The remarkable beauty - Grand Seiko Spring Drive SBGA211 Snowflake, Image source: timezone.com
When it comes to the famous Spring Drive, everything about it is unique. As you probably know, long story short, this watch technology combines mechanical and quartz mechanisms in that way that it generates energy as a mechanical watch, but delivers precision way beyond it. The Spring Drive is not only a result of over two decades of research, but also of a mastery of both mechanical and electronic watchmaking. In Grand Seiko’s case, watchmaking truly borders with art.
In order to get to know the technology of Grand Seiko Spring Drive 9R watch technology better, let us first remind you of the course of history that gave birth to it. The Spring Drive concept originates from 1977, from the mind of Seiko engineer Yoshikazu Akahane. It took him 22 years and more than 600 prototypes, to finally introduce the Spring Drive in 1999. Seiko Spring Drive movements are also used in other Seiko brands aside from Grand Seiko, including Prospex and Credor series. However, movements released under the Grand Seiko roof are reserved for this brand only. These movements are called Spring Drive 9R family.
Circuit board for the Tri-synchro regulator, Image source: thenakedwatchmaker.com
Now to the technical side of it. Many people wonder if Spring Drive is a mechanical movement. To answer that question, let us see what is it made of. Basically, the Spring Drive has most of the mechanism of a mechanical watch, but uses so called Tri-synchro Regulator system instead of an escapement and a balance wheel. Tri-synchro regulator generates electrical power from the mainspring and controls the delivery to the watch hands with the help of quartz technology and electromagnetic power - controls the speed of the glide wheel and the hands with electromagnetic braking.
The Tri-synchro regulator uses three types of energy to regulate the moving parts and establish synchronicity:
Hence, the Spring Drive is a form of a hybrid movement or let’s says a bridge between mechanical and electronic movements, but in that case, it is a futuristic bridge, with super-fly highway whose speed limit is way above the average. The truth is, you cannot often hear the term ‘hybrid’ related to the Spring Drive, because it is in fact, a whole new technology that raised the bar when it comes to accuracy. Therefore, the phrase ‘evolution in watchmaking’ would be the proper classification when it comes to the Spring Drive.
When Spring Drive finally saw the light of a day, on the verge of a new century, the fans of traditional mechanical movements, naturally, had doubts, asking questions about its properties, quality and lasting. The ‘quartz part’ was almost always put in question as usually quartz watches (including Grand Seiko quartz series) use battery power. But unlike electronic watches that run on batteries, the Spring Drive is powered the same way as any other mechanical watch - by a mainspring (or two). In translation, the Spring Drive generates its own power and doesn’t need any batteries or other power sources. In conclusion, watches with Spring Drive inside will last you decades with proper maintaining.
Seiko SNR033 GMT, caliber 5R66
Grand Seiko SBGE201 GMT, caliber 9R66
As Spring Drive makes the heart of many watches across Seiko brands, so far, many new Spring Drive movements are produced since its introduction. They are usually marked with number, letter ‘R’ and version code. So, for example, in 9R series, reserved for Grand Seiko brand, we have caliber 9R65 with 30 jewels, 9R02 with 39 jewels, 9R86 with 50 jewels, date and GMT and so on. It is important to remember that caliber numbers don’t represent their chronological introduction, but their versions often had the equivalent under the other brand (for example, Seiko Prospex caliber 5R66 vs 9R66 from Grand Seiko).
Initial Spring Drive calibers mostly filled cases of watches produced in limited editions under Credor (7R family) and Seiko (5R family) brands. The first Spring Drive movements were not accepted by Grand Seiko. Grand Seiko required much more by its new GS standards set in 1998. The first Spring Drive movements lacked power reserves that would satisfy those requirements and yet needed to evolve to that level. Hence, the first Grand Seiko Spring Drive movement was born 5 years later, in 2004, and it was called caliber 9R65. Since the introduction of 9R65 movement, the 9R family of movements was reserved exclusively for Grand Seiko watches.
Caliber 9R65 - Grand Seiko blue snowflake SBGA407- Skyflake , Image source: watchesbysjx.com
The 9R65 was an automatic caliber with a power display and a manual winding option. It had the accuracy of ±1 second per day, 30 jewels and power reserves of 3 days (72 hours). This movement is featured mostly in watches from the Heritage collection, such as the first version of Grand Seiko Snowflake aka Grand Seiko SBGA011 and all its versions. The watch dial representing freshly fallen snow and nicknamed the ‘Snowflake pattern’. It is inspired by the winter mornings of Shinshu region in Japan where the Spring Drive was born, hence the name. Other models, mainly Snowflake re-issues and versions are: SBGA001, SBGA003, SBGA083, SBGA085, the 10th anniversary models SBGA111, SBGA109, SBGA203, then SBGA211 (another Snowflake re-issue), SBGA259, SBGA283, SBGA293, then SBGA407 - Grand Seiko blue snowflake from 2019 with bluish Snowflake pattern on the dial nicknamed ‘Skyflake’ and so on.
Aside from the Snowflake and other models it inspired, the Spring Drive collection, particularly the 9R65 movement, was the first that brought to life the Grand Seiko diver watches, marked as beloved SBGA029 with stainless steel case and the titanium version SBGA031.
The year 2005 brought the introduction of caliber 9R66, which was basically 9R65 with added GMT function. The watches that are run by this movement are popular Grand Seiko GMT models from their Sports collection: SBGE001, SBGE005, SBGE011, SBGE205 and SBGE211.
The year 2008 delivered the first Spring Drive chronograph under the Grand Seiko roof, along with automatic caliber 9R86, with 50 jewels, the GMT function and 72 hours of power reserves, of course. The presented models were Grand Seiko SBGC001, SBGC003 with black dial and SBGC005, the gold-titanium version. The 9R86 is also featured in other watches throughout Grand Seiko Sport collection, in models such as Grand Seiko SBGC201, SBGC203, SBGC205, SBGC221 and SBGC223.
The updated 9R65, called 9R15, was introduced in Grand Seiko 9R 10th Anniversary Spring Drive Limited Edition SBGA109. The new 9R15 with updated accuracy of ±0.5 seconds per day comes in 20th anniversary limited versions, such as Grand Seiko Sports Spring Drive 20th anniversary SBGA403 limited edition 500 pcs and Grand Seiko Godzilla 65th anniversary SBGA405, as well as Grand Seiko “Self-Dater” Spring Drive Limited Editions celebrating 50th anniversary of 57GS or GS Self-Dater from 1964 (the second Grand Seiko model), which are marked as SBGA103, SBGA105 and SBGA107.
Insanely high-end Grand Seiko Spring Drive SBGD201 with 9R01 movement, Image source: hodinkee.com
Another big leap happened on Baselworld 2016, when 9R01, an automatic movement with manual winding that had the power reserves of 192 hours (8 days) was introduced. With its 56 jewels, it runs magnificent watches from Grand Seiko Heritage collection, such as Grand Seiko SBGD201, the king of a charm with its platinum case, Grand Seiko SBGD202 with its 18k rose gold case or super-limited model Grand Seiko SBGD205, a Snowflake lookalike jewelry treat with diamonds and sapphires limited to 10 pieces only.
The 9R02 was also introduced back then and had 39 jewels, manual winding, 84 hours of power reserves and the accuracy of ±1 second per day. It can be found in Grand Seiko Elegance collection, also powering models with Snowflake dial pattern, such as Grand Seiko SBGZ003 and super-rare Grand Seiko SBGZ001 (produced in 30 pieces only).
New Spring Drive Calibre 9RA5, the “Offset Magic Lever” allows a reduction in the movement’s depth with the same high winding efficiency, Image source: grand-seiko.com
Grand Seiko 60th Anniversary Limited Edition Professional Diver’s 600M (SLGA001 made in 700 pieces only) recently brought the new surprise: the 9RA5 movement, representing the new generation of Grand Seiko Spring Drive family. With 38 jewels inside, the 9RA5 brings the supreme accuracy of ±0.5 seconds per day and power reserves of 120 hours (5 days) in the slimmest Spring Drive version so far. This surely means that Grand Seiko Spring Drive family is nowhere near its road’s end, as they are on the never-ending mission to make the best watches in the world. And when we look back, the bars were set high on the beginning, such as Grand Seiko Spring Drive accuracy, which surpassed all the limits the watchmaking knew by then since its beginnings.
The accuracy of Spring Drive movements, since their introduction until 2016, was usually pinpointed to less than a second per day (±15 seconds per month), which was as twice better than some of the most famous watches of other famous brands. Since the introduction of the 9R01, the Spring Drive accuracy skyrocketed to astonishing ±0.5 seconds per day (±10 seconds per month), which was the improvement of 50% and stands as Grand Seiko’s high end nowadays. It also means Grand Seiko Spring Drive is still on the top of the game. The new Spring Drive movements are made to deliver supreme accuracy and to impress, but you also won’t lose much ‘time’ if you choose any of the older Spring Drive movements. Many Grand Seiko Spring Drive owners say they don’t really even notice the difference. Yet, knowing Grand Seiko, they won’t stop there, you can bet on that.
When it comes to recommendations, it is super-hard to make one. Each watch under Grand Seiko name is made with such devotion, design, engineering, art of watchmaking and overall supremacy over many other brands, that you cannot possibly go wrong by choosing any of them, especially when it comes to those with Spring Drive inside. The Snowflake may be the most famous out there, but, as you can see, there are plenty of other models celebrating the beauty of the snow in Shinshu and they are all quite handsome. As far as we’re concerned, choosing just one watch from Grand Seiko Spring Drive collection may be the toughest choice a watch collector can make.
When it comes to Grand Seiko price, one thing is for sure: Grand Seiko is made to last and therefore even older models don’t lose much on their value with age, especially when it comes to the limited editions. Some of them even gain more, which adds to already high-end price of this luxury brand. But if anything is worth its money, Grand Seiko Spring Drive technology is.
Written by M.H. , images by others as noted
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