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Feature: Is The Grand Seiko SLGA001 The Diver We’ve Been Waiting For?

The battle for the deep has raged on for almost a century, from the very first water-resistant watches right the way down to conquering the deepest part of the ocean. Two key players, Rolex and Omega, have traded blows since the very beginning for supremacy over Earth’s last undiscovered frontier—but there’s a new contender in the mega-diver category, the £10,000 limited edition Grand Seiko SLGA001. Can it compete?

Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean

When we think of deep divers, Rolex is most likely the first brand that comes to mind, with Omega being a quick second, but really if we were to look at the accomplishments of these two watchmakers, Omega has to take the crown for technical achievement.

It’s both the best and worst thing about Omega’s challenge for the sea; in response to Rolex’s 1926 Oyster water resistant watch, which quite simply used screw threads to compress rubber seals to achieve water-tightness, Omega built the 1932 Marine, a watch within a watch that used a complex and clever system of twin cases to achieve even greater resistance to the sea.

Then, as a riposte to Rolex’s prototype Sea-Dweller, which was basically a modified Submariner, Omega built the Plongeur Professionel, a cutting-edge concept with monobloc case, locking bezel, flush-mounted crown and diver-centric dial. Time and time again, Rolex took the easy route and Omega the hard, bound by its reputation as a legend of the industry to pursue the most technical solution possible.

The Planet Ocean is Omega's take on the professional dive watch. At 600M of water resistance, the Planet Ocean is considered the big brother of the popular Seamaster

The Planet Ocean is Omega's take on the professional dive watch. At 600M of water resistance, the Planet Ocean is considered the big brother of the popular Seamaster

The watch this Omega Planet Ocean is based on, the 1957 Seamaster 300, was no different. It featured a ratcheted, uni-directional bezel, a Naiad crown that used water pressure to seal it and not a screw thread, and a triple layer Hesalite crystal for extra structural resistance.

Omega hasn’t stopped looking for that next technical achievement, even today as mechanical watches are no longer the peak of technological prowess. This Planet Ocean, for example, features the near-frictionless co-axial escapement that doesn’t require lubrication, amorphous Liquidmetal indices that allow a completely flush finish with the ceramic bezel, and a silicon hairspring that protects the delicate heart of the watch from magnetism.

It’s every bit the techy diver Omega has always sought to build, its thick, 43.5mm-wide frame with 600m water-resistance and matching ceramic blue bezel and dial with orange accents vying for attention on your wrist. At a fraction under £5,000, it’s a bargain in this company, and a demonstration that Omega always was the most technically competent—even if it wasn’t the first.

Rolex Sea-Dweller 126600

If Omega did it best, it was Rolex that did it first, and in the race to the finish line, style just doesn’t matter. Although, despite being a watch with a bit of a bodge-it-and-make-do history, the Sea-Dweller’s rugged, no-nonsense looks have become rather favourable even with those who have no intention of taking it diving.

How the Sea-Dweller came to take the form we’re all familiar with today is, really, surprisingly low-rent. Rolex didn’t have Omega-sized budgets as the race to reach 500m commenced, and so there were a lot of cost-saving compromises introduced in its development. The case came from a Submariner, which in itself was shared with the Turn-O-Graph, GMT-Master and Milgauss. The depth rating was increased by fitting a thicker case back as well as a thicker bezel to accommodate a thicker crystal. The helium escape valve was slotted into a hole drilled in the side.

These are the actions of a plucky young David taking on a mighty Goliath, and where Omega sought to dress even its most sporting watches with a decorative veil, Rolex’s form-follows-function approach to spending money was a refreshing and honest take that caught the public’s attention.

Stainless steel and sports, the Rolex 126600 is becoming increasingly hard to find, making it a very collectible watch

Stainless steel and sports, the Rolex 126600 is becoming increasingly hard to find, making it a very collectible watch

The Sea-Dweller today is smarter, more refined and a lot better made, but even the polished edges and gleaming ceramic bezel can’t hide its rudimentary origins. Where the Omega curves and twists in complex, flowing shapes, the Rolex is simple, slab-sided and flat. The materials may be nicer, but there’s no hiding the watch this Sea-Dweller really is, evidenced by the incredible 1,220m water-resistance.

Such capabilities may be irrelevant today—or indeed any day, since the deepest a human has ever been underwater was a simulated 701m in a hyperbaric chamber—but that’s kind of beyond the point. It’s simply a reminder that although Omega may have its Liquidmetal, it’s co-axial escapement and its silicon hairspring, the cobbled together Sea-Dweller still beats it outright.

Contrary to its humble beginnings, the Rolex’s £9,300 price is double the Omega’s, which really demonstrates what an overwhelming defeat Omega suffered not just professionally, but with the public as well. Aside from the depth rating, the Planet Ocean is the better watch, on paper—and that’s the crux. As Rolex has demonstrated time and time again, superiority on paper is no guarantee of victory.

Grand Seiko SLGA001

Grand Seiko, or rather the brand that spawned it, Seiko, may be older than Rolex—but when it comes to dive watches, its credibility has a long way to go. That’s not to say that Seiko or Grand Seiko divers don’t have history—they do—more that, in the eyes of the general public, there’s a lot of ground to make up.

Seiko was later to the dive watch game than both Rolex and Omega, introducing its first in 1965, but what it lacked in experience it made up for in affordability and reliability, which is why its use in military was so widely seen, especially in Vietnam. It’s use by American forces was immortalised by an appearance in cult-classic film Apocalypse Now, alongside the famous bezel-less Rolex GMT-Master.

Affordable this new Grand Seiko SLGA001 is not. In fact, it’s the most expensive of the three. It does not have the highest depth rating, matching the Planet Ocean’s 600m, and it does not use fancy Liquidmetal in the bezel or have a magnifying window for the date—all in all, it’s pretty standard fare from the outside. In fact, the thing you’re most likely to notice is that it’s big, like nearly 47mm big, and for a moment at least, everything else takes a back seat to that. At least the harder-than-steel high-intensity titanium takes the edge off the weight.

Grand Seiko produce some of the most accurate watches in the world

Grand Seiko produce some of the most accurate watches in the world

So, what’s the deal with the SLGA001? Why did Grand Seiko see fit to bestow this watch with a limit of 700 pieces and a price of £10,000? For that, we need to understand a little bit more about what’s happening on the inside, behind the unassuming case back, within the heart of this dive watch.

What’s happened is that Grand Seiko has chosen the SLGA001 to rather quietly release the next generation of Spring Drive movements, the calibre 9RA5. Even in the marketing material, this new calibre flies under the radar—or rather, under the hour hand, the trademark power reserve sub-dial hiding behind it. Developed for over a quarter of a century, Spring Drive is what’s considered to be the true evolutionary step for mechanical watches, the amalgamation of spring-driven autonomy and quartz-powered accuracy. The highest portable precision without reliance on a battery—that’s what Spring Drive offers.

And for the 9RA5, the benefits have grown. There’s five days of power reserve, two more than the Rolex and two-and-a-half more than the Omega’s. Despite this, it’s almost a millimetre thinner than the outgoing calibre 9R65, thanks to revised architecture of the winding mechanism; has increased shock-resistance through the improved rigidity of the one-piece central bridge; and accuracy has increased by 30% to just plus or minus ten seconds per month thanks to the introduction of thermal compensation. I wish you could see the calibre 9RA5, because it is sculpted similarly to the ultra-high-end Grand Seiko pieces from the hallowed Micro Artist Studio—but I’m sure future pieces will offer the benefit of that enjoyment.

The 9RA5 celebrates sixty years since that first Spring Drive movement, and Grand Seiko has chosen to demonstrate its capabilities not by showing you how pretty it is, but with a platform capable of putting it to the ultimate test. Whilst the Omega gets the addition of flush, metallic numbers in the bezel and the Sea-Dweller a magnifying window to cater for its aging buyers, Grand Seiko has built a concept watch that dares you to actually go out there and push it to its limits. Where else would extreme precision, shock-resistance and power serve you better? Most dive watches purchased today will never see so much as a swimming pool—at £10,000 for a watch most people have never heard of, the SLGA001 is a sorely tempting purchase—for those who can—just to see what it’s really made of.

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