Review: Grand Seiko Skyflake SBGA407
Over the past few years, we’ve seen some watches come out of the Japanese powerhouse Grand Seiko that are truly mind-altering. The jaw-dropping Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon. The Philippe Dufour-rivalling SBGZ001. Even the more price-palatable SBGY007, which is something of a mini-Credor. But not every single Grand Seiko can truly be incredible. Some are just ordinary, and that’s fine. Here’s one of them.
One of the greatest meals I ever ate was served to me in an old shop. At eight courses, it neither wanted for flavour nor portion, and I left that evening feeling both in need of a longer belt and like something inside me had changed. No, not the delicately braised mackerel—something in my brain. I had a sinking feeling that, from that moment on, every other bite of food I had would not quite be the same again. This, as it turned out, was wrong.
Food comes in all shapes and sizes, prices and portions. A burger can be the size of a house and a ten-course meal could leave an ant feeling peckish. Flavours can be complex, simple, curious and comforting. There is no right or wrong, no best or worst. Sometimes the greatest meal you’ll ever eat can be down to the company you keep and the place you were.
The point is that I still absolutely love a chicken nugget. And how could I not? The ground up paste extracted from the remaining vestiges of a chicken carcass may put my ability to keep a tube of toothpaste going to shame, and the amount of oil used to cook them might make even the UAE blush, but nevertheless there’s a time and a place where I could want nothing else in my mouth than McDonalds’ finest poultry pellet.
Grand Seiko is fast becoming known as the finest diner in town, the place people in the know recommend to their friends with the accompanying advice to take an open mind. It’s a world of teabag soup, marmalade salad and parsnip pastries. It shouldn’t work but by Jove it does and it becomes legendary for it.
Maybe you put off the visit. How can anything be as good as that? But when you finally do indulge, you yourself rise to become the person in the know and you tell everyone who’ll stand still long enough. It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before and you want to shout as loud as you can about it.
This sets a very high bar for Grand Seiko. When a new menu is announced, it will of course be compared to the old one. It’s impossible to apply consideration with a truly open mind. So when Grand Seiko announced the SBGA407 Skyflake, I’ll be honest—it was a little underwhelming.
The Difficult Second Album
Grand Seiko really, slowly, like any good cult classic, made its mark with the 2005 Snowflake. A very odd puppy, it came ensconced in a 41mm titanium case that was neither sporty nor casual, was powered by a movement that was appealing to neither the mechanical nor accuracy crowd, and proudly boasted that its dial looked like the back of an old freezer.
But, as any good chef will tell you, it’s not just the ingredients, it’s the way they’re used. The titanium case floated on the wrist. The Spring Drive movement was a mesmerising enigma. The translucency of that icy-white dial almost harrowing in its bleak execution. These weren’t just ingredients, but the best, most highly considered ingredients, exotic and unusual, and they were infused together with expert measure.
It took people a while, about a decade in fact, to get used to the taste. But isn’t that the best way? An instant hit becomes jaded just as quickly as it emerged. The slow burn burns longer, if not quite as a bright. Grand Seiko had demonstrated its ability with the Snowflake and would go on to impress ever more with each passing flagship.
Looking back from today, would people consider the Snowflake a perfect watch? No, probably not. Could it be improved? Absolutely. Should it be improved? Imperfection is the antithesis of monotony, so I’m not sure it should. So, when Grand Seiko announced in 2019 that it was going back to the Snowflake, reimagining it in a new watch, curiosity was naturally piqued.
A revised case, perhaps, in an even more exotic material dressed with modern design? A movement even more exciting than the Spring Drive, perhaps finished to a higher quality or introducing a new innovation? A Snowflake dial that conforms to the majority and finally loses the power reserve indicator? No. The SBGA407 Skyflake did none of those things. And that’s a good thing.
Even the most iconic things can come to feel normal. That’s because icons are copied and in great volume, watering down the impact they onec had. Imagine being shocked by light coming from a bulb or flying to your destination instead of sailing. Those icons are now our bread and butter.
And sometimes, sometimes, there’s nothing better than to eat a good slice of bread with a generous, greedy even, helping of butter. That’s the philosophy Grand Seiko took with the Skyfall, unashamedly and without remorse.
Never mind space-age materials and futuristic shapes; the 40mm case is wrought from simple yet sturdy stainless steel in the fashion of the tried-and-true 44GS style. Inoffensive, but not forgettable. It looks like a watch should.
The movement, too. Grand Seiko has been treating us to increasingly more impressive movements that rival the world’s best, and by comparison, the Spring Drive 9R65 now feels pretty … ordinary. The finishing is fine. The technology is ubiquitous. The novelty is behind us. It no longer looks forwards, but backwards—but after all, isn’t that where the best watchmaking often looks?
The smooth sweep is a warm breeze on a tropical island, beguiling enough to lull all those who experience it into a zen-like trance, ironically unable to differentiate seconds, minutes and hours. The coldness of the clinical precision is gone, replaced with smooth, syrupy joy.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is the dial itself. For one, it happily retains the power reserve that gave so many pause, but even that commitment falls short of the direction Grand Seiko chose. The Snowflake is iconic because of its icy embellishment; of all the things that could have been changed, be it size, scale, sharpness or whatever, colour was the most unexpected.
It’s a rich, summery sky blue that feels like home. Other Grand Seiko dials evoke phenomena that feel unusual and exotic and ethereal, and this also does that by referencing the blue-tinted mountains reflecting the sky above the Shinshu Watch Studio—but there’s a difference. We don’t all have ice fields or cherry blossoms or glaciers back home, but we always have the sky. A clear blue sky is home to so many people, and that lends the Skyflake a quality that’s different to the original.
Some might call it ordinary, or mundane, familiar even—but familiar can mean so much more. Like a good burger or a fresh slice of bread and butter, eaten in the right place with the right people, familiar can also mean relaxed, comfortable and free. So, although the Grand Seiko SBGA407 is not incredible, that’s why it doesn’t have to be.
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