Seiko 5

The problem with being a watch geek is two-fold. First, it completely invalidates anything I say if I feel like teasing my wife about how many shoes she owns. Second, mechanical watches tend to be much more expensive than their quartz counterparts.

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Enter the Seiko 5.

We’ll just have to keep hoping that link remains active, because Seiko’s website is fairly awful. (So is Casio’s site for G-Shock watches, with no feature filter to help you through hundreds of styles.) As a matter of fact, if you just go to Seiko.com (USA, anyhow), you can’t even find any mention of the Seiko 5’s existence. But a quick Google search led me to the microsite for the 5 and it’s 50th anniversary. 1963 was a very busy year, with James Bond movies also celebrating their 50th, “I have a dream”, and JFK’s assassination- but I digress. Let’s talk about the watch.

My favorite thing about a mechanical watch is the rapid ticking, like the opening of a 60 Minutes episode, as the second hand makes several discrete jumps between each second rather than the inelegant full second clunk of quartz.

While all mechanical watches I’m aware of share that attribute, the Seiko 5 is unique in a few ways. First is the extremely low cost. MSRP on the watch is $185 USD, but they can be found on Amazon.com for $50-60 all day long. The movement is made in Malaysia and I’m guessing that’s for cost savings. The crystal watch face is a lower grade of Seiko’s proprietary “hardlex” which is a mineral crystal, just not sapphire, to keep the price low. Second is the crown, which leads into how the 5 was named.

  1. Automatic winding
  2. Day/date displayed in a single window
  3. Water resistance
  4. Recessed crown at the 4 o’clock position
  5. Durable case and bracelet

These five attributes were unique for the time and, considering these watches were devised and cost effective before the Quartz Crisis/Revolution took place, I can’t help but imagine they were the ultimate sports watch for a five to seven year window of time.

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My initial impression of the 5 was shock at how small it is. Honestly, it’s about the same size as most watches I grew up with, but the fashion in recent years for men’s watches has been a larger size (which I think is played out and they’re getting smaller again). But since 37mm doesn’t mean much to me without comparison, here are some photos.

US quarter, the 5, and Kinetic Dad gave me when I graduated high school. Click to embiggen.

Right to left: US quarter, the 5, and Seiko Kinetic my Dad gave me in ’97.

The quarter is 24.11 millimeters. All measurements were taken with Mitutoyo digimatic calipers. There were various decimals but most measurements were within 0.15 mm so I rounded to the nearest whole number with three exceptions.

TAG Heuer Grand Carrera 17, Seiko 5, Oakley Holeshot

Right to left: TAG Heuer Grand Carrera 17, Seiko 5, and Oakley Holeshot.

For the face I measured the diameter of the crystal and you can see on the Oakley that’s not truly representative of the clock face part of the display. (The Oakley’s odd case also skews those figures.) The cases’ diameters were measured based on their radius (again, see the Oakley, who claim 47.5mm), then again including crown, and finally from bracelet stem-to-stem across the face. That explained, the watch sizes are as follows:

  • Seiko 5 – 29mm face, 37mm case, 38.5mm w/crown, & 43mm stems.
  • Kinetic – 29mm face, 38mm case, 40mm w/crown, & 43mm stems.
  • TAG – 37mm face, 43mm case, 47mm w/crown, & 50mm stems.
  • Oakley – 31.5mm face, 45mm case, 49.8mm w/crown, & 50mm stems.

For thickness, the 5 is 10.5mm, Kinetic is 10.3, TAG is 15, and Oakley is 11.8. A US mint quarter is 1.7mm for comparison. I can’t imagine wearing anything larger than the TAG without it being ridiculous and tacky (cough, cough, most Diesel and Oakley), but it also feels just about perfect. It’s been so long since I’ve worn my Kinetic that going back to a smaller size felt like I was wearing a ladies watch at first, but that feeling passed quickly and now it’s like the perfect daily wear timepiece for a jeans and t-shirt guy.

The look (as if you can’t see the face from the pictures) is simple and relatively clean. I like the geometric design, and the hands are large enough that the luminous material is legible in the dark on all three. The case is stainless steel, but in a flat finish. The watch is small enough that this is a non-issue anyway, but the crown being recessed and at 4 o’clock precludes any rubbing or irritation on the back of the wearer’s hand. While the case of the watch is water resistant, I have no desire to stress the cloth band and do not wear this watch in the shower.

The exhibition case back is really just to prove this is a mechanical watch as you watch the balance wheel cycle back and forth. Otherwise, the movement isn’t that fancy and doesn’t have any jeweling on internal parts. The text printed on the back crystal is disappointing, but you’re almost never going to be looking at it.

Excess strap is held in place by two metal loops, one captured within the weave of the band and one sliding free to adjust as you need.

It’s about as basic a watch as you can get, save for the day/date complication. And of course, because it’s mechanical it won’t be quite as accurate as quartz. But who cares about that when we all have mobile phones in our pockets anyway? For just slightly more than a Timex Weekender (an excellent pick for quartz and style) you can own a mechanical watch. No more batteries to die or change. Granted, a mechanical watch should get serviced every now and again to keep it within tolerances, but wouldn’t you love to brag to your friends that your watch is EMP proof (even if it’s not strictly true)?

The short of it is this: in my limited writing on watches I’ve never recommended one. My TAG is too pricey to say “everybody should own one” and the Oakley looks too dude-bro frat boy. As of the date I write this, I’m on a WordPress.com site with no Amazon affiliate link. That means I gain nothing when I tell you this, gentle reader: if you’re interested in watches at all, you owe it to yourself to pick up a Seiko 5. The black model is fifty bucks and free shipping if you’re Prime member. The holidays are over, so you’re free to buy things for yourself again without ruining somebody’s gift plan. (And big, BIG thanks to my wonderful wife for tolerating and contributing to my watch obsession!)

There is quite literally no reason to not own one.

Twist & Shout

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As it turns out (see what I did, there?), Fossil Twist watches are still just a quartz fashion piece and not an inexpensive mechanical. Not even a cheap Chinese movement. Rather, the actual movement of the watch is battery driven while the “Twist” winds a strictly decorative mechanism. Disappointing, but still a handsome watch and not a bad choice for good looks at a fair price. They make a “Grant” model that’s damned handsome in rose gold and a black/charcoal face. Just don’t be fooled by their advertising parlance, it is strictly the look of an automatic watch.

watchuseek

My love of wristwatches can be traced back to 8th grade. Dad bought me a watch for my junior high graduation, and though I’m sure it was nothing special I thought it was the coolest thing in the world at the time. It was likely just a Timex but it had a stainless steel case, a brown leather band, and was instantly a thing of masculinity that was mine. I developed the philosophy that the only jewelry a man should wear is his wedding ring and a nice watch, and I’ve pretty much stuck to that with exceptions granted to ’80s hair metal bands. And when Dad bought me my first nice watch (a Seiko Kinetic with a two-tone bracelet) for my high school graduation, the seeds for horological love were firmly set.

Gotta love the 80s! Swatch guards and big wheels on skateboards!

Gotta love the 80s! Swatch guards and big wheels on skateboards!

As a kid in the 1980s, watches were cheap quartz, and the cool ones had LCD screens with a stopwatch and alarm. The really cool one was the calculator watch advertised in comic books if you signed up for some program and sold enough crap door-to-door. As if elementary school kids are just itching to do more math, right? Heck no! It was a nifty gizmo, and one that my fantasies said would enable me to cheat on my math tests! And of course there were Swatches and the Swatch guard… But as a ten year old boy I was convinced those colorful things were for girls. (Who knew all these years later I would love them for their sense of whimsy?)

dashtronicBut the watch that finally got me hooked was a little thing too beautiful to ignore: the Stauer 1930 Dashtronic. Seriously, just look at it! What soulless monster wouldn’t love that piece of art deco beauty? I saw this thing advertised in Popular Mechanics all the time, but the ads also sounded too good to be true (they sell Stauer items in Sky Mall, so there’s an indication of the level of quality we’re talking about here). So I did a little bit of Google searching for owner reports and before I knew it, my eyes had been opened to a whole new world.

watchuseek.com has now become one of my more frequently lurked websites, and the knowledge there is simply amazing. And while that Dashtronic beauty turned out to be a Chinese made knock-off trying to pass as high-end goods (that’s what Stauer does), the guys on watchuseek actually seem very fair about them. I’ve been able to learn a little bit about everything from $5,000 and up TAG Heuers to the “lowliest” of the Casio G-Shock line. These guys simply love watches, and once you understand the caveats of whatever watch you’re currently eyeing, it’s just a matter of enjoying it for what it is.

I think I find this so refreshing because, really, a wristwatch is almost 100% personal adornment and extraneous. Coming from doing the Handgun Podcast almost full time, with a focus on personal defense and concealed carry instruction, everything was much more critical in my eye. I was constantly looking for faults or hangups that could become potentially lethal pitfalls in a life-or-death situation, and trying to explain to a budget-only minded person that Uncle Mike’s holsters and a Hi Point C9 are unacceptable compromises just got old. It became very tiring, and constant research was like slamming my head against a wall. But this? Wristwatches (and pens, which I’m sure I’ll write more about later) are something I can simply enjoy. Cheap, accurate quartz watches and the ubiquity of cell phones have made fretting over a time piece irrelevant. Now it’s purely something to enjoy.

I bought one later as field watch for first deployment as a gov't contractor.

I bought one later as field watch for my first deployment as a gov’t contractor.

While I was still doing the podcast, I began to lust after an Oakley Holeshot 10th Mountain Edition. I think it was $300 or $325 at the time. It was still pretty recent that I’d discovered watchuseek and the truth about Stauers, when one of my friends and I were talking about the Holeshot. “I mean, I’m a watch guy,” he said, “But $300 on a watch is just outrageous!” I couldn’t help but laugh a little bit, then told him about Stauer, this crazy watch forum I’d discovered, etc. And the price of a Rolex, or a Tag Heuer. I told him not to take offense, but that I knew just enough to think that he and I weren’t really “watch guys”.

At the time, I didn’t even know about brands like Patek Phillipe or Panerai. No matter how much more I learn, the one thing I just keep trying to remember is that there’s still so much I don’t know. But even though I’ve since bought a several thousand dollar wristwatch (a TAG Heuer Grand Carrera Calibre 17, CAV511B.FC6225), one thing I have come to believe is that you don’t have to spend that kind of money to be a “watch guy”. All that moniker really requires is a little bit of knowledge, and loving what’s on your wrist. I love the Fossil watch my wife bought me that was only just over $110, and as I type this I’m wearing a Timex Expedition purchased from Amazon for $46. You don’t have to spend megabucks, just love what you have.

So what kind of knowledge have I picked up and think a jeans and t-shirt watch fan should share? Really, just the basics of quartz vs. mechanical watches and how to recognize them.

Quartz watches are cheaper and more accurate than mechanical and since that’s a win/win situation the conversation is over, right? Not so much. For everyday use, I can’t really think of a valid argument against a quartz, but because they’re so cheap to buy they also don’t have much in the way of heirloom quality or repair support. They’re disposable. When they break you chuck ‘em out and get a new one, and many times CAN’T be repaired because there simply aren’t parts made for them anymore. But they’re also hardy and will last for years. If it’s electric, it’s a quartz watch and derives its timing from the oscillator that’s regulated to a very precise frequency by the quartz crystal. You can recognize these at a glance in even analog watch faces because the second hand will jump very distinctly from one second to the next. One, pause, two, pause, three, etc. Even in more expensive watches like a Bulova or an Oakley. So you’re paying for the name, fashion, and maybe materials but not a “fine timepiece”. There’s nothing wrong with that, just be aware.

Mechanical watches on the other hand are driven purely by, well, the mechanical force of a wound spring. They’re not as accurate and more costly (and from what I’ve read, it’s recommended they be serviced about every two years), but a good jeweler should be able to keep them running forever. If you have an automatic watch, it’s typically a self-winding mechanical and the tell-tale sign is a second hand with a much smoother sweeping movement of several very tiny ticks between each second. Don’t be fooled by thinking that more “jewels” means it’s a nicer watch- the jewel is just the bearing that parts pivot in for the complications (added features like a chronograph or day/date window). A six jewel Swiss watch could easily out-price a 17 jewel Chinese watch. And the term chronometer is supposed to be reserved for watches of a certain precision standard, but outside of Switzerland (where they’re certified by the COSC) it’s really up to the scruples of the watchmaker.

The last two paragraphs are nothing new to the die-hard watch aficionado, and odds are if you found this blog by Google you already know all that or even have suggestions to improve, correct, or clarify the info. But I felt like I should at least put the basics out there.

So from there, what’s the point? Well, while it broke my heart to discover that Stauer were mostly just Chinese movements (the motor, if you will, that powers the watch), it set me on a few years’ journey of discovery that led right back where I started. I’m just accepting of it now. My Fossil is an automatic and almost certainly a Chinese movement (Fossil started life importing and re-branding inexpensive watches from the far east) but I don’t care; I simply love it. My Oakley Holeshot that touts a Swiss 4-jewel movement is quartz. These may just be “fashion watches”, but who cares? My TAG is something I’ll pass down to my kids, even if the cognoscenti tease that it’s more a marketing firm than a watch company these days. But in the meantime I’ll enjoy it, and anything else in my collection just for being the marvelous little works of art that they are.

Confession: I do find myself eschewing quartz watches these days except for necessity (like now, while I’m deployed in Afghanistan). I really like the detail and complexity of all those little gears and after growing up with jumping second hands, the smooth sweeping of a mechanical just fascinates me. My Holeshot has been plagued with problems for a future blog post, so spending serious cash on a quartz watch is nothing I’m inclined to do again. I think a mechanical watch appeals to any guy who likes tinkering under the hood of a car or on a motorcycle, so I’m pleased there are actually affordable options out there. Check out Xetum, for example. I highly encourage any gearhead to go mechanical if they can (an old Omega was dependable enough for a zero-G trip to the moon, after all). And if you get up some serious scratch to spend on a watch, check out Panerai before plunking your bank down on a Rolex (edited after more learning a bit more) you’ll never go wrong with a Rolex Daytona.