Buying a mechanical watch is a big commitment. Sure, mechanical timepieces are objects that represent some mystical blend of beauty, sophistication, and history, and watch fans understandably fawn over them, but they can also be intimidating. They require more care and maintenance than their battery-driven counterparts and can have a reputation for being somewhat finicky and sometimes keeping less than perfect time. Just leave one lying on a smartphone or near a TV, for example, and you might find that exposure to a magnetic field has left yours all in a tiz.
Most of all, there’s the cost. An entry-level Rolex can easily cost in excess of £5 000. An equivalent Omega is in the same ballpark. Then, when you get to the Big Three (Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and Vacheron Constantin), you’re already firmly into five-figure territory. It’s enough to have anyone who doesn’t regularly bathe in a vault of doubloons breaking out in a sweat.
These prohibitive prices don’t stop aspiring watch collectors from dreaming, though. Great affordable quartz watches are a dime a dozen, but finding a worthwhile mechanical timepiece that doesn’t break the bank is a much bigger ask. These are complex, delicate instruments that require time, expertise, and expensive materials to make. They also tend to come with a degree of heritage that is baked into the appeal as well as the price tag. So when a great, affordable self-winding watch comes along, you can bet that the watch world is going to sit up and take notice.
Enter: the Seiko 5. Ask any watch fan what the best ‘cheap’ movement on the market is, and there’s a good chance they’ll point you straight in the direction of this legendary budget line from one of Japan’s most respected watchmakers. It is ‘the worst-kept secret in watchdom’ to quote Hodinkee, who go onto call the Seiko 5 ‘long revered by those in the know as the most unbeatable bargain in watchmaking by a huge margin’.
Consequently, the Seiko 5 has a well-established reputation as being the perfect movement to get you started. It is, as Rescapement memorably put it, ‘like the Playboy Magazine that a young teen finds under dad’s bed: it represents an introduction to a vast, often confusing new world.’ It isn’t just for beginners or people hunting for a bargain, though. In many ways, the Seiko 5 can be considered the perfect watch: It’s affordable, sure, but it’s also reliable, reputable, appropriate for any age, and — a rare distinction among respected timepieces — you can buy one in the same place that you get all of your consumer electronics and the toiletries you’re too embarrassed to buy in person. It’s the rare watch that works in any context, whether you’re looking for a weekend beater or something you can wear out to dinner with your snootiest friends. What’s more, should you encounter a serious horologist out in the wild, having a Seiko 5 on your wrist is a surefire way to get chatting with a new watch buddy. Such distinctions have made this (quoting Hodinkee again) ‘possibly the single most widely owned and produced automatic watch in existence’.
If this is your first encounter with the watch in question, however, let me clarify at this point that it is, in point fact, several different watches. Introduced in 1963, the line was intended to appeal directly to a new group of consumers: the revolutionary young generation coming of age in the 1960s. Beginning with the Sportsmatic 5, it was immediately clear that these weren’t like your granddad’s ticker. Modern, metallic, sharp-looking, and attainable, this was a new kind of timepiece for a new time. With up-to-the-minute features like water- and shock resistance, the first 5 was a stark departure from the horological old school and in time birthed a flourishing line of watches spanning just about every category, including pilot-, diver-, dress- and military-style watches. The field watch SNK line in particular represents incredible value for money, having long been hailed as one of the best watches you can get for less than $100. It’s out of production now, so a degree of scarcity has recently driven up the price a smidge, but they are still a steal on Amazon.
The next obvious point of clarification has to do with the name. If you’ve spent the last few minutes wondering why it’s called the Seiko 5, rest assured that you’re not alone and that many others have puzzled over this same question for far longer. In short, ‘5’ refers to five basic features shared by all watches in the range. What are those five features, you might ask? Well, therein lies the rub. The ones most people seem to agree on are an automatic movement, a date/day display, water resistance, Seiko’s distinctive 4 o’clock crown position, and…well…from here it gets trickier. Is it a durable case? A reliable bracelet? A clear case back? Maybe (if you really want to get into the horological woods) it’s a Diaflex mainspring or a Diashock system? It seems no one really knows and, if we’re being honest, I don’t think anyone truly wants to know since a measure of mystery and good-natured disagreement is part of the joy of owning a Seiko 5.
The point of these five features was to set a directive for the watch’s production, but also in a way to define what constitutes a mechanical watch at its core. If all of these features sound pretty standard and unremarkable (barring the off-centre crown position and Dia-what-have-yous), it’s because the Seiko 5 helped make them so by setting an industry-wide benchmark. Even more so, the five ‘rules’ (whatever they may be, exactly) represent the admirable belief that a good quality watch should be affordable to all.
In 2019, the 5 was revamped and renamed. Now going by the name ‘Seiko 5 Sport’, this souped-up new line boasts an impressive 27 different versions (broken into five sub-categories, namely “sports”, “suits”, “specialist”, “street” and “sense”) all with a new look, improved water resistance, and a modern movement with hand winding and hacking.
It’s at this point that my own story with the Seiko 5 begins. I’ve spoken before about not being a Watch Guy™, but, like so many before me, at some point, I laid eyes on a Seiko 5 and knew immediately that there would be no turning back. I bought one at the end of last year, notionally to celebrate some sort of landmark event, but as any nascent (dare I say it) Watch Guy will tell you, we’ll cook up any old excuse to buy a watch we really want. I could also bore you at length with everything I like about it— the new and improved 5 logo, the elegant and understated ‘automatic’ scribled on the bottom of the dial, the way that it wears small despite it being the heftiest watch I’ve worn — I could go on, but I won’t.
Suffice it to say that I love it and, yes, I may or may not spend many minutes at a time staring at the second hand gliding along the watch face, and, yes, I may or may not have noticed that the colour of the dial and bezel matches the tone of much of my wardrobe and even my eye colour, and, yes, this may or may not be the start of a very troubling and financially crippling watch-buying habit. But, the point is this: Whatever new and overwhelming sensations may accompany the growing acceptance that I may or may not be earnestly into watches now, I can always take five and just sit back and enjoy my very own 5. Because, like any Watch Guy worth their salt will tell you, that’s really all you need.
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