Review: the Grand Seiko SBGA211 “Snowflake”

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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.

The Grand Seiko SBGA211 Snowflake

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 superlative 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.

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$5800

Review: the Grand Seiko SBGA211 “Snowflake”

Case
High-Intensity Titanium
Movement
Grand Seiko 9R65 Spring Drive
Dial
White
Lume
NA
Lens
Sapphire
Strap
Titanium Bracelet
Water Resistance
100
Dimensions
41 x 49mm
Thickness
12.5mm
Lug Width
20mm
Crown
Screw-down
Warranty
Yes
Price
$5800

Case

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.

The Zaratsu polished bevel

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.

Zaratsu polishing in process

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.

Exceptional curves

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.

A peek at the 9R65
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Dial

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.

The Subtle texture of the Snowflake dial

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).

Incredible details
Date at three
The controversial power reserve

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 markers can look almost like glass

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.

A truly handsome dial

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.

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Movement

If in-house movements are rare in the scheme of things, movements that are totally novel are truly unicorns, and typically only found in the realm of the haute independents. Movements that deal with extremes, such as hyper accuracy, constant force, conceptual escapements, etc, just aren’t typically found in mass production. Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive technology is truly in a league of its own, as it does go beyond the specs of typical mechanical movements, but rather than doing so with traditional methods brings in technology in the form of quartz regulation (don’t run, this is far from what you think of as a quartz watch). The result is a hybrid that is often thought of as the best of both worlds.

Rather than explaining it in great detail, as that would take an entire article and a video, here is a link to an entire article with a video that does just that. Read that now, or later, but for those in a rush, here’s the abbreviated version. Normal mechanical watches use escapements, typically of the Swiss lever variety, to release the energy stored in the mainspring in tiny, precise increments that are translated into hours, minutes, and seconds by a gear train. They also create the telltale ticking of a watch, as well as the stepped-sweep of the seconds hand.

the Grand Seiko 9R65 Spring Drive Caliber

Spring Drive forgoes the traditional escapement for a glide wheel and a “tri-synchro regulator” (see the above article for more on that). Rather than a locking mechanism to release the energy, an electromagnetic braking system is used, controlling the rate of the glide wheel, which is turning in one direction without interruption, hence the motion of the seconds hand. The quartz component comes into play here as the rate at which the brake is applied is regulated by an integrated circuit that is using the quartz oscillator as a reference signal, comparing the glide wheel against it, adjusting as needed.

It doesn’t require a battery because the electromagnetic brake actually generates enough current to run the system. In the end, what you have is a mechanical movement with 72 hours of power reserve that is wound like any other automatic/mechanical watch, but rather than ticking, uses a novel release of energy that is, essentially, monitored by a quartz brain to produce accuracy of +/- 1 second a day. This escapement-alternative is also friction-free, reducing wear and tear, mitigating one of the biggest issues of mechanical watchmaking. Additionally, Spring Drives don’t succumb to positional variance, so no tourbillon needed here.

The deep striping creates a gorgeous effect

With that crash course out of the way, inside of the Snowflake is the 9R65 caliber. As “in-house” as they come, decorated to the nines, and completely proprietary, it’s the not-so-little thing that makes the watch truly different. From the dial side, the ethereal, silent steady glide of the seconds hand is a tell-tale sign that what is within is not your usual timekeeper and a subtle reminder that time is a constant flow. Though not the only watches in history with truly smooth sweeps (the original tuning fork Accutrons had the same motion, for example) knowing it is linked to the mechanism with great accuracy, and a direct effect of how it works, makes it seem like it’s doing something special.

From the back, you’d be hard-pressed to tell this wasn’t a traditional mechanical movement at a glance. Beautifully decorated with deep stripes and beveled edges, Grand Seiko’s movements are the only I’ve seen that create a sort of rainbow-shimmer in direct light. Of course, once your eye hunts for the escapement, you’ll find instead a set of wheels spinning at incredible speeds, the only indicator that there is more at play. For a view beneath, be sure to check out The Naked Watchmaker’s breakdown.

The glide wheel

In practice, it’s easy to forget that the watch you are wearing is different, and at least in terms of accuracy, better than any mechanical watch you own (there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that Grand Seiko’s own 9F quartz watches are far more accurate even than Spring Drive, and typically for a lower price too). Sure, the sweep of the seconds hand is a reminder, but hyper accuracy is, at least in small doses, sort of hard to grasp. However, after wearing the watch on and off for a few weeks, not letting it ever completely die, and finding that it’s still in line with my reference (ahem, cell phone) is impressive. Combining an awareness of the accuracy with the fact that it’s unique to Seiko/Grand Seiko/Credor, does make the watch feel different and stand out from other time-only watches as though it had a unique complication or function.

Straps

The Snowflake comes mounted to a solid high-intensity titanium bracelet. It’s a five-link design with three brushed links alternating with two thin polished links that tapers slightly down to a pleasantly small clasp. In terms of looks, I wouldn’t call it my favorite design, coming off a bit ornate and a touch similar to the now-retired Speedy bracelets, though it is nicely finished, featuring polished bevels along its outer edges and beautiful brushing that matches the lugs perfectly. I will say, however, that it is up there as one of the most comfortable bracelets I have ever tried.

Highly wearable titanium

I typically try a bracelet for a bit, and then remove it as I find it annoys me, inevitably wearing the watch on a leather strap most of the time. With the Snowflake, I’ve kept it on the bracelet nearly the entire time it’s been in my possession. Though it doesn’t feature any micro-adjustments, nor does it taper much, it wears effortlessly. It’s super lightweight, and thanks to titanium’s low conductivity, has a neutral temperature making it simply less noticeable. I guess I’ve never spent much time with a titanium bracelet before, as I’m very impressed.

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On Blue shell cordovan
On rugged nubuck

In terms of style, the bracelet is definitely on the formal/business side of things. Luckily, the Snowflake does take well to leather and can be dressed up or down accordingly. I tested it on a dark blue shell cordovan strap, which plays nicely off of the blue seconds hand, and gives the watch a slightly more casual attitude, but would still look good with a blazer. On a rugged brown nubuck strap, the Snowflake is in weekend mode, looking sportier and far more casual. The versatility shouldn’t really be surprising considering the Snowflake is a white-dial sports watch at the end of the day.

On The Wrist

I remember the first time I picked up a platinum watch. It was at a watch meetup and I was blown away by its weight. It was like the very mass of this item spoke to its value. It was absurd, yet oddly appealing. Typically, we do associate some level of weight with value. It’s one of the reasons people think quartz watches are “cheap” – they simply lack the metal to have heft. The Snowflake opened my eyes to luxury as lightness. Why add discomfort when luxury can also be defined as ease? Silky sheets, leather interiors – titanium watches. Though the material itself isn’t costly, the experience of a truly lightweight watch is definitely luxurious.

Dressed up or down, the Snowflake is a great everyday wear

It’s with this in mind that I found the Snowflake, bracelet and all, so enjoyable on my wrist. Yes, it’s 41 x 49 x 12.5mm, which by today’s standards are dive watch specs, but on the wrist, it works. I never felt like I was wearing a big watch, and I think the lack of weight led to that deception. Instead, I saw a watch that held its own on my wrist. A watch that felt modern through and through, but tasteful as well. Would I like to imagine it a bit smaller? Sure, but unlike with other watches where that might be the case, it wouldn’t necessarily improve anything. As is, the Snowflake utilizes polishing and strong lines to appear smaller. The difference between being and appearing, though, is that Snowflake has an unexpected ruggedness to it.

While I might first think about the contemplative dial and the silent gliding seconds hand, the Snowflake is a 100m watch with a screw-down crown as well. This isn’t a dress watch, even if it works as a formal watch. While smaller watches certainly have these same stats or even greater, I think had the Snowflake been smaller and more slight, the elegant elements could have felt too decorative, taking the whole watch into too dressy and even fussy territory. I will say a touch thinner would be welcome though. I know this is a common critique for Grand Seiko, but I can’t help but think even a few millimeters would just make it wear even better.

Not bad with a blazer

Conclusion

One can think of the white-dial sports watch as a sort of platonic ideal within watches. It’s a thing, just like a black dial/bezel dive watch. A staple, a go-to, something every collector could have because it’s versatility incarnate. Like a pair of brown leather shoes, or a blue blazer, should you need it, it’s there and will work regardless of the situation. And yet, like those shoes, you can go for the basic version to get the job done, or pony up for ones from Alden that are nearly identical from afar, but are made of cordovan and cost many times more. The difference is craft, materials, history… all of the intangibles that make you, the owner and educated consumer, excited to wear them.

Simple yet striking

The Grand Seiko SBGA211 Snowflake is much the same way. It’s a white-dialed sports watch that might seem like many others at a glance, but upon closer inspection has a ton more going on, should you want to dive in. Every detail speaks to something with greater depth from the polishing, to the dial texture, to the movement within. It’s not just a white-dial sports watch, it’s a collection of stories that as watch enthusiasts we can really buy into (and should a non-watch person dare to ask us about the watch, we can tell in great detail).

In terms of price, at $5,800 the Snowflake is not inexpensive, nor is it unobtainable, especially second hand. In context of other similarly priced and themed watches, such as the Omega Aquaterra 150m ($5,700 on a bracelet), it makes total sense as they are comparable, on the surface, in many ways. Both are 41mm sports watches that can be dressed up or down. Both have in-house movements with unique aspects, one being a Master Co-Axial, the other Spring Drive. Both are from respected brands with rich histories. Both even have textured dials.

a white-dial sports watch for watch enthusiasts

What makes the Snowflake, and likely many other Grand Seikos by extension, stand out is that the level of finishing exhibited on the case, dial, and hands is typically on yet another level. A favorite brand for macro photography on Instagram, Grand Seikos stand up to watches with yet another decimal in their price tags. Sure, you can only truly perceive this level of detail with a loupe, but when wearing it, there is a sense that everything is sharper and cleaner than on other watches you’ve worn. Add in the unique and highly accurate movement, and you have a watch that really holds its own.

So, whether or not the Snowflake is the right Grand Seiko for you (or me) is another story, but as a way into understanding the brand and what sets it apart, it still serves as a great place to start. After spending some time with the watch, the allure of a Grand Seiko and of Spring Drive is very strong, though I must say that so is the idea of their 9F caliber. Less expensive, even more accurate, and the watches are still finished to the same level. Decisions, decisions. Grand Seiko

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Zach is the Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Worn & Wound. Before diving headfirst into the world of watches, he spent his days as a product and graphic designer. Zach views watches as the perfect synergy of 2D and 3D design: the place where form, function, fashion and mechanical wonderment come together.
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