As success stories for new watch brands go, it’s hard to find a better case study in the past decade than Grand Seiko. The Japanese high-luxury watchmaker has, in its relatively short stint in the international market, elevated itself in the eyes of many collectors to the upper echelon of watchmaking prestige and collectibility, competing for connoisseur attention and dollars with well-established maisons from Switzerland and Germany. This plaudit, of course, comes with a caveat: Grand Seiko is not really “new” in the strictest sense. Up until 2017, it wasn’t even a standalone brand, but rather a collection of high-end timepieces within the vast portfolio of Seiko, a watchmaking giant that has been around since 1881 but in the 20th century became world famous not for luxury and exclusivity but for watches that embraced the mass market with accessible prices, wide distribution, and trendy technology.
The first Grand Seiko watch (above) debuted all the way back in 1960 and was distinguished by its elegantly understated yet undeniably upmarket design: a round, slim-profiled gold case with a narrow stepped bezel; long, faceted golden appliqués at the hour markers; stylized razor-shaped gold hands; a curved, box-type sapphire crystal; and a high-precision in-house movement. From the very beginning, Seiko’s aim with its so-called “King of Watches” was to achieve standards of accuracy, beauty, legibility, and durability that would meet or surpass those of its Swiss competitors. That watch, Ref. 57GS or “Grand Seiko First,” as it is now known, was the first of many Grand Seikos that followed: what they all had in common was that they were Japan’s best-kept horological secret for half a century. Unlike the scores of watches Seiko produced under its main label — an especially large output during the height of the Quartz Revolution that the company had been instrumental in ushering in — Grand Seiko watches were not exported outside Japan.
That changed in 2010, when Seiko finally decided the time had come for the rest of the world to discover what Japanese watch connoisseurs and a handful of savvy, globe-trotting horophiles already had: that a Japanese luxury watch could hold its own in every regard against the top Swiss and German luxury models in both its market segment and its sphere of appeal. In 2017, after several years of proving just that and building an eager and loyal audience in the United States and elsewhere, Grand Seiko spun off from the parent brand to become independent, with its own corporate leadership team, distribution network, and marketing strategy; the watch’s dials, which had for years featured both a Seiko and a Grand Seiko logo, would display only the latter emblem going forward. The same year, Grand Seiko released one of its most emblematic and collectible timepieces, the Ref. SBGA211 (above), with a case made of high-intensity titanium, a Spring Drive caliber, and the shimmering white, textured dial that lent the model its enduring nickname, “Snowflake.”
SBGA011 (2005 Japan/2010 International)
Reference: SBGA011, Price*: $4,000 - $4,500, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 12.5mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic Spring Drive Caliber 9R65
The first “Snowflake” was one whose release preceded not only Grand Seiko’s establishment as an independent brand but also Seiko’s distribution of Grand Seiko watches outside of Japan. The Ref. SBGA011 launched to the Japanese market in 2005 and established the familiar template, with a stamped brass dial whose special, silver-plated finish approximated the look and texture of the fresh snow that blanketed the peaks of the Hokata Mountains that surround Seiko’s Shinshu Watch Studio in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture. (The first attempt to create such a dial dates back to the 1970s; it was modern watchmakers’ discovery of the prototype that inspired the 21st-century version.) The watch was equipped with the self-winding Spring Drive Caliber 9R65, with a 72-hour power reserve and an accuracy of +/- 1 second per day. Spring Drive is Grand Seiko’s (and “regular” Seiko’s) in-house developed technology that combines a traditional balance wheel with electromagnetic energy and a quartz oscillator rather than a classical mechanical escapement. The dial featured a date window at 3 o’clock with a finely faceted frame as well as an analog power reserve indicator between 6 and 7 o’clock. Significantly, this original model is the only “Snowflake” to bear both the Seiko logo (at 12 o’clock) and the Grand Seiko logo (at 6 o’clock).
Reference: SBGA211, Price: $6,200 - $4,500, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 12.5mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic Spring Drive Caliber 9R65
Virtually identical to the SBGA011 model, the SBGA211, released in the seminal year of 2017, differs from it in one telling and significant detail: the watch’s dial (above) features the “GS” applied logo and “Grand Seiko” text at 12 o’clock and the simple “Spring Drive” text at 6 o’clock — as opposed to its predecessor’s layout with the Seiko logo at 12 and “Grand Seiko Spring Drive” balancing it out at 6. The case, measuring 41mm in diameter and 12.8mm thick, is constructed from Grand Seiko’s “high intensity” titanium, an alloy that’s stronger but 40 percent lighter than stainless steel, and finished to a high gloss with Grand Seiko’s Zaratsu polishing, a painstaking process executed by hand that allows for sharp, ridged borders between mirrored and hairline surfaces. The elegantly faceted indexes and emblematic razor hands are silver-polished, while a blued steel seconds hand provides a cool, subtle contrast as it sweeps around the snowy dial. The highly accurate Spring Drive Caliber 9R65 inside, oscillating behind a sapphire caseback, provides a three-day power reserve. The 100-meter water-resistant case is mounted on a bracelet made of the same Zaratsu-polished, high-intensity titanium and fastens with a triple-fold push-button clasp.
SBGA259 (“Golden Snowflake,” 2017)
Reference: SBGA259, Price: $5,900, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 12.5mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic Spring Drive Caliber 9R65
Like the original Snowflake, this “Golden” version was initially available only in the Japanese market and only made its way to the U.S. when Grand Seiko planted its flag as an independent brand. The SBGA259 (the original, dual-logo version was the SBGA059) uses yellow gold for the hands and indexes as well as details like the applied “GS” logo at 12 o’clock, the frame around the 3 o’clock date window, and the analog pointer for the arc-shaped power reserve display. The 41mm titanium-alloy case — Zaratsu-polished, 12.5mm thick and water resistant to 100 meters — houses the same Spring Drive Caliber as its non-gilded predecessor and protects it against magnetic fields up to 4,800 A/m.
SBGA407 (“Skyflake”/”Blue Snowflake,” 2019)
Reference: SBGA407, Price: $5,800, Case Size: 40.2mm, Thickness: 12.8mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic Spring Drive Caliber 9R65
Delving further into the wintry elements of its home in Japan, Grand Seiko introduced the SBGA407 model in 2019. Its textured Snowflake dial is treated with a light blue color that takes its inspiration from ice-covered lakes reflecting the clear blue sky in the Shinshu region during the winter season of “Shökan.” Dubbed by fans the “Skyflake,” or “Blue Snowflake,” the model’s case is slightly smaller — 40.2mm in diameter — with a similar 12.8mm thickness. It’s made of stainless steel rather than high-intensity titanium but also boasts the signature Zaratsu polishing. Grand Seiko’s Spring Drive Caliber 9R65 also finds a home here, behind a screw-down caseback with a sapphire window. The original Snowflake's brushed-and-polished bracelet gives way here to a dark blue crocodile leather strap that harmonizes with the icy blue tones of the dial and connects to the wrist with a steel three-fold push-button clasp.
SBGY002 (2019, 20th Anniversary Spring Drive model)
Reference: SBGY002, Price: $25,000, Case Size: 38.5mm, Thickness: 10.2mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: Splash-proof, Movement: Manually Wound Spring Drive Caliber 9R31
Accompanying the “Skyflake” as a special release in the Spring Drive caliber’s 20th anniversary year of 2019 is the Ref. SBGY002, which is the dressiest addition yet to the small yet slowly expanding “Snowflake” family. The watch’s case is made of yellow gold and spans a very modest 38.5mm in diameter and 10.2mm thick. The applied indexes, hour and minute hand, and other dial details are (of course) also in gold, like those on the titanium-cased SBGA259, and the central seconds hand is blued, as on the SBGA211 and the “Skyflake” model. Also differentiating this all-gold model from the other “Snowflakes”: its lack of a power-reserve indicator on the white, textured dial and its use of a manually wound (rather than an automatic) Spring Drive movement, Caliber 9R31. Instead of indicating its 72-hour running autonomy on its dial side, this movement displays it instead in analog fashion on its back side, which also boasts an array of tempered blue screws and is, as one would expect, visible through a sapphire exhibition caseback. From a technical standpoint, Caliber 9R31 boasts the same impressive accuracy of +/- 1 second per day — and +/- 15 seconds per month — as the automatic movements within the Spring Drive series. The watch is mounted on a handsome brown crocodile leather strap with a yellow-gold three-fold clasp.
* All prices are original MSRP and may not reflect current prices on the secondary market.