Grand Seiko Snowflake Review

What is a grail watch? A quick google says this:

In watch collecting circles the term ‘grail watch’ is thrown about to describe a particular rare and high value vintage piece that is hugely coveted by collectors. … If they got their hands on such a watch, they would never sell it.

There are also different but just as compelling definitions

While I do appreciate watches, I wouldn’t consider myself as a collector – so to me a “grail”, instead of something that I wished I had (but cannot) – is a watch that I consider a must have – so in that sense I guess I would agree with the last part of the google search definition – it’s a watch I would want to own/use and with no intention to sell. For the unattainable/impractical “grail” – I’d use the word “dream” instead.

Whatever the case may be, whether I’m using the term right or not, I’ve always had my eyes on a Grand Seiko – and not just any Grand Seiko, but one that had a spring drive movement. As Serendipity would have it – they had a model that was also in a titanium case – and just happened to be the most iconic model of the bunch: the SBGA211 – otherwise known as the Snowflake

Secret Handshake

Now why a Grand Seiko in particular? One major reason is I find it to be a good litmus test that differentiates the two different watch people you usually come across.

There are “watch people” that only determine a watch’s worth based on its brand/price. I wouldn’t necessarily say these are pretentious people – because this is the closest thing men have that’s comparable to women’s jewelry, and whether we like it or not, the feeling of status/prestige that accompanies ownership of a luxury item is, for better or worse, something that coaxes positive emotions from the human psyche. And that’s fair enough – but there’s no getting around the fact that these people appreciate luxury more than they do horology. “Watch snobs” would probably be a fair term to describe such a group 😛

But there are also “watch people” who actually appreciate watches for the amazing things they are, and who’s respect for a brand or model is not necessarily tied to its “status.” Their appreciation for the expensive brands is not because they’re expensive, but for the engineering/craftsmanship involved (which incidentally made them expensive) – it’s this same nuanced appreciation is what allows them to appreciate even those that aren’t necessarily expensive or prestigious.

This is the “secret handshake” among gentlemen which I prefer to experience instead of wearing a more “famous” brand. Because any sort of pretense is absent from the conversation – you know you’re talking to someone who genuinely appreciates watches without any caveats period.

The Grand Seiko line has a unique characteristic in that it’s a brand that has a sort of “hipster” (for lack of a better term) appeal – because only real watch nerds would appreciate what the brand represents.

As far as innovation, quality etc. goes, nobody can deny that Seiko can deliver the goods if they wanted to (which they do in the Grand Seiko / Credor lines) – and yet the parent company is known to sell, simply put, NON-luxury watches. And it’s that fact that many from the first camp have reservations regarding anything bearing the “Seiko” name the same way they would regard other established brands.

Spring Drive

So now we got the brand choice down, how about the movement choice – why spring drive when they’ve got the Hi-Beat? I guess it’s the same reason why I picked a Milgauss for my Rolex – an idiosyncrasy of mine is that I don’t like “common” stuff… and I certainly try to stay away from what everyone else tends to get. Maiba lang kumbaga 1 Although that said, I have to admit the Snowflake is possibly one of the most sought after Grands Seikos

That’s precisely why I like supporting crowdfunding sites: because you get to have stuff that stand out on their own merit. When a person compliments a watch I got from Kickstarter, the reason one can only deduce is because they genuinely like what they see – because it sure as hell isn’t because of its price, prestige, or provenance.

So going back to the spring drive – my proclivity for the “more than meets the eye” experience is fulfilled through it. It also goes well with the fact that I’m a tech person. While the “tech” in [traditional] mechanical watches is impressive in their own right, the engineering feat represented by the spring drive is just mind-blowing. I wouldn’t even say the watch is “in the middle” (of traditional and modern) – as it feels more like complete integration of these aspects into a unified whole.

Misunderstood

Just like with the name of the brand, the spring drive gets a bad rap simply because people think that it having a quartz element means it’s a “quartz-watch” – which is rather unfortunate. Let me try explain just how amazing this movement is.

For all intents and purposes, it’s a mechanical watch. The only difference is that the regulation is being done electromagnetically instead of a traditional escapement.

Mechanical 101

First lets go through the way a mechanical movement works. The “power” of your watch is the stored energy from a [wound] mainspring which obviously would like to “unwind” itself. Of course, leaving it to its own devices, it’s just going to want to return to its “unwound” state as fast as it possibly could along with the various components connected to it (which are practically everything).

So you need to regulate this “unwinding” in such a way that the hands are moving in the “increments of time” they’re expected to move. That is to say the second hand makes a full revolution in 60 seconds, the minute hand in 60 minutes and the hour hand in 12 hours.

Traditionally, this is accomplished by an escapement mechanism which allows the mainspring’s “power” to be transmitted in small but continuous “steps” by alternating between “locked” and “drive” states. This is what essentially causes the ticking sound of these watches/clocks.

The more lock/drive state alternations (beats) that can be crammed into a given time interval would mean better granularity and overall accuracy generally speaking.

Spring Drive Regulation

Instead of the alternate lock/drive nature of an escapement, the spring drive applies a continuous brake electromagnetically. As an analogy, imagine if your car was going down an incline, and you wanted to keep your speed in check, you’d apply a certain amount of brake until you’re slow enough – and modulate accordingly to keep at that speed. The spring drive does a similar thing but with electromagnetic force.

And this is is where the electrical components come into play. The spring drive converts some of the motion into current that powers circuitry that oscillates a quartz crystal, which is then used as a reference to apply the electromagnetic brake – ensuring the glide wheel rotates at a certain rate.

So that’s pretty much the role of quartz crystal. You cannot say it’s a “quartz watch” the same way you cannot say a car with an internal combustion engine is an electric car just because it has electronics in it. The spring drive is still a mechanical watch because power is still generated and transmitted by a traditional mainspring. But it’s unique in that it leverages the accuracy of a quartz watch by using its crystal to regulate the movement – and amazingly enough the entire electronic system needs no batteries to operate – as the power is generated from the mechanical energy already present.

Pros

Accuracy

For mechanical watches to pass COSC certification, they require deviation of (give or take) 5 seconds per day at most. Rolex is known to hold itself to stricter standards which is why their watches are accurate up to a deviation of 2-3 seconds a day. With spring drives, this deviation is down to 0.5 to 1 second per day. And this is a modest approximation as most spring drive watches gain only about 5 seconds a month.

Granted, the typical mechanical watch user isn’t that anal about accuracy – otherwise they would just get a [much cheaper] quartz watch, right? Still, it’s a testament of just how well the spring drive was able to blend and minimize the shortcomings of mechanical (accuracy) and quartz (battery) watches.

Finish

One can’t help but compare the Grand Seikos to Rolexes since they’re in that same mid-tier price range. But comparing it to my Milgauss at least, I can confidently say that the Grand Seiko has far better finishing. A friend of mine even said that the brand’s level of detail/finish is right up there with the top tier brands. It’s certainly punching way above its class.

Pound for pound, compared to a Rolex it’s tricky to consider as to which has a better value because it would depend on how you would define a watch’s “value”. If it’s a matter of pure watchmaking and performance, the argument can certainly be made for the Grand Seikos.

But there’s a reason why “Rolex is King” despite it essentially being a mid-tier brand, and it’s a well earned title. They’re no slouch as far as innovation (particularly in manufacturing goes, so its not like I’m suggesting that they would be inferior to the brand I’m currently comparing it to. They’re built like tanks – their recommended service intervals are a testament of that. Most importantly, they hold value extremely well. In an emergency, you can easily liquidate a Rolex – it’s practically good as cash. You can’t even say the same for the big three cuz their prices are a bit restrictive.

Be that as it may, think of it this way: Imagine you went to a different planet where the inhabitants appreciated aesthetic and technical merits similar to us humans. Imagine that none of our watch brands existed in that planet. If you had them take a look at a Rolex and a Grand Seiko watch and asked which they thought was a better watch – it’s really not going to be a surprise if they picked the Grand Seiko as it just looks more “put together” on first inspection.

Titanium

Then of course you have the titanium case which is a big plus for a titanium whore such as myself. The watch is extremely light compared to most of my watches – save for two; my late father’s [vintage] “dress” GP, and my 39mm Redux Courg from KS – which incidentally is in a titanium case as well 😛

Second Hand Sweep

When you ask a normal person what the most identifiable trait of a mechanical watch is – they usually refer to how the second hand sweeps – that the smoother it goes, the better it is. Now while not necessarily true, 2 What if you have a watch with a deadbeat movement? Bulova’s got a mecha-quartz precisionist movement that moves the second hand sixteen times per second. the appeal of a sweeping second hand is certainly something watch people can appreciate.

If the byproduct of an escapement is the ticking sound and the hands moving in steps, the byproduct of the spring drive’s frictionless electromagnetic regulation is a silent and mesmerizing fluid sweep of the second hand. You can get lost just staring at it. The spring drive, to my knowledge, is the only movement where the second hand just “glides” – the nearest contender is Bulova’s precisionist movement – but even that, when slowed down in video will still reveal the steps. Plus the precisionist is an actual quartz movement – so it’s not even a mechanical watch.

That said, comparing the Grand Seiko to my Milgauss makes the latter look like the “quartzy” one in the pair 😛

Rebrand

Grand Seiko recently went through a rebranding; they decided to drop the prominent “Seiko” logo that was, quite frankly, hurting the Grand Seiko line’s commercial appeal. It’s about goddamn time as well – like you never hear people say “Toyota Lexus” or “Volkswagen Porsche”, right? “Seiko Grand Seiko” was even worse because of the redundancy.

So all Grand Seiko watches moving forward now just have the Grand Seiko logo and words on the dial. Because of that, the new Snowflake is a cleaner, and much more visually balanced version of its predecessor

Counterfeiting

Lastly, a spring drive is not the type of watch you’d have to worry about being duped should you be in the market for it. I mean I have no doubt there are fakes that exist, but I’m fairly certain they’re easy to tell from the real thing. The spring drive movement is just too impractical to duplicate. And even if they manage it – you still have to contend with the level of finishing the brand is known for – so it’s nearly impossible to find a knockoff that’ll tick both of those boxes – and besides it would be more profitable to focus that level of dedication (to counterfeit) to models/brands that are more recognizable.

Cons

It’s really just nitpicking at this point. But I like the size of my Rolex (40mm) vs the 41mm of the Snowflake – although the size can only really be noticed when they’re side by side cuz the case sizes are very similar, it’s just the actual watch face on the Grand Seiko is considerably larger.

While the finishing on the Grand Seiko is better than the Rolex, the tolerances on Rolex’s bracelet still is superior. 3 Rolex, after all, has always been particularly known to have the best bracelets I would’ve hoped they had the same screw-on pin approach like Rolex – although that probably has something to do with the difficulty of manufacturing titanium screws that small. The Hi-Beat models in fact, do have screw-on pins.

It matters little either way – since I always end up swapping the bracelets for straps 😛

I’m also not a fan of date windows – but I like power reserve indicators. Unfortunately, I don’t think they ever released a no-date spring drive model that had a power reserve indicator in the front. Can’t have it all, I guess.

Lume could also be a con – you won’t be able to read time in darkness as most Grand Seikos aren’t lumed – but that could be a plus since nothing inside the dial will “degrade” over time practically speaking.

All in all, it’s pretty obvious that I’m just really really searching for things to hit it with, none of these “cons” are really cons.

Transformation

The only real concern I really had with this is that it seemed to look too dressy to be able to use as an everyday watch. So the first thing I set out to do was to find a strap that could make it lend itself well to a more casual setting.

At first I was looking at the typical leather straps at the local Hirsch stall when I noticed a “stone” strap which was totally left of field – I loved it. Conceptually, I imagined the stone finish would go well with the “snowflake” texture. But upon trying it I noticed that the strap’s desaturated tone didn’t quite match with the Snowflake’s dial for some inexplicable reason. Could it be that the dial was actually [imperceptibly] off-white?

Then I saw the other variation of the strap – this time it had a white trim but had an earthy hue as its stone texture. While the white and silver clasp obviously went well with the watch, the warm & saturated stone texture, conceptually, shouldn’t have worked – and yet for some reason it did:

I’ve been racking my brain as to why the hell this strap is working as well as it is – and my best guess is that the color of human skin is warm in general, so this earthy “hue” is still matching/blending with something. Perhaps this is why brown/tan leather straps work well on watches the way they do generally speaking. Also notice that the white trim isn’t exactly the same as the dial as well, but because it’s just a trim, the overall earthy hue was providing some sort of visual illusion that made it blend better – something which the other [totally desaturated] strap couldn’t manage.

In any case, I never new it was possible make a Grand Seiko look more casual, let alone sporty. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should never underestimate the value of straps – and why you should not be afraid to experiment. Even the salesperson mentioned it was a difficult strap to match – so what happened here was the definition of a fluke. But I ran with it – I had a week to return/exchange the strap – I never did 😛

Final Thoughts

I don’t have a good way of ending this “review” – so I’ll just do a bit of a political dig. I’m tempted to use “Ano ka, relo!?” as a boilerplate response to any social justice warrior going too goddamn far. Because the SBGA211 is the only snowflake worthy of respect 😛

Notes   [ + ]

1. Although that said, I have to admit the Snowflake is possibly one of the most sought after Grands Seikos
2. What if you have a watch with a deadbeat movement? Bulova’s got a mecha-quartz precisionist movement that moves the second hand sixteen times per second.
3. Rolex, after all, has always been particularly known to have the best bracelets

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