Collector Guide The Short-Lived Seiko Liner

In 1960, Seiko’s Suwa factory launched a brand of luxury dress watches known as the Liner. The Liner range was to fit just below the newly launched Grand Seiko range, providing much of the style and luxury without the high precision of the Chronometer-rated Grand Seiko model. However, by 1964, the brand was no more, making it one of, if not the shortest-lived, Seiko brand.

Seiko Liner 15007 dress watch from 1960

By the late 50s, the Japanese taste in watches had turned away from the smaller watches of the post-war period to watches that were both larger and thinner. Seiko had already responded to changing tastes by introducing the Marvel model in 1956, which achieved its noted quality improvements, in part, by utilizing a bigger movement enabled by the move to fashionably larger watches. If the Marvel was the watch that had proved to Japan that Seiko could compete on quality with the Swiss watches of the day, then the subsequent launch of the Lord Marvel in 1958 broadcast their intent to enter the luxury watch space.

The Quest for Thinness

Daini Seikosha, the other Seiko watch factory had launched an extremely thin dress watch at the beginning of 1960 called the Goldfeather. It contained an all new, manually wound movement that measured just 2.95 mm in height. The early 60s was a time of high competition between the two factories, so there was pressure within Suwa to produce their own ultra thin watch to both meet Japan’s changing watch tastes and compete with the Daini factory. However, unlike Daini in Kameido, Tokyo, the Suwa factory in the more rural Nagano region did not have the resources at that time to create a completely new movement. Suwa had spent the years since 1956 refining the existing Marvel movement to create, first the Crown movement, then refining that further to produce the 3180 movement which launched Grand Seiko in 1960.

3mm thick caliber 3140 used in the non chronometer Seiko Liners
The thin 3mm 3140 movement used in most Seiko Liner watches

Without the ability to design a new slimline movement for the nascent Liner brand, the Suwa watchmakers went back to their 5-year old Marvel movement and put it on a diet. Each component was thinned in height and had its tolerances refined to allow for reduced clearance between wheels and bridges. The resultant 23-jewel 3140 movement measured just 3mm high; 0.05mm more than the Goldfeather, but significant thinner than the Marvel’s 4.4mm and slim enough to launch the Liner brand.

While the Liner range comprised many model numbers, it only ever offered three watch designs: a dress watch, a waterproof watch and a chronometer. The first model launched was the dress watch designed to meet the fashion trend of larger, thinner watches. Case styling was conservative, with thin bezels to accentuate the increased size of the watch, and thin delicate lugs to balance the thinness of the watch.

Seiko Liner dial brushing
Seiko Liner J15007 from 1961

Rare Dials

Dress watch cases came in gold plate, gold cap, solid gold and stainless steel and the dials were produced to SD and AD standards. As was the Seiko tradition at that time, watches were identified by 5-digit case codes and within those case codes, a number of dial variants were offered. All came with the same 3140 movement. Dial designed ranged from the traditional to the downright exotic. One dial design commonly found amongst the regular sunburst and vertically brushed dials, features concentric milled circles. Another features a spectacular carved spiral pattern that would not be out of place on a modern limited edition Grand Seiko model. And speaking of Grand Seiko, the first ‘birch-style’ dial was featured on a Seiko Liner model. A stunning pink beryllium copper dial was also produced for case J15007.

Seiko Liner Bamboo Dial
Some say this dial is supposed to be a dragon fly wing, but to me it looks more like split bamboo. Watch image courtesy of @seikomania2021

Amongst all of the Liner dials however, two rare models particularly standout. The dial pictured above has been referred to as a dragon fly wing dial although it looks to me more like split bamboo. Seiko never used this name officially, collectors have simply started using the term because of a lack of an official name.

Another rare dial is one with a floral design inspired by a Japanese Clematis variety known as Clematis patens. This variety of clematis is also known as ‘kazaguruma’ or the Japanese windmill flower, leading to this dial sometimes being referred to as the windmill dial by some collectors.

Seiko Liner Kazaguruma
The clematis-inspired ‘kazaguruma’ floral dial

The Clematis dial was likened to a ‘buddhist temple’ in the ‘Japanese Domestic Watch’ book published by Tombow Publishing Co., Ltd. I suspect this is just a reference to the black and gold color scheme of the dial. The dial features the eight-petalled clematis flower showing an inverted mosaic effect where the ’tiles’ of the design look punched or pressed into the dial.

Japanese Clematis patens 'kazaguruma' flower
The Clematis patens flower known in Japan as ‘kazaguruma’

For both of these highly decorated dials, Seiko pushed the logo liner right to the edge as the entire dial is given over to the design. And what a logo it is! When one thinks of some of the great Seiko logotypes that have been used in the past, for example the early ‘Chronometer’ script and the original Grand Seiko lettering, I think the Seiko Liner logo is certainly one of the best: a delicate, finely printed script ‘Seiko’ with a stylized ‘S’ followed by ‘Liner’ in the same script, cleverly underlined with an extension of the L’s horizontal bar.

Seiko Liner Logo
The Liner’s distinctive logotype is repeated on the caseback

Variable Jewel Count

A 21-jewel version of the 3140 movement was produced for case code 14090 in 1961 and can be found periodically in some of the other case codes. The reason for omitting two of the jeweIs is not clear. Jewel reduction was a method for reducing foreign duty on imported watches into markets such as the USA, however that would not have been the case with the Liner, since it was only sold domestically. Perhaps it was cost saving measure to provide some Liner models at a lower price point.

To obtain a saving of two jewels, one would expect a wheel in the going train, for example on the fourth wheel, as on the 21-jewel Crown, to loose its cap jewel top and bottom. However the train bridge of the 21-jewel Liner still has it’s three cap jewels in place while clearly saying 21-jewels on the bridge.

Seiko 3140 Lower Cap Jewel
The escape lever lower cap jewel – which is probably one difference between the 23 and 21 jewel variants

Around the same time, Seiko launched the Skyliner brand as a cheaper alternative to the mid-market Liner brand. These Skyliner watches were powered by the 21-jewel 402 movement which was derived from the 3140 movement. So it is entirely possible that the 402 movement was moved ‘up’ to the Liner brand to provide a cheaper lower-grade Liner and this is why we find some Liners with 21 jewels. Or, the 21-jewel Liner movements might have been prototypes for the Skyliner range.

Either way, the Skyliner branding would carry on long after the Liner brand was consigned to the Seiko graveyard, sporadically appearing on dress watches up until 1971. Just like the 3140, the 402 had a fully jeweled going train with cap jewels on third, forth and escape wheels and so one jewel from the 23 was saved by eliminating the cap jewel on the escape lever. The 3140 also has two jewels for the tops of the center wheel and fourth wheel where, I suspect, the 402 uses just one.

A Waterproof Dress Watch

The first indication of a widening brief for the Seiko Liner brand came in 1961, with the introduction of the 14090 30m Waterproof model which was a strange mix of dress watch and sports watch qualities. A watch of contradictions, it was only produced in stainless steel and yet came with a fine sunburst SD special dial meaning the markers were manufactured in white gold. The case was similar to the regular dressy Liner with its thin bezel and long delicate lugs but it also sported a large waterproof crown. The case back was signed with the seahorse logo of early waterproof watches while the the Seiko Liner logotype was kept only on the dial.

completed restoration
The 30m waterproof 14090 model with 21 jewels.

The Liner Chronometer

Think of an early 60s Seiko Chronometer and one is likely to think of the first Grand Seiko, the 3180; or the second Grand Seiko chronometer, the 43999/57GS. One might well think of a King Seiko as well, since the 44KS, 45KS and 56KS ranges all yielded Chronometer-designated models. One might even think of the Seikomatic Chronometer made for a year before being re-branded as the Grand Seiko 62GS without the Chronometer label.

But there is another early 60s chronometer… far rarer than the others…

The 25 jewel Liner ‘46999’ Chronometer was made for a little over 6 months from mid 1963 to early 1964 and is quite rare, certainly rarer than any of the other Seiko chronometers listed above. Prices for good examples reflect this rarity with models in good condition regularly listed above $5000 – a price point far removed from the $500 needed to purchase a good ‘dressy’ Liner without a special dial.

Seiko Liner Chronometer
The Liner Chronometer scanned from ‘Japanese Domestic Watch’ published by Tombow Publishing Co., Ltd

The 460 movement found within the Liner Chronometer was the final and ultimate iteration of the thinned-out, hotrod Marvel movement that yielded the earlier 3140 and the 402 variants. The stunning, gold-plated Chronometer movement featured a tadpole-type regulator on the balance bridge to perform the fine regulation needed for the in-house, Suwa factory Chronometer certification. It also gained two extra jewels as well, which I expect are for the barrel arbor but having never seen a 460 movement serviced, I cannot confirm this.

The case was slimmer than the contemporary 43999 Grand Seiko Chronometer due to the use of the thinner Liner movement, rather than the Grand Seiko’s taller 3180-derived 430 movement. However, there are a number of external similarities between the Grand Seiko 43999 and the Liner 46999. The lugs are very similar, but a little slimmer on the Liner in line with its design philosophy of keeping things thin. The 18k gold Chronometer lion medallion can be found on the caseback just as with the Grand Seiko chronometer. Note, in 1963 the lion motif represented a Chronometer grade movement rather than its modern day interpretation as the Grand Seiko brand designator.

On the dial we find the same wonderful Chronometer script used on the first Grand Seiko 3180 model (but interestingly, not on the Grand Seiko 43999) and an updated mid-century inspired Seiko Liner logotype. All pale silver sunburst dials seem to have had the AD six-pointed star indicating plated hour markers rather than solid white gold versions. In 1963, the Liner Chronometer was priced at ¥20,000 – ¥5000 below the ¥25,000 of the Grand Seiko 43999. I have read that a platinum-cased version of the Liner 46999 was produced but I have not found any corroborating evidence for it.

The End of the Line(r)

The Liner Chronometer marked the end of Suwa’s efforts with thin, manually-wound movements. Future development to create thin movements would focus on the Seikomatic Slimdate’s 830 movement and creating an integrated alternative to the Gyro Marvel’s modular magic lever system. Future chronometer grade Suwa watches would be powered by automatically-wound movements that would eventually become the 62xx series of movements.

Marvel-derived, manually-wound movements were falling out of favour at Suwa as the factory focussed more and more on automatically wound movements. It was this shift to autmatic movements that ultimately lead to the Liner’s demise. Only the Lord Marvel, introduced in 1958, would carry on as Suwa’s manually wound dress watch. The 36000 vph 5740 movement the Lord Marvel inherited in 1967 was unique enough to ensure that a Lord Marvel branded model stayed in the Seiko catalog for more than 17 years – well into the mid-1970s – while the Liner vanished after a mere 4 years.

Seiko Liner close-up