I’ll be the first to admit that Grand Seiko’s strategy with the Snowflake has always been, to put it charitably, mysterious to me. In creating the Snowflake, the brand found its first truly international hit and an icon that may one day rival watches like the Speedmaster or Submariner. Every other brand, like Tudor with its Black Bay, for instance, doubles down on these successes and creates dozens of versions of their recent masterpiece.
But not GS. GS has only released a handful of different versions of the Snowflake over the years, and these have generally been slight tweaks, like gold accents on the SBGA259. This new SBGA407, then, along with models like the SBGZ001, represents a turning point for one of the most important dials available today.
So what’s changed? Well, obviously, it has a new blue dial, although it sports an extremely similar snowdrift texture (as you would hope). But this new Snowflake is also slightly smaller, and slightly dressier than the original. Matching this more classic case, it’s one of few Grand Seikos that comes on a strap instead of a bracelet. Perhaps the biggest change, other than the blue dial of course, is that the new SBGA407 comes in steel, not titanium. More on that later.
First, let’s get right to what most people really care about: the new dial. The blue, to my eyes (and camera) at least, is softer than in Grand Seiko’s stock photos. By that I mean it’s a slightly lighter, more subtle blue. It does a good job of taking on the hues that deep snow can sometimes resemble, but never approaches the rich, bright blues associated with glaciers. Suffice it to say, it remains a fairly under-the-radar look.
Looking much more closely now, we can see the intricate snowdrift texture that covers the dial. Grand Seiko has, since its earliest days, been associated with incredible dial craftsmanship, but it was really the SBGA011 (today the SBGA211) Snowflake that captured the world’s attention. I suspect that people have an immediate connection to the Snowflake because the human psyche already has a connection to snow.
When we look at a fine guilloche or sunburst dial, these too are quite complex and intricate, but they are also very abstract. Snow, conversely, is something that the human mind recognizes instantaneously. The Snowflake, either this SBGA407 or the SBGA211, therefore, succeeds because it is somehow more primal than most watch designs. It immediately has an association with everything you already like or don’t like about the snow and all of its connotations.
Or, alternatively, maybe it’s just really pretty. Either way, just like the regular Snowflake, you do get a glimpse at some more traditional dial textures in the divisive power reserve complication. As I’ve already said a dozen times, while I love power reserves, it would be nice if collectors got to choose for themselves. As the Snowflake collection expands, and it seems like it will, perhaps GS fans will get that option on some of these more obtainable models. This is perhaps signaled by the SBGZ001, the so-called Snowflake Maximus, which kicks out the power reserve entirely.
The date, thanks to its applied frame, remains unobtrusive and easy to read. Because the white date ring is fairly consistent to the light blue (as opposed to white on a black dial, or vice versa), it doesn’t bother me at all. I do wonder what it might have looked like with a blue date ring, however, but since watch brands in general seem absolutely determined not to color-match their date rings with their dials, I suppose we’ll never find out.
The hands remain stylistically identical to those on the SBGA211, and thank heaven for that. These are perhaps my favorite hands in the entire world of watches, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
The applied hour markers, on the other hand, have changed. Gone are the tapered markers at 6, 9 and 12, and in their place are rectangular markers. To their credit, they are more consistent, and therefore less noticeable, all the way around the dial than the SBGA211’s, but I’ve always viewed the Snowflake’s hour markers as a masterpiece. They’re my favorite hour markers in the entire Grand Seiko lineup, so anything other than them, for me, is a bit of a step down. But tastes will vary, and I’m sure just as many people will prefer them to the SBGA211’s markers. Part of me is glad they changed them just to help make this a more distinct model.
Overall, I’d define the SBGA407’s dial as a variation on a theme, rather than as a rival to the SBGA211. On one level, it loosens up a bit, adding more than a bit of color. But on another, the more angular markers and classic case also contribute to a dressier appearance.
The case is ever so slightly smaller than the SBGA211’s, 40.2mm versus 41mm, so if you felt like the original Snowflake was too large, the SBGA407’s probably isn’t going to change your mind. However, it’s stylistically quite different. The SBGA211 has a much sportier case, made all the more apparent with its bracelet and screw down crown.
The Blue Snowflake, conversely, has a more elegant case, stylistically similar to the original 1960 Grand Seiko. Unlike the SBGA211, its crown doesn’t screw down, which I prefer in a dress watch like this, as it just makes the watch that much easier to set or wind.
It’s also entirely polished, unlike the alternating brushed/polished surfaces of the SBGA211. This tends to compensate for its overall understated design a bit. Oddly, the smaller, dressier SBGA407 is also ever so slightly thicker than the SBGA211, 12.8mm versus 12.5mm. There’s no way you’d ever appreciate that difference in real life, but it is a step away from the overall dressy direction the design is taking us.
The changes in the case design play almost as much a role in differentiating how the watch looks as the blue dial does, but it also hides one of the other important distinctions, namely that the case is made of steel instead of titanium. This might annoy Snowflake purists, as “being as light as a snowflake” was one of the traits of the SBGA011/SBGA211 Snowflakes. Others, like me, however, have a preference for steel and don’t mind a little weight in our watches. Steel tends to be more scratch resistant, offering a functional improvement as well. Whether using steel or titanium is a good thing is ultimately up to individual preference, but I’m certainly not upset by the lack of titanium here.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of the extremely popular 9R65 movement, the heart of the spring drive collection. This super-accurate mechanical/quartz hybrid has been found in Snowflakes since the beginning, and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change anytime soon.
The 9R65 boasts quite a lot of advantages compared to other movements in this price range. For one thing, it’s got a 72 hour power reserve, but more importantly, it’s exceedingly accurate. GS rates the 9R65 for 15 seconds per month, although most users experience significantly better than that in the real world.
Perhaps its most interesting trait, however, is its lack of an escapement, the beating heart of a conventional watch movement. Replacing it is the glide wheel, which rotates in a single direction constantly, as opposed to the oscillations of a balance wheel.
This results in one of the more fascinating traits of the spring drive, namely that the seconds hand is perfectly smooth, even under close examination. It is not the illusion of smoothness, as achieved by high frequency movements, but rather the lone example of true smoothness. The seconds hand glides completely silently around the dial, immune to many of the ailments of a conventional watch movement, like position or the level of power reserve.
Beyond these technical achievements, the 9R65 movement is quite beautiful to behold. Spring drives clearly receive the most aesthetic attention of all of GS’ movements and are the ones you’ll find yourself turning the watch over to look at more often.
So that’s the new SBGA407, but it will inevitably be asked whether the SBGA407 is better or worse than the SBGA211. In my opinion, this is simply the wrong question. The SBGA407 exists alongside the original, and not as a rival, but as an alternative. The SBGA407 will be there to serve fans who want something dressier, something in steel, or something, well, bluer.
Meanwhile, the SBGA211 isn’t going anywhere. If you like it more, you can still get it, and if you already have one but find yourself wanting more Snowflake in your collection, the SBGA407 is there to fill that empty spot in your case. If I had to make a complaint about it, it’d be the price. It doesn’t cost a cent more than the SBGA211. In fact, it costs exactly the same, $5,800. My question is why not charge at least a little less for a steel watch on a strap rather than a full titanium watch and bracelet. For those primarily concerned with value, then, I think the SBGA211 clearly has an edge.
The SBGA407 manages to perform the delicate balancing act of being different enough to justify its existence, yet incorporating enough Snowflake DNA to warrant its namesake (and yes, it is officially called a Snowflake by GS). It’s genuinely a great watch, and I hope it’s the beginning of an entire line of Snowflake watches. The basis for the Snowflake design is just too good not to see at least a handful of versions in different sizes, colors, and metals to fit every need.