Review: Grand Seiko Snowflake SBGA211G
There are some good dials out there, some really good dials, and there are some exceptional dials as well. But there’s only one dial that can be called the best—and it’s this, the Grand Seiko SBGA211.
Every watchmaker has their “thing”. Rolex has the cyclops, Breitling the rider tabs, Omega the lyre lugs. For Grand Seiko, it’s the dial. This often-overlooked canvas is one that the artisans at Grand Seiko’s Shinshu Watch Studio put to frequent and excellent use, demonstrating capabilities seen rarely if at all by other watch manufacturers.
But before we delve deeper into what makes this particular dial the best, let’s take a look at the rest of the SBGA211 first, because it’s only polite to get to know it a little better before we get all up close and personal with it.
First of all—and for those of you who aren’t so familiar with Grand Seiko, this may come as a shock—it’s a quartz watch. Uck, spit, you may say, shaking your fist at the screen—why are you doing that, this isn’t live you know—but hold on a second and hear me out on this one, because this isn’t any ordinary quartz watch. Grand Seiko does make more traditional quartz watches, but at the risk of upsetting you even further, let’s pretend they don’t for now. Baby steps.
So, although the SBGA211 may have a quartz crystal lurking around inside, it doesn’t have a battery. Wait, what? How can a quartz crystal, which provides a reference for time by vibrating when it has a current put through it, be of any use without a battery? That’s because Grand Seiko uses a traditional mainspring to generate a charge instead, like a dynamo on a bike light—a reference that probably won’t make much sense to anyone younger than thirty.
It’s like this: in the same way a motor rotates when electricity is passed through it, it will also generate electricity when it is rotated, and that’s how the electricity is generated here. But it gets cleverer still, because the reference time outputted by the now-charged quartz crystal doesn’t actuate computer-controlled stepper motors, it actually controls a magnet that regulates how fast the mainspring can wind down.
What this results in is a perfectly smooth sweep of the second hand, something not even a high-beat pure mechanical watch can do. It’s quite remarkable, an amalgamation of both technologies Seiko beat the Swiss with. It’s all housed in a 41mm titanium case with matching bracelet, paired with a sapphire case back through which to see the calibre 9R65 Spring Drive movement doing its thing.
But we’ve teased you enough, because of course you’re here not to learn about Spring Drive or find out about the 30% weight reduction achieved by using titanium—you want to know more about the dial, and why this watch has been christened the “Snowflake”.
This watch isn’t overly sensitive to criticism or afraid of the big wide world or anything like that—the name Snowflake actually derives from the inspiration behind its design. In case you didn’t know, Japan, the home of Grand Seiko, is one of the most beautiful places in the world, the incredibly diverse and awe-inspiring landscapes the main influence behind the greatest Grand Seiko dials.
This one, on the SBGA211, draws from the view out of the windows of the Shinshu Watch Studio, a mountainous region where the air gets so cold the falling snow forms into fine, granular flakes. When the snow piles up, it builds into sparkling drifts that constantly move with the wind, shifting peaks that never stay still and never repeat.
The artists at the studio wanted to replicate this natural phenomenon as faithfully as they could in the creation of the Snowflake dial, from the disorderly arrangement of the drifts to the translucency and sparkle of the snow itself. Given the minimal space available and the desire not to overburden the watch, it was with subtlety and grace the design was achieved, resulting in something that could be considered more a sculpture in its own right than just a bit of dial decoration.
The pattern is stamped into the metal of the dial, but it’s with fine layers of a semi-transparent matte coating that the vision really comes to life. It’s a very labour intensive process—as is the crafting of the entire watch—but it’s the only way to achieve the desired effect. Despite being only a millimetre or so thick and several centimetres across, the resulting finish is one of deep, icy-cold snow that spans for miles around. There’s a sense of calmness and isolation about it that puts you in mind of what it might be like at Grand Seiko's Shinshu Watch Studio.
The dial is minimally dressed with near-perfect furniture to avoid spoiling the subtle drama of the finish, a couple of blue accents like the Spring Drive text and second hand adding a secondary level of chill to the ensemble. You can almost imagine that the coldness of the case when you put the watch on first thing in the morning is actually emanating from the dial itself.
When all’s said and done, it’s easy to lose this work of mastery in the noise and bustle of a busy lifestyle, and it’s in moments of peace that the watch rewards most. What appears to be a plain white, simple dial from a hurried glance expands into a wild tundra when given the attention it deserves. It’s something very private and emotive, a quiet reflection on the scale of one’s own problems in comparison to the vast emptiness of Earth’s wilderness. Watching the second hand glide so smoothly over this glorious expanse can be a touching reminder to appreciate the finite time we do have, and not let it slip by unnoticed.
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