Many watch brands have a model that defines the company. Rolex has the Submariner, Omega the Speedmaster, Audemars Piguet the Royal Oak, and so on. When you hear the name, you picture the watch and vice versa. Grand Seiko is different. A brand that is currently having a revival, or perhaps extended-US-debut is more accurate, they don’t have one model that necessarily comes to mind when the brand is mentioned. They have all sorts of concepts that do, however, such as finishing, “Zaratsu,” texture, Spring Drive, hi-beat, value (in a luxury sense of the word), and craft, to name a few. But while there isn’t a specific model that defines them or their aesthetic, there is a model that serves as many’s entry into their catalog (in terms of awareness, not price), the SBGA211, a.k.a. the Snowflake (as it will be referred to from here out).
Before I really knew much about the brand, nor their movements, nor before they were readily available in the US, I did, somehow, know about the Snowflake. First introduced in 2010 as the SBGA011, I knew it had a white dial with a texture that set it apart from the crowd. I vaguely knew that inside was a proprietary movement, and – well that might have been it for some time. Fast forward several years and Grand Seiko is now a brand on the lips of every enthusiast. The watches are available at ADs across the US, and there are even boutiques in NYC. The Grand Seiko catalog has grown and changed with the seasons, but the Snowflake remains a fixture.
As a watch that brings you into the brand, even if it’s not the watch you end up purchasing from the brand (should you go that far), it does encapsulate much of what they do so well, and what makes Grand Seiko different. This latter fact is the most important as there is an x-factor of personality and charm that makes Grand Seiko stand out against Swiss competitors. Though at a glance, the Snowflake might appear to just be a white-dialed sports watch, there is so much more, which gets unveiled in layers as you begin to learn about it, and even better, experience it.
At $ 5,800 the SBGA211 is not an inexpensive watch, nor is it an entry-priced option for Grand Seiko. Their SBGX 9F quartz watches hold that position, starting at a smidge over $ 2k at the time of writing this review. Instead, the SBGA211 is towards the middle of their non-precious metal offerings, and features a great mix of features, from a high-intensity titanium case and bracelet to the unique and highly-accurate Spring Drive movement within, not to forget Grand Seiko’s superfluous finishing. Whether or not anything that is $ 5,800 is a good value is a debate best saved for another day, it is certain that when looked at in comparison with like-priced watches, the Snowflake very much holds its own, and perhaps offers even more than the competition.
Review: the Grand Seiko SBGA211 “Snowflake”
Grand Seiko 9R65 Spring Drive
41 x 49mm
While the Snowflake is named and known for its dial, its high-intensity titanium case shouldn’t be overlooked. Measuring 41 x 49 x 12.5mm it’s on the large side for a time-only everyday sports watch at this current moment in time, when 39s and 38s and more in vogue, but given it was first launched in 2010, not at all surprising. It also features deceptively clever geometry, a strength of both Grand Seiko and Seiko, allowing it to look and wear smaller and thinner than expected. Additionally, thanks to being titanium, it is 30% lighter than it would have been, had it been made of steel.
As with the textured dial, at a glance or from afar, the case might seem classic and straightforward, only revealing itself under closer inspection. From above, long, thick lugs flow from one side to the other, enwrapping a polished bezel. A 6mm crown sits slightly nestled in the side at three when screwed in. One of the first tricks of the eye this case plays comes from the mix of finishing and how it is used to make the case appear to drop off at the edge of the bezel. Wide bands of brushing run across the entirety of the watch with a vertical grain, gently bowing out to be tangent to the bezel at three and nine. Though known for their polishing, this brushing is absolutely top-notch, with a texture I haven’t quite seen elsewhere. The brushing terminates in a perfectly sharp line, leading to a Zaratsu polished bevel that runs along the edge of the case of both sides.
Zaratsu polishing is something that needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated, sorry to say. How can one type of “black” or mirror polish be better than another? Well, when you see it you understand. A rare type of polishing (basically only GS does it and some specialists) that is done by hand utilizing the flat side of a polishing wheel, only by experienced craftspeople, it results in surfaces so flat, so reflective, it’s almost like they are not there. It’s as though you aren’t seeing what they are reflecting but through them. When paired with brushed surfaces, the contrast is stark. One diffuses light appearing solid, the other drops away into a void. Because of this, while the Snowflake is 41mm edge-to-edge, it can read, if only briefly, as 37.5mm, which is the diameter of the bezel.
When you view the Snowflake down the lugs, the way the Zaratsu polishing allows for the angle of the bevel and the angle of the bezel to perfectly match is striking. They merge together, just briefly, creating a perfectly polished band, before the bezel turns away, and the bevel flows down the lugs. It’s one of those little moments that reminds you that there is a higher level of craft at play.
Additionally, from this angle, you can see how the case tapers in towards the back starting at the edge of the bevel. A trick I’ve seen on many a Seiko diver as well, it makes the watch look and wear a bit thinner. It also gives the Snowflake an overall more modern and even aerodynamic look. This surface is also fully polished, but since it’s a larger surface and a bit of a fingerprint magnet, I do wish it featured horizontal brushing, which would have further accentuated the bevel as well. As is, I mostly see a pinkish tone as it reflects my skin.
An interesting feature of the case is that Grand Seiko includes drilled lug holes. I’m typically a fan of this feature, as it allows for much easier strap changing, but I can’t help but feel it is odd on the Snowflake. The placement of the holes just feels off somehow, like they are too close to the edge of the bevel. That said, perhaps convenience wins out here, which I can live with.
Flipping the watch over you’ll find a fairly classic display back with the notable detail of some engraved decoration surrounding the window. Of course, the 9R65 caliber within is likely what you’ll be paying attention to. I’ll get into it in greater detail later, but the striking pearlescent quality created by Grand Seiko’s decoration techniques is hard to look away from.
There are many stories that watches tell, whether literally printed on a dial or through a signature detail, that are typically about the history of a brand, some extreme condition a watch can survive, or some mechanical feat within. Grand Seiko takes a different approach, typically telling a story of nature or craft, bringing something often poetic and subtle into a product that is otherwise synthetic. As you’re already aware, the Snowflake brings a touch of the outdoors onto your wrist.
Meant to evoke snow-covered terrain, the textured dial is truly restrained and elegant. Still, a white dial, though it is created through silver plating, the addition of slight crevices at seemingly random placements creates the opportunity for shadows to cast. These ever-so-slightly darker moments create a field of ever-changing gray noise that evokes nature. It’s simple, effective, and in its randomness stands in contrast to the exacting perfection of the case, hand, and marker finish present. While manufactured through a machine process, the texture also evokes the idea of a skilled artisan carefully scooping out material with a small tool, loupe in eye.
Studding the dial like impossibly perfect alien structures rising out of a snowy arctic field are Zaratsu polished markers. When first wearing the Snowflake, my attention was all on the dial surface, but as I’ve lived with it a bit, more has turned to these markers. Like the bevels of the case, the incredibly flat mirrored surfaces on all sides of the markers reflect light in marvelous ways. While easy to see as solid metal, they can also create odd illusions, such as appearing like black cavities into the dial, or as transparent glass structures floating just above the delicate surface. If hit by direct light, the fractured beams they project will light up your wall (and drive your cat crazy).
Between these markers are small black lines to indicate the minutes and seconds in a clear fashion. Just below the marker at twelve is an applied GS marker followed by Grand Seiko in a grand Black Letter type. Mirroring this text at six in small type it reads “spring drive” in a type that feels a touch too sterile by comparison.
There are two controversial elements to the Snowflake dial, both in the form of complications. At three is a date window in place of a marker with a square polished frame and a black on white date disk. While it’s expected, and not egregious by any stretch, it feels like it’s lacking the nuanced treatment that every other detail seems to have gotten. As such, it doesn’t feel up to the same level of fit and finish.
The power reserve is a trickier element. The sea-shell-shaped reserve, which is visible on a sub-layer cut through the lovely snowy surface, sits between seven and eight, almost halfway between the center and edge of the dial. When full, the pointy polished hand points towards nine, when empty, up towards twelve. There are no numbers to indicate that there are 72hours of power when full (which is a good thing), but a slightly graduating scale expresses the sentiment clearly enough. It’s well-executed and attractive in its own right, though awkward when taken in as part of the whole.
I’m a fan of power reserves. On manually wound watches, they are always welcome. On watches with extra long power reserves (I’ll say five days and up), they are also worthwhile. On fairly normal automatics, they can be cool depending on their implementation and the spirit of the watch, though unnecessary. The Snowflake is a calm and serene timepiece. From the emotions the dial evokes of peering out over an expanse of untouched snow, to the unnaturally smooth motion of the glide motion seconds hand, it’s tranquil, quiet and consistent. The power reserve indicator disrupts the experience, as does the date window, creating slight distractions in the miniature transcendent moments one is lulled into while peering at the dial. They don’t ruin anything, nor do they take away from the watch’s other outstanding features, but one can imagine a version without them, and long for what that might be like.
The signature Grand Seiko handset is utilized on the Snowflake. The hour and minute hands are in the dauphine style and are perfectly polished on top as well as on the razor-sharp bevels that give them GS’s distinct look. The beauty of these hands really can’t be understated. There is a reason there are hundreds of macro photos of them floating around Instagram, they are just perfect. This is what high-end finishing truly looks like. The heat-blued seconds hand is drop-dead gorgeous as well, taking on the form of an ever-so-slightly tapering stick with a wider counter-weight on the far side. The only color on the dial, the black/blue that only comes from tempering is the perfect accent to the Snowflake surface. In addition to its own beauty, it also draws a little more attention to itself, which in turn puts the signature glide of the Spring Drive movement into the spotlight.