The Grand Seiko Snowflake
Japanese manufacture Grand Seiko’s most talked about watch to date, the Snowflake, occupies pretty much a unique position in the current horological sphere.
The best-selling model is to Grand Seiko what the Submariner is to Rolex, the Speedmaster to Omega or the Nautilus to Patek—the icon which comes most readily to mind when you hear the brand’s name. But while those other pieces are, and have always been, powered by the very latest mechanical movements, the Snowflake is driven by a caliber which should, by rights, see the watch shunned by any traditionalist collector.
However, such is the artistry and engineering prowess that has gone into not only the revolutionary Spring Drive, but also the immaculate dial of the model, the Snowflake ranks highly on any enthusiasts’ hit list.
Below, we explore the history and origins of this exemplary watch, as well as taking a look at the contemporary range.
The Grand Seiko Snowflake: History
Grand Seiko as a manufacture only came into being in 1960. Set up as the luxury offshoot of parent company, Seiko, the brand had a somewhat confusing start to life.
In essence, it began as two ostensibly competing companies, each sheltered under the same corporate umbrella. Suwa Seikosha Co, Ltd. and Daini Seikosha Co, Ltd. were both sub divisions of Seiko itself, thrown into a rivalry with each other and charged with coming up with a watch that could challenge the very best coming out of Switzerland.
Yet, although the two did produce some excellent pieces, trying to break the might of Swiss dominance, especially up at the most elite end of watchmaking, was always going to be a case of playing the long game.
In fact, that game was so protracted, Grand Seiko only became available internationally as recently as 2010. Before then, they were sold strictly in Japan, and were little more than a cult brand everywhere else.
What they needed was something to really capture the imagination.
The brand’s earliest attempts at producing a world-beating watch brought a succession of functional yet relatively dull designs. There was a lack of coherence running through their output, meaning Grand Seiko was yet to develop its own identity; vital for any watchmaker if it wants to contend with the very best.
That started to be addressed in 1962, when Seiko’s first ever watch designer, the legendary Taro Tanaka, drew up the new company’s Grammar of Design, a series of styling rules that would go on to define the visual codes followed by every watch put out into the world from then on.
Consisting of nine strict elements, Tanaka’s vision was to give his creations the ‘brilliant sparkle of quality’ he associated with Swiss watches, concentrating more on the interplay between clear, crisp lines and mirrored Zaratsu polishing than it did on precious metals and gemstones.
His exacting standards were quickly adopted, and it led to a far greater consistency running through Grand Seiko’s work, giving the manufacture a definite and distinctive character, instantly recognizable in amongst its competitors.
The First Snowflakes
Progress though it was, it nevertheless still took a long long time before Grand Seiko finally made the break to a wider audience.
In 1999, the brand announced their Spring Drive on the global stage for the first time, a caliber using a combination of mechanical and quartz technology to produce an incredible accuracy of around one-second-a-day. The result of nearly 30-years of development and around 600 prototypes, it would take a further six years before GS launched a watch to the market powered by their groundbreaking engine.
And one of the earliest models to benefit from it was the original Snowflake.
In 2005, the ref. SBGA011 arrived, an elegant 41mm sports watch crafted from high intensity titanium which adhered closely to Tanaka’s Grammar of Design vision. The case was a pleasing mixture of graceful rounded curves and sharp edges, with a refined flat bezel and surfaces which had been polished to a mirror finish.
However, as far as the basics were concerned, there was nothing on the watch the public hadn’t seen before from Grand Seiko. But then there was the dial.
Wanting something very special indeed for their new charge, the brand’s designers had looked to the past for inspiration and found it in an obscure piece from 1971, called the 56GS. Here was a finely textured dial (with the effect actually carried over onto the case as well) which could serve as the basis for the Snowflake. From there, the team used the wintery landscape around the small city of Shiojiri in Nagano prefecture, where sits their Shinshu Watch Studio (the birthplace of the Spring Drive), as their muse. They managed to take the look of the mountainous region’s windblown snowy backdrop and recreate it for the model’s face.
In a process involving some 80 individual steps, the brass dial was given a dappled, flecked surface which unmistakably resembled freshly driven snow, and even looked somehow soft.
As with all textured dials, the Snowflake seems to change its appearance in different lighting conditions, but is never less than beautiful and wonderfully calming. Set against the gleaming whiteness of the face, there is the contrasting blued steel seconds hand, with a glide like no other thanks to the Spring Drive’s unique mechanisms.
The SBGA011 became the watch that announced Grand Seiko to the world, and at long last the brand’s mission to challenge the Swiss was a realistic ambition.
The Modern Snowflake
The Snowflake now lives in Grand Seiko’s Heritage Collection, with the current SBGA211 (featuring only very minor modifications from the original).
In addition, GS has brought out several variations on the model over the years, along with a number of limited editions.
The SBGA259 is in the standard lineup, identical to the SBGA211 save for gold handset and indexes.
In 2020, the brand debuted the Blue Snowflake, the SBGA407. Here, as well as a gorgeous pale blue dial, was the first of the series with a slightly smaller case (40.2mm) and sitting on a crocodile leather strap rather than a metal bracelet.
That same year, but restricted to the Japanese market, we saw the SBGA421, a piece limited to 390 units which included subtle red accents to the rehaut, seconds hand and power reserve meter. On the reverse, a red sapphire case back is a nod to the nation’s flag (but does manage to obscure the view of the movement, unfortunately!)
The Grand Seiko Snowflake has been an unqualified success story for the Far East manufacture and was, along with the magnificent Spring Drive, the innovation which caused the rest of the horology community to take the brand seriously at long last.
Still one of their biggest sellers, GS has resisted going too far with the variations, a move which could have well diluted the piece’s fundamental spirit. Instead, the whole thing positively reeks of class and gives discerning watch lovers a brilliant alternative to the industry’s usual suspects.
— Featured Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.