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Introducing The Grand Seiko 60th Anniversary Limited Edition SLGH002, With New Hi-Beat Escapement Caliber 9SA5

Introducing The Grand Seiko 60th Anniversary Limited Edition SLGH002, With New Hi-Beat Escapement Caliber 9SA5

As Grand Seiko continues to expand into the higher price ranges of top of the line watchmaking, it additionally continues to set itself new challenges, including exploring approaches to separate itself from the very solid competition from more established (if not necessarily qualitatively superior) extravagance watch brands. Certainly nobody can blame Grand Seiko on general nature of craftsmanship in its movements and dials. The latest Spring Drive watches in the Grand Seiko Elegance Collection, for instance, are essentially Credor Eichi-quality movements in Grand Seiko designs, and I intend that as high praise; and, of course, in Spring Drive, Grand Seiko and Credor also, both have unique timekeeping technology with its own unique appeal. 

In purely mechanical horology, Grand Seiko has largely concerned itself, in any event taking everything into account, with significant however relatively un-headline snatching improvements to an existing repertoire of mechanical elements. These are valuable, to be sure – MEMS-produced, openworked escapement components and composites like SPRON 510, which Grand Seiko uses for its hearts, all offer improved strength, accuracy and performance in general – however they are not necessarily factors which, taken in themselves, tend to really seal the deal.

However, all that is going to change. Excellent Seiko has recently announced a new watch, the SLGH002, for the 60th anniversary of Grand Seiko, which includes an entirely new movement, with a new escapement that draws on modern manufacturing technology, to present a new answer for some very old problems in watchmaking.

The initial 9S movement, in 1998, represented a return to mechanical watchmaking for Grand Seiko, and since then, Grand Seiko mechanical movements have become well known for their sturdiness and reliability – in 2019, independent watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin, founder of The Naked Watchmaker, deconstructed a Hi-Beat caliber 9S85A and remarked, “The overall construction of both the movement and the case is congruent with the objective of a solid and precise timekeeper designed for longevity … the resulting caliber combines vintage strength in construction with modern manufacturing techniques and composites effectively.”

While, “on the off chance that it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is generally the principle by which mechanical horology makes its incremental advances, it is continually interesting to take a gander at a fresh, new approach, which is the thing that Grand Seiko has given us in the new caliber 9SA5.

Externally, the watch is a Grand Seiko completely. This is a 100 piece limited edition, in a 40mm x 11.7mm case, with impressively proportioned gold hands and dial markers, just as the signature well-executed date window. The relatively thin case is the main clue that there is something new going on under the hood. A Grand Seiko Hi-Beat is typically a pretty significant watch, with (for instance) the Hi-Beat Special For twentieth Anniversary Of Caliber 9S coming in at 39.5mm x 13mm, which seems genuinely typical for Hi-Beat automatics. The SLGH002, paradoxically, is 40mm x 11.7mm, and keeping in mind that this is certainly not an exercise in super slender watchmaking (nor is it intended to be one) it does mean a more gracile profile for this latest Hi-Beat watch. Incidentally, I continue to think that its a little yet definitely much-appreciated detail that Grand Seiko continues to bore out the hauls of Grand Seiko watches – the great Lord knows, watches are generally not a DIY diversion and making it easier to trade ties without scratching your Precious is definitely value added similarly as I’m concerned.

Turning the watch over and investigating the presentation back begins to clarify exactly what a departure from business as normal the caliber 9SA5 really is. From the start it doesn’t appear to be that much unique from other Grand Seiko movements – OK, the balance bridge is certainly a change of pace, and it’s a feature increasingly seen in modern, solidness oriented calibers from both Rolex and Omega, for instance. No one’s ever accused Grand Seiko movements of being shaky, however it’s as yet a nice upgrade. Movement completing feels very high quality also, and the graceful shapes of the bridges (just as the cut-out rotor, which lets you get a less obstructed view of the movement than is generally the case in automatic Hi-Beats from Grand Seiko) are a definite departure from the overbuilt precision of typical Hi-Beat and Grand Seiko movements. 

It’s when you take a closer look, however, that you see exactly how different the 9SA5 movement really is.

The balance, removed from the movement, has several stories to tell. The first of these is the balance spring – it’s an overcoil type, which is intended to produce a more perfectly concentric “breathing” of the balance spring; this is historically a feature of higher-end movements oriented towards precision timekeeping. There is no conventional regulator, and without an index for regulating the watch, timing weights on the balance are necessary – this is the first time I can recall seeing them on any Grand Seiko watch, where level balance springs and conventional regulators have been the rule before. Rolex uses a comparative approach as its Microstella balance screws and Patek, of course, has its Gyromax balances. Omega uses level silicon balance springs which are fabricated in such a manner as to give the advantages of a combination overcoil balance spring, and like Rolex, Patek, and now Grand Seiko, likewise dodges a conventional regulating system by utilizing timing weights on the balance. 

If you look very closely, you will likewise see what resembles a decidedly non-standard lever on the underside of the balance. Turn the balance over, and you’ll see something which, in the event that you were expecting a standard lever and escape wheel, is right around a shock: a fresh out of the box new type of double impulse escapement.

The escape wheel, on the left, alternates between impulsing the balance directly, and impulsing the balance by means of the lever when swinging in the opposite direction. You can see one tooth of the escape wheel simply engaging with one of the jewels on the impulse roller in the image. The basic advantage to this arrangement is an increase in efficiency in energy delivery to the balance. One immediately thinks, of course, of the co-hub escapement, which likewise gives impulse in two directions alternately, with the escape wheel impulsing the balance directly in one direction, and through the lever in the other. However, the co-pivotal escapement has two escape wheels mounted on a single hub (hence the name) while the new Hi-Beat escapement has just one. Another significant difference is that there are three locking jewels on the lever for the co-hub escapement, and just two in the caliber 9SA5.

The best known escapement which delivers impulse to the balance directly is of course the chronometer detent escapement. There have been over the centuries numerous attempts to create a version of the chronometer escapement which is adapted to a wristwatch, yet this is very difficult as the chronometer escapement just gives impulse in one direction, which means that it isn’t self-beginning (unlike the lever, which will begin running with no encouragement once you put some torque into the heart). It’s likewise not an especially powerful escapement; it tends to unlock accidentally on the off chance that you give it a shock. 

Historically, the Robin escapement is likely the best known example of an attempt to make an escapement with direct impulse to the balance (aside from the chronometer escapement) and some of the security against shock (“safety” in watchmaker’s parlance) of the lever. However, the Robin likewise impulses in just a single direction. The Robin escapement and the Fasoldt escapement were broadly important for the motivation for the Daniels co-pivotal, and the latter has remained the solitary example in modern times, of a direct impulse, self-beginning escapement which has been successfully industrialized. At any rate, until now.

The AP escapement, with the escape wheel going to directly impulse the impulse jewel on the balance roller.

In certain respects, the new Hi-Beat escapement seems to have more in common with the Robin-escapement inspired Audemars Piguet escapement. This particular escapement has never been produced by AP in large numbers, in spite of the fact that it generated much interest when it was first introduced. It uses a Robin-type lever, yet modified to permit the escape wheel to lock the pallets more securely; it likewise incorporated a special safety system intended to provide extra securing against unlocking. The AP escapement runs at a quite high frequency – 43,200 vph versus the 28,800 vph frequency of most modern mechanically produced calibers. AP launched it in the no-longer-available Jules Audemars Chronometer With Audemars Piguet Escapement . It was a most ingenious design, yet shared with the detent escapement the disadvantage of not being self-starting.

New escapements are a great extraordinariness in modern watchmaking. Escapements are likely the most expensive element in a watch to research and develop and it’s never clear, in any event at the outset, what the actual benefits will be. In creating a new escapement – and moreover, one that runs at 36,000 vph, with a 80 hour power reserve, in a relatively meager movement – Grand Seiko has done something has been tried by few brands and achieved by even fewer. The new movement, moreover, might be the beginning of a trend at Grand Seiko to make more generally thin watches – this latest version of the Hi-Beat movement is, GS says, 15% thinner than a standard Hi-Beat automatic caliber. (The 9S85 is 28.4mm x 5.99mm versus 31.0mm x 5.18mm for the 9SA5).

Whether it can and will be successfully produced at a larger scale is at this point unclear, yet historically Grand Seiko and Seiko have not rolled out new technology until all the bugs are worked out (that is the reason the Spring Drive took such a long time to bring to market). The SLGH002 is a statement piece as a watch, sure, but on the other hand it’s a statement of intent – of an intention to keep making very serious advances indeed, into stretching the constraints of top of the line fine watchmaking.

The Grand Seiko 60th Anniversary Limited Edition SLGH002: case, 18k yellow gold, 40mm x 11.7mm; 10 bar/100 meters water resistance; box sapphire crystal with AR coating and sapphire presentation back; magnetic resistance, 4,800 A/m (amperes per meter). Movement, Grand Seiko caliber 9SA5 Hi-Beat, 36,000 vph, 80 hour power reserve; 31.0mm x 5.18mm; time and instantaneous-switching calendar. Most extreme rate variety +5/ – 3 seconds/day. Price, $43,000. Limited edition, 100 pieces around the world. Discover more at Grand-Seiko.com.

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