Collector Guide – Seiko Crown Special, An Alternative to Vintage Grand Seiko

“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 is one special vintage Seiko – Grand Seiko vibes for a fraction of the Grand Seiko price.

Model History

As you may know, the Seiko Crown was Suwa’s 1959 replacement for the Seiko Marvel which was their first fully in-house movement. The first Grand Seiko, the 3180, released in 1960 was developed directly from the Crown, so it 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 were re-incorporated 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 Crown Special certainly has wrist presence

The Movements

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 two. The extra diafix cap jewels on both movements help the accuracy by maintaining precisely the right amount of oil in the bearing for the gear’s pivot and for keeping contamination out of the bearing long term.

Crown Special Caliber 341 (left), Grand Seiko Caliber 3180 (right). Image credit: Grand Seiko

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. The Grand Seiko’s train bridge is also individually numbered, as all Seiko chronometer 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 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 is still and attractive looking movement. The 3180 also has some perlage finishing below the balance that the 341 lacks. As one would expect from two movement’s derived from the Crown as a common source, the movement architectures are identical. The beat rate of both is 18000.

A close-up of the 341 caliber

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):

CaliberNotes/Model
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 that 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.

The Cases

While there are a few differences internally between the two movements, externally, the cases of the two watches are much closer in specification. 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).

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 that 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.

Gold cap 80 micron edge visible on the 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 the tradition narrow lugs have been widened on the Grand Seiko to give a little more visual impact. The Crown Special case design goes in a slightly different direction with a slightly angularized treatment of the traditional teardrop lugs. The same lug shape would also appear on the first King Seiko being developed at the same time over at the Daini Seikosha factory.

The Details

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 little 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, ages to a parchment-like beige. Almost all 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’ star found above the 6 o’clock marker, or merely gold plate, signified by a 6-pointed star.

Grand Seiko 3180 with 8-pointed ‘Special Dial’ logo. Image credit: Yahoo Japan.

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 Crown Special has the Grand Seiko equalled and possibly bettered. There is a warmth and glow to the Crown Special that I don’t see from the white-dialed 3180 variant.

The Special was produced with two dial designs. The first is nearly identical to the Grand Seiko, with narrow markers, doubled-up at 12 o’clock as is the Seiko tradition. This dial tends to normally come with plated index markers. However, there is a second dial design shown in this article that has broad prominent markers and as far as my research has shown, always come in solid 18k gold. 

Solid gold index markers

The brushing on the crown special is vertical rather than radial and as with the Grand Seiko, the 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. 

Conclusion

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 watches from the factory to give 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 models cannot be ignored. Grand Seiko 3180s are now trading 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 $500. Just remember to look out for that 8-pointed star on the dial.

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