Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Grand Seiko Snowflake.
It isn't flashy or sporty, but that hasn't stopped the Grand Seiko Snowflake from becoming the most representative model of one of the most celebrated and exciting watchmakers today. Seiko and its luxury offshoot Grand Seiko can seem full of contradictions and idiosyncrasies, but the Snowflake displays a whole suite of the features that have made the Japanese brand a superstar — all rolled into one stunning specimen through which to examine this fascinating brand.
The Snowflake is one of those watches that can somehow cause even the most prosaic of watch enthusiasts to suddenly start getting all poetical on you. Perhaps there really is something greater to the sum of its parts, but it features several impressive Grand Seiko signatures. Most notably, they include a focus on the dial and its texture, impeccably sharp details, a high level of finishing all around and, not least of all, the brand's own innovative and unmatched type of hybrid movement called Spring Drive.
The dial that gives this particular model its nickname is the obvious place to start. It might seem like a standard white dial from a distance or at a glance, but a "snowy" texture makes it unique. The dial itself might be pretty, but textured dials make for the best legibility by helping other dial elements stand out sharply against them — and that creates another type of beauty that many wearers perhaps register only subconsciously.
These now-famous dials are made from a stamped pattern based on the reference 56GS model from 1971, which was found in the Grand Seiko archives when the Snowflake was being developed. While base of the dial is copper, its whiteness is achieved by silver plating and a translucent coating that gives it a warmer, softer look. Other dials with similar textures, particularly from Grand Seiko and Seiko, are inevitably compared to that of the Snowflake.
It's the dial that's emphasized in the Snowflake name, but that's only the icing that tops off an otherwise still impressive cake. Grand Seiko has become famous for its finishing, and a process referred to as zaratsu in particular. The word zaratsu is the transliteration of the German name Sallaz found on polishing machines that Seiko bought in the 1950s — and has nothing to do with ancient samurai sword techniques or other exotic-sounding nonsense, as has been erroneously reported.
Regardless of what you call it, the mirror polish of Grand Seiko cases, hands, indices and other components is even, with exceptionally sharp edges, and generally regarded exceptional. This is found across GS products, but the Snowflake is further special in that its 41mm-wide by 12.5mm-thick case is produced in lightweight titanium, which is harder to work with than steel. Normally prone to scratches, the brand uses a "high intensity" titanium treated to be scratch-resistant.
Introduced in 2010, the reference SBGA011 featured the Seiko logo at the top of the dial with "Grand Seiko" situated at the less prominent 6 o'clock marker. After Seiko announced in 2017 that Grand Seiko would be branded separately, the SBGA211 Snowflake appeared with only the Grand Seiko wordmark at 12 o'clock. These two watches otherwise share the beguiling dial texture, titanium case, zaratsu polishing and other features, including the 9R65 Spring Drive automatic movement.
Seiko challenges you with Spring Drive to think outside the binary frame of any watch movement fitting into either the quartz or mechanical category, but it's understandable that many people have trouble wrapping their minds around exactly what Spring Drive is — there's simply no other watch company with technology comparable to that of the Spring Drive movements. You can see it in action through the Snowflake's case back, with a winding rotor and decoration many Swiss watchmakers would be proud of. It's built like a common mechanical movement in many respects, and derives power from an unwinding mainspring offering 72 hours of power reserve (indicated on the dial). But Spring Drive differs from the familiar mechanical movement in one important way:
Traditional movements have an escapement with an oscillating balance wheel that regulates timekeeping, provides the familiar ticking, and is often visible through display case backs. This is replaced in Spring Drive movements with a system comprising a quartz crystal, an integrated circuit, and a step motor. While quartz crystals, ICs and step motors are also found in cheap quartz watches, the bottom line is that Spring Drive movements do not contain batteries and are as highly crafted as many purely mechanical movements above their price point. Again: Spring Drive movements do not contain batteries.
Another notable feature of Spring Drive movements is visible from the front of the watch: Mechanical watches' "sweeping" seconds hands are actually jumping forward several times per second to give them the appearance of a smooth sweep — especially in comparison to quartz watches, with hands that jump once per second. But you can see the stuttering motion of a mechanical movement's seconds hand if you look closely. In contrast, Spring Drive features a seconds hand that actually glides smoothly, and it's the only watch movement that does so. This might not amount to much practical benefit, but it is captivating. What's more: this hybrid technology manages an accuracy of +/-1 second per day, according to Seiko's notoriously conservative estimates.
For some, the exotic and impressive Spring Drive technology is an integral part of the Snowflake's attraction. For others, the watch's aesthetics is what opens their minds to Spring Drive. The Snowflake might be too young to be considered an icon, but there's really no watch outside of the Seiko or Grand Seiko worlds that can be considered direct competition to its stunning combination of Spring Drive technology and captivating dial.