THE IMMORTALS – Why the Grand Seiko “Snowflake” captivated the watch worldD.C. Hannay
What’s cooler than being cool? Well, if you’re Outkast, the answer is “ice cold!” (alright, alright, alright), but if you’re a watch collector, there’s a good chance the answer is the Grand Seiko ‘Snowflake’. When first introduced, watch fans were dazzled by the ultra-fine finishing of the titanium case, wowed by the technological prowess of the Spring Drive movement, and utterly floored by that dial. Finished in a brilliant white that reflected and refracted the light in ways unseen before, the myriad textures of the snowflake dial captivated the watch world, and continue to do so today.
To those outside of Japan, Grand Seiko’s debut on the world stage in the 2000s was nothing short of revolutionary. Seiko was a brand always respected by collectors for their innovations in design and movement technology, but they were never really mentioned in the same breath as luxury watchmakers like Rolex. The Grand Seiko name has been in existence since 1960, borne from a company directive envisioned to compete on the same playing field as the finest Swiss chronometers, but only the most dedicated Seiko collectors were in the know. Grand Seiko signified the best of Seiko, and those early models are now highly sought after collector’s items. But it was the introduction of the original Snowflake that really captured the public’s imagination.
Believe it or not, the genesis of the Snowflake dial’s unique look goes all the way back to an experiment from the 1970s. Prior to Grand Seiko’s introduction to a wider audience in the early 2000s, the company was getting ready to introduce the new 9R Spring Drive movement, and the workers at Grand Seiko’s Shinsu Watch Studio were tasked to come up with a stunning new dial equal to the revolutionary caliber. They took their inspiration from the surrounding snow-covered peaks of the pristine Jonen mountain range. Having found their muse, they set about finding a way to evoke the light playing with that brilliant white texture, and luckily, the dial studio found the solution right under their noses. A prototype stamped brass dial from 1971 had the texture they were looking for, so the challenge then became how to finish it a brilliant white.
Simply painting the textured dial wouldn’t do: The paint tended to smooth out the surface, filling in all the microscopic peaks and valleys, so a different solution was needed. The studio found it in, of all places, silver. Huh? Well, in terms that even I can understand, pure silver has the highest visible light reflection of all metals, and after experimenting with different formulas and currents in the electroplating process, Grand Seiko came up with a winner. The silver-plated brass dial reflected light so brilliantly, it appeared white, and a finish pure as driven snow was achieved. In fact, 80 separate steps are required to make the Snowflake dial. Adding even more sparkle, the dauphine handset’s and faceted indices’ edges were polished to a mirror finish, with the end result shining like nothing the watch world had seen before. A thermally blued second hand gliding smoothly over the snowy dial completed the scene, its languorous motion the very picture of serenity.
Equal care was put into the “high intensity” titanium case, which is not only lighter than steel, but highly scratch-resistant. The curves and bevelled edges of the 41mm case feature a combination of hairline-brushed and mirror-polished finishing, so fine that it resembles the so-called “black polishing” found in certain high-end movements. Grand Seiko’s name for their hand-polishing process is called Zaratsu, and as challenging as it can be in steel, it’s even more difficult on the harder canvas of titanium.
With such a beguiling visage, it can be easy to forget other aspects of the Snowflake, not least of which is the technological marvel of the 9R Spring Drive movement. Without going into a nerdy deep dive, the Spring Drive movement works like any automatic movement, wherein the watch is wound by the movement of the wearer, but that’s where the similarities end. The accuracy is regulated by a combination of electrical, magnetic, and mechanical energy. Fully wound, it has a power reserve of 72 hours. In short, Seiko’s Spring Drive combines the aesthetics and craftsmanship of a mechanical movement with the accuracy of quartz. You know how a fine mechanical movement’s second hand sweeps? You ain’t seen nothing, friend. The Spring Drive’s sweeping seconds hand is smooth as silk, completely stepless, and without the stuttering of lower-frequency movements. Think of it as a highly elevated version of Seiko’s Kinetic movement, but unlike the Kinetic, which uses the motion of your wrist to charge a capacitor that powers the ticking quartz movement, the Spring Drive is a truly mechanical movement powered by you, but regulated for accuracy by the quartz section. Spring Drive movements usually feature a power reserve indicator on the dial, which, love it or hate it, sure does come in handy. I personally find it’s become part of the Grand Seiko design language.
With all the pieces in place, the Grand Seiko SBGA011 ‘Snowflake’ debuted in Japan in 2005, and rolled out to the rest of the world in 2010. Unlike the logo you ‘re familiar with today, the SBGA011 was double branded, with the Seiko logo below 12, and Grand Seiko above 6.
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The dial layout changed for the sequel in 2017, and the Snowflake became solely a Grand Seiko model. The SBGA211 was otherwise unchanged from the initial version, and was released to great acclaim. The following year, Grand Seiko incorporated as an independent subsidiary, and opened its first boutique in the United States in New York City.
Famous investor and Shark Tank star Kevin O’Leary has a huge collection, including Grand Seikos, and he proclaims the brand as offering some of the best values in luxury watches. Lost and Hawaii Five-O star Daniel Dae Kim has a pretty choice collection of A-list timepieces, and is a Grand Seiko fan. Besides the O.G. Snowflake references (the SBGA011 and SBGA211), Grand Seiko has a few other models that are sure to keep your look frosty.
The SBGA259 was released around the time of the SBGA211, and is the same in all ways, except for the gold handset and indices. It’s a wonderfully warm contrast to the pristine iciness of the dial.
The classically reserved SBGY002 in solid gold on crocodile strap is the low-key baller way to get into Grand Seiko. Apart from the famous Snowflake dial, this is a completely different watch, with a 38.5mm case diameter, gold indices and hands (with that tasteful blued seconds hand), and notably, Grand Seiko’s first manual wind Spring Drive movement, the 9R31. And for fans of symmetry, there’s no date window, and the power reserve indicator is on the caseback under the sapphire.
And now for something completely different. The SBGA407 ‘Blue Snowflake’ brings an extra level of chill to the dial, which reminds me of the way shadows on fallen snow look as the sun rises and sets. The case is a bit smaller (40.2mm), heavier, and differently contoured than the standard Snowflake, and the case is steel, which has a somewhat warmer look than the original’s titanium.
If you’ve never seen a Snowflake up close, you owe it to yourself to get lost in the frozen landscape of that dial. Its winning combination of fit, finish, and high tech are as good as anything coming from Switzerland, garnering respect from watch fans the world over.