Review: Grand Seiko Night Birch SLGH017
The best-selling watch that Grand Seiko makes, the Spring Drive Snowflake, has a lot to answer for. It’s the watch that made a lot of confident watch collectors question who they really are, what they believe in, turning die-hard Swiss mechanical devotees to thinking unspeakable thoughts about Japanese quartz. Well, if you think that was giving you pause for thought, wait until you see this, the SLGH017 Night Birch.
You might remember back in 2020 that Grand Seiko bucked its trend of creating sub-Rolex priced pieces when it announced the £8,500 SLGH009 White Birch, which was speculated to be the new flagship piece to take over from the long-serving Snowflake.
The subtle snowscape that blanketed the dial was replaced by a striking, impactful representation of the white birch tree forests that surround the idyllic Shizukuishi studios, where Grand Seiko builds its mechanical movements. Opinions were divided, not on whether or not it was a good-looking addition to Grand Seiko’s nature-inspired repertoire of dials—it was—but whether or not it was good enough to turn eyes and thoughts away from the Snowflake.
It's like trying to tell me the SF90 is a better car than the Enzo. It is, I know it is, but the Enzo was the one I grew up with. It’s the one that turned my head first. Just like the Snowflake first made me think about turning my back on Switzerland, if just for a moment.
The biggest problem the White Birch has isn’t how good it is, it’s how similar it is to the Snowflake. That’s a tricky decision to make: buy the Snowflake, which has the OG dial and costs less, or buy the White Birch, where literally everything else is better by a factor of ten.
The answer, it seems, is simple: make the dial a different colour. Enter this, the SLGH017, the Night Birch. Now you know what it’s like to work some pretty hefty overtime deep in the birch tree forests of the Shizukuishi studios. It also completely transforms the watch from the Snowflake’s young pretender to a mature evolution of the Grand Seiko line-up. Basically, if your wallet can stomach it, you can have one of these and a Snowflake and not think you’ve gone a bit mad.
It is exactly the same dial, same troughs, same ridges, only in black, and that does more than you might first anticipate. The triple-wide hands and markers are more impactful in stark contrast, which you might think would be a bad thing considering the size of the things, but given the watch’s generally more bullish appearance, it works. It works better, actually, like it’s committing to the look rather than trying to mask it in a last-minute crisis of confidence.
Oddly enough, I think that might be because, although the dial is the same pattern, the darker shade lessens the contrast of the texture. It’s still there, don’t get me wrong, and it still outpunches the Snowflake for depth and dimension. Don’t think this is a polar bear in a snowstorm kind of situation. It’s more that the light and shade of the dial compete in a different arena to the markers. For a nice little touch, even the date window’s been inverted to white on black as well.
The White Birch comes in both mechanical and Spring Drive variants, so it’s a reasonably safe bet to suggest this Night Birch will eventually come with the automatic Spring Drive 9RA2, but for now it gets the mechanical 9SA5.
For me at least, the 9SA5 marked a moment of maturity for Grand Seiko, which, lest we forget, has only been trading internationally since 2010. Previous movements have mostly been technically interesting but built to a price, and that’s fine, offering an entry point to Grand Seiko that’s less costly. It’s really all been about the dial and case when it comes to the final word in finishing.
The 9SA5 changed that considerably. It’s like when that cute little luxury arm of mass production giant Toyota, Lexus, slapped the world in the face with the 8,700rpm 4.8l V10 of the LFA. It was the moment we learnt they weren’t mucking around.
The 9SA5 is not mucking around, either. First of all, look at it. The design, the finish—it’s better than Rolex. It’s better, dare I say it, than Jaeger-LeCoultre. I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think the 9SA5 gives even H. Moser something to think about.
I mean, first off, I don’t think I’ve ever seen rubies so big. Grand Seiko can do it because they grow their own. And then there’s the structure. I couldn’t tell you if splitting the bridges into those flowing shapes is better for accuracy—it probably isn’t—but it sure looks good. I very much appreciate the effort in hollowing out the rotor weight so most of it isn’t hidden, too.
But all that’s superficial. Where the 9SA5 really packs its punch is in the technical. In the last two centuries, there have been two major developments in watchmaking: George Daniels’ co-axial escapement, which is now doing a solid duty with Omega, and the dual impulse escapement in the 9SA5. How many watch companies can say they’ve done that? Two. The answer is two.
Typically, a Swiss lever escapement design, like you might find in a Rolex, imparts energy from the mainspring to the balance—the part that regulates the timing of the watch—through a rocking lever called the pallet fork. These indirect impulses sap energy that would be more efficiently put to use driving the balance wheel directly. The pallet fork is needed, however, to facilitate the ever-changing direction of the balance wheel’s beat, and so Grand Seiko has split the difference with the impulse in one direction being direct and the other indirect.
The net result is that not only is the 80-hour power reserve of the 9SA5 10% higher than the equivalent Rolex, it also beats 25% faster too, for a smoother, more stable readout. Those are big numbers for a technology that’s been about for several centuries, and once again it’s Grand Seiko’s technical knowhow that’s prevailed.
The Quality Versus The Price
Where the Night Birch is identical to the White Birch, however, is in its quality. Grand Seiko has long since established a benchmark of quality when it comes to dials and cases with the Snowflake, and to be honest, there’s not much above and beyond it that’s really worth speaking of—that is, until we enter the realms of hand painted markers on a porcelain dial like the Credor Eichi II’s.
The addition of titanium over steel for the Night Birch’s 40mm wide, 11.7mm thick case adds an exotic flavour, the darker tone complimenting the dial rather nicely. It’s water-resistant to 100m which is reasonable and it’s just generally nice to see Grand Seiko cases with automatic movements in them feeling sensibly proportioned so they comfortably fit more people.
Small improvements in the bracelet have closed the gap to Grand Seiko’s rivals, but it’s still not exactly setting the benchmark. There’s no micro-adjust system for example. For some that might present an ointment-fly interaction, for others, it’s not really an issue or they were going to put it on a strap anyway.
The real step up as we’ve seen is with the movement, but with that comes a step up in price. The Snowflake seems to present ever-greater value at £5,500, with the Night Birch getting close enough to double at £9,000 to warrant a sharp intake of breath.
Additional oxygenation aside, it’s a complex question to ask whether the Night Birch is worth £9,000. That gets you access to a healthy selection of Rolex—if you achieve gold level wait list status, that is—but perhaps more importantly it opens up the door to brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre.
The Night Birch and especially the 9SA5 are unquestionably good-looking and technically masterful, but Jaeger-LeCoultre is, well, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and I think that’s how most people are going to split this one. I can’t tell you which to go for. I can tell you I think the Grand Seiko presents a more characterful choice with a better movement, but I can also tell you that Jaeger-LeCoultre has kept all three of the Holy Trinity of watchmakers in business.
I suppose it comes down to whether you’re looking to the past or to the future. Grand Seiko doesn’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to a head-to-head with Jaeger-LeCoultre’s history. Looking forward, however, and it seems to be Grand Seiko that’s making the headlines. The rest, as they say, is up to you.