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Review: Grand Seiko SLGH013

If there’s one thing you can rely on the Japanese to do, it’s to iterate to perfection. I mean, Grand Seiko has made enough watches at this point to make Rolex look like a one-man band, so it stands to reason that eventually all the best bits are going to make it into one watch. Well, that time has come, and here it is: the Grand Seiko SLGH013.

Mt Iwate Dial

Let’s try and string together all those elements that make this watch such a winner. First, we’ll start with the part of a Grand Seiko that Grand Seiko very rarely gets wrong: the dial. Simple, clean and beautifully executed, unless you just outright don’t like the way it looks, it’s hard to fault.

If you were to try, you might complain about the lack of luminous paint. Maybe you’d prefer the text at the bottom of the dial to be anywhere but where you can see it. Some people might say the balance would be better without the date.

Right, with those potential nit-picks over, let’s move on to what the dial gets so unbelievably correct. The original Snowflake showed us that Grand Seiko has a knack for understanding nature on a level that would impress even David Attenborough. There have been many other observations of our natural surroundings since on a Grand Seiko dial, but the Snowflake has always been the king, it’s icy visage seemingly impervious to competition. Some have come close, but never quite matched it.

That is until now. This dial borrows from the Mt Iwate style we’ve seen before, reminiscing on the landscape outside the Shizukuishi studio where the mechanical Grand Seiko models are made, but it does something new. This time it captures the melting snow in Spring in the region, and if that sounds pretentious, it’s not: the dial literally looks like thawing snow.

What the Snowflake got so right was depth, and this nails it too. You swear if you looked deep enough you’d see a woolly mammoth in there. The ice seems to abound in layers metres thick, so cold you can almost feel the chill radiating off it. Is it better than the Snowflake? I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it, but it’s certainly close. Very close.

44GS Case

Sometimes, even after years of evolution, iteration and revolution, the original is just the best. Grand Seiko has been responsible for making some very beautiful—and some not so beautiful—cases over the years. Whatever you think of them, they could never be accused of being unoriginal.

It all started in 1967, when designer Taro Tanaka was tasked with spicing Grand Seiko up a bit. The brand was seven years old already, but had spent all its efforts on what was going inside the case in a bid to outsmart the Swiss. Now it was time to give the exterior an identity as well.

Tanaka had just the thing, what’s now known as the 44GS. 44GS was originally the movement reference for that 1967 watch, but the principle for the case remains the same today as it did then: one single unbroken surface from top to bottom, polished to perfection. Basically, the case edges have the most ridiculously impressive bevel you’ve ever seen.

For designer Nobuhiro Kosugi, recreating that now is as much a pain as it was back then. It may seem simple at first, but that never-ending surface twists and curves in multiple directions at once, which makes polishing it flat very, very difficult. You see, 1967 was when the watchmakers at Grand Seiko learned lapping, or as they termed it, “Zaratsu” a word that comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the very expensive lapping machines Grand Seiko purchased in the mid-20th century.

If you’ve ever wondered how Audemars Piguet gets those super-crisp, super-flat polished facets on the Royal Oak, it’s by lapping. Unlike straightforward polishing, lapping is more akin to precision machining than a quick buff job. It’s usually employed on smaller surfaces that curve at most in one direction—the 44GS case pushes its capabilities to the very limit. It’s so difficult that any refurbishing needed on a 44GS case must be done back in Japan by the people who put it there in the first place.

In steel at 40mm across and 11.7mm wide with 100m water-resistance, the 44GS case wears like a second skin. The integrated nature of the lugs, being short and bluff, means it neither feels small nor wears big, making it pretty flexible for a number of wrist sizes. The tall bezel stands proud, and together it and the case have a simplicity that feels unfussy yet avoids being generic. The little details like brushed elements inboard and the multifaceted lug ends are so distinctly Grand Seiko in the best way.

Calibre 9SA5

From the very beginning, Grand Seiko has always been about what’s inside the watch. The record-breaking accuracy of its 20th century movements, the mind-bending integration of mechanical and electrical in the Spring Drive—and now this, the calibre 9SA5.

Your eyes will tell you first that it’s a very good-looking movement. It feels like the styling borrows aspects from watchmakers that are—price-wise at least—in a class above. There’s Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre and even fellow non-Swiss watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne in there too. Big jewels, a full width balance bridge—also styled on Mt Iwate—and lots of lovely finishing take care of the superficial side of things, but where the 9SA5 really punches above its weight is in the mechanical.

It's not often something revolutionary happens in watchmaking. In fact, despite how often the word appears in various watch brand marketing blurb, it rarely happens at all. Seems kind of odd then that, on Grand Seiko’s page for the 9SA5, they don’t say “revolutionary” even once, because this movement is one of perhaps three major revolutions that have ever happened to a watch.

The first was Thomas Mudge’s 1755 lever escapement, the second George Daniels’ 1976 co-axial escapement and the third is this, the Grand Seiko 9SA5. That’s because, despite being nicely compact and with a faster 36,000 beat per hour—which gives it the smooth-sweeping heat-blued second hand—it pulls out a whopping 80 hours of power reserve. That’s ten more than the equivalent Rolex.

Accuracy isn’t reported as high as Rolex’s, but I’m willing to bet in practice you can’t tell the difference. Grand Seiko is known for underquoting its performance, with the +5 to -3 seconds per day it offers measured over a solid twelve days.

It’s all thanks to the dual impulse escapement the clever clogs at Grand Seiko have devised. It’s only through high-tech micro-electromechanical machining—which is exactly as complex and precise as it sounds—that Grand Seiko have managed to achieve the lightness and accuracy to make the dual impulse escapement work. Thomas Mudge wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Where a typical lever escapement pushes the balance wheel—which keeps the beat of the movement by bouncing backwards and forwards—indirectly through a lever called the pallet fork, the dual impulse escapement does it directly. Or at least, in one direction, which reduces the drivetrain power loss in that direction, making it last ten hours longer. I wish I was clever enough to understand it properly!

The Grand Seiko SLGH013 is doing so much right. The dial, case and movement have been cherry-picked from Grand Seiko’s special reserve, combined together to make a watch that refuses to put a foot wrong. Perhaps the only question mark remains around the bracelet, which although fine, lacks in adjustability compared to the competition, however—and Grand Seiko will hate me for saying this—I think the 44GS belongs on a leather strap anyway.

Putting all this finery together doesn’t come cheap at £8,000, a fair amount more expensive than we’ve come to be used to from Grand Seiko, but remember we’re looking at fit and finish that sits more comfortably with Jaeger-LeCoultre than Rolex. In that sense it continues to represent Grand Seiko’s flair for value, even if that is represented further up the ladder here.

Overall, there’s all the right ingredients mixed all the right way to create a watch that should tick all the boxes for a lot of people. Making an overwhelming amount of different watches has finally paid off.

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