As Grand Seiko continues to expand into the higher price ranges of high-end watchmaking, it also continues to set itself new challenges, including exploring ways to distinguish itself from the very stiff competition from more established (if not necessarily qualitatively superior) luxury fake watch brands. Certainly no one can fault Grand Seiko on general quality of craftsmanship in its movements and dials. The latest Spring Drive replica 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 as well, both have unique timekeeping technology with its own unique appeal.
In purely mechanical horology, Grand Seiko has largely concerned itself, at least as far as technical watchmaking is concerned, with important but relatively un-headline grabbing improvements to an existing repertoire of mechanical elements. These are valuable, to be sure ?MEMS-produced, openworked escapement components and alloys like SPRON 510, which Grand Seiko uses for its mainsprings, all offer improved durability, accuracy and performance in general ?but they are not necessarily factors which, taken in themselves, tend to really seal the deal.
However, all that is about to change. Grand Seiko has just 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 solution to some very old problems in watchmaking.
The first 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 replica watches under 100 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 goal of a strong and precise timekeeper designed for longevity ... the resulting calibre combines vintage solidity in construction with modern manufacturing techniques and alloys effectively."
While, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is generally the principle by which mechanical horology makes its incremental advances, it is always interesting to look at a fresh, new approach, which is what Grand Seiko has given us in the new caliber 9SA5.
Externally, the fake watch is a Grand Seiko through and through. This is a 100 piece limited edition, in a 40mm x 11.7mm case, with impressively proportioned gold hands and dial markers, as well as the signature well-executed date window. The relatively slim case is the first hint that there is something new going on under the hood. A Grand Seiko Hi-Beat is typically a pretty substantial watch, with (for instance) the Hi-Beat Special For 20th Anniversary Of Caliber 9S coming in at 39.5mm x 13mm, which seems fairly typical for Hi-Beat automatics. The SLGH002, by contrast, is 40mm x 11.7mm, and while this is certainly not an exercise in ultra-thin 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 find it a small but definitely much-appreciated detail that Grand Seiko continues to drill out the lugs of Grand Seiko replica watches ?the good Lord knows, replica watches are generally not a DIY diversion and making it easier to swap straps without scratching your Precious is definitely value added as far as I'm concerned.
Turning the fake watch over and taking a look through the display back begins to clarify just what a departure from business as usual the caliber 9SA5 really is. At first glance it doesn't look that much different from other Grand Seiko movements ?okay, the balance bridge is certainly a change of pace, and it's a feature increasingly seen in modern, durability-oriented calibers from both Replica Rolex and Omega, for instance. Nobody's ever accused Grand Seiko movements of being flimsy, but it's still a nice upgrade. Movement finishing feels very artisanal as well, and the graceful shapes of the bridges (as well as the cut-out rotor, which lets you get a less obstructed view of the movement than is usually the case in automatic Hi-Beats from Grand Seiko) are a definite departure from the overbuilt angularity of typical Hi-Beat and Grand Seiko movements.
It's when you take a closer look, though, that you see just 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 flat balance springs and conventional regulators have been the rule in the past. Replica Rolex uses a similar approach in the form of its Microstella balance screws and Patek, of course, has its Gyromax balances. Omega uses flat silicon balance springs which are fabricated in such a way as to give the advantages of an alloy overcoil balance spring, and like Replica Rolex, Patek, and now Grand Seiko, also avoids a conventional regulating system by using timing weights on the balance.
If you look very closely, you will also see what looks like a decidedly non-standard lever on the underside of the balance. Turn the balance over, and you'll see something which, if you were expecting a standard lever and escape wheel, is almost a shock: a brand new type of dual-impulse escapement.
The escape wheel, on the left, alternates between impulsing the balance directly, and impulsing the balance via the lever when swinging in the opposite direction. You can see one tooth of the escape wheel just 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-axial escapement, which also gives impulse in two directions alternately, with the escape wheel impulsing the balance directly in one direction, and via the lever in the other. However, the co-axial escapement has two escape wheels mounted on a single axis (hence the name) while the new Hi-Beat escapement has only one. Another major difference is that there are three locking jewels on the lever for the co-axial escapement, and only 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, but this is very difficult as the chronometer escapement only gives impulse in one direction, which means that it is not self-starting (unlike the lever, which will begin running without any encouragement once you put some torque into the mainspring). It's also not an especially robust escapement; it has a tendency to unlock accidentally if you give it a shock.
Historically, the Robin escapement is probably 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 also impulses in only one direction. The Robin escapement and the Fasoldt escapement were famously part of the inspiration for the Daniels co-axial, and the latter has remained the only example in modern times, of a direct impulse, self-starting escapement which has been successfully industrialized. At least, until now.
The AP escapement, with the escape wheel about 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, although it generated much interest when it was first introduced. It uses a Robin-type lever, but modified in order to allow the escape wheel to lock the pallets more securely; it also incorporated a special safety system intended to provide additional securing against unlocking. The AP escapement runs at a quite high frequency ?43,200 vph vs the 28,800 vph frequency of most modern industrially produced calibers. AP launched it in the no-longer-available Jules Audemars Chronometer With Audemars Piguet Escapement. It was a most ingenious design, but shared with the detent escapement the disadvantage of not being self-starting.
New escapements are a great rarity in modern watchmaking. Escapements are probably the most expensive element in a fake watch to research and develop and it's never clear, at least at the outset, what the actual benefits will be. In creating a new escapement ?and moreover, one that runs at 36,000 vph, with an 80 hour power reserve, in a relatively thin movement ?Grand Seiko has done something has been tried by few brands and achieved by even fewer. The new movement, moreover, may be the beginning of a trend at Grand Seiko to make more traditionally slim replica 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 still unknown, but historically Grand Seiko and Seiko have not rolled out new technology until all the bugs are worked out (that's why the Spring Drive took so long to bring to market). The SLGH002 is a statement piece as a watch, sure, but it's also a statement of intent ?of an intention to keep making very serious inroads indeed, into stretching the limits of high-end 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 display 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. Maximum rate variation +5/-3 seconds/day. Price, $43,000. Limited edition, 100 pieces world-wide. Find out more at Grand-Seiko.com.Grand-seiko Escapement High-frequency Hi-beat New-watches-2020