King Seiko is Back!
So Seiko finally relaunched the King Seiko brand last month after a 46-year absence. With hindsight, last year’s 140-year commemorative SJE083 King Seiko limited release now seems to have been Seiko testing the public’s reaction to a renewed King Seiko brand. As a huge fan and avid collector of vintage King Seiko watches, why does this 2022 relaunch leave me disappointed?
King Seiko was a brand that used to stand for both excellence and innovation in mechanical movement design and yet this 2022 relaunch debuts with an underwhelming movement from Seiko’s mid-range.
The Movement Mistake
These first SPB279/281/283/285/287 models from the new King Seiko collection contain the Seiko 6R31 movement, which is the no-date version of the 6R35 movement introduced in 2019. At this point I must ask you, the reader, to bear with me as I switch to ‘Seikospeak’ and spill forth a multitude of cryptic movement numbers as they are important to understand where the 6R31 came from and why I don’t think it deserves to be in the new King Seiko.
The year is 1970 and while one part of the Nagano, Tokyo-based Daini Seikosha factory is building high quality King Seiko watches with extremely precise movements, another part of the same factory is developing a new entry level movement – the 7000. The new movement is basic, without hacking, manual wind or day quickset, however it does use Seiko’s proprietary magic lever automatic winding system. The new movement was a replacement for the the early 60s movements still being used in the entry level watches.
Six years later and the move to quartz watches has taken hold across the entire industry. Mechanical movements are no longer in demand within aspirational timepieces they had once been. 1976 was the last year for King Seiko as a brand but it was also the year that a small improvement was made to the 7000-series, adding a day quickset to create the 7009, something Seiko’s better movements had had for years.
Seiko never totally stopped making mechanical movements during the quartz crisis as they always kept at least one mechanical diver within their catalog. Up until 1988 the venerable 6309 movement from the mid-70s was used but in the face of quartz dive watch popularity and with cost-cutting required, Seiko mechanical divers switched to a new version in the 7000 series, the 7002. Plastic and stamped parts were introduced to lower the cost of production and the movement was further optimized for ease of production rather than quality.
Fast forward to 1996 and the quartz crisis is a receding memory and Seiko begins to produce automatic watches in much larger numbers again. Seiko launches a new dive watch that takes the renewed mechanical watch world by storm – the SKX007. The new watch featured by a new movement developed from the 7002 called the 7S26 which would power a large number of SKX derivatives and Seiko 5 models for the next 20 years.
The budget 7S26 was further developed in the 2000s. First came a mid-range 6R15 in 2006 which used Seiko’s proprietary Spron alloy for improved mainspring and balance performance. In 2010, a new 4R36 took the hacking, manual winding from the 6R and added it to the 7S base to create a tier above the existing 7S base. In 2019, the 6R15 was replaced by the 6R35 movement giving another bump in power reserve from 50 to 70 hours. It is the no-date variant of this 6R35 movement that Seiko chose to relaunch King Seiko with.
One consistent aspect of the entire family of 7S/4R/6R movements is a relatively poor precision rating. The 7S movements were rated at between -25/+35 seconds per day. The 4R movements were rated even less precisely at -35/+45 seconds per day. The 6R movements are rated at a still underwhelming -15/+25 seconds per day, which today remains unchanged since 2006. To be fair, the precision of the 6R35 is comparable to the ETA 2824 … but only in the 2824’s base configuration. The 2824 is available in multiple grades, including a COSC-certified grade precise to -4/+6s. The 6R35 is sadly not available in any grade other than base, and unlike the original King Seiko, it is nowhere near as accurate as a chronometer in that grade.
My experience of the 6R35 movement is that examples are generally far out of regulation from the factory, which perhaps explains the large precision range Seiko quote. I have occasionally seen an example run reasonably without manual intervention which I define as being within 10s per day with a clean trace. I base this expectation on the watch’s asking price. Common Seiko watches fitted with the 6R35 include all recent Prospex Alpinists, recent Seiko Sumo divers, the SPB143 62MAS homage and the new Presage Edge and LE models. All of these watches (bar the $1100 SPB143) carried an MSRP below $1000, and many had an actual sale price closer to $600.
Many of the 6R and 4R movements perform excellently after cleaning, re-lubricating and regulation. However, even after regulation, the basic origins of the movement cannot be hidden since the beat remains the SKX’s 21600 vibrations per hour.
Between Grand Seiko and Presage
How should we judge Seiko releasing a $2000 King Seiko with a movement from a $600 watch that is not so different from that used in $175 SKX models of old? Furthermore, with a movement that public experience has shown often performs badly from the factory. It’s not as though the new King Seikos are limited editions, which often carry inflated prices. Nor are the new King Seikos made from precious or proprietary metals, these are regular production steel models. I’m convinced the movement neither honors the heritage of King Seiko precision nor warrants the $2000 asking price.
The price point Seiko has chosen positions the new King Seiko distinct from, and above, the Presage range. With Grand Seiko further distanced from the parent brand in all markets, clearly King Seiko is intended to be at the top of the Seiko mechanical range. With this role, the $2000 price isn’t off base within today’s market, and that price seems appropriate within Seiko’s ecosystem. All models have been getting more expensive as Seiko attempts to push its base brand upmarket.
Further, we have entered a post-covid, inflationary period driven by disruption in the global supply chain. Luxury (and sub-luxury) watch markets are on fire, partially attributable to a cultural backlash against the digitization that makes us feel out of control and rushed like never before. Mechanical watches calm our anxiety, and that’s obviously valuable. Furthermore, watches with clear heritage to the past remind us even more pointedly of simpler times. And so a $2000 King Seiko makes sense today, but only if that watch carries a mechanical movement worthy of the price and heritage on offer.
King Seiko watches were historically relatively expensive. Consider, if you will, Seiko’s luxury watch offerings in 1968, the last year that the 44-9990, the inspiration for this relaunch model, was available. In that year, a stainless steel Grand Seiko 44GS cost 24,000 yen; the stainless steel King Seiko, containing a less precise version of the same movement as the 44GS, cost 13,500 yen; while a low-end Seiko Sportsman cost 5,000 yen.
The pricing structure back then was also based on the functionality of the watch with premiums across the board for features such as automatic winding and date complications. This muddies the waters a little with historical price comparisons but you get the gist… King Seiko watches were around 3x the price of basic Seikos, and roughly half the price of Grand Seikos (with prices for precious metal Grand Seikos above that).
Therefore, from a historical point of view, the pricing of the 2022 King Seikos is similarly tiered, between the current Presage and Grand Seiko ranges. I for one always expected any relaunch of the King Seiko brand to result in watches in the $2000-$4000 range. This is also a price point where Seiko does not have much to offer, so the strategy of relaunching King Seiko to enter that sparsely populated market slot is logical.
King Seiko’s Heritage of Mechanical Prowess
The first and second generation King Seikos, released in 1961 and 1963 respectively, came with a newly developed movement that would soon be known as the caliber 44. It was a refined, well-finished, high quality 18000 vph movement that would also be used in the Grand Seiko range.
The third generation King Seikos of 1968 came with the high beat caliber 45, created as a direct result of participation in the Swiss chronometer trials in the late 1960s. This was another high quality, well-finished movement that used a larger than normal balance wheel oscillating at 36,000 vph to give excellent positional stability and precision. Caliber 45 was also good enough to be used in the Grand Seiko range.
The fourth generation used the automatic caliber 56, again shared across both Grand Seiko and King Seiko ranges. After that came the caliber 52, one of Seiko’s very best movements, introduced in the King Seiko range and, yes – you have guessed it – good enough to be used in Grand Seiko.
Now do you understand my disappointment with the 2022 King Seikos using the 6R35?
Every single one of those King Seiko movements was also available as a chronometer grade movement unlike anything from the 6R range. However, perhaps the greatest indignity of the movement choice for the relaunch is the fact that caliber 52, the last to be used in King Seiko, was coming off the Daini production line at the same time as that basic 7005. The 7000 series was designed and built in the very same Kameido factory at the very same time as the amazing hi-beat King Seiko 5245-6000 Chronometer Specials were being produced, precise to better than -4/+6s from the factory.
While some may see shared heritage in this coincidence, I see an inferior movement architecture that was never considered for King Seiko originally. To be clear: the movements now used in King Seikos were, in earlier iterations, deemed inferior to the brand and the price point King Seiko occupied. Their movement now is a transgression of the King Seiko heritage in my book.
An Opportunity Missed
The choice of movement in these the first models of the relaunched King Seiko is a definite misstep in my opinion. Seiko have painted themselves into a corner with their current movement choices. As a brand they have placed their bets on the 7000-originated, 7S26-6R36 expanded range of movements and no matter how much you try to push those movements up hill towards luxury, they cannot get there. The movements are simply not good enough. This new King Seiko does not even have as many jewels in its movement as the original. It’s difficult to not see this latest release as anything but cynical.
I believe the relaunch of King Seiko was an opportunity to create a new Seiko sub-luxury brand without the humdrum 7S26-derived movements of the Prospex and Pressage lines. The original King Seiko brand was centered on movement innovation and this is what the brands relaunch should have revived: a new innovation in mid-range movements to mirror the increasing interest and demand for quality mechanical watches. Even a chronometer certified, elaboré 6R31 movement would have been more innovative than what we got.
How They Might Have Got It Right
So which movement could Seiko have used instead of 6R31?
Last year’s SJE083 limited edition homage used the 6L35 movement so that was clearly a possibility however releasing a non-limited watch so similar to a 9-month old limited edition with the same movement would be a little awkward I suppose. The 6L family was designed as a slim, high quality movement to rival the Swiss mid-range movements, specifically the ETA 2892. It would seem on paper, better aligned with the King Seiko brand values. There is also the lesser 4L35 movement which has not been used very much by Seiko. I think this was an opportunity to create a new, no-date variant of the 4L for the first models of the new King Seiko brand, leaving the path to the 6L open for subsequent models.
Alternatively, there is also the higher beat, higher quality version of the 6R35, the 6R20. It still has its roots in the 7000 series from the early 70s but at least it uses a beat rate of 28800 and has a high jewel count. It is also the basis of the high end (for Seiko) 8L automatic chronograph movement. Precision would have to be improved though, since the 6R20 is quoted with the same -15/+25 seconds a day as the 6R35. The 6R20 has some complications, such as power reserve indicator, unnecessary for this particular King Seiko. So while not an ideal choice, it perhaps could have been a starting point for a new King Seiko movement range above the 6R.
The most obvious choice however, and I suspect the enthusiast’s choice would be the 4S movement family from the 1990s which is actually a renamed caliber 52; the exact same movement used in the last of the King Seikos. The is was the movement of choice for King Seiko homage issued as part of the year 2000 Historical Collection. The movement then went to Credor, Seiko’s high luxury domestic brand, where it was used until 2015. Given that Credor were still using this movement less than 6 years ago, I’m guessing it was a possibility for the 2022 King Seiko. The 4S has real King Seiko credibility, and outperforms the 6R31, with a quoted precision of -10/+15 seconds per day. It would have immediately positioned the King Seiko brand as distinct from the lower Presage lines where it could comfortably occupy the $2000-$3000 range. Chronometer rating would clearly have also been a possibility, as was done with the 52 caliber.
Ultimately, I suspect the 4S movement was deemed too old and too backward-looking for Seiko, a company that considers itself forward looking. I suspect, the 6L would have been the preferred choice if 2021 limited edition hand not been produced but Seiko was not brave enough to move the new regular King Seiko into the space occupied by theat limited edition.
The King Seiko brand is here to stay it seems, which we Seiko enthusiasts should welcome, and maybe future models will have different movement choices. Whichever movements we do see going forward, I hope that we at least see chronometer-grade King Seikos, as we regularly saw in the 1960s and 70s rather than just cosmetic homages.