The Story of Seiko’s Innovative ChronographsBy Felix Scholz
Seiko is a brand that gets richer and more interesting, the deeper you dive. On the surface, they are a wildly popular maker of well-priced watches. Spend a little more time looking, and it quickly becomes clear that the Japanese brand is one of the most significant makers of the 20th century, both for the breadth and scope of the watches they produce and also for the innovation they demonstrate. In practically every field, Seiko has been at the forefront of new technologies, processes and materials. This is as true of chronographs as any other category of watches. Here’s a look at the golden era of Seiko’s chronographs, from the first wrist stopwatch through to the last advanced movements the Japanese brand made before shifting to quartz in the 1980s.
The Games of the XVIII Olympiad
Given the inherently sporty nature of the chronograph complication, it makes perfect sense that the first Seiko chronograph was introduced at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics — an event that symbolised a new era for Seiko, and for all of Japan.
Hosting the Olympic Games is a hugely significant event for any country, but for Tokyo, hosting the 1964 Summer Olympics represented a turning point — one that saw Japan return to the global stage as an independent, economically prosperous nation, and Tokyo as a thriving, technologically advanced city. The ’64 Games prompted an incredible infrastructure boom that gave the world — amongst other things — the famous Shinkansen bullet trains. The total cost of hosting the Games is estimated to be the equivalent of the entire annual budget for the nation.
Part of this rapid growth and industrialisation was Seiko, which was expanding thanks to an aggressive domestic marketing strategy and accompanying advances in products and innovation. The year 1960 saw the introduction of the brand’s premium offering in the form of the first Grand Seiko model. A few years later, Seiko introduced a line that would have an enduring appeal at the younger end of the watch-buying market, the Seiko Sportsmatic 5, a watch that offered the best technology of the day, utilising the brand’s efficient ‘magic lever’ automatic-winding, robust mainspring, diashock system, a water-resistant case and handy day-date display.
If things were looking on the up-and-up for the Japanese brand prior to 1964, the Tokyo Olympics raised the stakes even higher, as Seiko was the official timekeeper of the 18th Olympiad, developing 36 models and 1,278 timing devices to be used at the Games, overseen by specially trained Seiko staff. One particularly relevant innovation is that the ’64 Olympics marked the first-ever use of a quartz-regulated stop clock, a deskbound device that showed just how far Seiko’s mastery of quartz technology would progress in a few short years. Understandably, Seiko was proud of their achievements and even published an informative brochure on the types and uses of timing equipment at the Games.
The Crown Chronograph
This pride expressed itself in another way, too, in the form of Japan’s first wristwatch chronograph, the reference 5719A-45899. This 38mm watch, known as the Crown Chronograph, proudly bore an engraving of an Olympic torch on the caseback, and was a monopusher column-wheel chronograph, powered by the manually wound calibre 5719. The movement developed by Suwa Seikosha was, like many of Seiko’s calibres, a mix of no-frills finish and solid specifications. The 12-ligne movement beat at 5.5Hz and offered 38 hours of power reserve with the stopwatch running.
As far as chronographs went, this watch offered limited utility, as it was only capable of timing events up to 60 seconds in duration. Seiko smartly provided something of a work-around, though, in the form of a bezel graduated for minutes. On the original release, this bezel was plastic. Subsequent models upgraded the bi-directional bezel to more hard-wearing metal. This bezel allowed the wearer to track elapsed minutes with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
The reference 5719A-45899 wasn’t the only chronograph Seiko made in 1964. They also produced the exceptionally rare reference 5718-8000, a much more complicated watch that was sold at the Olympic Village during the Games. This reference features an elapsed-minutes counter at the bottom of the dial (stacked with running seconds) as well as a manually operated counter at the top of the dial that could be used to keep track of laps or points. This 37mm watch is very rarely seen, which explains the fact that the second model to be sold at auction, by Bonhams Hong Kong in August 2020, achieved a price of HKD138,125 — or around USD18,000.
1969: A Revolutionary Year
The year 1969 was a busy one on every front. Socially and politically, it was the era of counterculture and protest, of Woodstock, The Beatles, the Stonewall riots, and even Sesame Street. It was a year that saw the birth of the Internet and the Concorde’s maiden flight. And it was the year that man landed on the moon. It was a year of change all over the world, but watchmakers — especially watchmakers at Seiko — were focusing on an entirely different kind of revolution.
Seiko didn’t take long to build off their early chronograph offerings, and in 1969, the brand released their first automatic chronograph, the calibre 6139. Much has been made of the trinity of automatic chronographs released in 1969: Zenith’s El Primero and the Project 99 consortium’s Chronomatic (also known as Calibre 11). In contrast, Seiko’s trumpeting of their achievement with the cal. 6139, an integrated 3Hz model with column wheel and vertical coupling, seemed a little underwhelming. After all, while the Swiss spent many years achieving their automatic chronographs, it is said that Seiko only began working on the calibre 6139 and its sister calibre 6138 in 1967. And these movements, while announced after the Swiss models, were the first to actually be sold in stores.
Of course, in retrospect, we know that Seiko had bigger fish to fry in 1969 than the automatic chronograph. On 25 December 1969, Seiko announced the fruit of 10 years of labour: the world’s first quartz watch, the Astron. And while only 200 Astrons were initially produced, this small watch had an incredible impact on the watch industry and the world in the following decades, and marked the start of the quartz revolution.
The full impact of quartz technology would not be felt for some time, and in the meantime, Seiko went wild with its automatic chronographs, powered by the 6139 and 6138 movements. As was so often the case with Seiko, there were a lot of models, references and variants, so we’re going to stick to some of the major beats here, starting with the 6139-600X series.
Commonly referred to as the Speed-Timer, as some Japanese market models had it printed on the dial, for many, this was the quintessential vintage Seiko chronograph — and with good reason. Production on this movement ran from 1969 until 1978, and the watches look very much of the era. With a large 40mm case, a fixed aluminium bezel in a chunky, cushion-shaped case with short lugs, a recessed winding crown and simple pushers, the Speed-Timers stood out. And that’s before we even get to the dials. There were quite a lot of variations in the dial design and text, but the commonalities were the day-date at three o’clock, the single 30-minute counter at six o’clock, and the charming, if somewhat redundant, internal bezel. Dials came in blue, silver and yellow.
Of all the variants, the yellow stands out the most and is perhaps the most famous among collectors. Cameron Barr, the founder of Craft+Tailored, attributes the popularity of this line to several factors, but most significantly, the yellow-dialled ‘Pogue’: “The bright yellow dial and ‘Pepsi-like’ tachymeter bezel make the watch stand out on the wrist, making it desirable. The accessible price point makes it an interesting watch to collect and enjoy without worrying too much about the tangible value. Additionally, there is some very cool horological history and a wide range of sub-references and variants within the 6139 series, which make them attractive to collectors.”
Traditionally, Seiko watches have been a lower-priced product, and the 6139s are no different (though it must be said that the value proposition provided by these personality-filled pieces is tremendous). Up until a few years ago, it wasn’t hard to find a decent example in the low hundreds. However, the rising demand is leading to increasing scarcity and prices, and it’s not uncommon to see honest pieces retail for around the high hundreds and low thousands.
Seikos in Space
Ever wondered why some Seiko chronographs are referred to as ‘Pogues’? Well, aside from Seiko fans’ general proclivity to nicknaming watches, it comes down to Colonel William Pogue and his reference 6139-6002. Pogue was a NASA astronaut slated to launch with 1973’s Skylab 4 mission. Pogue needed a chronograph for his mission training and NASA did not issue the approved Omega until close to launch. So Pogue purchased his Seiko for USD71 on 13 June 1972 and used it to time engine burns during training. When the time came to launch Skylab 4 in November 1973, Pogue, who was familiar with his Seiko, snuck it unapproved into the pocket of his flight suit (while wearing the NASA-certified Speedmaster on his wrist) and took it into space. So it was that the humble Seiko 6139-6002 spent 84 days travelling some 34 million miles around the Earth, and became the first automatic chronograph in space.
This story only came to light in 2007 after it was spotted on his wrist in archival photographs. Since then, the yellow-dialled version of the Speed-Timer is often referred to as “The Pogue”. In 2008, Pogue sold his watch — which he wore for decades — at auction. It fetched USD5,975, a very healthy price for a Seiko chronograph. We can’t help but wonder, though, if it wouldn’t fetch a little more if it were sold today.
The 6139 and the 6138 lines of movements were both released in the same year, and are mechanically very similar, with one key difference: the 6139 was a single register, while the 6138 was a double. In fact, there were actually two versions — the 6138A and the 6138B. Both movements were 27.4mm wide by 7.9mm tall, beating at 21,600 beats per hour. Both used the same column-wheel construction with vertical coupling as the 6139, and both had day-date displays. The only difference was that the 6138A had 21 jewels, and the 6138B had 23.
While the 6139 is primarily known for one clear silhouette, there is no single style associated with the 6138. The movement made its way into a profusion of case styles, which today enjoy a confusing array of monikers. There’s the Bullhead — which sees the movement twisted 45 degrees, resulting in the chronograph pushers on the top; the ‘Kakume’ models with square registers; and the lugless ‘UFO’, named for the eponymous flying saucer. One of the most desirable designations, thanks to a healthily balanced blend of ’70s style and timeless appeal is the ‘Panda’, which is, unsurprisingly, a silver-dialled model with two black registers. Of all the 6138’s, this is the one to pounce on.
The 7017, 7018 and 7016 Calibres
Two less well-known chronographs from Seiko are the 7017 and the 7018. The calibre 7017, produced in 1970, measured a svelte 5.9mm tall (compared to 6.5mm for the 6139, and 7.9mm for the 6138). While functionally similar to the 6139, its smaller frame and reduced parts count meant that it was a significantly different beast to its forebearer. The 7018, released a year later in 1971, followed the same slender formula, but added a 30-minute counter. The last mechanical chronograph calibre Seiko produced until the rebirth of interest in mechanical movements in the 1990s was the 7016, announced in 1972. This calibre was, as we’ve come to expect from Seiko, quite advanced. In addition to being a flyback, it also featured stacked hour and minute totalisers in a single register at six o’clock — a feature that we’re used to seeing today on exponentially more expensive Swiss watches. By any measure, the 7016 is an impressive movement, and is still relatively underappreciated, perhaps because of its shorter production run and also because it tended to be used in watches with very bold ’70s geometric cases, which may have limited their appeal amongst collectors.
The End of an Era
In the late 1970s, Seiko stopped producing mechanical chronograph movements, eventually introducing the quartz 7A28 analogue chronograph movement in 1983, its mainline chronograph movement. It wasn’t until the 6S series of movements in the late 1990s that Seiko once again went mechanical. By that point, the brand was focused on new frontiers of innovation, with technologies like Spring Drive and the second iteration of the Astron. Even so, the pioneering movements of the ’60s and ’70s left their mark on the watch scene, and continue to be a rich field for collectors and enthusiasts.