TIMEPIECE TIMELINE

The History of Seiko Through 12 Milestone Seiko Watches


Those who know Seiko mainly for its lower-priced quartz watches — and even many who have recently discovered the Japanese brand’s high-horology Grand Seiko timepieces — may be unaware that Seiko’s history of watchmaking stretches all the way back to the late 19th century, and includes several watch-world firsts. Here are the highlights.

1. Seikosha Timekeeper (1895)

Seikosha 1895 Pocket Watch
The Timekeeper by Seikosha (1895)

Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori was only 21 years old when he opened the K. Hattori watch and clock shop in Tokyo’s Kyobashi district and began building and repairing watches and clocks. He was only 31 when he partnered with an engineer named Tsuruhiko Yoshikawa to set up the Seikosha watch factory, forerunner of today’s Seiko, in 1892. After several years of producing high-quality wall clocks, Seikosha released its first pocketwatch, called simply the Timekeeper, in 1895. The 54.9-mm silver case was made in Japan, but most of the 22-ligne movement was imported from Switzerland. The English name “Timekeeper” was a product of Hattori’s shrewd business sense, as he realized that such a name would expand future export possibilities for the product.

2. Laurel (1913)

Seiko: Laurel (1913)

Hattori quickly recognized the growing worldwide popularity of the wristwatch and predicted that the demand for wristwatches would shortly outpace that for pocketwatches. Hence the debut of the Laurel  in 1913, just 11 years after the first Hattori wall clocks. The Laurel had a silver case, 29.6 mm in diameter, a porcelain enamel dial, and a 12-ligne movement. At first, the need to import components meant that production was slow — just 30 to 50 pieces per day — but by 1910, Seikosha had managed to produce its own balance springs and by 1913, its own enamel dials.

3. First Seiko Watch (1924)

First Seiko Watch - 1924
The first watch called “Seiko” debuted in 1924.

The Great Kanto Earthquake struck Japan in 1923, destroying the Seikosha factory and stocks and halting production of timepieces. However, the determined Hattori decided to quickly rebuild, despite the massive costs, and only one year later the world was introduced to the very first watch with the name “Seiko” on the dial. (“Seiko” is, of course, an abbreviation of “Seikosha,” which means, roughly, “House of Exquisite Workmanship” in Japanese.) The use of a non-English name indicated that Hattori had become confident enough in the quality of his products that they would sell despite the widely held belief (at the time) that products made in the West were of superior quality. The watch had a 24.2-mm case made of nickel and a 9-ligne, 7-jewel movement. Its small seconds subdial was standard all the way up until 1950, when the Seiko Super debuted as the first Japanese watch with a central seconds hand.

4. Seiko Marvel (1956)

Seiko Marvel - 1956
The Seiko Marvel ushered in the modern era of Seiko movements.

Seiko considers the Seiko Marvel to be an epoch-making watch in its history, as it is the first Seiko watch whose movement was designed “fully in-house from scratch” — i.e., not influenced by other watch movements made in Switzerland or elsewhere. The movement diameter (26 mm) was larger than that of the Seiko Super (and matched the dimensions of the Seiko Automatic, which debuted the same year and is notable for being Japan’s first automatic wristwatch). It’s accuracy and stability, which incorporated a new Seiko invention, the “Diashock” shock absorption system, was far superior to that of its predecessors as well as that of other Japanese watches of that era. The Seiko Marvel was produced until 1959, when it was superseded by the Seiko Gyro Marvel, which had a new automatic movement with Seiko’s “Magic Lever” mechanism that increased the winding efficiency.

5. First Grand Seiko (1960)

First Grand Seiko - 1960
The first Grand Seiko watch established Seiko’s new standards for precision.

This was the watch that Seiko created to be “the best in the world” in terms of accuracy and precision. The mechanical movement, Caliber 3180, measured 12 lignes and had 25 jewels and a frequency of 18,000 vph. The watch itself had a gold-filled case, 34.9 mm in diameter and 10 mm thick. Each Grand Seiko watch was certified with an original standard of precision that Seiko established (and which, today, is stricter in its criteria than even the Swiss agency COSC’s standard for certifying chronometers). The watch, with its clean dial, long hands and applied indices, established the design codes that Grand Seiko watches still adhere to today.

6. Seiko Crown Chronograph (1964)

Seiko Crown Chronograph - 1964
The Seiko Crown Chronograph was inspired by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

With all of its previous accomplishments, it is not surprising that Seiko was also responsible for creating Japan’s first chronograph watch. Its story begins with the 1964 Olympic games, held in Tokyo, for which Seiko was the official timekeeper. Seiko provided more than 1,200 units of various types of stopwatches for the Olympic timers, and to commemorate the event, also issued a commercial version of its wristwatch chronograph, which had a monopusher system. The Seiko Crown Chronograph had a stainless steel case, 38.2 mm in diameter and 11.2 mm thick, and water-resistant to 30 meters. The movement was the 12-ligne, 21-jewel Caliber 5719.

7. Seiko Diver’s 150M (1965)

Seiko: First Diver's 150M (1965)

It was just one year after releasing the first Japanese-made chronograph that Seiko launched the first dedicated divers’ watch made in Japan, the Seiko Diver’s 150M. As its name implies, its stainless steel case was water-resistant to 150 meters, and measured 38 mm in diameter and 13.4 mm thick. The watch had a bidirectional rotating bezel and was fitted with the automatic Caliber 6217 (17 jewels, 18,000 vph). At the time, diving was a relatively rare hobby, so this was a very specialized product. As diving grew in popularity, Seiko continued to refine its dive watches. In 1968, it introduced a version with a high-beat movement (36,000 vph) and 300-meter water resistance. Its first Professional Diver’s watch in 1975 was water-resistant to 1,000 meters, and also the first dive watch with a titanium case; and another version of the Professional Diver’s in 1986 (the first with a unidirectional bezel) increased the water-resistance to 1,000 meters. Seiko’s in-house standards for its dive watches helped establish the ISO standards for dive watches that is still in use today.

8. Seiko 5 Sports Speed Timer (1969)

Seiko 5 Sports Speed Timer - 1969
The Seiko 5 Sports Speed Timer beat its Swiss competitors to the market in 1969.

Nineteen sixty-nine was an important touchstone for the watch industry, as it was the year of what’s been dubbed “the great automatic chronograph race.” A handful of Swiss brands — and one notable Japanese one — vied to become the first manufacturer to produce and market a wristwatch chronograph watch with automatic winding. The results of this competition produced a number of watches that are today regarded as icons, such as the Breitling Chrono-Matic, Zenith El Primero, and Heuer Monaco. But the first of these automatic chronographs actually on the market (in May 1969, to be precise) was Seiko’s 5 Sports Speed Timer. The world’s first automatic chronograph equipped with both a vertical clutch and a column wheel, the 5 Sports Speed Timer had a 30-minutes counter, a tachymeter-scale bezel, and a day-date display with an innovative bilingual system: wearers could set it to read in English or Japanese. The movement, caliber 6139, beat at a high frequency of 21,600 vph and the 30-mm stainless steel case was water-resistant to 70 meters.

9. Seiko Quartz Astron (1969)

Seiko: Quartz Astron (1969)

The very same year that Seiko was winning the race to the market for an automatic chronograph watch, it also unveiled the watch that at one point threatened to render all mechanical watches obsolete. The Seiko Quartz Astron, the world’s first quartz wristwatch, represented a groundbreaking technological breakthrough. The watch’s tuning-fork-shaped quartz oscillator gave the Astron’s movement, Caliber 35A, an amazing accuracy of just +/- 5 seconds per month, far greater than any mechanical movement. The movement’s small, thin, stepping motor conserved energy by moving the second hand only once per second, a new development for wristwatches. The oscillator proved to be very shock-resistant and worked at a very low voltage, ensuring a battery life of one full year. Interestingly, whereas quartz watches would develop a reputation as inexpensive timepieces for the masses, the first one was decidedly luxurious, boasting an 18k gold case.

10. Seiko A.G.S. “Kinetic” (1988)

Seiko Kinetic - 1988
The Seiko A.G.S. introduced “Kinetic” winding.

Seiko did not give up on mechanical watchmaking innovations and other types of technologies after it introduced its quartz watches. The brand introduced a solar-powered watch in 1977 and a quartz watch with hand-wound power generating in 1986. In 1988, it introduced a new technology that would help define the brand for the modern era for its Seiko A.G.S. (Automatic Generating System, which later become known as “Kinetic”), a watch whose movement had an oscillating weight that converted the motions of the wearer’s wrist into electricity that powered the quartz movement.

11. Seiko Spring Drive Spacewalk (2008)

Seiko Spring Drive Spacewalk - 2010
The Seiko Spring Drive Spacewalk was built for the rigors of outer space.

Seiko introduced another new technology to the watch market in 1999, releasing the first watch with a “Spring Drive” movement, which has a quartz oscillator but is powered a mainspring like a mechanical watch. Since that debut, Spring Drive has found its way into numerous Seiko watches, including some modern versions of the Grand Seiko. Perhaps its most notable iteration is in the Spring Drive Spacewalk, which was specially commissioned by video-game mogul Richard Garriott, whose father was a NASA astronaut and Seiko wearer, and who, in October of 2008, visited the International Space Station (Garriott’s initial goal, which did not materialize, was to become the first civilian to walk in space, hence the model’s name.) The watch, which was limited to 100 pieces, was engineered specifically for space travel, with a specially designed gasket that made it extra airtight in frigid temperatures, a lightweight case made of high-intensity titanium, and a large dial with easy-to-read chronograph subdials and three times the amount of luminous material as on a standard luminous watch. Additionally, the large chronograph pushers were made to be easily operable by someone wearing the thick gloves of a spacesuit.

12. Seiko Astron GPS Solar (2012)

Seiko Astron GPS Solar - 2012
A potential watch-world game changer: the Seiko Astron GPS Solar

Seiko’s current CEO and President, Shinji Hattori (descendant of the founder), was sending a bold and unmistakable message when he opted to resurrect the name Astron for Seiko’s solar-powered GPS watch, launched to great fanfare at Baselworld 2012. Like the first Seiko Astron, which introduced the world to quartz timekeeping, the new Astron GPS Solar represented the debut of an entirely new and potentially game-changing watch technology. It  is an analog, solar-powered watch that receives GPS satellite signals and adjusts to the precise local time anywhere on Earth. It recognizes all 39 time zones (mechanical world-time watches display only up to 37) and has a manual reset. The Astron covers the globe by first determining its location using GPS, then comparing that information with an onboard database that divides the Earth’s surface into one million squares, each of which is assigned to a particular time zone. The Astron’s system is superior even to those of radio-controlled watches, which receive terrestrial radio signals from atomic clocks, in that it automatically recognizes what time zone it is in. For much more on the Seiko Astron GPS Solar, click here to read our review.

This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.

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20 Responses to “The History of Seiko Through 12 Milestone Seiko Watches”

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  1. Anil Kumar Dube

    I am Seiko lover since 1973 and owned automatics , however Grand Seiko’s hand don’t spell the great watch.
    Give chance to me to rewrite.
    ‘Grand’ salute

    Reply
  2. Sam Webb

    Wow! Have many Seiko’s but did not know all of that history! Thank you WT for a very informative article!

    Reply
  3. PETKO VLAYTCHEV

    I would say that Seiko Lord Marvel 36000 should definitely make this list of Seiko’s most important watches.

    Reply
  4. Poras Deshmukh

    Interesting article. How technologybenifits the masses.

    Actually I inherited a perfectly working almost new looking Seiko 8223-8009 with Sr No 140200. When would this have been manufactured 1981 or 1991. What is the kind of value that is associated with it.(not that I want part with it)

    Reply
  5. John Kaufman

    I recall a brief article some years ago in (I think) Popular Mechanics magazine about a Seiko model that used an oscillating platinum bar driving a self-winding mechanism through tiny toothed belts. I can’t find anything at all about it anywhere on the internet. Am I hallucinating?

    Reply
  6. Andrew Hughes

    I saw the 2008 Spacewalk for sale recently on eBay… but the $43K sticker gave me a shock. Too bad because that is a cool item. For me, I want their first chronograph. It still looks good today. Reissue anybody?

    Reply
  7. Gilberto

    Excelente marca la uso desde los año 70 ,calidad y bellos modelos

    Reply
  8. Mr.Mitchell Thomas

    I bought 2nd hand a Seiko ‘5’ automatic $40. It has the days in german before it clicks over to each english day an hour before 1am?? i.e. die (then)tues, mit (then)wed.
    Was this for the german market or some used parts added do you think, or just plain fake??
    thanks <Mitchell

    Reply
  9. ANIL KUMAR DUBE

    I am Seiko lover,in early seventies when I used to service Seiko 5 , the finish and mechanical strength was unmatched to contemporary Swiss watches
    My heartfelt

    Reply
  10. Albert Kotzé

    According to the article the first Seiko automatic chronographs were available in May 1969. I have seen one with a serial number that corresponds with March ’69 and I own one which was made in April ’69.

    Reply
    • I just picked up a Speedtimer from May of 1969. My guess is that they were manufactured earlier to build up the supply chain. Also, I don’t think the records are that complete on when the watch first went on sale. It’s entirely possible that a few made it out for sale earlier than May. Seems like I’ve heard of a February 1969 that’s out there.

      Reply
  11. Robert Baker

    I bought 2 Seikos in the 70s i would love to do a commercial.

    Reply
  12. Yap Chun Wee

    I just owned a Seiko Nivaflex automatic, can you kindly give some detail regarding this watch? Thanks.

    Reply
  13. I totally agree… 100+ years of history of engeneering and innovation… the Grand Seiko and the Credor decimal minute repeater is obviously a proof of their superiority in innovation, precision and history… using the Myochin steel, finding the sound of the wind bell, more than 20 years of research in delivering a perfect spring drive called the “silent/quiet revolution” in Switzerland in amazing… honestly, I rank them equal to Lange und Sohne and PP.
    The only downside is their marketing strategy outside Japan (which is similar to Toyota and lexus, struggling to position it equal to the Big guys – Mercedes, BMW etc…- yet they are amazing… I can go on and on on the Japanese engendering with a lot of story… any way the Grand Seiko and Credor should be part of a purist watch collector with Patek, lange, Leffour, Voutilainen etc…

    Reply
  14. MrTissot

    It’s a shame that a lot of people in this world see Seiko as just cheap and worthless…..just a watch company that makes watches that anyone can own. The bigger picture that people don’t see is that Seiko also caters for the wealthier diehards with models like Ananta, Grand Seiko and Credor. Seiko also has throughout its entire history been very persistent and at the forefront of innovation.
    Let’s see…..they invented without going into fine details about the achievements:

    First Mechanical Chronograph to make it to market,

    Quartz movement,

    Kinetic Direct Drive,

    Spring Drive,

    Grand Seiko (Which meets higher standards than COSC) and

    Credor !!

    Need say no more :)
    But everyone please feel free to add to this if you wish because I’m almost sure I’ve forgotten something :)

    Reply
    • LesDrive

      And let’s not forget the first vertical clutch stop watch which was not reliable that any avaiable swiss made stop watch

      Reply
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