where distinctive originality meets timeless classicism has been struck more and more frequently.

The limited-edition, blue-dialled Kira-Zuri SBGA387, for example, one of the most beautiful watches ever made—and only available in the US—plus the surprisingly delicate Seasons collection Hana-Ikada edition in pink, one of the most beautiful dials ever made, perhaps even surpassing the legendary Snowflake—and also only available in the damn US—are demonstrations that Grand Seiko is carving an aesthetic niche that might just be world class.

Then, in March of this year, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Grand Seiko, the SLGH002 was announced. It didn’t have the visual impact of a strikingly textured dial, but what it did have was a suite of proportions that are perhaps the best seen in any Grand Seiko so far. 40mm across, just under 12mm thick, a svelte yet sturdy case, hands and markers decorating the dial with grace and presence, it seemed to me at least like the pinnacle of Japanese watch design.

Grand Seiko watches are made in Iwate, Japan

Grand Seiko watches are made in Iwate, Japan

No odd angles or weird corners, no unsightly protuberances or misjudged proportions, the SLGH002 hailed a new era of Grand Seiko that I was very pleased to welcome. Gold with a silver dial though? What am I, fifty? Naaah! So when the SLGH003 was announced in steel with blue dial and red accents—okay, now you’ve really got my attention.

And when I say it’s got a blue dial, I really mean it. It’s like Chris Hemsworth looking at you through the return tunnel on the other side of the shark enclosure at Sea World. Okay, Grand Seiko. Well played. But my wallet isn’t going to give it all up just like that. You’ve got to earn it. You’ve taken it out for a coffee—let’s see you take it out to dinner.

The Finish

Speaking of Grand Seiko dials, if you’re familiar enough to visualise the references mentioned in the previous section without having to Google them, then you won’t need me to tell you that this amazing design comes second only to the amazing finishing. Grand Seiko makes the most of parent company Seiko’s immense technological prowess to free up budget to allow the dials to be hand-finished, and it really, really shows. These are consistently, even on the cheaper models, executed to a level whose price should end with extra zeros.

The movements, however, have never really matched that same level of execution. The blend of man and machine that makes the dials so exquisite was, for the most part, too costly to extend further into the movement, so what you tend to get it is a good—but not excellent—finish on the flip side. Between it and the dial it balances out to what you’d expect for the budget. Given that the movements are in-house, often high beat and even the incredible Spring Drive, it was a very easy cross to bear, no complaints at all.

Manufacturing at Grand Seiko is split between two studios. The Shizukuishi Watch Studio which makes all of Grand Seiko's mechanical watches and the Shinshu Watch Studio that makes all of it's Spring Drive and quartz-powered watches

Manufacturing at Grand Seiko is split between two studios. The Shizukuishi Watch Studio which makes all of Grand Seiko's mechanical watches and the Shinshu Watch Studio that makes all of it's Spring Drive and quartz-powered watches

The SLGH002 and 003, however, have just rewritten the rulebook, because for these new watches comes a new movement, the 9SA5. It’s one of those, “My eyes are up here,” moments, because although the 9SA5 is indeed very clever, you’re going to be hard pushed at first to do anything other than stare. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a movement. It’s exuding vibes of the A. Lange & Söhne calibre L086.1, and you don’t need me to tell you that this is an exceptionally good thing.

The symmetry of the bridges, the lovely, big balance, those big, iris-like jewels all lend the calibre 9SA5 a, how do you say, certain sense of oh my goodness, that is one fine looking movement. What it does and how it performs are all very well, but to look at it and feel in the presence of greatness is the mark of a truly exceptional calibre. The 9SA5 has that special something, and it makes the SLGH003 a dinner date worth remembering. Now, it’s dropped you off at your door—has it got what it takes to come inside for a drink?

The Technology

You often hear of watches bringing new innovations to the fore, and more often than not those innovations are the kind of sensationalism that might make the cut at Fox News. Very rarely does a watchmaker actually innovate anything. It’s usually just a shiny new hat on something that’s very much older and unexciting.

The last real innovation was in 1980, and you’ve probably heard of it, because you’ll find it in every modern Omega: the Co-Axial escapement. This took the two-and-a-half-century old lever escapement—which most watchmakers including Grand Seiko still use to this day—and added another pallet jewel to separate the locking function from the impulse—that is, to reduce the friction of the regulating organ down to virtually zero. It is considered to be the greatest invention the industry has seen in a lifetime—and now Grand Seiko is upping the game.

With a high-beat, twin barrels, an 80-hour power reserve, instant date change and a balance adjustable in-situ, we’re already off to a good start, but its deeper below the balance wheel that we find the true innovation—used here in the actual sense of the word. The Dual Impulse escapement is … well, I won’t lie, it’s very complicated. I think it’ll be a while before I understand it properly. In terms I can just about fathom myself, it differs from a typical escapement by bridging the gap between the balance wheel and the escape wheel by alternating impulses directly between them and via the pallet fork, reducing friction and increasing efficiency over the long term.

The Shinshu Watch Studio made the world's first quartz watch, the Seiko Astron, released in December 1969

The Shinshu Watch Studio made the world's first quartz watch, the Seiko Astron, released in December 1969

Of all the people who could innovate such a thing, it’s certainly no surprise to see it coming from the makers of the Spring Drive. It means the watch isn’t just a pretty face and a fantastic backside—there’s brains in here as well that mark it as a turning point in the ever-evolving history of the mechanical watch. And you know what? I think I might be a little bit in love.

At £8,650, cheap the SLGH003 is not. It’s getting on for twice what a reputable watch from Omega, with an in-house movement packing a Co-Axial escapement, might cost, but really, it’s hard to draw much comparison between what’s generally considered a fairly run-of-the-mill watch and this definitive line in the sand. We’ve seen Grand Seiko go from strength to strength over the last few years, and this feels like the strongest yet. To say my credit card is in real danger is no exaggeration …

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