King Seiko was a luxury brand of Seiko from 1961 to 1975. It was positioned directly below Grand Seiko in terms of pricing, quality and accuracy. While the brand was initially created as Daini Seikosha’s alternative to Suwa Seikosha’s Grand Seiko, by 1969, both factories were creating watches for both ranges and King Seiko was firmly established as Seiko’s second, purely-domestic, luxury line.
We have covered the real history between the two factories and the birth of the King Seiko and Grand Seiko brands in both a previous article and an earlier podcast episode. While common hearsay has always positioned King Seiko as a lesser brand to Grand Seiko, the reality is more that the two factories used different testing regimes with Suwa using a higher standard for the Grand Seiko watches than Daini used for King Seiko. However, it does not necessarily follow that the King Seikos are in anyway lesser watches. In fact in my experience, they are every bit a match for their more famous cousins from the countryside and really lead their more conservative Grand Seiko competition from a design perspective.
However, in 1988 it was Grand Seiko that Seiko chose to resurrect when moving back into the luxury watch market and the result is well-known. Grand Seiko has become a considerable success story for Seiko, first as a home for their best finished and most accurate movements across multiple technologies: spring drive, quartz and mechanical, and secondly as a separate, distinct brand (even as a separate company in North America).
The King Seiko brand as such has never been fully resurrected but neither did it completely die. In 2000, Seiko released a limited edition King Seiko SCVN001 as part of their “Seiko Historical Collection of the Year 2000”. The 4S15 movement used briefly by Seiko in the early 2000s and then after by Credor is actually a re-issue of the King Seiko caliber 52 from the 1970s.
In 2021, Seiko have again launched a limited edition King Seiko, the 6L35-00D0, aka the SJE083, echoing the styling of the 44-9990 to commemorate the Seiko company’s 140 year birthday. So what better time to revisit King Seiko as a brand and retrospect their vintage portfolio?
In this article we will look at the early watches from 1961 to 1968. During this time Daini Seikosha found its feet in terms of design language and established the King Seiko range as a home for quality and accuracy. Each model iteration would move further from the classic circular design towards the sharp, edgy case designs that would see out the decade. During much of this time the King Seiko range would also include highly accurate chronometers.
First Generation (J14102 and 15034)
Daini’s development of the first generation King Seiko echoed Suwa’s development of the first generation Grand Seiko insofar as they took an existing movement and refined it to provide greater accuracy. The new watch, with the freshly refined movement, was then rebranded for the new model line. The new King Seiko branding also took its lead from Grand Seiko and eliminated the traditional Seiko name and led solely with the new logotype on the dial. This particular move would be reverted after the first generation watches, as it was with Grand Seiko, with the Seiko logo, again taking top billing on the dials of both brands, for the remainder of the range’s life.
The first generation of King Seiko was built from mid-1961 to mid-1964, at which point it overlapped with the second generation. There were two distinct variations: the J14102[E] and the larger and later 15034. Both models were made in stainless steel and gold cap (thick gold plated) versions.
The J14102 model has a smaller case diameter of 35mm compared to the 15034’s 36mm case. The larger 15034 is the rarer of the two and can be easily differentiated from the smaller model by its lugs. The earlier J14102 has long lugs with rounded ends, while the later 15034 has sharper lugs with a diagonal facet on the top surface. The diagonal facet motif would be carried forward to the second generation designs while Suwa would also copy it for their Crown Special.
The dials of both versions are very similar with a stylized King Seiko logo at 12 and a diashock label combined with the 25 jewel text at 6. The index markers on the 15034 were simplified with the elimination of the J14102’s corrugated markers at 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10 and 11 and the introduction of uniform beveled flat markers. The double marker was kept at 12, in the Seiko tradition.
Both movements had the same jewel count so there is no variation there. However, you may see different star logos below the jewel count on each variant of the first King Seiko.
As with all Seikos of this period, a star logo is used to differentiate the various quality of markers used on the dials. A triangle superimposed with three lines indicates an applied dial (AD) with markers plated in gold or rhodium. An eight-pointed star pierced by a four-point hollow star indicates a special dial (SD) with markers in either solid yellow gold or solid white gold. It is always worth searching for the rarer SD models because their markers tend to stay bright whereas AD markers sometimes corrode over time.
The index markers are broad rectangles, doubled at 12, in the Seiko style, with small bevels to catch the light. Some or all of the markers can also be corrugated depending on the time of manufacture and case material. Several designs were used, but the overall look of the dials on all the first generation watches was essentially the same. In general terms, it followed the early 60’s Seiko convention of using broad, luxurious markers on their high end watches. Most of the dials have a silver radial sunburst finish that by this time may have started to age to a mellow gold. A small number of J14102s have vertical brushing instead.
The caseback of every first generation King Seiko features a King Seiko labelled shield featuring a vertically striped field overlaid with a cross, crown and three diamonds. The gold watches have an attached medallion containing an engraved shield which is prone to corrosion while the first generation steel versions have an etched shield which is prone to fading.
The first King Seiko movement was derived from the existing Daini 54A movement used in the Seikosha Cronos and Champion. Two jewels were added to the already well-jeweled top line Cronos movement raising the total from 23 to 25 jewels. A tadpole fine regulator was also added to the balance to regulate the 18000 vph movement more accurately. There is no movement number for the caliber used in the first generation however each movement has an individual serial number machined into the train bridge, a trait normally used for movements that met chronometer-grade accuracy.
In 1965, the first generation Link Seiko made a brief and subsequently rare return with the model number 5440-1990.
The second generation King Seikos began identifying the previously unnamed, manually wound, movement from the first generation as the caliber 44A and the now famous 44KS family of watches was born. The beat rate remained at 18000 for the entire 44KS life. Caliber 44 would prove to be an influential movement for Seiko in the early 1960s. In 2020, Grand Seiko stated in their press presentation on the new 60th anniversary 9SA5 that the redefined balance bridge took its design inspiration from Daini’s caliber 44.
The second generation of King Seiko watches comprised a range of watches that launched in late 1963 and stayed in production to mid-1968. Two of the initial second generation models, the 44-2000 and (to a lesser extent) the 44999 co-existed with the outgoing 15034 model for several months in 1963.
As part of the second generation changes, the 44 KS movement gained a hacking function. Initially, this was achieved using a right-angled lever on the top of the movement but this proved unreliable with the lever breaking at the thinnest meaning that today, many of these movements no longer hack.
The hacking lever is highlighted in the above image along with the toothed disk it interacts with above the center wheel. Pulling the crown out (right arrow) rotates the lever slightly which causes the paul at the other end of the lever to contact the toothed disk (left arrow), stopping the mechanism. Unfortunately, pulling the crown out puts a strain on the lever at its thinnest part and this combined with some metal fatigue means that many have since broken in the middle. This hacking design was abandoned in 1965 and replaced by a simpler, more reliable solution integrated into the barrel bridge.
The design of the King Seiko medallion was also changed during the lifetime of the second generation models. For most of the second generation lifetime, the same King Seiko coat of arms was used until 1967 when a simpler medallion with just ‘Seiko’ written on it takes over. The final models produced in 1968 also have the Daini logo added below the Seiko logotype.
Introduced in late 1963, the 44-2000 was a carried over 15034 with the updated 44KS movement and a new second generation dial design. The case was unchanged from the 15034 but was now limited to gold. The Seiko logo was added back onto the new dial at the normal 12 o’clock position and the familiar, slightly-serifed King Seiko brand logo was moved down to the 6 o’clock position. The dial quality star emblem was also removed at this time. The case back was the same as for the gold 15034 but inside bears the model number 44-2000 rather than 15034.
Later 44-2000s lost the ‘Diashock’ text from the dial and gained a Daini lightning bolt below it.
44999 / 44-9990
A second updated King Seiko model was also introduced towards the end of 1963 named the 44999 although that name was eventually changed to 44-9990. Casebacks up until late-1964 will show the number 44999 on the new horseshoe case back design while other after will show 44-9990.
The case design followed the arc set by the 15034 but was modified with widened lugs and a more emphasized facet. The crystal was changed from a smooth dome to a high squared profile with almost no bezel. Water resistance was improved with the additional of a screw-down case back.
The dial was the same second generation design as the 44-2000 with the Seiko logo at 12. Markers were rhodium-plated and simplified compared to the first generation with the exception of the 12 o’clock marker which is reduced to a single marker but with doubled textured stripes to imitate two separate markers. This 12 o’clock marker is the only dial difference between the 44-2000’s dial and the early 44-9990’s. As with the 44-2000, later 44-9990s lost the ‘Diashock’ text from the dial and gained a Daini lightning bolt.
49999 / 4420-9990 Chronometer
The 44999 variant of the second generation King Seiko was further refined into the 44999 / 4420-9990 Chronometer in 1964. Early versions were numbered 49999 while later versions are labelled 4420-9990. Similar in appearance to the 44999, the 4420-9990 has additional ‘Chronometer’ line of dial text underneath the Seiko logo. The case of the new model was again modified in the area of the lugs to further develop the nascent Grammar of Design approach.
The resultant design is a clear transition from the previous second-generation dress watch derived cases to the pure Grammar of Design cases of the next generation of King Seiko and Grand Seiko watches. The 44990 was made for just a single year in 1964 and the 4420-9990 Chronometer was only made for two years before Daini rebranded the King Seiko Chronometer as the Grand Seiko 4420-9000 at the end of 1966. It was also relatively expensive compared to other King Seikos at the time, so it is one of the rarest of the vintage models today.
Two additional jewels were added resulting in the 4402 movement being renamed the 4420 and each movement was carefully regulated at the factory to improve its performance over the already excellent standard 44KS. Each watch came with it’s own Chronometer certificate with testing performed in-house at Daini Seikosha’s factory. Instead of the King Seiko shield on the caseback, each 4420-9990 came with the lion emblem reserved for chronometer-grade movements regardless of model line. This lion would go on to be re-used by the modern re-incarnation of Grand Seiko in 1988 as its logo.
Three variants were produced in the three years of production. The very early examples use the same chronometer dial script found on the first Grand Seiko, the 3180. The second iteration is the same but has uppercase chronometer text on the dial in a sans serif font. The final iteration was the same as the second but came in cap gold rather than stainless steel.
In 1965 a date complication with quickset was added to the base 44 movement to create the King Seiko 4402-8000 Calendar. As had become the King Seiko tradition, the new model debuted yet another evolution in lug and case shape. The lugs of the previous Chronometer were slightly curved for the Calendar model and given an inward bevel next to the strap that would become a consistent feature on King Seiko lug designs going forward. The slight curve to the lug gives the design a traditional-but-modern look that the other vintage models do not share.
The bezel is again thin, highly sloped and overhangs the body of the watch by a fraction of a millimeter. The model was available in steel and gold but unlike the earlier watches, the gold was plated rather than capped.
There are two dial designs depending on the if the watch is an early model from 1965 to early 1967 or a later model from early 1967 to late 1968. Early dials have diashock written on the dial below the King Seiko logo at 6, while the later dials do not. The later dials also have the Daini Seikosha lightning bolt logo below the jewel count. Both dial designs use a silver sunburst dial with uniform facetted index markers with a double width marker at 12. The standard King Seiko polished dauphine hands are used on both.
Unsurprisingly, the Chronometer models are the most sought-after caliber 44 King Seikos. They are also some of the rarest models and generally command the highest prices. The 2020 announcement of the SJE083 ‘re-issue’ has led to a sharp rise in values of the 44-9990 model. The first King Seiko model, the J14102, has also been trending up slowly as awareness of the King Seiko brand has grown. The 15034 is noticeably less common than the J14102 and so commands a premium over the slightly smaller but otherwise similar first model. This all leaves the 44-2000 and the 4402-8000 as the relative bargains in the vintage 44KS lineup. Both can be currently found in good condition for $500. However, remember that the price difference between a well-worn version of a vintage model and the very best examples with box and papers can be five to ten-fold.
The King Seiko story in the early 1960s is one of development, evolution and achievement. First, the movement in the J14102 which was already good was further developed during this time to chronometer standards. The Daini King Seiko movements were easily the match for the equivalent Grand Seiko movements at the time. In fact, the 44KS chronometer movement, the 4420, was incorporated into Grand Seiko watches in 1966 where it formed the heart of the ground-breaking 44GS.
The quality of the 44KS movement cannot be understated. All the ones I have seen have been surprisingly accurate even after close to 60 years of use. I have asked Seiko enthusiast friends and watchmakers why this might be and the reason just seems to be an inherently good movement design combined with high quality individual components. For example, the 44KS has a fully-jeweled barrel – a feature that certainly helps explain these vintage movements’ longevity.
One must also draw some parallels with the Neuchâtel trials in Switzerland. It is worth remembering the relative performance of the Suwa and Daini factories at this competition in the mid-60s:
- 1965 – Suwa: 114th, Daini: 124th
- 1966 – Daini: 9th, Suwa: 104th
- 1967 – Daini: 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 13th, Suwa: 12th, 20th, 25th
Clearly Daini were doing something right with their movements, catching up and overtaking Suwa’s entries at Neuchâtel in 1966 and 1967. Both factories were producing highly accurate movements at this time, either certified internally as chronometer-grade or exceptionally certified by Neuchâtel in the case of Daini’s 1968 ‘Astronomical Observatory Chronometer’
The King Seiko story is also one of design evolution. Starting from the first model, through to the 4420 Chronometer, the steps in evolution from established dress watch style to the ‘Grammar of Design’ is clear. No other Seiko range offers this step-by-step evolution to be enjoyed one model at a time. With each model, the lugs were developed, refined, flattened and facetted within the rules of Tanaka’s Grammar of Design until the scene was set for the ground-breaking design of Daini’s 44GS. Let’s be honest, the trademark style of vintage Grand Seiko watches comes more from Daini’s King Seiko 4420 and 44GS than the watches from the Suwa factory at the time.
However, Daini Seikosha were not done with King Seiko advances. A completely new hand-wound movement was already in development in Tokyo which we will discover in part 2 of the King Seiko Collector Guide.