Seiko introduced their ‘Bell-Matic’ range in 1966 but the history of the mechanical alarm watch begins more than 20 years earlier.
Vulcain had been working since the early 1940s to perfect a movement that could chime an alarm loud enough to be heard, but not so violently that it interfered with the delicate business of accurate timekeeping. After several years development, the Swiss company released the world’s first mechanical alarm watch in 1947: the ‘Cricket’, named after its characteristic chirping alarm.
The Cricket watch would go on to become famous for being gifted to almost all US presidents since Harry Truman. Apparently, Lyndon Johnson used it frequently to interrupt tedious meetings whenever he needed an excuse to leave early. In North America, Hamilton licensed the Vulcain Cricket in order to offer their own alarm watch. Vulcain ceased production of the Cricket during the 1970s Quartz Crisis but started production again with the resurgence in Swiss luxury watchmaking in the early 2000s.
Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced their famous Memovox in 1949, two years after the Vulcain, and it remains in production to this day. The first version used a manually-wound Caliber 489 but in 1956, the addition of a bumper mechanism, the Memovox became the first automatic alarm watch. However, a fully automatic alarm watch with bi-directional 360 degree winding rotor would not be available until the launch of the Seiko Bell-Matic a decade after the bumper Memovox.
Tudor also developed an alarm watch in 1959 with its manually-wound Adviser. The Adviser remained in production until 1977 but, like the Vulcain, has also been recently reissued.
Seiko’s Alarm Watch
In 1966, Seiko developed its own alarm watch, the BellMatic, containing either the 4005 or 4006 movement. The 4005 movement is significantly rarer than the 4006 since it was only used in 1968 and 1969. As is normal with Seiko movement numbers, a caliber with a number ending in 5 is the date only variety, while a caliber number ending in 6 is the day/date variety. Other than this difference, the movements are the same and we generally refer to the Bell-Matic movement as 400x when discussing both.
The Cricket watch would go on to become famous for being gifted to almost all US presidents since Harry Truman.
The ‘bell’ in the Bell-Matic is actually a curved metal sounding spring that is repeatedly struck by a small hammer powered by a spring unwinding. That spring is released by a lever moved by a wheel sitting on top of the hour wheel on the dial side.
In the following video, you can see the alarm barrel at the top of the movement unwinding after being released by the lever and driving the alarm wheel that activates the hammer against the spring. The motion is slowed down around 20 times. The additional vibration put into the movement by the hammer is also visible around the edge. An additional case spring has been removed for this video and normally helps absorb these unwanted vibrations.
As with the Vulcain, the Jaeger-LeCoultre and the Tudor, the Seiko utilizes two separate barrels for storing power. This ensures that the power required to ring the bell does not detract from the power reserve for time-keeping. A watch that powered its alarm via the regular mainspring would stop after the alarm sounded and not be particularly useful.
The ‘bell’ in the Bell-Matic is actually a curved metal sounding spring that is repeatedly struck by a small hammer.
Having two barrels neatly solves the power issue but raises another. With two barrels within a watch, a way must be found to wind both separately. Each manufacturer solved that particular problem in a different way.
The Vulcain has a single crown at 3 that winds one or other depending on the direction the crown is turned. When the crown is turned forwards (clockwise), it winds the watch mainspring. When the crown is turned backwards, (counter-clockwise) it winds the alarm. The Tudor and the JLC, on the other hand, use two crowns, one at 2 and 4. The crown at 2 winds the alarm and the crown at 4 winds the watch.
Seiko took a third approach and dispensed with hand winding the watch entirely. The Bell-Matic relies solely on its magic lever mechanism to wind the watch mainspring when the wearer moves his or her wrist. This frees up the crown to wind the alarm spring.
Controlling the Alarm
Externally the Bell-Matic looks similar to the Vulcain due the common approach of a single crown at 3 o’clock and a push-pull alarm control button at 2 o’clock. Looking at the two watches size-by-side I cannot help wondering if the Seiko engineers were simply inspired by the Vulcain’s layout or straight-up copied the Swiss manufacturer’s approach. The likeness is superficial though since the operation of the Bell-Matic is different. Seiko managed to pack four separate functions into the watch’s single crown. With it, a user could set the time, set the alarm, wind the alarm power or set the day.
I cannot help wondering if the Seiko engineers were simply inspired by the Vulcain’s layout or straight-up copied the Swiss manufacturer’s approach.
With the alarm button pressed in, turning the Bell-Matic’s crown winds the alarm’s spring and feels just like winding a manual watch. With just 6 revolutions to full wind, the alarm spring is has enough power to ring its tiny bell for around 11 seconds – less than half as long as the Vulcain but probably long enough to excuse a bored president from his tedious meeting.
Pulling out the button at 2 o’clock arms the alarm, pushing it back in again disables the alarm. Pulling the crown out to its first position engages the indicator ring allowing it to be turned. A marker on the ring indicates when, during the next 12 hours, the alarm will sound. Pulling the crown out to its second position allows the time to be set as with a regular watch.
The multi function Bell-Matic has another two tricks up its sleeve. Pushing the alarm button in to its second position and releasing allows the date to be quickset just like pushing the crown of a 6xxx series movement. Finally, the day can be quickset by repeatedly flicking the hour hand backwards and forwards between 2 and 10. It’s a pretty neat trick and remarkably reliable too. The 4006 movement does not suffer the day and date quickset issues that affect the contemporary 62xx and 56xx movements from Suwa.
During its lifetime, the Bell-Matic came in 27, 21 and 17 jewel variants. The early watches all have 27 jewels with most of the extra jewels employed in the gear train where all the gears are jeweled top and bottom. Both barrel arbors are also fully jeweled top and bottom in this version. In 1968, Seiko reduced the jewel count to 21 for the US market, supposedly to avoid the import tax applied to luxury watches with high jewel counts. Within two years, Bell-Matics for all markets had been reduced to 17 jewels. The only exception were the 4006-701x models that kept their full count of 27 jewels and continued to be sold in Japan into the mid-70s.
From Ting to Beep
The Bell-Matic’s alarm, like the Tudor and the Vulcain, has a charming metallic ring that seems an age away from the artificial tones of an iPhone alarm. Unlike the annoying electronic alarms of today, this one does not need to be silenced. After that spring has wound down, that’s it. If you missed it … you missed it. No more yelling ‘Alexa. Stop!’ across the room. No more fumbling around in the dark for the iPhone on the nightstand.
With an ever-so-slight decrease in pitch and volume as the power winds down, alarm ends almost as soon as it started. As alarms go, the Bell-Matic is gentle, quaint and unobtrusive. Unobtrusive seems an odd characteristic for an alarm to have but it works for me. Like your butler quietly coughing behind one’s ear to discretely announce the arrival of the next dinner guest.
Click to listen to a Bell-Matic alarm from start to finish:
The Bell-Matic range survived until 1978 when, like so many of Seiko’s mechanical model lines, it was killed off in favour of quartz and digital watches. The Bell-Matic was made obsolete in the line-up by the launch of the Seiko A133: the world’s first digital watch with an audible alarm. The mechanical ting-ting-ting finally laid to rest by the beep-beep-beep of the digital age.
The Bell-Matic Vintage Market
The Bell-Matic vintage market is a veritable minefield of frankenwatches built from parts with mismatched dials, cases, indicator rings and hands. This is because the 400x movement specifically, and the Bell-Matic range in general, stands alone in the Seiko catalogue. These watches are not as common as other vintage models and they do not share many parts with other models. New parts are generally not available so when a replacement is required, parts tend to be plundered from any old 400x and not necessarily from the correct model. The alarm indicator ring for example is a unique design with only fits the 400x movement but that also means all 400x rings work with all Bell-Matic models, leading to the potential of mismatched parts over the last 50 years.
The Bell-Matic was made obsolete in the Seiko line-up by the launch of the A133: the world’s first digital watch with an audible alarm.
The Seiko Bell-Matic models came in a large number of designs and model numbers. At first glance, this variety can seem arbitrary and confusing but if we arrange the model numbers in order then a consistent pattern of development is revealed, from the 60s designs influenced by the Grammar of Design conventions, through far more extravagant designs in the early 70s influenced by the sports diver range, back to more conservative dressy designs at the end of the decade that signal the prosaic watches of the 80s. Viewed in its entirety, I would argue that the Bell-Matic range presents a microcosm of Seiko design progression for almost 15 years.
Common Features of All Bell-Matics
All Bell-Matics have a number of common features. All of them have the crown at 3 o’clock and the alarm button at 2. All have rotating indicator rings of one design or another and all dials are marked with the Suwa logo. All dials have ‘BELL-MATIC’ text at 6 o’clock apart from the rebranded 4006-701x models that have ‘BUSINESS BELL’ text instead. All dials will have their jewel count marked which will generally be 27 jewels for the 4006-7xxx models produced in the 1960s and 17 jewels for the 4006-6xxx models from the 1970s . The 4006-702x was uniquely available in Japan with 27 jewels through its lifetime. White dials are prone to discoloring to brown but the blue, black and gold dials seem to age very well.
The Bell-Matic line can be divided into early and late series that correspond roughly to those watches made in the 1960s and those that arrive in the 1970s. The 1960s watches all have model numbers in the 400x-7xxx range and are typically more conservatively-styled. Most have 27 jewels. The 1970s watches all have model numbers in the 4006-6xxx range and have much more extravagant case and dial designs. All 4006-6xxx watches have 17 jewels movements.
4006-7000, 4006-7001, 4006-7002
The 4006-7000 model was the original launch model from 1966 and came in 7001 and 7002 regional variants. The very first examples from 1966 came with a dolphin caseback. The 4006-700x was made until 1974 but in two distinct phases with some details changing across the transition. All 700x have an oval cushion case with vertical brushing on top, either in stainless steel or gold. Dials from the initial phase of production (1966-1969) have either a white or a blue-grey dial with vertical brushing. The markers are blocky with a central radial lume stripe. Hands are baton style with lume sections. The indicator ring has alternating brushed and mirrored stripes with either a medium sized red rectangle containing a broad white triangle or a smaller white rectangle with small red arrow.
At the end of 1969, the model transitioned to the 17 jewel movement and with that change came a redesign of the dial. The markers became longer and thinner with lume only on the outer sections. Plain white dials also became available on the later watches. Gold and Stainless steel cases were available for the entire production run.
Some very early editions of the 4006-7000 came with waterproof ‘dolphin’ casebacks and are quite rare. Watches with this caseback also have a teardrop cutaway on the side of the case.
The 4005-7000 was the only date-only Bell-Matic model and was only made in 1968 and 1969. The case is a brushed oval cushion case reminiscent of the Omega Constellation code. Two distinct versions were made. The first had the dial from the 701x in either white or black with the long markers typical of that model’s but now with just a date window.
The second variant had a completely different dial not related to anything else in the Bell-Matic range. The dial came in sunburst blue or charcoal with sloping polished blocky applied markers that were presumably an attempt to move the Bell-Matic towards a dressier watch. However, I am not sure how compatible an alarm is with the concept of a discrete dress watch. These versions have facetted sword dial hands that can also be found on the 56GS watches from Suwa. All 4005 Bell-Matics have 27 jewels.
4006-7010, 4006-7011, 4006-7012, 4006-7019
The 701x model was the second Bell-Matic to launch in 1967 and continued, unchanged until 1975. The case shape was more conventional than the earlier cushion-cased 700x with straight lugs giving it a narrower aspect more aligned with Seiko’s Grammar of Design principles. As with the 700x, cases were available in stainless steel and gold cap. The dial was modernized with longer markers on either a white or charcoal sunburst background. The white-dialed versions have black-lined markers and dauphinois hands while the charcoal dials version have lumed markers and baton hands. Gold versions only come with white dials. Indicator rings were much simplified with the elimination of the striped finish giving an entirely featureless ring apart from the alarm marker.
Seiko experimented with two marker designs on the 701x. The first, more common design is either a small red rectangle with white triangle (charcoal dial) or a small silver rectangle with a black arrow (silver dial). A number of watches came with an alarm marker that replaced the arrow motif with a pictorial representation of the alarm’s decaying output. The 701x is the only Bell-Matic model I have seen to have this design of alarm marker, making it quite rare.
The 4006-701x was also available as the Business Bell which was identical to the silver-dialed 7001x variant with different dial text. The 4006-7019 was the 701x version specifically for the North American market and came in 21 and 19 jewel variants.
4006-7020, 4006-7021 4006-7023, 4006-7029
Stylistically, the 702x watches have a unique, conservative case that is elegant in its simplicity. The outline of the lugs starts at the midpoint and after a minimal curve plunges strait to the lug end. The case should be finished on its top surface with circular brushing. The rest of the watch is a mix of 700x and 701x influences. The dials are from the 701x models but the alarm indicator rings are from the initial 700x model. The hands were also the same as the original 700x model. The 4006-7029 model was also exported to North America as we this model with 21 jewels and then in 1969 with 17 jewels.
4006-6000, 4006-6001, 4006-6002
The most crazily-cased Bell-Matic of them all was the 4006-600x. It came in two case variants. The first was a 44mm UFO-styled amorphous case whose increased girth required notches for both the crown and the alarm button. The second case style cut a swathe from either side to give a (slightly) slimmed-down Carré shaped case that measured a not-so-svelte 42mm.
As with all 6xxx Bell-Matic watches, the alarm indicator rings were upsized taking up all of the space that had used previously for the indicator ring and minute track on the earlier watches. The alarm indicator was also expanded from a small rectangle taking up the space of 4 minute markers to a curved brace shape that stretched around the dial for eight full minutes and had a small cutout for the minute track. Dials came in black, blue, silver and gold variants with contrasting indicator rings. Unlike the 700x rings, these ones have numerals every 10 minutes. The blue dialed versions originally had gold rings. Only stainless steel cases were produced and were highly polished form the factory.
4006-6010, 4006-6011, 4006-6012, 4006-6014
The 4006-601x watches were a slight design update on the original 4006-700x model. The case was retained but the dial changed from a brushed to a linen finish. Both applied markers and the indicator ring were updated to more modern designs. The 6014 variant came with a gold case, white dial and gold markers.
4006-6020, 4006-6021, 4006-6027, 4006-6029
The 4006-602x is an iconic Seiko Bell-Matic whose design borrows heavily from the 70m sports divers that Suwa were making at the same time. The brushed UFO case was ringed with either a black (6020, 6021) or blue (6027, 6029) resin bezel insert, aping the look of the 6119-6400 UFO diver. All 600x have a black dial, black indicator ring with either light blue (6020, 6027, 6029) or white (6021) minute track and white triangle alarm indicator. All variants had 17 jewels. The case has a slightly strange cutout at 2 o’clock for the alarm button making it seems as though the case does not completely encircle the bezel.
4006-6030, 4006-6031, 4006-6037
The 603x models are a transitional design between the early-70s UFO-cased, colourful sports diver-esque Bell-Matics and the tight, efficient cases of the run-out models of the Bell-Matic line. The stainless steel or gold squared-off cushion case is vertically brushed but otherwise unadorned and fuss-free. Dials for the steel watch are either sunburst blue or silver and the gold watch came with a plain brown dial. In each case the colour of the indicator ring matches the dial.
4006-6040, 4006-6041, 4006-6049
The 604x is the first Bell-Matic to exhibit a new case style that was much tighter and efficient compared to all the 400x watches that came before it. Essentially hexagonal in shape with some rounding at the case midpoint, the first example of the new design approach was integrated with its bracelet. It was produced from around 1973 to 1976. Integrated bracelets were just starting to be introduced by Seiko in this time and here we have a fully integrated bracelet that is very good quality for Seiko. The links are folded but they are tight and well-finished. My own example has very little drop even after 46 years.
The dials on the 604x are also quite special having a sunburst finish in the center that transitions to a circumferentially brushed finish beyond that. Dials are either blue, silver or gold. Add to this applied markers in the bar style of the 701x, silver printed minute track and a colour coordinated indicator ring with printed minute markers and numerals it presents itself as more modern than its build date would suggest. This modern look is enhanced with the brushed, tapering bracelet.
The 605x model is not nearly as common as the 604x but us similar in many ways. The case is octagonal rather than hexagonal thanks to the flattening of the midcase rather than the rounding of it. The alarm indicator ring is thin again, in the style of the early watches meaning that the applied markers are pushed outwards opening up the dial to give a more luxurious impression than the tool-like 604x. The steel-cased watches came with black dials with blue indicator rings or silver dials with silver indicator rings. The gold-cased watches came with white dials, gold applied markers and a gold indicator ring for that Midas touch. Again, the bracelet is integrated but of a different design to the 604x.
The 606x was of one of two 1977/1978 close-out models for the Bell-Matics line. Obviated by the digital alarm watches that Seiko had were developing, the Bell-Matic line still had a few design tricks up its sleeve. While the helmet shaped case design was derivative of the 6139 chronographs and some models of the Actus range, the dial design was all new. The 606x dial was the most modern of all Bell-Matics with a subdued fumé dial, simple, clean markers and minimal and discrete indicator ring. The watch was available in stainless steel with a blue or silver dial or gold with a brown dial.
The final Bell-Matic was the 607x. The case was a non-integrated version of the 604x’s rounded hexagonal case with regular but hooded lugs. Dials came in brown, blue, white and black with either applied markers or printed numerals, the latter lending the Bell-Matic a hint of military field-watch. Numeral dials only came in black and white matte finishes.
As with all vintage Seiko watches, look for good cosmetics and authenticity first. Dials and hands should be clean, free of blemishes, scratches and water damage. The dial, hands, indicator ring, case and caseback number should all match. This is a particular problem with vintage Bell-Matics because so many parts have been swapped in and out. Casebacks before 1974 should have a text arranged in a horseshoe shape while casebacks after that should have horizontal text in the center of the case back. If the model had an integrated bracelet, ensure it comes with the watch and is big enough for your wrist, as replacements are impossible to find. Finally, servicing is straight-forward despite the complexity of the keyless works. As long as no new parts are needed, any competent watchmaker should be comfortable servicing one.