Grand Seiko SBGA109 and SBGA011 Snowflake Review (Updated with SBGA211)

Today is a rare opportunity to compare a very exclusive new limited edition with a legendary full production watch.  In this case, we take a very close look at the new SBGA109 limited edition, which features the unique tatami dial and special 9R15 spring drive movement and compare it with the all-star SBGA011 Snowflake.  Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the SBGA109 exists to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the movement that resides in the Snowflake–the 9R Spring Drive.  It has one of the most complex dials Seiko has ever produced with the most accurate spring drive Seiko has ever made.

The Introduction

The SBGA109 is the newcomer today.  This limited edition features the same 41mm titanium case and bracelet as the Snowflake but has a textured dial that is even more complex.  I call this style of textured dial the “tatami” dial, named for the Japanese mats with a similar appearance.  This style is not new to Seiko–a version of this was used in the legendary Grand Seiko Observatory Chronometer, for instance.  Incredible dial work aside, this watch also features the “super spring drive” 9R15 movement, a special version of the 9R65 movement that is assembled by an elite subgroup.  The 9R15 receives a special rotor and an even higher accuracy rating.

Its competitor, the SBGA011, needs no introduction, but I’ll give one anyway.  This is the most iconic of the contemporary full production Grand Seikos, over even the SBGH001 Hi-Beat.  This full titanium watch is best known for the snow drift dial after which it is named.  It is exquisitely crafted and one of the finest examples of high-end watchmaking in the world.  Inside runs (not beats) the equally legendary 9R65 spring drive movement, a movement with the beauty of an automatic, the accuracy of a quartz, and a smoother seconds hand than either.

The Dial

Let’s get back to our newcomer, the SBGA109.  Just look at that amazing tatami dial.  Those crisscrossing lines are not superficial–they have a great deal of visual depth to them in real life.  For all its complexity, it hides secrets.

Throughout the dial, wherever there are no lines, there are tiny GS logos–and a single Grand Seiko lion.

The lion is at 2:00, or rather, the 10 minute marker, to honor the 10th anniversary of the 9R movement–it is the only one on the dial.  This is similar to the use of a lion facing opposite all the other lions on the SBGX103’s dial.

In an unusual move for Grand Seiko, they engrave the event adjacent to that lion and the 2:00 marker ala Rolex.

Another interesting touch, which I happen to really like, is that the power reserve hand is blued.

The hands are of Grand Seiko’s typical and remarkably gorgeous dauphine variety.  They have perfectly mirror polished facets and are just incredibly elegant.  The seconds hand is blued, as is normally the case on white dial limited editions.  Other than the power reserve hand, these hands are identical to the Snowflake’s and, quite probably, the Hi-Beat SBGH001 as well.

Many brands “cheap out” when writing on textured dials.  Even some very successful luxury brands, if you look closely, flatten out the dial underneath the writing to make it easier.  Grand Seiko is not one of those brands.  They write directly on top of the texture and with no less precision than they would on a flat dial.

The applied indices are different from the Snowflake (and from most spring drives) as well.  They’re straighter and narrower, but still feature beveled edges, unlike most of the automatic GSes.  They match other great limited editions for 2014 like the SBGV009.

All in all, the dial on the SBGA109 is gorgeous.  It is one of the most impressive dials the company has ever produced.  Grand Seiko has stepped up the dial work for 2014, which is astonishing given that it was already considered one of the finest dial makers in the world, with this model as well as the new SBGJ line.

The SBGA011 Snowflake features a legendary dial that resembles the snow outside of the studio where it’s made.  To some degree, I feel I’m wasting my time on this watch, because who would bother to read this when you could look at it.

The dial is remarkable because, at a glance, it’s a very simple, milk white dial.  Only upon a close look do you discover the intricate snow drifts.  I feel that’s crucial for dressy watches in this era–dressy, or even pure dress, needn’t be synonymous with boring.  Throw the Snowflake on a leather strap and you have a watch ready for any occasion, no matter how formal, but you will never get tired of looking at it.  Ever.

Although the power reserve subdials both feature the same intricate textures, the Snowflake is more typical to Grand Seiko insofar as the hand is polished steel as opposed to blued.  I think, on a white dial like this one or the SBGA109, a blued hand is the better choice in terms of aesthetics.  What can I say, I’m a sucker for blued hands.  The power reserve subdial is a slightly different color on the SBGA109 as well, slightly less white and substantially shinier.

Otherwise, the hands are identical to the SBGA109’s, which is a good thing.  These are easily among the most beautiful hands to ever grace the face of a watch.

The Grand Seiko writing is once again on an uneven surface, on top of the texture.  The precision in this writing indicates the great attention to detail and an aversion to cheaper, easier solutions that compromise the overall look.

The hour markers are of the more typical Grand Seiko spring drive variety.  Instead of the cardinal markers being bifurcated, they’re large and perfectly beveled trapezoids.  These are actually my favorite markers in the entire Grand Seiko lineup, and therefore, I slightly prefer them to the SBGA109’s as well.  Also notice the small minute ticks, again, more typical of Grand Seiko, as opposed to the SBGA109’s railroad markers.

It’s very easy to see why it’s the legend that it is–the watch is just astonishingly beautiful.

So which has the better dial?  Amazingly, I suspect the SBGA109’s dial is the more complex of the two–there are just so many perfect lines and fine GS logos in relief–the execution must be flawless.  It is breathtaking.  But for me, I think I like the cleaner look of the Snowflake’s dial, although I’d certainly miss the blued power reserve hand.  Let me put it this way–the SBGA109’s dial is perfect for a limited edition–it’s something incredibly special and unique and designed to honor the 9R spring drive.  The Snowflake has broader appeal–it’s clearly intended to be a full production model.  It’s less eccentric.  On the other hand, you can get a Snowflake any time you want–and there are only 700 of these SBGA109s in the entire world, a large number of which have already been sold.

The Movement

This is an interesting comparison, because these two watches have the same movement except that the movements are different.

Let me explain.

You see, the SBGA109 has the newer 9R15 spring drive and the SBGA011 Snowflake has the original 9R65.  These movements are mechanically and electronically identical (with the exception of the rotor)–you could take any part out of a 9R65 and put it into a 9R15 or vice versa.  What’s the difference then?

Basically, the 9R15 is a 9R65 but it’s assembled by an even more elite group of watchmakers in the spring drive studio.  This is remarkable since literally all watchmakers allowed to build and repair spring drives are certified masters.

So the 9R15 is built, from the ground up, by the very best.  The parts inside are cherry picked as well, most likely the quartz crystal, which allows the watch to be rated for an even more amazing +10 seconds per month.

The 9R15 also receives a unique rotor that prominently features the famous Grand Seiko gold medallion.  Similar medallions used to adorn the solid case backs of Grand Seikos in the 1960s.  In Grand Seikos equipped with an “ordinary” Grand Seiko movement, that medallion is laser engraved onto the crystal, but the 9R15 steps it up a notch with an actual gold medallion.  It’s clearly the better looking movement of the two if only for that.

Along with perhaps the 9R86, the 9R15 is almost certainly the best looking Grand Seiko movement made today.

The Snowflake uses the 9R65 spring drive, again, mechanically identical to the 9R15, just lacking the special rotor and rated for 15 seconds a month instead of 10–that’s still astonishingly accurate.  In the real world, almost all spring driver owners report under 5 seconds a month.

The rotor may not be as amazing as the one on the 9R15, but it’s far from ugly–the blue GS writing looks terrific.

But enough of the movement comparison–let’s get into what makes a spring drive so special.  This will just be a brief overview, so if you’re really interested in understanding the spring drive, check out our other article here.

Basically, the spring drive is an “ordinary” high-end mechanical watch movement, in this case an automatic, with a few tiny components replaced to increase accuracy.

On an ordinary mechanical movement, a special mechanism called the escapement is responsible for keeping time.  This device very carefully regulates the release of energy from the mainspring that stores the energy of the watch.  The “ticking” sound associated with mechanical watches and clocks is actually the sound of this mechanism working.

That mechanism is replaced by an extremely precise alternative, the tri-synchro regulator (TSR).  The TSR is a tiny group of components capable of doing amazing things, but ultimately, it uses magnetism to ever so slightly slow down the movement in a far more precise way than even the best mechanical escapement.  The accuracy of a good mechanical watch, like a Rolex, is ordinarily +6 seconds a day to -4 seconds a day.  The 9R65 spring drive, found in the Snowflake, is rated for +15 seconds a month.  The 9R15 in the SBGA109 and various other special editions is rated for an even more amazing 10 seconds per month.  Most owners of either report less than 5 seconds a month.

Supreme accuracy is not the spring drive’s only strength.  Both of these movements also have an impressive 3 day power reserve–72 hours versus the industry standard of just 40.

Which movement is better?  Well, they’re nearly identical–imagine that the 9R65 has an optional “sport package.”  That would get you the 9R15–more accurate with a gorgeous rotor.  So is the 9R15 better?  Unequivocally, yes, but aside from the special rotor, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference in real life if only due to the supreme accuracy of even the “base model.”  Still, it’s a nice perk if you buy the special edition.

Both of these movements are incredible–the beauty of an automatic with the accuracy of a quartz.  They are just stunning in person and a real step up in aesthetics from the 9S mechanical.

The Case

The case on these two watches is very similar–in fact, they’re identical.

Both these 41mm watches are made entirely of titanium, including the bracelet (which I’ll get to momentarily).  These means these watches are shockingly light.

Both of the watches also feature screw down crowns and 100 meter water ratings.

The cases are 12.5mm thick, which is not super thick for a modern automatic watch, nor is it super thin.  For what it’s worth, they’re both slightly thinner than their arch-rival from the other side of Grand Seiko, the Hi-Beat.

Grand Seikos hug the wrist really well, in large part due to their use of heavily curved lugs.  This is not the kind of watch where the lugs will hang off of your wrist despite the 41mm size.

There is one interesting difference between them, however–there’s a 10th anniversary engraving hidden around the 2:00 (10 minute) marker adjacent to the also hidden lion on the dial.  This sort of writing is not unusual for Rolex but is very unusual for Grand Seiko.  The placement of the lion and the engraving is at the 10:00 marker to signify the 10th anniversary of the 9R spring drive movement.

The Bracelet

Both watches use the famous Grand Seiko 5 link design.  The 5 link is so called because each alternating brushed and polished section in the bracelet is actually an individual link, which allows them to be more precisely polished and restored.  Despite the visual similarities, however, there are two significant differences from most Grand Seiko bracelets.

The first difference is that both are made of titanium, contributing to the incredible lightness of the watches.  This is no ordinary titanium either, this is an in house developed alloy called “Bright Titanium.”  Bright titanium is literally brighter, with a more steel like finish as opposed to the dark gray associated with titanium.  It’s also harder, making it more scratch resistant.

The only other significant difference is that Grand Seiko’s titanium bracelets use friction pins instead of screws.  Why does Grand Seiko use this design on their titanium bracelets?  I think it’s because titanium, even bright titanium, is softer than steel, making it fairly easy to strip the thread inside the link.  An alternative design would be to use steel sleeves, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach either.  My preference is to use screws, as is apparently Grand Seiko’s, but since we’ll adjust the bracelet for you, you will likely never even know the difference.

The Conclusion

These are both amazing watches with an incredible pedigree.  They have the same case and bracelet, a very similar movement, white dials and blued hands, so they definitely share the same DNA.

But then, they would be similar, as the SBGA109 is designed to honor the anniversary of the 9R spring drive movement.  What particular spring drive watch would be better to honor than the most iconic spring drive ever made, the SBGA011 Snowflake.

The dial work on the SBGA109 is, amazingly, even more intricate than the famous snow drifts on the SBGA011.  The Snowflake has easily one of the most beautiful dials ever created and the watch community has welcomed it with open arms, but it is one of the less dynamic of Grand Seiko’s dials–it looks amazing all the time, in any light, but if you were expecting the sort of light show you get from an ordinary Grand Seiko from looking at it in different lighting and angles, you will want to take a closer look at the SBGA109.

While the SBGA109 lacks the famous sunburst texture of Grand Seiko, its tatami texture actually does a great job of appearing very different from many angles.  For instance, in the lighting above, you can see the grid lines easily as well as the GS logos.

A quick turn of the watch illuminates different gridlines and the GS logos simply disappear.  Basically, while the color of the SBGA109’s dial is always going to be white, unlike say an SBGH001, it is still very dynamic and three dimensional.  It’s a work of art.

Of course, the Snowflake is no slouch either.  In fact, I think it’s probably still my favorite between the two, and likely second favorite Grand Seiko dial overall, behind the SBGH001.  But this is due to my aesthetic preferences, not the quality.  And while I prefer its hour markers to the SBGA109’s, I like the use of a blued power reserve hand in its subdial.

So what does that thorough analysis tell us?  Not much–it’s a toss up.  If you want a watch with an even more complex dial, with an even more accurate spring drive, and a watch that’s even more special than an “ordinary” Grand Seiko, you’ve got to get the SBGA109.  You can get a Snowflake next year–the SBGA109 is going to be with us for a very short time.

For all of those great reasons to buy the SBGA109, it’s worth remembering that the Snowflake is a legend.  Like the Speedmaster Professional, like the Hi-Beat, like the Reverso, like the El Primero, there will be a point in the future where the Snowflake is going to be seen as a must own.

The Snowflake is, without a doubt, the single most iconic Grand Seiko of the Renaissance period.  It is more iconic even than the flagship SBGH001 Hi-Beat, the one Grand Seiko uses as its main image in advertisements and on its website.  The Snowflake is more iconic because it is new–the SBGH001 is legendary primarily because it’s tied into a watch that’s already legendary from the 1960s.  The Snowflake is the legend created, from scratch, for this time period.  In 50 years, we’ll be seeing Snowflake anniversary homages.  And that’s worth something.

Update: Because the SBGA011 has been replaced by the SBGA211, please see below for details and images of the new model.

Every truly great brand has an iconic model. Omega has its Speedmaster, Rolex its Submariner, and AP its Royal Oak, but for Grand Seiko, it’s the Snowflake. No piece has come to represent the legendary Japanese watch brand more than this, and that’s saying something. The Snowflake not only had to surpass its own spring drive contemporaries, like the extremely popular SBGE001/SBGE201 and the SBGA029/SBGA229, but also its storied Hi-Beat competitors, like the SBGH001/SBGH201.

But it did, and the Snowflake has essentially become a symbol for Grand Seiko. Unlike many brands, like Tudor for instance, GS did not taste this success and create dozens of versions of the Snowflake. No, unlike most companies in their position, Grand Seiko has been extremely reserved with their most prized model, releasing only a handful of versions over the years. So when it was time to create a new version, in line with GS’ emerging identity as a brand independent from Seiko, instead of overhauling the watch to create a 2.0 version, they chose to change as little as possible.

That was wise. Today we look at the new SBGA211, the successor to the original SBGA011, and at first, it’s hard to tell they changed anything at all. The first, and most important change, is the elimination of the SEIKO logo at 12:00, a move designed to signal independence from the Seiko models aimed at more affordable segments of the watch industry. The other change is simply to move the GS and Grand Seiko logos from 6:00 into the spot that SEIKO used to hold. Spring drive remains to balance the dial below. Some have argued that the combination of GS and Grand Seiko are redundant, which I suppose is technically true, but all brand logos are stand-ins for the brand name, and no one seems to get annoyed by the presence of an Omega symbol next to Omega written out.

Personally, I have always been a Seiko fan first and foremost, and the SEIKO logo has never bothered me. My personal Grand Seiko, an SBGH001, still features the original SEIKO dial and it has never once troubled me in the slightest. Consequently, I am completely unaffected by the marketing implications of the dial change. On the other hand, the dial change ultimately allowed for simpler, cleaner dials, now absent one large logo, and particularly on a dressy model like the Snowflake, that is a positive, albeit small, change.

The rest remains pretty much identical to the original SBGA011, and that includes its wonderful snow drift textured dial, truly one of the greatest dials ever made. It’s amazing that, even after these years of working with Grand Seikos, I’m still totally captivated when I closely examine the dial of this watch. This was perhaps the thousandth time I’d seen one, but the charm has absolutely not worn off. The elegant and subtle, yet unmistakable, snow texture is almost a metaphor for GS itself, a brand that flies far below the radar, yet upon close examination, is incredibly impressive.

Nearly as beautiful as the dial are the dauphine hands that GS is so known for. While these aren’t quite as special, given that you can find variations of this design throughout the brand, they are no less remarkable. Their finishing cannot be overstated. It’s absolutely flawlessly mirror-polished, and thanks to its beveled edges, each part of the hands reflects something different, often creating the impression of an outline for the hands. As a consequence, the GS is impressively legible in the real world. Naturally, it is fitted with a beautiful blued seconds hand, which gives it that small splash of color needed to complete the design.

The story is much the same for the hour markers, with their broad, polished flat surfaces and beveled edges. Dauphine hands are standard, with minor variations, throughout GS, but the markers are much more diverse, with different models having different shapes. Nonetheless, these particular applied hour markers are my favorite in all of Grand Seiko, and possibly my favorite of any watch ever.

The date is done right as well, with a matching applied frame that keeps its presence from interrupting the symmetry too much. The date ring itself matches the dial, which is usually my preference, and overall, the date manages to be both functional and unobtrusive.

The power reserve is quite a divisive feature. A lot of fans would prefer a simpler, cleaner dial without this complication, while others are aesthetically pleased by the abrupt, yet expert, change in texture between the subdial and the rest of the dial. It resembles something of a snow angel-like pattern, as if the PR hand had swept away some of the snow from the dial, and love it or hate it, it is nonetheless a very impressive execution of the design. Personally, I’d like to see Snowflakes offered with and without this complication to give the choice to each GS fan, but I love the power reserve, both generally (it’s probably my favorite complication) and in this particular implementation.

Of course, the dial of this masterpiece is only part of the equation. The dial is reminiscent of snow, but the titanium case is “as light as a snowflake,” contributing to the name of the watch. Because it’s made from GS’ proprietary titanium, the SBGA211 weighs about 100 grams, compared to 150 grams of the very similar steel SBGA201. Not everyone likes a light watch, but those who do will be very fond of the Snowflake.

The size of the SBGA211, identical to that of its preceding SBGA011, is a versatile 41mm. This is slightly on the large side, but I still think this is a great choice for an everyday watch.

The SBGA211 is 12.5mm thick, the same as its steel counterparts like the SBGA201 or SBGA203. It would be nice to see it even thinner, but 12.5mm is actually on the thinner side of Grand Seiko already.

The signed crown does screw down, and the watch is rated for 100 meters of water resistance. Personally, I’d have just skipped the screw down design in general for this watch, just to make it more convenient to hand wind or set, given its relatively dressy nature.

The SBGA211’s movement remains unchanged from the SBGA011’s as well, the venerable 9R65. The 9R65 is essentially the heart of the spring drive movement portfolio, powering most of Grand Seiko’s spring drive watches even today. It’s quite an amazing movement, and somewhat like the Snowflake itself, it has become roughly synonymous with the Grand Seiko brand.

Among its impressive features are its 72 hour power reserve (GS did that before it was cool) and its beautiful appearance, as spring drives are clearly the best looking GS movements. But the real key to its fame is its accuracy, given its weird and wonderful hybridization of quartz and mechanical technology. It’s rated for just 15 seconds a month, a figure that spring drive owners easily meet (and usually beat) in the real world. If you want the beauty and elaborate nature of a mechanical movement, but need it to be accurate for months a time, the spring drive is the answer.

The SBGA211 is exactly what it looks like: a slight update to a beloved classic. They say “don’t fix what isn’t broken,” and Grand Seiko wisely followed this advice. The result is one of the greatest watches of this era with a dial updated to reflect the independence of the company that makes it. The consequence of that is that if you already own the original Snowflake, the SBGA011, there is little reason to rush out and buy the SBGA211. They are directly comparable in every way, although your preference for the old or the new layout of the dial may vary.

If, however, you don’t have the original SBGA011, then you absolutely have reason to rush out and buy one. The Snowflake, whether it be the SBGA011 or the new SBGA211, is truly an icon, in my mind directly comparable to other great classics in watchmaking. It is arguably the most important luxury watch to ever come out of Japan, and setting aside its horological relevance, it is simply remarkably beautiful. It is also impressive throughout, combining a titanium case, somewhat rare in dressier pieces, an incredibly sophisticated movement, and one of the all-time great dials into a single watch. At $5,800, it remains one of, if not the, most compelling watches in its price segment.

This is a very long way of saying that it is completely deserving of its status in the watch world. It is a watch that you perhaps think surely cannot live up to the hype, and then it does. Rarely do I stay impressed with a watch as long as I have with the Snowflake. Upon looking at it closely again to write the review, I was just as much in love with it as I was years ago. If you’re interested in buying your first Grand Seiko, or perhaps you already own a GS but want your first spring drive, this is definitely the one I’d suggest starting with, as it combines virtually all of the key elements that make the brand so popular with watch collectors.

Please click here to learn more about the SBGA211 Snowflake.

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