Two hundred meters of water resistance, +/- 10 seconds of accuracy per month, five-day power reserve, a ceramic bezel, and a dial to evoke the dynamic undulation of ocean waves, all wrapped in “high-intensity titanium:” The Grand Seiko Evolution 9 Spring Drive Ushio Diver SLGA023 watch really seems to have it all, and we checked it out hands-on at Watches & Wonders 2023 to see how it holds up in the metal.
In 2020, Grand Seiko unveiled SLGH002, a limited-edition timepiece debuting the next-generation 9SA5 caliber, as well as a new design language now known as the Evolution 9 Style. As Grand Seiko explains: “The goal of Evolution 9 was to take the best elements of Grand Seiko design and improve on them in ways that pay respect to the brand’s history and embrace its future.” Its designer, Kiyotaka Sakai, began his work to develop this new design code in 2017, turning the clock back to 1967 and to the original and frankly epic 44GS. Just like last year, 2023 is also about expanding the collection with sportier models, Sakai adds: “I saw no reason why we could not use the Evolution 9 Style methodology, namely the approach to the indexes and hands and the lowering of the center of gravity, in a sports watch as well.” Although the new SLGA023 still leaves some to be desired in terms of style, which we’ll get to soon, it does look and feel like a natural extension of Grand Seiko’s collections.
The 1967 44GS was a rather unassuming watch — until you looked at its profile. It is as angular, cool, and unique as Darth Vader’s helmet, and, frankly, many of the past decade’s Grand Seiko watches have displayed a similar approach to case profile design, long before the Evolution 9 came to be. This is to say that the Evolution 9 concept stays true not just to a singular reference from the middle of the last century, but also to much more modern pieces (dressy and sporty alike). Still, Grand Seiko seems excited about the “Evo 9” case style, characterized by its arched quarters, pronounced crown guards, and multi-faceted execution with a flat and brushed upper element and a distortion-free mirror surface separating the top and the side of the lugs.
Although Grand Seiko prices have been on the rise for years now — almost doubled, in some instances, over the past half a decade — the quality and intricacy of Grand Seiko’s Zaratsu case finishing are hardly ever matched by the competition even beyond the $10,000 mark. Oddly, bracelet finishing is not always on par, as the brand has been more frequently opting for all-brushed bracelets without any polished links, not even the narrow ones flanking the center links. These may look more technical and purposeful, however, when seen in the metal, they rarely, if ever, measure up to the delicacy of the watch head with its glossy ceramic bezel, polished bezel profile, crown, and lug bevels. The SLGA023 comes with exactly this configuration and we can’t help but think that a bit more bling on the bracelet would do it good.
The dial of the Grand Seiko Evolution 9 Spring Drive Ushio Diver SLGA023 watch, like its case, is as much a piece of jewelry as it is a functional component. The coastal waters of Japan are influenced by the flow of the Kuroshio Current, one of the world’s major ocean currents, as well as by the nutrient-rich waters of the Oyashio Current, creating one of the world’s most diverse ocean regions. It’s the dynamic undulation of the waves of these ocean currents that is expressed in the Ushio dial pattern — ushio means tide in Japanese (and it is also a given name). Grand Seiko has been mastering these creased dials for a number of years now — just think of the fan-favorite Birch and Snowflake, or the drop-dead gorgeous Shosho — but this may just be one of the best to date thanks to its softer, less machined, and more natural pattern.
The hands and hour markers of the SLGA023 are filled with LumiBrite, one of the brightest and therefore most entertaining luminous paints used on watches today. The hands are of distinctly different shapes to make them easier to tell apart and read, while the hour markers are applied and stand rather tall from the plane of the dial adding their own to the high-end look of this dial. The high-intensity titanium bezel is very wide and sports a blue ceramic insert on the inside and some rather serious cutouts around its periphery for better grip. Only the pip is luminous on the bezel, the rest of the markings are in white.
On the wrist, the SLGA023 is large — maybe too large, unless you have really wide wrists. The Grand Seiko Evolution 9 Spring Drive Ushio Diver SLGA023 measures 43.8mm-wide, 51.5mm lug-to-lug, and 13.8mm-thick, which makes it one chunky dive watch. A decade or more ago, hardly anyone would have batted an eye upon hearing those measurements, but, as the ushio has turned on the big-watch trend, Grand Seiko may want to start introducing more compact dive watches soon.
On the bright side, the SLGA023 uses all that space to pack some serious technology, some of the best, in fact, in its segment. The Grand Seiko Evolution 9 Spring Drive Ushio Diver SLGA023 is powered by the 9RA5 Spring Drive movement — to learn all you need to know about the incredible history and performance of Spring Drive, read my definitive on the subject here. The 9RA5 is the latest major development in this technology and the most capable Spring Drive base caliber yet. It’s 0.8mm thinner than the 9R6 series (going from 4.2mm to just 3.4mm) and yet offers an extended 5-day power reserve with an indicator by 9 o’clock on the dial. Its one-piece center bridge, Grand Seiko claims, lends it “significantly higher durability and improved transmission efficiency,” and it still boasts a +/-10 seconds per month accuracy (also quoted as a daily maximum tolerance of +/-0.5 seconds per day). Sadly, the SLGA023 is equipped with a solid caseback so you won’t be able to see the 9RA5 inside.
A stunning dial, beautifully finished titanium case, and one of the most innovative and highest performing spring-driven movements ever conceived are exactly what we expect from Grand Seiko. The SLGA023 delivered on all of those, and yet there still is some left to be desired. While there very much remains a market for large dive watches, we’d love to see Grand Seiko shift its focus towards more compact and therefore less unwieldy ways to enjoy all this unfiltered horological greatness. The Grand Seiko Evolution 9 Spring Drive Ushio Diver SLGA023 watch is priced at $11,600. You can learn more at the brand’s website.