Today we have a very special comparison—one that puts two leading Grand Seikos against each other. It’s amazing how these two watches can be so similar and yet so different—the same ultra-high quality hand finishing, the same company, even the same price. Yet, for all their similarities, they use radically different movements, and although both use white/light dials, the actual finish on those dials is completely unique.
Even the material the watches are made out of is quite different—steel for the Hi-Beat and titanium for the Snowflake. So assuming you want one (you do), which way should you go?
Dial, Hands & Markers
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the HB and SF is the dial work—both exquisite, both unique, yet the Snowflake definitely warrants some extra attention.
It is this unique dial that gives the Snowflake its name—not by collectors, but by its designers.
The master watchmakers at Shizuoka-Shi live and work in a place with great snowfall—the dial was inspired by the snow outside of their workshop.
Perhaps more impressive is that the dial actually looks just like fresh snow—it doesn’t just resemble it, it literally looks like there is a small coat of snow on the dial. That’s how exquisite Seiko’s execution is here.
Another fine detail of the dial work is the power reserve. The work is so minute (no pun intended) that it can be very difficult to see with the unaided eye. We can see here that it has two contrasting textures made with supremely fine execution. But there is a detail that even the owners of this watch will probably never see, and that detail reveals the almost pathological obsession with detail at Grand Seiko.
If we look inside the power reserve, we see the cutaway of the dial. Most high-end manufacturers would be happy to plate it in whatever way the rest of the dial is done. But not Grand Seiko—if you look very closely, you can see a perfect reflection of the “empty” marker at top. That’s because Grand Seiko has mirror polished the inside edge—by hand. Don’t be confused though: the GS Hi-Beat isn’t exactly a slouch either.
This is the dial work that made Grand Seiko famous—a classic, yet dynamic, sunburst finish that changes radically depending on the lighting.
If the Snowflake brings a unique presentation, the Hi-Beat brings absolute clarity. The details are just so sharp. It seems like every surface and line is absolutely perfect.
Both dials are absolutely austere and made with perfection, but I do think the Snowflake’s is the more interesting, if only because nothing like it has ever been made before. For total clarity and legibility though, I believe the edge must go to the Hi-Beat—partially because it doesn’t have a power reserve, but also because the dial is more uniform and reflective.
While the Snowflake’s dial is a beautiful matte surface, the sunburst dial of the Hi-Beat create halos in direct light, like the one we can see stretching from 9:00 to 4:00.
The hands are virtually (and maybe totally, I didn’t measure them) identical—both feature gorgeous traditional dauphine hands. Grand Seiko hands always convey a certain mass—they don’t ever look like razor thin cutouts—they look like solid, heavy pieces.
Of course, the most striking feature of these watches is their heat-blued hands.
These hands can appear black in low or indirect light, but when the light hits them at certain angles, they’re practically neon blue.
The hands may be identical, but the hour markers aren’t. Each use the style of their respective collection (i.e., most Grand Seiko mechanicals use the HB’s style, most spring drives use the SF’s style).
The HB’s markers are extremely straight and narrow, although their height makes them really stand out. The cardinal markers have a triangular groove cut out of their surface. Naturally, they’re flawlessly polished. Their design compliments the super clean look of the dial in general. Still, as good as the HB’s markers are…
…I think the SF’s are better. I like the soft, beveled edges. Also note that the cardinal markers lack the notch of the HB’s.
I think these markers look slightly higher quality, due largely to the beveling, and they catch the light better because of their angular design. So while both sets of markers are excellent, I slightly favor the Snowflake’s.
Another slight advantage of the SF is the large date window. Although the Snowflake is just 1mm larger overall, the date window is substantially larger, increasing legibility.
Here we can see the HB’s date window is somewhat narrower. I have no idea what justified this difference, but it does make a slight difference in the font size of the date. On the other hand, there is a small hour marker next to the window on the HB where the Snowflake lacks one.
The difference is small but can be observed when they’re immediately next to each other.
So which has the better dial, markers and hands? I haven’t the foggiest idea. They’re both incredibly gorgeous. I prefer the hour markers and date of the Snowflake, but paradoxically, I think I like the simplicity of the HB’s dial and its dynamic nature.
Case, Crown & Bracelet
The differences in these areas are again both subtle and profound. Namely, although they look extraordinarily similar, they aren’t; the HB is made of steel and the SF is made of solid titanium alloy.
Despite the different molecular compositions they look nearly identical. Here we can see that the angles are slightly different. At first it looks like the alternating brushed and polished areas are reversed, but this isn’t the case. The flat, top angle, brushed on both watches, is simply much larger on the Snowflake. The slanted, polished angle is much larger on the HB.
Another visual difference is the color of the metal. Seiko uses a proprietary titanium alloy called Bright Titanium, which is not only harder than pure titanium, but also has a lighter appearance (more steel like). Despite this, the coloration is slightly darker than the stainless in the HB. I don’t think one color looks better than the other—that much is purely preference.
This photo of the clasps is a good comparison of the colors of the metals. Of course, the main difference isn’t the color, it’s the weight. Inspired by the snow-themed design of the watch, the designers decided to make it as “light as a snowflake” by using titanium—and the result is not subtle. The Snowflake is MUCH lighter than the HB. Now opinions on the weight of a watch are mixed—I normally prefer a heavier watch. It feels more solid. But as time has gone on, I have found that lighter watches basically fit better—they are less likely to get lodged on the thicker parts of your forearm and be stuck there.
Although the bracelets are visually almost identical, there is another subtle difference.
Here we can see the screws used in the HB’s bracelet.
Here we see the friction pins used in the Snowflake’s bracelet. There’s an important reason friction pins were used: titanium, even this alloy, is softer than steel. If Seiko had used screw threads in titanium links, it would be too easy to strip the thread. The hardness of steel makes this unlikely, so the easier to adjust and more reliable screws are used.
Consequently there’s some give and take between the bracelets of these watches. The HB gets the superior screw design, but the Snowflake is much lighter.
Yet another difference is the crowns used by these watches. Functionally speaking, the HB’s is the larger crown which allows you to wind the watch more easily. However, that’s because the 9S85 movement has noticeably more resistance to winding than the 9R65 in the Snowflake. Consequently, the Snowflake is actually the easier to hand wind. Actually, as a side note, it’s one of the easiest to handwind watches I’ve ever used–you can see the power reserve visibly move quite a bit with each turn.
Stylistically they’re more different than you might expect. The HB has a fully polished crown and signature, whereas the Snowflake has a recessed, rough finish in the relief and polished letters. The GS is more legible in the Snowflake’s, but I think I prefer the look of the HB’s, as well as the size relative to the case—remember that the HB is actually 1mm smaller than the Snowflake, yet the crown is noticeably larger.
Although there are numerous subtle differences between these watches, the biggest one is certainly the movement. The Snowflake, seen above, uses a 9R65 spring drive movement.
The Hi-Beat, on the other hand, uses a 36000 BPH automatic. Thus, there’s a bit of a showdown: Seiko’s finest traditional watchmaking techniques at Morioka versus the cutting edge technology at Shizuoka. In order to understand what makes both these movements so special we’ll have to examine them in a bit of detail. Let’s start with the traditional choice: the hi-beat.
Seiko’s hi-beat movements are the stuff of horological legend, and I don’t use that term lightly. They proved Seiko was a world class company in the early 1960s and became the world’s most accurate wrist watch movements by the late 1960s. Although the 9S85 is an all new movement, created with Seiko’s cutting edge material sciences, it has a legacy that connects it with those famous observatory chronometers.
The lessons of the 1960s are not lost on modern Grand-Seikos. These watches are rated to 2 seconds tighter than Swiss chronometer ratings at +5/-3. As the beautiful print on the movement says, it’s adjusted to 6 positions (one more than a Swiss chronometer). By temperature, Seiko means 3 different temperatures, again, one more than a Swiss chronometer. Other than perhaps Patek, there simply is no mass produced mechanical movement in the world today with as much attention paid to adjustment.
The movement uses a Swiss automatic winding system with reverser wheels, as opposed to the traditional magic lever system Seiko made famous. This supplies 55 hours worth of energy to the mainspring, which is about 15 more than the industry standard.
But the piece de resistance of the 9S85 is the escapement. It uses industry leading precision manufacturing techniques to produce a skeletonized and hollow pallet fork and escape wheel assembly. This lightening of parts, as well as a unique oil retaining design, allowed Seiko to produce the first 36,000 BPH movement that shared the same service interval as its normal frequency cousin, the 9S65. The high frequency design allows the watch to maintain its accuracy despite bumps and vibration while worn and it also gives it one of the smoothest sweep seconds hands in the world.
The Snowflake, conversely, uses the brilliant spring drive movement—in this case, the 9R65. The spring drive works in a radically different way than an ordinary mechanical movement.
What we can see in the top right the glide wheel, an important component to the tri-synchro regulator. The TSR is the functional unit of time keeping in a spring drive movement, replacing the traditional escapement as seen in the hi-beat.
Technobabble aside, why should the watch consumer care? Primarily because the performance of a spring drive is exponentially greater than any mechanical movement. For instance, although the 9S85 in the hi-beat is easily one of the most accurate mass produced movements in the world, it is rated for 400% less accuracy, with a maximum range of 8 seconds per day, versus just 2 seconds per day (+ or – 1) for the spring drive.
In the real world, however, even this amazing rating is extremely modest. Most spring drive watches gain only about 5 seconds a month, and they are extremely resistant to changes in accuracy due to shock—and virtually immune to positional variation.
The spring drive also has an excellent power reserve of 3 days (and adds a power reserve complication to the dial, allowing you to see how much energy is left), or 17 hours more than the 9S85, and is automatically wound the traditional Japanese way, with a magic lever, a more elegant design than the Swiss version used in the 9S85. It’s also worth noting that while the 9S85 in the HB is a beautiful movement, the spring drive in the Snowflake takes it up a notch and is clearly the better decorated of the two. As if that weren’t enough, while the hi-beat has a super smooth sweep hand, the spring drive is the only movement ever made that has a literally perfectly smooth sweep hand—it never “beats” at all.
So which movement is best? Well, unquestionably the spring drive is the superior movement in basically every objective way. It’s more accurate, has a longer power reserve and is prettier. Yet there is a certain charm to an old-school mechanical movement, especially one with as much heritage as the Seiko hi-beat. And, to that end, how much accuracy do we really need before it makes no difference? This hi-beat was accurate to about a second a day, and while that’s far shy of the Snowflake, would anyone ever really be bothered by a second a day? Ultimately, this decision must come down to the preference of the buyer—tradition or technology.
So after all is said and done, which do you buy? Well, that’s going to depend on whether you fall in the traditional camp or the more modern one.
The Hi-Beat SBGH001 is the traditional watch lover’s choice. Its line of movements can be traced back to multiple victories on the world stage during the 1960s. It’s still made today with traditional techniques. The sunburst dial harkens back to the 1964 Grand Seiko. And the watch is made of good old fashioned steel.
If the Hi-Beat is a testament to Grand Seiko’s glorious past, then the Snowflake is a testament to its incredible future. The dial work is absolutely unprecedented. The hardened and brightened titanium alloy is the result of advanced metallurgy. And, more than anything, the spring drive movement is a huge leap forward in movement design, offering the accuracy of a good quartz watch with the mechanical beauty of a traditional mechanical.