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.