Four Hundred Years After
The Legacy of Seikosha
For nearly four hundred years Edo-Tokyo has been the center of Japanese horological craft, and it is the birthplace and home of the great
Japanese wristwatch manufactures of the last century -- Seiko and Citizen. Their history is irrevocably intertwined with that of the great city -- a city that has been repeatedly damaged and destroyed in a series of disasters that rivals the Godzilla movies for their frequency and carnage. Yet it and they have not only survived, but indeed flourished.
While Citizen has almost wholly embraced quartz technology to the exclusion of mechanical movements and watches, Seiko has continually maintained its mechanical tradition. The quartz revolution which they fostered and which is the foundation of their present prosperity, has enabled Seiko to continue to produce mechanical pocket watches, wristwatches, and the movements within. It is with Seiko that we are primarily concerned here.
It was only after 102 years that K. Hattori & Co., Ltd. finally changed its name to Hattori Seiko Co., Ltd. in 1983, and then to Seiko Corp. in 1990. The 108-year legacy of Seiko as a manufacture dates back to the original Seikosha factory in 1892, which was moved and renamed Daini Seikosha in 1937, then renamed Seiko Instruments and Electronics in 1983, finally becoming the present
Seiko Instruments Inc. in 1987. The Seiko Group now consists of Seiko Corp., Seiko Instruments, Inc., and
Seiko Epson Corp. -- as well as over fifty subsidiary companies.
Even after all of these years the three core companies continue to maintain their traditional relationships: Seiko Corp. markets and sells the watches produced by Seiko Instruments, just as "K. Hattori & Co." did for
"Seikosha." The youngest member of the triumvirate, Seiko Epson, is responsible for the development of new technologies. Today the Seiko Group companies are spread throughout Tokyo's industrial belt, from Tokyo proper to the adjacent Chiba prefecture, and they remain under the guidance of members of its founding family -- something rare overall in the world horological industry.
In attempting to understand present day Japanese mechanical watches, first we must begin with the
Japanese manufactured movements that are currently based upon. Unless otherwise noted, all movements listed are designed and manufactured by Seiko Instruments, Inc. Note that a complete listing and description is available in the appendix of The Seiko Book by Tokuma
Shoten. Since I don't have access to that volume, I have had to compile this from available sources and it may be incomplete or contain some errors on my part.
7S Series Calibres
These are the most prolific mechanicals produced by Seiko, and incidentally they are the only Seiko mechanical regularly imported into the US by
Seiko USA. Technically the 7S calibres are very simple and efficient bi-directional winding automatic movements that have no provision for
handwinding. The 21 jewel 7S26 is the most common variant, found from the US to Malaysia.
Les common is the 23 jewel 7S36 which is generally only seen in Japan, though
occasionally encountered in western markets. I suspect that the two extra jewels are for the auto-winding gear train. Both 7S calibres run at 21,600
vph, have day and date displays, and have a flat matte, nickel-plated finish. Unlike the rest of Seiko's mechanical movements, the 7S26 is primarily manufactured outside of Japan by a subsidiary in Singapore, though some - particularly the 7S36 variant - are manufactured in Japan, as is the 7S55, the final and rarest member of the 7S family. The 7S55 has only been used in a single collection of watches exclusive to Japan.
4S Series Calibres
First introduced in 1992, the 4S calibres make up the "bread and butter" of Seiko's mechanical movements. They are a diverse group of automatics and handwinds which are actually based on a single Seiko
ebauche. It should be noted that all Seiko automatics above the 7S level can also be wound by hand.
The base movement of the 4S series is the 4S15 (shown above), a 25 jewel automatic with center seconds and date calendar. It runs at 28,800
vph, has a flat brushed finish except for the rotor which is finished with
colimaconnage, is nickel-plated, and has cap jewels on both the escape and fourth wheels -- a nice touch which dates back to the early Seiko "Chronometers" which often featured cap jewels all the way to the center wheel. The use of colimaconnage is also a Seiko tradition that dates back to the Grand Seiko automatic movements of the 1960s. The 4S15 is essentially a reissue of their 52 series calibre from the 1970s, originally used in their premium King Seiko line. It is probably the highest quality simple automatic movement at this price point in the world (35,000 to 45,000 Yen). Calibre 4S12 is a variant of the 4S15 with an additional 24-hour GMT hand.
The basic 4S handwind, calibre 4S24, is a 21 jewel center-seconds movement. Simply put, it is calibre 4S15 with the automatic winding removed (akin to the relationship between Blancpain calibres 1161 and 1106). In removing the rotor and winding gears, the simple three-bridge top plate of the 4S15 is further simplified into a two-bridge 3/4 plate architecture. It has a simple flat matte and rhodium plated finish. Calibre 4S28 is a 24 jewel version of 4S24 with indirect subsidiary seconds indication. Finally, the 4S79 in a 29 jewel variant with indirect subsidary seconds and power reserve indication.
The 4S7x series was first introduced in 1995 for Seiko's mechanical luxury watches and is comprised mostly of automatic movements based on the 4S15. The basic movement is the 25 jewel calibre 4S71, with center seconds and no date. Calibre 4S77 adds a date
subdial, retrograde day display, 24 hour GMT subdial, and three jewels. Calibre 4S79 adds a power reserve indicator, small seconds display, and four jewels. The only
handwind, calibre 4S79A, is a 31 jewel certified chronometer with power reserve and small seconds display based on the 4S29. The automatic movements have a colimaconnage and gilt finish, and the handwind is finished with "Tokyo Stripes" and is also gilt.
6S Series CalibresLaunched in 1998, the 6S calibres are Seiko's three-register column wheel chronographs, both automatic and
handwinding. Calibre 6S78 is a 34 jewel automatic chronograph with date calendar. At 7.2mm thick and 28.4mm in diameter it is a robust movement. The 35 jewel hand-wound calibre 6S74 has no date calendar but adds a power reserve display, and the 40 jewel automatic calibre 6S77 has both the power reserve display and calendar date window. The automatic movements in this series are finished with brushing on the plates and colimaconnage on the rotors, and the manual-wind is finished with Tokyo Stripes. Calibre 6S99 is the skeletonized version of calibre 6S74. All four movements are gold-plated. Calibre 6S37 is a recent variant of calibre 6S77 which is rhodium plated rather than gilt.
68 Series Calibres
The 68 series is comprised entirely of thin hand-wound movements. Calibre 6810 is a 22 jewel
tonneau-shaped calibre, finished with Tokyo Stripes and rhodium plating. First seen in 1993, calibre 6870 is a 21 jewel movement with only hour and minute indications. Based on the earlier 6870, ultrathin calibre 6898 is 1.98mm thick -- thinner than Piaget's
ultrathins, but thicker than those of Jaeger-leCoultre and Frederic Piguet. The 6898 is finished with Tokyo Stripes, gold-plating, and a voluted ratchet wheel. Indirect small seconds display adds 5 jewels for a total of 26. Calibre 6899 is the skeletonized and engraved version of 6898 -- available gilt or rhodium plated. The 68 calibres run at a 21,600 vph beat rate, and all feature cap jewels on the escape, fourth, and third wheels.
9S Series Calibres
The premium simple automatic calibre of Seiko's mechanical collection, 9S production is limited to 300 units per month -- a tiny number for a manufacture that makes over 30 million watches per year. The 9S series centers around very robust simple automatic movements built on the same scale as Rolex's 31xx series
calibres. The 26 jewel calibre 9S55 is 5.3mm thick and 28.4mm in diameter, with center seconds and calendar date indication. The 24 jewel calibe 9S51 is simply a 9S55 without date window. The 20 jewel 9S54 is a hand-wound variant with center seconds and no date
function, featuring a split 3/4 top plate. All 9S movements are finished with Tokyo Stripes and rhodium plating, and are adjusted to six positions.
8L Series Calibres
The 8L75 is an unadjusted and more simply finished variant of the premium calibre 9S55 (akin to the relationship between Chopard's LUC 3.96 and 1.96). It has a brushed and gilt finish, with colimaconnage on the rotor. The final 9S55 variant is calibre 8L35. Like the 8L75 it is unadjusted, but rhodium plated rather than gilt. The last member of the 8L family is calibre 8L34, a variant of calibre 9S54. With no change in jewel count, the 8L34 features subsidary seconds rather than central seconds.
On November 17th of 1998 Seiko received a patent for new handwound tourbillon calibre with an offset screwed balance wheel (like the Blancpain calibre 23). The tourbillon cage upper plate which bridges the balance and escape wheel is shaped as a monogram "S." An unusual factor of the cage design permits adjustment and regulation with the cage assembled, using a special jig. Conventional tourbillons must be disassembled for any adjustment of accuracy -- a large factor of the great expense of tourbillon watches. The cage is also an ultrathin design, attempting to circumvent the bloating common to most tourbillon
A Note on Citizen: As the unrivaled titan of world quartz watch production they have largely dispensed with the mechanical anachronism. However their
Miyota subsidiary continues to produce mechanical calibres in addition to their primary production of quartz wristwatches, quartz modules, and other technological components. The mechanical movements are used in a small number of Citizen watches, and are sold as ebauches to foreign brands like Invicta and Zeno. The mechanical calibres consist of the 8200 and 8215 series 21 jewel 21,600vph automatics -- Citizen's counterpart to Seiko's 7S26. There is also at least one small auto calibre for
women's watches. Another little-known
Japanese manufacture (now owned by Seiko) whose broad range of watches is little seen in western nations. Focused mostly on the "economy" price point, they produce everything from simple handwinds and automatics to some basic complications, as well as more expensive line based on 3/4 plate movements.
The Seiko collections reflect the spirit of Tokyo in their combination of the modern,
avant-garde and conservative -- an almost hodge-podge diversity. The most common and accessible are the classic Seiko 5 watches which are available all over the world. Using the same calibre 7S26, the very popular
Seiko Diver automatic (shown above), is also widely available outside of Japan. Less common Seiko 5 variants only found in Japan include the Seiko 5 Sports and Seiko 5 Superior lines, which use the slightly improved 7S36 and 7S55 automatic movements.
Also largely restricted to Japan, but occasionally found in Hong Kong or Singapore are a number of sports watches based on the 4S15 automatic. These include the popular Alpinist (also known as the "Sports 200" in the ex-Japan Asiana market) which has a rotating inner compass ring, a little known 200m titanium-cased diving watch, and a few
over-designed models in the SUS and S-WAVE lines that are best left in obscurity. Alas the SUS "Military," which has gained a small following amongst military watch collectors, has been discontinued for some time (shown above).
There are also a number of accessible, classically styled watches based on 4S movements, including two
handwinds, an automatic, and a few pocket watches. Within the Alba "Vient" collection there are also handwound tonneau and cushion-shaped watches. At a price point high above all of these, is Seiko's least expensive ultrathin
mechanical watch. Interestingly, this round watch uses the form calibre 6810 which is displayed through a sapphire back. All of these watches are fitted with leather straps.
Seiko has recently introduced a new series of limited edition watches based some of the landmark
wristwatches of its past. The first watch in the Historical Collection is based on the first wristwatch ever produced by Seikosha in 1913, the Laurel wristlet watch. Using the handwound calibre 4S28, the wristlet features a baked enamel dial. An elaborate leather bracelet-strap hints at the miltary function behind the original design. Also returning in the Historical Collection is the King Seiko (cal. 4S15), the Diver Pro 300m (cal. 8L35), the titanium Diver Pro 600m (cal. 8L35), and a classic lepine pocket watch (cal. 8L34).
The final mechanical watch under the general Seiko umbrella, and the only regular production mechanical watch within the Prospex collection, is the Marinemaster Diver Pro 300m. Using calibre 8L35, it is based on the 300m Diver Pro of the Historical Collection, but adds a hefty bracelet in place of the latter's rubber strap. The gilt hands and markers of the Historical model are replaced with white metal on the
Marinemaster. The watch is quite large at some 45mm in diameter and 15mm in thickness.
Seiko's Credor collections actually date to 1974 when they were introduced as high-end quartz watches in gold cases, and it wasn't until 1996 that mechanical movements were finally introduced to the line. For the most part, the Credor "Mechanical" collection consists of 18k gold watches with guilloche dials, featuring one or more complications based on the higher-end 4S calibres and the 6S chronographs, including power reserve, and dual-time displays. This collection also features the only "Chronometer" produced by Seiko, several
ultrathins, and limited edition skeletonized handwound chronographs. All watches in this collection are fitted with leather straps.
The Credor Pacifique collection of bracelet watches also features a few of the complicated movements used in the pure mechanical line. The dials of these watches also feature guillochage engraving. Their cases and integrated bracelets are made in steel, or steel with gold accents, with only a limited edition skeletonized handwound chronograph encased in 18k white gold.
Another all mechanical collection is the small Credor Phoenix line. Aside from the surprising number of limited editions, there are really just two basic watches: A 6S-based automatic chronograph and a 8L75-based
automatic (shown above). They are made in both steel and titanium versions. In my opinion, the high fundamental quality of the calibres combined with simple functional finishing, and the high quality case and bracelet construction, makes the Phoenix collection the best value in the Seiko mechanical lineup.
The crown jewel of Seiko's mechanical watch production and the proudest heir to the Seiko mechanical tradition is the Grand Seiko automatic. A series of chronometer grade watches dating back to 1960, the latest duo based on the new 9S calibres were introduced in 1998. With production limited to 300 units a month, they are relatively rare even within Japan.
The Grand Seiko automatic is offered as either a steel watch on a steel bracelet, or as a gold watch on a leather strap. Seiko's propensity for limited editions has led them to produce a version of the steel watch with a display back and engraved rotor, and a white gold version of the strap watch also with a display back and gold medallion inset on the rotor, both for the 40th anniversary of the Grand Seiko line. The latest addition to the Grand Seiko family is a hand-wound model of classic
Seiko's mechanicals for the most part are not and have not been "fine" watches, but instead the "mid-tier" of practical and dependable watches based upon simple and robust movements. That they can produce fine watches has been demonstrated by a few select models - particularly their ultrathins - but the nearly 90-year history of Seiko's mechanical wristwatch production has been focused on functional and useful
handwinds, automatics, and chronographs.
In truth, I do not expect that the mechanical watches of Japan can or will ever attempt to break the near hegemony of Switzerland on the luxury timepiece market. Its best arts are limited to the archipelago, and even there the market for mechanical watches is dominated by Swiss imports. Neither do I expect that these watches will be generally afforded the respect and recognition that I think they merit. But the changing nature of the global market has at least begun to make them available outside of Japan - despite Seiko's self-imposed isolation - to those who do appreciate them. Happily, I expect that there will always be a few foreign afficianados of the old manufacture in Tokyo.
Special thanks to Bob, Wayne Lee, and Kohei Saito.
Space Shuttle image of Tokyo courtesy of NASA
Diver automatic and Credor Phoenix by
SUS "Military" and calibre 4S15 by Bob
Thunderstorm at the foot of the mountain by Hokusai; scan by Mark Harden
Used with permission.
Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2000
All Rights Reserved