Review: Grand Seiko SLGH005
No doubt many of you by now will have heard of the mighty Japanese luxury watch brand Grand Seiko, and no doubt the first interaction you had with the brand was with the highly revered Snowflake. But things are hotting up with the release of the SLGH005 “White Birch”, a watch that seeks to turn that classic style up to eleven. Can the Snowflake take the heat or will it end up a puddle on the floor?
So, to demonstrate how the new “White Birch”—as it’s known—SLGH005 has turned everything up to the max, we’ll start with the case which has—well, it’s actually done the complete opposite. The Snowflake is not and never was the perfect watch for a lot of people, who most likely came away after trying one a little disheartened, and not because it isn’t a fantastic watch—but quite simply because of a couple of very small yet prominent things.
The first is the Snowflake’s size. At 41mm, many people are happy to accommodate this over a more typical 40mm, and hey, even Rolex has shown with its new Submariner that 41mm is perfectly wearable—but with the style of lugs being quite long, the Snowflake just eked ever so slightly into that bit-too-big category for more people than it really should have.
Entirely based on preference, of course, but nevertheless a common complaint. Not so with the new SLGH005. With diet and exercise, the White Birch has lost size not just around the waist, shrinking to 40mm across, but also in thickness, down from 12.5mm to 11.7mm. These don’t sound like big changes, but combined, the difference is surprisingly apparent.
Oddly, however, this new, trim form has had an unexpected effect on weight, bumping it up not down—but this is, for most people it would seem, a good thing. That’s because the Snowflake is made of titanium, whose light weight gives a sense of cheapness to many who try it. Not so the White Birch—the angular case, more in keeping with Grand Seiko’s current design language than the curvier Snowflake, is hewn from heavier stainless steel.
Next up is the bracelet. Just change it for a strap. I know I would.
In all seriousness, we’ve been spoilt by the incredible engineering of a modern Rolex bracelet, and although there’s not much change between the Snowflake and White Birch’s aside from minor styling and material, they’re both, well—they’re both fine. Grand Seiko engineering does inspire hope for more, but nevertheless it’s well-made, attractive, stops the watch falling off and—I know the folks at Grand Seiko are going to hate me for this—I think these watches look better on a strap anyway.
Okay, so now we’re cooking with gas. The calibre 9R65 in the Snowflake is certainly no slouch, the Spring Drive technology wholly unique and—if you really think of yourself as a watch person—fascinatingly clever—but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. If you’re the kind of watch buyer who’s interested in more than the name on the dial, then chances are that—even if you are the world’s biggest fan of Spring Drive—purely mechanical is where your heart is at.
Spring Drive is by no means gone, but here in the White Birch we get an example of that mechanical watchmaking purity that—well, just look at it. The calibre 9SA5 boasts a number of technical highlights such as an eighty-hour power reserve from dual mainsprings, instant change date, 36,000vph beat for the free-sprung balance and the innovative Dual Impulse Escapement, which increases efficiency to help squeeze all that run time out of such a fast beat—but, in a way, that kind of doesn’t matter.
What really matters is that, for one, you can see it, and two, it looks absolutely fantastic. The Spring Drive 9R65 appears more industrial by comparison, and if you were to compare to the nearest competitor outside of Grand Seiko then it’s no comparison at all because a Rolex doesn’t show off its intimates.
Never mind tech; what my eyes fall on are the big balance bridge, the deep, pink, pool-like jewels, the startlingly three-dimensional striping and the thick, polished bevelling. It is a marked step up for Grand Seiko, a challenge to its Swiss cousins and a commitment to the place it feels it deserves in the hierarchy of watchmakers.
The Snowflake does of course get its name from its dial, a translucent icescape that, from a distance at least, yields very little, but encourages closer inspection and rewards with an introspective journey that has made this watch such a success for Grand Seiko. It’s going to sound cornier than a Dorito, but the Snowflake’s dial is a place of a peace, the perfectly smooth sweep of the deep blue second hand above it guaranteed to slow your heartbeat to tickover.
The White Birch is different. There’s a pretty smooth sweep thanks to the high beat movement, but there’s still a subtle staccato rhythm to it compared to the Spring Drive. What’s not so subtle is the dial itself. This really is turned up to eleven, like a Snowflake on steroids. Gone is the peaceful serenity of the semi-opaque snowscape, in is a raw, arresting vision of the white birch forest just outside of Grand Seiko’s studio in Shizukuishi.
Where the Snowflake evoked the soft quiet of nature’s gentlest form of precipitation, the White Birch is more forward, carrying a sense of depth and disorientation much like the feeling of being lost in a forest. It is equally as evocative as the Snowflake, but this time the emotions are different.
This more forward approach is married with broader hands and markers, which, it has to be said, never quite look as dominating in real life as they do in pictures. The way they catch the light in stages helps to set them back a little further against the dial without losing them completely, yet keeps them visible against the silver background regardless of the angle.
Which you prefer is entirely up to you. The White Birch has been hailed as the Snowflake’s demise, but really, thanks to this dial, it’s actually very different. It’s a different mood, a different time, a different place.
So, when it comes to price, there’s some good news and there’s some okay news. The good news is that this watch does not supersede the Snowflake and so the Snowflake is still purchasable at what feels increasingly like very good value. For £5,400, it has history, it has looks, it has quality, it has technicality, it has mastery—and it all sits more or less in the ballpark of an Omega Aqua Terra or a Rolex Datejust.
Now for the okay news: the White Birch is significantly more expensive at £8,500, and that may seem at first to be very, very bad news—but hold on a second. Yes, that’s not cheap, yes, that makes the Snowflake seem like the clear winner—but we’re not talking apples and apples here. The Aqua Terra, the Datejust, the Snowflake and the White Birch—one of these things is not like the others.
What makes the price okay news for me is that what we’re experiencing here from Grand Seiko is a shift in its competition. There is and will continue to be the models that seek an audience with those buying Rolex, but I personally think the White Birch is after someone of a different breed. The kind of person who buys Jaeger-LeCoultre, perhaps.
It’s all in that calibre 9SA5. That Dual Impulse Escapement I mentioned isn’t just a passing tick on the spec sheet checklist, it’s one of the biggest leaps forward in watchmaking since George Daniels put pen to paper in the mid-seventies. The level of refinement on offer here moves from functional to discerning. The famed Grand Seiko quality we’ve come to enjoy in the case and dial is now present in the movement too. Does that make it worth £8,500? Well, the White Birch is part of the core collection, like the Snowflake, and isn’t limited, so we’ll soon see. If you ask to try one on and there isn’t one to try, you’ll know it was.
It’s a common thread in recent times, the advancement of pricing. Whether it’s driven by demand or technical achievement, it can feel disheartening to get squeezed out of a brand you love because you can no longer afford it, which is why I think it’s such a good thing that Grand Seiko continues to cater to the same audience that fell in love with the Snowflake and helped the brand get to where it is today. But I’m also glad to see, with those larger budgets, what Grand Seiko is capable of achieving. More please.
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