I sometimes wonder, when we post pictures and articles of watches like this, or this, or even this, whether we are not inadvertently creating the impression that we spend most of our time at Chateau Hodinkee alternating between sippin’ Darjeeling on the veranda with our pinkies out, and upbraiding Manservant Jeeves for being slow with the Pol Roger and caviar at teatime. When you’re heavy into mechanical watches there’s a sort of creeping tendency, over the years, to make the unspoken assumption that all other things being equal, you get what you pay for – which is to say, if it’s not expensive it ain’t much. The fact is, though, that really good design, quality in execution, and even real horological charm, to say nothing of a healthy helping of history, can be had for less than the cost of what my long-suffering spouse and I spend on dry cleaning every week. Behold the worst-kept secret in watchdom: the Seiko 5.
Long revered by those in the know as the most unbeatable bargain in watchmaking by a huge margin, the Seiko 5 got its start all the way back in 1963, when the very first – then known as the Sportsmatic 5 – first came out. There is very little difference in appearance between the Sportsmatic 5 and the Seiko 5 today, though over the decades, the number of Seiko 5 models has swollen to include… I have no idea how many models, but it’s a lot, and it includes everything from pretty darned dressy models like the one you see here, to military style, pilot’s watch-esque timepieces, to chronographs – that’s right, the very first Seiko automatic chronograph, in 1969, was a 5: the Seiko 5 Sports Speed-Timer. There is something for everyone and with virtually every model coming in under the $300 mark, it is very easy to end up with a collection without noticing it.
This particular watch is an excellent example of the type: round, with the crown at 4:00 and set into a recess in the case band. The level of quality and finish is not objectively at the most superlative level, but it is almost unbelievably well done for the price tier the watch occupies. Hands are extremely well made, well shaped and polished; the pinstriped dial is subtle but very attractive, the lume plots are perfectly executed and there are actual faceted applied markers. The color of the day and date rings matches the dial as well. The 38 mm case is gracefully shaped, with brushed flanks, and the polished surfaces are absolutely mirror bright.
The movement inside is a Malaysian-factory made Seiko in-house caliber 7S26, with Seiko’s Magic Lever winding system – the Magic Lever is simplicity itself and John Davis’ description of this movement, and how it works, from his classic 2003 review on PuristsPro remains the gold standard for really getting into the technical aspects of this caliber. I’ll confine myself to saying that obviously it is not going to win any beauty contests – Seiko chooses to devote what absurdly minute margin it must be making on these watches to the dial furniture and case finishing, which is probably pretty smart. It is true, however, that the 7S26, despite its Jeep-like air of unadorned utility, is generally regarded as an extremely tough customer and they have been known to run for decades without complaint. That said, one of the charms of this watch is that it can actually be serviced, and given the millions of them that are out there, parts manifestly will not be a problem. (I got my first Seiko 5 in graduate school – it was my first mechanical watch – and that was 25 years ago. I haven’t worn it regularly in many years but it starts running almost immediately when I picked it up last night.)
The Seiko 5 originally got its name for the 5 attributes each one was supposed to possess: self-winding, water resistant, day-date in a single window, recessed crown, and a durable case and bracelet. This one has all those things. There are two potential gotchas. The first is that like every Seiko 5, there’s no provision for hand-winding it; you shake it to move the rotor. That shouldn’t bother anyone too much though – there are several pretty remarkable and very well respected watches that require you to do the same thing, including the Jaeger LeCoultre Futurematic and for that matter, the Audemars Piguet caliber 2870 – you know, the world’s first series-produced self-winding tourbillon wristwatch. The second potential gotcha is the bracelet, and let’s not kid ourselves – it’s a royal pain in the ass; rattly on the wrist and one of those bracelets which, like the old Omega 1171 (generally my go-to candidate for the special Academy Award for most annoying bracelet) seems to have been designed for the sole purpose of efficiently removing arm-hair. It’s not badly made per se but it rattles like Marley’s ghost, so I took it off and put the watch on a HODINKEE strap, and it looks sharp enough you could cut yourself looking at it.
This, friends, is a $75 watch pretty much any day of the week, on Amazon (or elsewhere). It looks great (albeit on a strap, yeah yeah, that costs three times what the watch does) feels good, will run reliably for longer than you will in all likelihood and while every Seiko 5 is certainly not a home run, it is in a dishonest world full of so-called luxuries of often questionable value, a piece of solid value –maybe the solidest in watchmaking – that we often take for granted. But every once in a while it’s nice to take a fresh look at the Seiko 5 and remind ourselves just what a real Value Proposition can look like.
Update: The model shown is Seiko 5 SNKL23.