Owner Review Seiko Lord Matic Special 5216-8020

Silver. Sharp lines. Reflective surfaces. Angular corners. Subtle texture. Thin black lines.

A dial that looks to be made of metallic linen. Thin, polished steel hands with even thinner black lines running down their centre. A seconds hand so thin that it seems to taper to the width of a hair. Polished applied hour markers that also have thin black lines in their centres. And their tips beveled and reflective. The date window, framed by polished, angled metal. The Seiko name, also polished and applied. The “LM” not only polished and applied, but made of gold, the only colour on the dial. Except for the once a week blue of “Sat 土” or red of “Sun 日.”

The case. Does it remind me of a samurai’s helmet? Or his sword? Or are those just cliches, because the watch is Japanese?

In profile, the case swoops around the bezel, meeting it at the corners and on the sides. The sides of the case reflecting everything with their mirror finish. The sides are rounded until the lugs, at which point they slant, chiseled inwards. The most striking part of the case is the space between the lugs. Impossibly sharp corners. Brushed to a matt finish. The polished bezel that seems to lift out of the case. Because it actually does; it is a separate piece of stainless steel. How, in profile, the beveling of the bezel mirrors the angles of the case. 

37mm wide. Less than 10mm thick. 42mm lug to lug. In other words, an ideal size.

Buying the LM

I knew so little about the LM Special when I bought it. I had listened to David Flett’s interview on the BTD podcast about vintage Seiko, so I’d heard about the Suwa and Daini factories and all the watch lines they produced. Watches like the King Seiko, the Seikomatic, the Lord Matic, the Marvel. I was inspired to learn, and see, more. But as little as I knew at the time, I was already aware that there was a hierarchy to vintage Seiko, with Grand at the top, other models in the middle and lesser knowns at the bottom. A hierarchy expressed through prices.

As I dug deeper into Seiko history, I learned about terms the company used fifty years ago like “Hi-beat”, “V.F.A.” and “Special.” The first was applied to movements with a frequency of 28,800 or 36,000 alterations per hour. The second stood for “Very Fine Adjusted,” a somewhat esoteric quantification for the precision of the movement, exceeding chronometer specifications, coming in at +/- 1 minute a month. “Special” is V.F.A.’s less developed sibling: not the same precision, but a damn fine -3/+3 seconds a day. I thought, at first, that those titles would also be reflected in the price on the vintage market, but I was wrong. While V.F.A. Grand Seikos do indeed command sky-high prices, some Hi-beat and “Special” King Seikos and Lord Matics can be had for hundreds, not thousands of dollars.

Which brings me to my LM Special. As I was researching different vintage Seikos, I came across some with linen dials. And fell in love. Then one morning, shortly after waking up, I opened Instagram and there it was, a near pristine linen dial LM Special. A seller in Vietnam had listed it just thirty minutes earlier and it could be mine for a meager $350. I purchased it without hesitation and, miraculously, it was in my hands two days later.

When I pulled the LM Special free from layer after layer of bubble wrap, I could not believe how sharp the watch was. It almost didn’t look real, with all of its edges so clearly defined. As if I had activated some kind of sharpness filter on my eyes. The case glimmered and reflected light like a mirror. And on the wrist, the watch sat like it was part of me. Almost weightless.

Filling the Grand Seiko Gap

By this point, I had gotten to know David Flett (by shamelessly introducing myself on Instagram) and when I posted a photo of my new Seiko, he commented: “GS style case, amazing dial, great condition. Well bought!” I felt validated, that’s for sure, but also curious about the “GS style case.” This was before I spent months researching and writing a documentary on Seiko in the 50s, 60s and 70s and had yet to learn, in detail, about Taro Tanaka’s “Grammar of Design,” a set of guidelines that dictated how watches should be designed, eschewing curves in favor of sharp angles and faceted everything. As I looked at more and more Grand Seikos, I realized how right David was: the LM case is more than reminiscent of certain GS cases. It is a direct descendant. Which begged the question: why is this watch not more expensive?

To try to find some answers, I went back to 1976, when the watch was released. At the time, Seiko was almost fully dedicated to quartz production. The Grand and King Seikos had been discontinued over the previous two years and automatic watches were being phased out across the board. In fact, in one of Seiko’s catalogues for that year, the bulk of their automatic watches don’t appear until a third of the way through. And that first automatic watch listed? The LM Special. What’s interesting about the catalogue is not only the lowly position of automatic watches, it’s the prices. Most quartz models are 50 to 100,000 yen [in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation, that’s about $750 to $1500. The LM Special? 23,000 yen, or $350 today. This is similar, by the way, to prices for Hi-Beat King Seikos in the early 1970s. To be fair, there are some automatic Emblem watches mixed in with their quartz siblings earlier on that are a bit more expensive, but it does seem like the LM Specials were the top of the line when it came to automatic Seikos in 1976. It’s just that that line had sunk pretty low.

Still, there is evidence that even at the time, this was considered a special watch, and I’m not just alluding to the name on the dial. The movement in the LM Special is part of the 5200 series, and that’s significant because it was the last of the classic movements from Daini. It was an upgrade on their previous movements, including hand winding and hacking, as well as automatic winding and a micro regulator, for even higher precision. That said, it’s also a bit quirky: quick setting that date also winds the mainspring, requiring a bit more force than you’d expect, which can be unnerving. Regardless, this movement formed the basis for Seiko’s return to automatic watchmaking in the 90s all the way to 2013 as it was the inspiration for the 4S line of movements.

There is also a possibility that the LM Special played a role in putting an end to Tanaka’s Grammar of Design. While researching the documentary, I spoke with Daniel Moriwaki, the Medallion Stallion on Instagram and someone who’s on a mission to learn as much as he can about Seiko history. Daniel told me that he heard from a number of older collectors and industry insiders that in the late 70s, business men complained that watches like the LM Special were literally ruining their shirts. Cuffs were fraying prematurely because of all those sharp angles I love so much. And so Seiko softened their case designs, something that has continued to this day. I can’t verify this story, but I certainly can understand it. The edge of the LM Special case can cut through paper.

A possible sign of the watch’s significance is an engraving found on the back of dozens and dozens of models, as far as I can tell. Even David’s own recently purchased LM Special has it. In Japanese, it says “President’s 1976 Award of the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation.” I guess there’s a couple of ways you can look at this. If the President’s Award was given to every Tom and Dick, then perhaps they looked for something in the Seiko catalogue that wasn’t too expensive, but not too cheap either. Or, I like to think, someone at NTT remembered Seiko’s glorious automatic watch past and felt the LM Special was most appropriate as a prize because it was, in a way, the 1976 version of a Grand or King Seiko. 

A Forgotten Star?

I’m still left with the question as to why LM Specials are not more expensive, because they are clearly not insignificant. It must all come down to a lack of awareness. Produced in the dying days of Seiko’s golden age, it is caught between the heights of Grand and King Seiko, and the tidal wave of the quartz revolution. And in that transition, it is overlooked or ignored. But it shouldn’t be. Despite its angular case, heavily inspired by 1970s design, I think it transcends its era and looks elegant and classic. Mostly because it is just so goddamn beautiful. 

This watch has also been a reminder that “value” is not just about price. It is a combination of factors that can be both external and internal. The watch is finely tuned and expertly crafted and deeply loved by a small number of fans. And for me, it is a physical connection to a golden age of Japanese watch making and an expression of Japanese culture and philosophy. Even if it might end up ruining my shirts.