Grand Seiko SBGA059 Snowflake Review

The Snowflake (SBGA011) has become the most popular Grand Seiko of its modern era. I wasn’t around to enjoy the Grand Seikos of the golden age, the 1960s, but I rather suspect the Snowflake is more popular than any of those too. A new boutique-only model of the Snowflake, therefore, simply makes sense. There have been a few variations on the original Snowflake SBGA011, which is still available, but this new version, with gold accents, is probably the best of the bunch. If you like the Snowflake, and let’s be honest here, you do, you’ll like the SBGA059: it has the same beautiful titanium case, same super accurate 9R65 movement, and, of course, the textured Snowflake dial. The only difference is that the stainless hands and blued seconds are gone, replaced by striking yellow gold versions.

Grand Seiko is an unusual brand in many ways, but one of them is that they don’t have “lines” of watches. Omega, for contrast, has many lines, like Seamaster, Speedmaster and De Ville. Each line is essentially a relatively small number of models with many variations on each. The Tudor Black Bay would also be a good example, with three watches in different color schemes. GS, for whatever reason, doesn’t see things this way. While there are many examples of models offered in both a light and dark dial, almost all of the taxonomy is based on movements, not watch design per se.

I bring this up because GS appears to be developing something of a line in the Snowflake, albeit implicitly. It’s one thing to have a limited edition version here or there, but this SBGA059, while boutique-only, is a full production watch. We may eventually see the day where the Snowflake has 3 or 4 different versions available at the same time, and I really look forward to that. For today however, you have two main options, at least if you desire the original titanium case.

Powering the SBGA059, like the original SBGA011, is by far the most popular “hybrid” movement design in the world, the 9R65 spring drive. It combines the beauty and automatic winding of a traditional mechanical movement with the accuracy of quartz. We’ll be taking a much closer look at the 9R65 in the movement section.

Just in case you’re new to the watch world, here’s a quick primer on the Snowflake, including the original SBGA011 and this new SBGA059. The watch has an incredibly light titanium 41mm case using Grand Seiko’s proprietary alloy to make the titanium “brighter” and more like steel in color and it’s best recognized for its textured dial which resembles snow drifts.

The dial is, and always has been, the Snowflake’s strongest attribute. While it’s extremely similar to the SBGA011’s, I’m going to walk everyone through this section as if they’re not intimately familiar with the original in case some are new to the Snowflake.

Looking up close now we can begin to discern the subtle texture. The resemblance to snow drifts is absolutely uncanny. It’s not symbolic, it’s basically a perfect 3D reconstruction of a tiny snow drift. I apologize for the dark top facets of each marker and hand. The polishing on Grand Seikos is so good that you can always see the reflection of my black camera.

Angling the SBGA059 away from the camera reveals what the hands and hour markers look like in real life. They’re exquisitely mirror polished yellow gold.

The hands, aside from being gold, of course, are almost identical. The SBGA011 has a blued seconds hand which is now gold as well. These are the famous Grand Seiko dauphine hands, their most classic. They incorporate a very broad, flat surface with finely beveled edges, allowing it to capture light from three different angles. Here you can see that, although it’s reflecting my camera, legibility isn’t compromised due to the fact that the sides of the hands are still reflecting other elements.

The hour markers are a similar story, being identical to the SBGA011’s but now in gold. Like the hands, they have a perfectly polished flat surface on top with beveled edges. This creates an extremely coherent motif for the watch. Everything is clearly designed to work together, it’s not a grab bag of various parts thrown in to create a new model.

As is so often the case, the only way to appreciate a Grand Seiko is in person, but here you can get a pretty decent look at the texture.

The date ring matches the dial quite well and the numerals, when possible (i.e. not double digit) are absolutely huge and easy to read. The date frame, in typical GS fashion, keeps the date from looking like an afterthought.

The power reserve subdial really shows off GS’ highly respected dial work. Around and inside of the subdial we can find three contrasting textures. The snow drift texture on the outside, a very fine radial texture closer to the axis of the hand, and soft striations at the edge. It’s truly a work of art.

As far as dials go, it’s hard to beat a Grand Seiko, and harder still to beat the Snowflake. This dial work is up there with greats like Breguet.

The 41mm titanium case is, as far as I can tell, identical to the Snowflake’s.

The case here is about as classic as a Grand Seiko gets. It’s entirely hand polished with an extensive use of alternating brushed and polished surfaces, as is GS tradition.

The signed crown screws in for 100 meters of water resistance, although I expect few will want to explore the oceans with their Grand Seiko anyway. The 9R65 movement is very smooth winding. You can feel the individual clicks as you wind it, but they’re so small and numerous that it’s almost more of a “vibrating” feel to it. It’s amazing how little effort it takes to wind the watch all the way to the 72 hour limit (as is visible on the power reserve). It seems like each individual turn of the crown has a much bigger impact on the power reserve of the watch than any other movement (also equipped with a power reserve) I can think of. It doesn’t take long at all to take it from 0 to 72.

This shot shows how steel-like the titanium Grand Seiko uses appears. Side by side with steel, you can tell the difference, but in isolation, you’d swear it was stainless steel, lacking the dark gray color of titanium. At 12.5mm, it’s not what would be historically seen as a thin watch, but these days we’re awash in models that are over 14mm thick. In comparison to most of its competitors, it actually comes off as surprisingly thin.

It continues to use the 5 link bracelet, probably GS’ most popular. Like the case, it has alternating brushed and polished areas, but it gets its name from the fact that each surface is actually a separate, individual link, pressed together. This allows the watchmakers to more finely polish the pieces.

Of course, perhaps the most striking element of the SBGA059’s case is that it’s extraordinarily light. This isn’t true of all titanium watches, like the Tudor Pelagos, for instance, which is simply “not heavy.” This is shockingly light. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to feel the watch on your wrist this is an excellent choice.

The 9R6X, in this case the 9R65, is really the backbone of Grand Seiko’s spring drive division. It comes in two main flavors, the power reserve/date model like this one and the 9R66, which adds a GMT complication as seen in the SBGE001. There are also chronograph models, like the 9R86, but although spring drives, they are different movements entirely. In terms of popularity, it’s up there with the mechanical division’s most popular movement, the 9S85 Hi-Beat, and alongside it is one of the most beloved movements in modern watchmaking.

Aside from the chronographs, this is the prettiest movement Grand Seiko currently makes. While the 9S automatics are pretty and well decorated for their price, they simply don’t compare in terms of beauty to their 9R counterparts.

The 9R movements are also, oddly, the last Grand Seikos to use the brand’s famous magic lever winding mechanism.

This ingeniously simple device, partly pictured near the southeastern area here, allows the mainspring to be wound no matter which direction the rotor rotates. It’s arguably the most elegant bidirectional mechanism around (notably, I would argue that).

This is the glide wheel, the key component of the tri-synchro regulator. In spring drives, the escapement (the group of parts that is responsible for keeping time) has been replaced by the TSR. Essentially, the tri-synchro regulator is responsible for governing the extremely precise release of energy from the mainspring.

Very basically, the mainspring “wants” to unwind and release its energy to the gears and ultimately the hands of the watch, just like any other movement. If unopposed, however, the hands would simply spin uncontrollably and the watch will quickly die. What’s needed, then, is a braking system that very finely regulates how quickly the mainspring can unwind. The tricky part, in either mechanical watches or spring drives, is that the mechanism that accomplishes this must also be powered by the mainspring itself and that introduces all kinds of complex issues.

Grand Seiko solves this via an electromagnetic brake. The unwinding of the mainspring directly drives the gears and hands, but it also powers a tiny electrical generator. That electricity is used to supply a quartz oscillator, as well as the electromagnetic brake. The mechanism can “detect” the speed of the glide wheel and compare it to the super stable quartz oscillator. Then the electromagnetic brake is applied, applying resistance to the glide wheel, and ultimately slowing it down until it’s perfectly in accord with the quartz time.

This technique has a few consequences, but one of the most unexpected is also one of the coolest. Because spring drives have no escapement in the traditional sense, they do not tick. The seconds hand simply “flows” in a perfect continual motion and in total silence.

Of course, it also has more practical applications. The most important of those is its accuracy. It’s rated for +1/-1 seconds per day, which is incredible on its own, but almost all owners report far better accuracy than that. Furthermore, it has a three day power reserve, perfect for those who like to rotate watches, or even those who don’t wear a watch on the weekend but don’t want to set their watch again on Monday.

Check out our video of the SBGA059 here. If you don’t happen to live near a boutique (New York City or Frisco, TX) this may be the closest look you can get before you buy.

The SBGA059 is an awesome addition to Grand Seiko’s lineup. While I know that while some of you are absolutely in love with it, there are others that say they prefer the original SBGA011.

And that’s perfectly fine: that’s the beauty of having a new model that exists alongside the original. You can have whichever one you want, or if you’re truly hardcore, you can have both. View the SBGA059 like you viewed the Black Bay Black last year: it’s just a new option for a great model, and more choices are always good for collectors.

The SBGA059 is, of course extremely similar to the SBGA011. It has the same titanium case and bracelet and the same “Snowflake” dial.

It also features the same high-precision 9R65 spring drive movement. But the SBGA059 is different than the SBGA011 in one surprising way, aside from the gold accents of course.

And that difference is that the boutique-only SBGA059 with gold accents is more affordable than the SBGA011. Why? I have no clue, but that makes it a shockingly good deal. I often struggle deciding which one of a variety of models I would buy for myself, but here the answer is very easy. I’d buy both.

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