“Whoa… What is that beauty?” asked Allen as I entered the woody, half-lit inner sanctum of BTD HQ; be-masked and reeking of hand sanitizer. The sanitizer stench was soon overpowered by the heady aroma of cigar smoke and reclaimed barn wood. I was wearing my 1962 Seiko Crown Special and Allen’s comment confirmed what I already knew – this was one special vintage Seiko. In short, vintage Grand Seiko vibes for a fraction of the Grand Seiko price.
As you may know, the Seiko Crown was Suwa’s 1959 replacement for the 1956 Seiko Marvel which was their first fully in-house movement. The first Grand Seiko, the revered 3180, released in 1960 was developed directly from the Crown, and occupies its own important place in Seiko history. What you may not know is that after the 3180 was developed, some of the improvements made it back into the Crown model line as the Crown Special. You can think of the Special as a regular Seiko Crown on Grand Seiko steroids.
The 341 caliber found in the Crown Special adds diafix-jeweled bearings for all of the wheels in the going train giving a final jewel count of 23. The regular Crown has either 19 or 21 depending on the year of manufacture. The Grand Seiko 3180 has two additional jewels in the barrel, totaling 25, so the Crown Special’s 341 falls directly in between the Grand Seiko and the regular Crown. The extra diafix cap jewels on both 3180 and 341 help both the accuracy and reliability by maintaining precisely the right amount of oil within the bearing and by keeping contamination out of the bearing long term.
The Grand Seiko has a tadpole fine regulator on the balance whereas the Crown’s balance just has a regular coarse adjuster. The tadpole regulator, named because its shape, makes fine adjustment more straightforward when regulating the watch. Note however, that the addition of the fine regulator makes the watch any more precise, it does not. What it does do, is make the watch easier and quicker to regulate.
The Grand Seiko’s train bridge is also individually numbered, as all Seiko chronometer-grade movements were. For the record, the 3180’s certification was internal and neither independent, nor Swiss certified, which eventually lead to the Chronometer label being removed from Seiko dials for a number of years until Japan established its own independent Chronometer certification.
In general the finishing of the bridges on the Special is lower than the Grand Seiko with its polished bevels. The graining on the 341’s bridges has a rougher look than the 3180 but it still yields an attractive looking movement. Both movements have extra finishing on the ratchet wheel compared to other Seiko movements of the time. The 3180 also has some pearlage finishing below the balance, not found on the 341. As one would expect from two movement’s derived from the Crown as a common source, the movement architectures are identical and many of the components are interchangeable. The beat rate of both is 18000 and both movements hack using the exact same hacking lever.
The position of the 341 caliber relative to the Grand Seiko’s is reinforced by the numbering of both movements in Seiko’s post-1963 revised numbering scheme (data from watch-wiki.net):
|3180/5720A (1960)||25 jewels, Grand Seiko, 18,000 vph|
|57A (1961)||21 jewels, Crown Self Dater, 18,000 vph|
|57B (1961)||21 jewels, Crown, 18,000 vph|
|341/5760 (1961)||23 jewels, Crown Special, 18,000 vph|
|430/5722A (1963)||35 jewels, Grand Seiko Chronometer, 18,000 vph|
|5740A (1964)||23 jewels, 57 Lord Marvel, 18,000 vph|
|5717A (1964)||21 jewels, Chronograph Calendar, 18,000 vph|
|5718A (1964)||21 jewels, “Count Graph” for Olympics, 2+2 pushers, 2-hand subdial, 18,000 vph|
|5719A (1964)||21 jewels, Chronograph (no date), 18,000 vph|
|5722B (1966)||35 jewels, Grand Seiko, 19,800 vph|
|5740B (1966)||23 jewels, 57 Lord Marvel, 19,800 vph|
|5740C (1967)||25 jewels, 57 Lord Marvel, 36,000 vph|
As we can see from this movement family tree, the Crown Special’s 341 falls in a long line of some the very best manually-wound calibers from Suwa Seikosha in the 1960s, beginning with the Grand Seiko 3180 which went on to become the 5720A, through the Crown Chronographs of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to the high-beat 5740C Lord Marvel in production until 1975.
Crown Special cases came in stainless steel and gold cap, and the latter was identical in specification to the Grand Seiko. The Grand Seiko 3180 and the Crown Super both have the same 80 micron 18k gold cap. Think of gold cap as really, really thick gold plating that is mechanically applied as a separate sheet of gold bonded onto the steel case. (my All-Clad 3-ply cooking pans have a very similar construction with stainless steel caps bonded to an aluminum core). It may come as a surprise to some that the first Grand Seiko was not available in gold but this was the reality, with a solid platinum case as the only precious metal option. Ironically the rarest case by far is the stainless steel version which seems to have only be produced in prototype quantities.
How thick is the cap layer on these watches? Well, regular gold plating is around 0.5 microns (5/10000 of a mm) – very, very thin. It’s only about 3500 atoms thick. Maybe that explains why it rarely looks good and lasts about as long as an ice cream in the summer sun. Vermeil gold plating (AKA heavy gold plating) is typically 2.5 microns thick, so 5 times thicker than the really bad stuff, but still not very good. The gold cap on both these watches is 32 times thicker than Vermeil and 160 times thicker than regular gold plate. It’s thick enough to be easily visible and can be seen around the edge of my Crown’s caseback.
The layer is also thick enough to take the wear and tear of regular use. With years of use it can wear through and typically it does where the thumb of previous owners have rested while winding. Solid gold would, of course, be more desirable but neither the Grand Seiko 3180 nor the Crown Special was made with a solid gold case. A gold cap is the next best thing and if it was good enough for the first Grand Seiko, I think it is also OK for the Crown Special. A gold cap has the lustre of solid gold and it patinas like solid gold, until it gets really worn when it does start to look more like regular plating.
In terms of case design and execution, the two watches are also quite similar. There is very little of the Grammar of Design here that will later dominate Seiko’s higher end models. Instead, we see a small evolution of the existing dress watch pattern. The basic circular form and thin bezel are still there unchanged in both watches but Seiko’s designers began to experiment with lug shape on both the Crown Special and Grand Seiko. The design philosophy within Seiko at that time meant that higher luxury and larger watches were given correspondingly substantial lugs. The Crown Special came in two models, J14100 and 15021, and three case shapes, two for the J14100, and one for the 15021. All three cases have different lugs designs.
The J14100 Type 1 case is the one you see pictured in this article and is the more common case of the three. The lugs of the J14100 are very distinctive, having a definite, angled crease at the half way point giving a contemporary twist to the traditional teardrop lug. The Type 2 lugs are similar but thinner and more elegant with a less pronounced crease. Similar facetted lug shapes would also appear on the first King Seiko designs being developed at the same time at the Daini Seikosha factory.
Conversely, the lugs of the 15021 case are more conventional, being slightly longer and thinner versions of the Grand Seiko’s smoothly contoured lugs. J14100 and 15021 models came in both gold cap and steel with gold being the more common. All the 15021 models I have seen have had AD dials making me think that no SD 15021 was made, whereas the J14100 model came with both SD and AD dials.
Ah, Such Beautiful Dials
In terms of size, both watches are an identical 35mm across but both appear larger on the wrist as they are all dial and no bezel. And what dials they are! The Grand Seiko First needs no introduction. Afterall, it was the basis for the spectacular 2017 limited edition SBGW252 in solid 18k gold. 3180 dials were produced in a painted or a radially brushed finish, which given half a chance, age to a parchment-like beige. Many examples you will see for sale have some form of dial damage. Index markers are either solid gold, signified by the 8-pointed ‘Special Dial’ or ‘SD’ star found above the 6 o’clock marker, or merely gold plate, signified by a 6-pointed ‘Applied Dial’ or ‘AD’ star.
One might expect to have to compromise a little when it comes to the Crown Special’s dial but nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact I would postulate that with the exception of the that gorgeous Grand Seiko logo and chronometer script, the gold Crown Special has the Grand Seiko equalled and possibly bettered. There is a warmth and glow to the Crown Special that I don’t often see from the white-dialed 3180 variant. The Crown Special’s color can patina from the original silver-white finish, through a golden beige to a dark caramel. Expect some level of dial damage on most examples unfortunately, as both watches are susceptible to oxidation spots below the top layer of varnish.
The Special was produced several dial designs and in both SD and AD variants. Gold models have either solid or plated gold markers and the stainless steel models have either solid white-gold or rhodium plated markers. The model you see in this article has the wide solid yellow gold markers and a vertically brushed dial that can vary from silver through to gold. You can also find SD dials with medium width markers and some with very narrow markers, again in solid gold as specified by the SD standard. Dials also came in a sunburst finish which is more commonly seen on the AD versions, while the brushed dial seems more common on the SD models. Stainless steel examples with the SD (solid white gold markers) dials are rare, with almost all steel models having plated, sunburst AD dials.
Apparently, the Crown Special never really lived up to its luxurious potential after launch in Japan. The fact that the watch was still branded a Seiko Crown meant that the public’s perception was more of a work horse than a race horse. The script ‘Special’ branding and the solid gold touches were not enough to change that perception, especially with the fancier Grand Seiko 3180 in the house. I am not sure if it is still this perception that keeps values of the Crown Special low, or simply an ignorance of just how close to Grand Seikos these specials were.
I find the light yellow dial tones to be the most harmonious with the gold of the indexes and case. Add a dark brown crocodile strap as was fitted to both the Grand Seiko and Crown Special from the factory and you will have an extremely elegant vintage dress watch large enough and bold enough to mix with more contemporary watches.
On the wrist, the Crown Super feels like a more expensive watch and the price differential between the two very similar models cannot be ignored. Grand Seiko 3180s are now trading well above $3000 for good examples and above $10000 for a rarer carved logo example with box and papers, while excellent Crown Specials can be found for $800. Just remember to look out for that 8-pointed star on the J14100’s dial to get the full golden experience.