Birth-Year Seiko Watches: 1970-1979

In our previous installment on Seiko watches from the 1960s, we saw how the serial number of each Seiko watch can be used to indicate the month and year of its manufacture. The first digit denotes the year of the decade in which the watch was made and the second digit denotes the month of manufacture: 1-9 and then 0, N, D corresponding to the 12 months of the year. This makes them ideal candidates to search out for a birth year watch or even a birth month watch. 

The end of the last guide left us on Christmas Day 1969 at the dawn of the quartz revolution. It will come as no surprise then, to find some quartz watches highlighted in the following decade. A decade that will see Seiko reduce its mechanical watch output to virtually zero and kill off some of its most famous mechanical timepieces. However, at the turn of the 1970s, mechanical watches were definitely still in vogue at Seiko. Quartz watches were available but were expensive and cost many times more than their mechanical brethren. Today, we associate quartz watches with affordability and mechanical watches with luxury, however 50 years ago, the exact opposite was true.

1970

While the release of the 6139 caliber in 1969 garners all of the praise for being the first production automatic chronograph, in my opinion, the related 6138, also from Suwa, is the more impressive movement. The 6138 was supposed to be the first of the two chronograph movements to be released, but apparently production issues in 1968 meant that the 6138 was delayed in favour of moving the 6139 release up. The 6138-based chronographs can be differentiated from the 6139 by their dual subregisters allowing up to 12 elapsed hours to be counted. As with the 6139, the 6138 features dual quickset for day and date and is built around the same column wheel, vertical clutch combination. It manually winds as well, which is something the 6139 does not. For 1970, the pick of the 6138 chronographs for me, is the 6138-8020 Panda dial. Good examples fetch between $1500 and $2000. However, few vintage Seiko watches have the value retention of the ever-popular Panda, so your money should be safe, if you choose this route.

6138-8020 ‘ Panda’ Automatic Chronograph from Suwa Seikosha. Image credit: luxuwrist.com

I doubt many will be surprised when I tell you that Daini also developed their own rival 701x automatic chronograph in 1970 to compete with Suwa’s 613x. A decade after the Grand Seiko/King Seiko first inter-factory rivalry started, here was another. The Daini caliber is the more technically advanced and has proven more reliable due to a more robust chronograph wheel. However, the 701x chronographs are also an order of magnitude rarer on the vintage market since they were only sold in Japan compared to the 613x watches which were sold world-wide.

7015-6010 Time Sonar Automatic Chronograph from Daini Seikosha

Even though the Quartz Astron’s introduction in 1969 foreshadowed the demise of Grand Seiko as a brand of mechanical watches, in 1970, Seiko were still forging ahead, pushing the boundaries of mechanical watch accuracy. January of 1970 saw the introduction of the VFA classification with a very special watch indeed, the Grand Seiko 6185-8000. Anyone familiar with Seiko caliber numbering may know that the third digit is often an indication of the quality of the movement and here we have an unprecedented ‘8’ in that position. 

Today, we associate quartz watches with affordability and mechanical watches with luxury, however 50 years ago, the exact opposite was true.

The VFA standard stood for ‘Very Fine Adjusted’ and was a standard above both the Grand Seiko the Swiss Chronometer standards. A VFA movement was expected to keep accuracy to +/- 2s per day. Seiko guaranteed accuracy better than one minute per month for the first two years of ownership. If you can find any 6185 Grand Seiko VFAs from 1970 or 1971, expect to pay between $5000 and $10000. Yes, $10000 for a vintage Seiko! VFA Grand Seikos were produced in strictly limited numbers by both factories until 1975.

Any discussion of Seiko watches from 1970 and 1971 would be remiss if it did not mention so-called ‘proof’ dials and ‘resist’ dials. Watches until 1970 were branded ‘waterproof’ on the case back and somtimes also on the dial. This was the normal nomenclature for that time to describe the imperviousness of the watch to water. In 1969, the US government passed a law that required watches to be described more accurately as ‘water resistant’ rather than the technically incorrect ‘waterproof’. 

Compliance was required by 1972, and so beginning in 1970, Seiko started changing all of their watches to comply with the new legislation. Watches from 1970 are typically found to be proof/proof, meaning that they have waterproof on the dial and/or the case back.

Seiko 6139-6005 ‘Cevert’ from 1971 featuring ‘RESIST’ text on the dial.

1971

Watches from 1971 are typically resist/resist meaning that they have ‘water resist’ written on the dial and/or case back. In fact, the case backs have the complete ‘water resistant’ text while the dials have the shorter ‘resist’ text, presumably to avoid significant layout changes associated with the longer ‘resistant’ text. Of course, as with most things vintage, the rules are never clear cut. There are 1970/71 transitional watches that may have a mismatch of both phraseology and some models lost all references to water resistance from their dials. Additionally, because the legislation was specifically for the US market, Seiko changed those watches first. They did eventually change all their watches to comply with the US legislation but some domestic lines did not change over until 1972.

My own birth month watch, the King Seiko 5625-7040 from February 1971

In 1971 Seiko released the King Seiko Chronometer with the evergreen 28800bph 562x movement that had debuted in 1968, receiving its chronometer certification from the Japan Chronometer Inspection Institution. The case is more reminiscent of later Grand Seiko watches than the King Seiko models that preceded it. The 5625-7040 proudly displays its Chronometer rating on either a silver, grey-blue starburst dial. The appearance of the grey-blue dial changes significantly with lighting conditions. Sometimes it looks grey and other times it can look violet, verging on full-blown 70s purple. Silver-dialed versions are also available. The King Seiko Chronometer rating indicated that the watch had an accuracy better than -1/+10 seconds per day.

Introduced in 1968, the Lord Matic line of watches grew in popularity throughout the early 70s. Nestling below the Grand Seiko and King Seiko lines, and more affordable than both, Lord Matics make ideal birth year watches for those born between 1968 and 1976. There are so many available, that they also make practical birth month candidates. What I particularly enjoy about the Lord Matic range is they feature a number of classic design features of late-60s and early-70s Seikos in a single accessible range. For example, the 5606-7020 features a full text day window at 6 o’clock reminiscent of the mid-sixties weekdater, but now combined with the case shape reminiscent of the 44GS. As with any 56xx-based movement, ensure the date quickset is working correctly before purchase.

LordMatic 5606-7020 with Grand Seiko-esque case.

Some LordMatics were designated ‘Special’ on the dial because they are powered by the hi-beat 521x movement. The 521x-based variants often appear far more extroverted than their ordinary brothers with highly coloured or textured dials that, to me, seem to be the clear predecessors of the highly-decorative dials that we associate with Grand Seiko today. One feature of the Special LordMatics however, that has not survived to current day Grand Seiko, perhaps thankfully, is the use of facetted crystals. Love them or hate them, they were a feature of many Seiko watches in the early 70s. The good news for the haters is that many have since been changed to conventional crystals during servicing.

1971 was also the first year that a quartz watch was designated VFA, with the highly accurate, temperature compensated caliber 3823. The VFA standard as applied to quartz watches was understandably more stringent than for mechanical watches. The movements were regulated just like the mechanical watches but the guaranteed accuracy was +/- 5 seconds per month. Within 4 years, Seiko’s ‘Superior’ quartz calibers would annihilate that standard and offer within accuracy of 12 seconds per year, comparable with Grand Seiko’s current 9F watches, 50 years later.

Sometimes it looks grey and other times it can look violet, verging on full-blown 70s purple.

1972

In 1972, Seiko launched their third recreational dive watch, the 6105-8110, replacing the earlier 6105-8000 from 1968 that, in turn, replaced the 62 MAS. If the 6105-8110 model number does not seem familiar to you, then I’m sure the watch’s nickname will be more so. Named after Martin Sheen’s character in Coppola’s 1979 ‘Apocalypse Now’, the ‘Captain Willard’ has become an extremely popular collector’s piece. The 44mm asymmetric case suits modern tastes and large wrists in equal measure. 

Within 4 years, Seiko’s ‘Superior’ quartz calibers would annihilate that standard and offer within accuracy of 12 seconds per year, comparable with Grand Seiko’s current 9F watches, 50 years later.

As with all vintage Seiko dive watches, good original examples are hard to come by and their pricing reflects that. However, considering these are truly landmark pieces with history and the movie connection, the significant cost can perhaps be excused. They continued to be made until 1977, at which time they overlapped the replacement 6306/6309 turtle. Expect to pay $1500-$2000 for a good example.

1972 6105-8110 aka the Captain Willard

For those born in 1972 with a sense of history, and an interest in the extraterrestrial, a yellow-dialed ‘resist’ 6139 chronograph would make a venerable talking point of a birth watch. This watch was, of course, the one that Colonel William Pogue bought on layaway at the Army and Air Force Exchange of Ellington AFB in September 1972 for $64 and would take on the Skylab 4 mission from November 16, 1973, to February 8, 1974. 

While the only ‘true’ Pogue was the one that flew on that mission and was subsequently auctioned off in 2008 for $5000, you will see the term applied to any watch with the correct dial text and case back code. The dial should read ‘WATER 70m RESIST’ at 9 o’clock and ‘AUTOMATIC’ only at 12 o’clock. The case back code should read 6139-6005 indicating that it was a North American market watch.

William Pogue at the controls of the Skylab Solar Observatory wearing his 6139-6005 on his left wrist. 

Finally, for 1972, I must mention King Seiko or rather King Seiko ‘Vanac’. The Vanac sub-brand ran until 1975 when both it and its conservative parent brand were phased out in favour of quartz. The Vanac watches took the existing high quality King Seiko movements and wrapped them in extravagantly finished and sometimes downright bizarre cases with dials that could only have come from this era. Think metallic pinks, purples and lime greens with gold markers overlain with cut-glass crystals. If you still yearn for the days of Marc Bolan, T. Rex and glam rock then the King Seiko Vanac watches may be for you.

King Seiko Vanac 5246-5040. Image credit: vintageseiko.nl

1973

October 1973 saw another world first from Seiko, the titanium-cased VFA 06LC which was the world’s first LCD digital watch. Given that its ground-breaking display was only rated for 50,000 hours (less than 6 years), the chances of finding a working example 47 years later as your birth year watch may be remote. However, there is one listed on eBay as I write with a ‘Buy It Now’ of $5000.

With no other prominent releases in 1973, we will pause to consider two Seiko model lines that were stalwarts of their Seventies lineup. The Actus line was sold only in Japan while the 70m Sports Divers were available worldwide. Produced from 1970 through to 1977, the Actus line was designed to attract a younger design-conscience audience. I’m a big fan of these watches that never quite made it to the rest of the world. The full-featured SS models, in particular, have high jewel counts, hacking movements and dual day/date quick sets. Their workhorse 6106 movement is also as reliable as a bullet train. Their case finishing was typically very good, on par with the LM series, but not quite reaching KS or GS standards. That shortfall does not hold true however for the dials, markers and hands which are certainly comparable with King Seiko. Highly polished rehauts and markers, bouncing reflections and catching highlights under a clear crystal are what we find throughout the Actus line. Albeit infamous for some crazy designs with those oh-so-Seventies facetted crystals, there are also some conservative designs to discover that really do remind me of modern Grand Seiko. 

If you still yearn for the days of Marc Bolan, T. Rex and glam rock then the King Seiko Vanac watches may be for you.

The Actus range is also where you will find the best fumé dials Seiko created in the Seventies, including those that have tropicalized, uncharacteristically for a Seiko, to a mellow, graduated brown after their silver-plated dial has tarnished over the years. Alternatively branded Actus or 5Actus, examples in excellent condition can be easily found at Japanese dealers for $300.

Seiko Actus watches: facetted, fumé and naturally tropicalized.

The 70m Sports Diver range was a line of fashion-forward sports watches that sprang from Seiko’s more serious dive watches at the end of the 1960s and lasted through 1979. Brochures for the watches depicted sun-kissed athletic models scuba diving or waterskiing as well as supposed ranch hands perched on mopeds bedecked in denim, boots, hat and of course, their Seiko Sports Diver watch. 

Seiko Sports Diver Catalog from the early seventies.

The sports divers of the early seventies comprise some of the most sought-after vintage models for Seiko enthusiasts. For example, the first sports diver, model 6106-8100, is particularly popular given that it was not made in great numbers. Another is the 6106-8227 ‘Rally Diver’ which combines a dive bezel with an automotive inspired checkerboard pattern. A third is the 6106-7107 ‘UFO’ which was the first Seiko dive watch with an orange dial. All command premium prices when a good example comes up for sale. This range contained so many unique dial and bezel designs that it is impossible to cover them all in a single article. Prices vary with demand of course but there are some handsome examples that have so far avoided the Seiko vintage bubble and are still $200 or less. Other models definitely did get caught up in all that froth and now fetch $1500 in pristine condition. If there is an inner rotating bezel, confirm that it works before buying… a non-rotating bezel indicates either a bad bezel or an incorrect stem and crown, both of which can cost $100 to remedy. Also be vigilant for black or grey mouldy lume as it is always a sign of water ingress in sports divers of this era.

The Seiko 6119-6023 – an affordable sports diver from 1973

1974

1974 saw the release of Seiko’s Quartz Superior watches. At ¥220,000, they were double the cost of a Grand Seiko 61GS. Accuracy was within a world beating two seconds a month. To emphasize the quality of these watches, Seiko started equipping them with some unique dial finishes that we recognize today. The first Guilloche and Snowflake dials produced by Seiko were on these Quartz Superior watches. Styling is otherwise conservative and the quality of the cases and bracelets is excellent, commensurate with their original price point. Good working examples from Japan will cost in the region of $700 up to $1500 for the rarer models.

An inordinate number of 6138 chronographs seem to have been made in 1974, or at least it seems that way when looking at one mode in particular, the 6138-300x affectionately known as the Jumbo. All of the 6138-based watches are large for vintage watches at between 40-44mm in diameter and also thick at 14-16mm. However the ‘Jumbo’, ironically, is one of the smaller variants. The nickname, instead, derives from the large 34mm diameter dial with a minimal bezel rather than the large case. This is one of the best looking 6138s in my opinion. In fact, I will go on record and say the 6138-300x is one of the best looking vintage Seikos ever! Show an example to a watch enthusiast and unless he or she is well-versed in vintage Seiko lore, I very much doubt they will be able to accurately date the watch. From a style perspective, it could have been made yesterday, with perhaps IWC written on the dial. The Jumbo is also one of the more affordable 6138s and especially suits the large wrist so it really makes an ideal contemporary choice of birth year watch from 1970 through to 1978. Good examples should still be $500 but watches with aftermarket dials abound, so take care and study the fonts used on the dials in particular.

6138-3002 ‘Jumbo’ automatic chronograph

1975

1975 could be categorized as a bittersweet year for the mechanical Seiko enthusiast. Grand Seiko and King Seiko were finally laid to rest, albeit temporarily for Grand Seiko. Quartz was king, quite literally in 1976 when the King Quartz brand was launched to fill the space left by King Seiko. Lesser mechanical model lines such as LM, Actus and Seiko 5 continued for the time being. However, as something of a counterpoint to the new quartz dominance, a remarkable new watch was launched by Seiko. And it was mechanical.

In fact, I will go on record and say this is one of the best looking vintage Seikos ever.

By 1975, professional divers in Japan were finding that existing dive watches from all manufacturers were proving unreliable and had voiced their concerns to Seiko. Seiko’s response was the Seiko 6159-7010 Professional, more recently and affectionally categorized as the ‘Grandfather Tuna’. It is perhaps worth pointing out at this point that none of these Seiko nicknames were ever bestowed by the factory. All have been retroactively applied and then accepted into mainstream use by well-meaning aficionados of the brand. The 6159-7010 was rated at 600m and came with a titanium case and a titanium-ceramic shroud; the height of technology at that time. A helium escape valve was not necessary due to an effective crystal-case interface. 

This was also the first appearance of the ‘vented’ rubber watch strap that automatically compensates for expansion and contraction at different depths. Such robustness does not come in a small package and the Tuna is positively huge for a wristwatch. If it helps, that case is lugless. Dare I say that it wears smaller than the 50mm case would suggest? The hi-beat 6159 movement came from Grand Seiko making this a particularly accomplished watch. It was manufactured through to 1979 and continues to prove popular with collectors leading to prices over $2000 for the best examples. At launch, the Grandfather Tuna cost ¥89,000, twice that of a regular Grand Seiko and only slightly less than the limited production GS VFAs: then in their final year.

The ground-breaking 1975 6159-7010 ‘Grandfather Tuna’

1976

In 1976, Seiko’s most expensive steel watch was the Quartz Superior 4883-8100 costing an eye watering ¥180,000 which is around $3100 in today’s money. As such, it sat at the top of the Seiko range for that year. Grand Seiko was gone and replaced with the Grand Quartz line. Only a single word difference on the dials but a world of difference in prestige. The Grand Quartz line was launched as merely a mid-tier brand within the Seiko pantheon; surpassed in quality by the Superior and VFA quartz lines. In keeping with Seiko tradition, a ‘King’ line was also introduced, similar to the ‘Grand’ line but at a slightly lower price point. Grand Quartz and King Quartz would continue for the rest of the decade and beyond, slowly moving up in prestige, year by year, within the annual catalogue, increasing in both quality and price from their somewhat surprisingly humble inception.

Quartz Superior 4883-8100 – the most expensive steel watch Seiko produced in 1976

1976 also saw the introduction of another iconic dive watch whose impact would echo forward through the following years to a point where it would be re-issued in 2015. The Seiko ‘Turtle’ had arrived in the form of the 6306-700x (Japan) and 6309-700x (rest of the world) 150m divers. Everything here is entirely familiar to the modern watch enthusiast: rotating bi-directional click bezel, turtle case shape, locking crown, matte black dial, large lume plots and the characteristic arrow-shaped minute hand. The most obvious physical difference, and there are not many, from the 2015 SRP re-issue is the case size. The vintage turtle case is slightly smaller than the re-issue and all the better balanced because for it in my opinion. Made from 1976 to 1988, the original Seiko diver is a solid birth year watch choice for many. Prices start at $400 for poor examples and modified watches (there are many) to well over $800 for the best, dry, original examples. 

By now, the writing was certainly on the wall in Tokyo: quartz was winning the battle.

For these watches in particular it is advised to search out sellers with a good reputation. Finally, a remark on the ‘150m RESIST’ text. When the watch was new, it would have been red but almost all have now faded to anywhere from an orange through yellow, pale green to grey to white. Look at enough dials, you will notice a lot seem to have the the yellow-green hue. This is a good, but not definite, indicator that you are looking at a reproduction dial. You may also see vintage turtles co-branded ‘Scubapro’ and while some watches were made by Seiko for Scubapro, the number was small and they were only ever the 6306 domestic models and never the 6309 world models.

The original ‘turtle’, a 1976 Seiko 6306

1977

Seiko’s model line was unchanged in 1977 so this means if that is your birth year, you have the choice of the Superior, Grand Quartz or King Quartz battery-powered models. In terms of mechanical watches, the 6138, 6139 and 701x automatic chronographs were still in production. The analogue quartz chronograph was still 6 years away. The Bell-Matic range was still available, essentially unchanged since its introduction in 1966. Some Actus watches were still available. The LordMatic range was still available but with far fewer designs and the venerable hi-beat, manually-wound Lord Marvel was still in production, unchanged since 1967! The Tuna and Turtle divers rounded out the mechanical offerings. By now, the writing was certainly on the wall in Tokyo: quartz was winning the battle. All other electric watches had been dropped and the number of quartz pieces had increased to fill more than 80% of the pages in the annual catalogue. 

We have not yet discussed the Seiko Bell-Matic line of watches. Launched in 1966 as a Japan-only model, it was the first and only time Seiko contained an audible complication in any of its mechanical watches. There would be ones much later but only in the Credor range. The 400x movement of the Bell-Matic was also the most complicated Seiko had produced up until that time. It contains two separately wound mainsprings, one a conventional spring for tracking time and then, a second, for powering the alarm function. At the time indicated by the rotating inner bezel, the second spring is unlocked by the hour wheel on the dial side and unwinds, delivering its power through a hammer that impacts a sounding spring on the movement side that chimes for approximately 10 seconds. 

In this world of smart watches and Alexa alarms, the idea of a watch with a mechanical bell may seem an anachronism but there is something both charming and ultimately useful about the Seiko Bell-Matic. When I have mine on, I use the alarm numerous times a day to discretely remind me of an important meeting or, perhaps more importantly, when the bread needs to come out of the oven. Production continued through to 1978.

Seiko Bell-Matic: a interesting series of watches made for most of the Seventies

1978

In 1978, Seiko introduced another innovation to their quartz line that would introduce a level of accuracy that is still to be bettered by any watch that does not use any time signal synchronization technologies. The 9983 Superior Twin Quartz watch was accurate to 5 seconds per year! To put this achievement into perspective, the limited edition, specially adjusted GS 60th anniversary 9F85 movement announced in 2020, also has an accuracy of 5 seconds per year. Seiko’s best modern day quartz movement cannot beat a standard first set in 1978. The 9983 movement was derived from the 9943 movement (+/- 10s/year) and used two quartz oscillators to provide this unparalleled accuracy. The first was used in a regular fashion to keep time and the other was used to sense variance due to temperature change and compensate for it. Expect to pay around $900 for a reasonable 9983 double quartz.

There is something both charming and ultimately useful about the Seiko Bell-Matic

The twin quartz logo from the 9940-8010

1978 was also the year Seiko updated the three-year old Grandfather Tuna by changing the Grand Seiko 6519 movement over to a 7549 quartz caliber and thereby creating the world’s first quartz watch for saturation diving. This watch went on to be strapped to the outside of the research submarine “SHINKAI 2000” and successfully taken to a depth of 1,062 meters below sea level, nearly twice as deep as its specified maximum without issue. Compared to the Grandfather Tuna, the 7549-70xx came with its titanium case tinted gold by nitride plating, immediately bestowing it the nickname ‘Golden Tuna’. The watch would feature briefly in “For Your Eyes Only” when Roger Moore, playing 007, dives wearing it. The dial professed the new reliance on quartz with “QUARTZ” and “SQ” text. The depth rating was unchanged at 600m, but would increase to 1000m in 1986 with the 7C46-700x replacement. Reasonable Golden Tuna examples start at around $1000.

The 1000m Golden Tuna. Image credit: tantakian.com

1979

By 1979, the Grand Quartz and King Quartz lines had inherited the dual-quartz technology from the Superior line and had, in effect, replaced the majority of the Superior line apart from the two uber-accurate 9983-based watches. Grand Quartz was once again back at the front of the Seiko annual catalog with an expanded, prestigious range. Some of the case styles from the earlier Grand Seiko line had been re-introduced, for example the 9943-8010. These updated dual-quartz Grand Quartz and King Quartz represent particularly affordable birth year watches with dial quality and case finishing in line with the earlier Grand Seiko but with purchase prices around $500. The gap in the product range left by the Grand Quartz and King Quartz lines moving upmarket, was filled, not unexpectedly by a new Lord Quartz range.

The 9983 Superior Twin Quartz watch was accurate to 5 seconds per year!

Quartz divers also appeared for the first time in the form of the 150m 7548-700x using what would eventually become the modern SKX case. Even Seiko enthusiasts will have trouble differentiating these from modern day SKX007s and SKX009s, until that is, they notice dial proudly declaring itself ‘QUARTZ’. As swathe of less capable sports divers were also introduced under the on-off-on-again ‘SilverWave’ sub-brand, some of which reprised the designs from the early 70s mechanical 70m Sports Divers.

One of Seiko’s last mechanical chronographs of the 70s: a 1978 6138-0011

Seventies Summary

So at the end of the decade, the only mechanical watches listed in Seiko’s catalog are the 6309/6306 150m diver and 32 unremarkable and totally forgettable dress watches from Daini Seikosha. It is hard as a mechanical watch enthusiast to see this as anything other than bleak. Looking at the Seiko watches of the 70s, I used to feel this period of Seiko’s history was akin to the US motor manufacturers’ ‘Malaise Era’ when, frankly, every new car was terrible. I certainly felt like that while planning this article. However, I have changed my mind after researching this period in depth. The demise of the mechanical watches is not the real story of Seiko in the 1970s, especially not when looking for one-of-a-kind, special birth year watches. Sure, for the first half of the decade we were positively spoiled with so many automatic chronographs, dive watches, stylish dress watches and high quality time pieces with world-beating engineering, but it’s important to remember that engineering excellence did not stop in the second half of the decade. In the second half of the decade, Seiko produced some remarkable, exceptional and exquisite quartz watches that can still hold their own, in terms of finish, accuracy and sheer technical prowess, against Seiko’s modern output and yet are still affordable today.

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