nited in a consortium, the Swiss brands Breitling, Heuer, Hamilton- Buren and Dubois-Dépraz, as well as Zenith on its own, were determined to do so quickly. But Seiko would outdo them by releasing, in mid-May 1969, the “5 Speed-Timer” which became the first automatic chronograph on the market.
- The Seiko 5 Speed-Timer
- The first automatic chronograph in the world to be marketed. 30-minute counter, day and date.
This model, now considered a historic landmark, was outfitted with the 6139 movement, developed within two years by the Seiko engineers. With a diameter of 27.4 mm and a height of 6.5 mm, this movement was equipped with a central rotor coupled with the famous “Magic Lever”. Created in 1959, this ingenious device greatly boosts the winding power of the mainspring and its rotation speed by exploiting the energy created by the oscillating mass in both directions, clockwise and counterclockwise. Fully wound up, the watch offers a 36- hour power reserve with the chronograph in operation.
- The 5 Speed-Timer of 1970
The following year, in 1970, Seiko releases another automatic caliber, the 6138 which differs from 6139 by displaying the seconds and has an hours counter. Another feature, its pushers are located at the top of the watch and not on the side.
- An automatic chronograph equipped with calibre 7016, with 30 minutes counter.
1970 also sees the arrival on the market of the calibre 7017, an ultra-thin automatic 5.9 mm thick, then setting a world record. A real achievement, accomplished by restricting the number of components and removing the minute counter.
- The 1970 Speed Timer chronograph, equipped with the 7017 automatic calibre.
But in 1971, its successor, the calibre 7018, with the same thickness,
allows the reintroduction of the 30 minutes counter.
Seiko will release two more automatic chronograph calibres before ceasing all production of mechanical chronographs in 1977, and mechanical watches in the early 80s. Watchmakers around the world believe that it is the end for mechanics.
Birth, purgatory and rebirth
This considerable effort, which allowed the Japanese Seiko to beat Swiss watchmakers, actually began in 1964 – just in time for the Tokyo Olympics – with the release of Japan’s first chronograph wristwatch, equipped with the hand-wound calibre 5179. This calibre of 6.1 mm, already equipped with a column wheel and a vertical clutch, had the particularity of a single push button placed above the crown, commanding start, stop and return to zero. But this chronograph did not have a minute counter and was fitted instead with a rotating bezel marking the 60 minutes. After starting the chronograph, the bezel is rotated so that the zero is placed on the current minute.
- The first Japanese chronograph, released in 1964
- With manual winding. Power reserve of 38 hours with chronograph switched on.
From the beginning of the 80’s, Seiko puts an end to its production of mechanical chronographs. But the story, similar to what occurred at Zenith with the famous El Primero, is repeated in Japan: watchmakers who were supposed to scrap the machines used for the production of mechanical chronograph calibres refuse the orders and do not destroy them.
Good for them! Because, as we know, mechanical watchmaking will be reborn, but this time it is the Swiss who are ahead. A few years later, Seiko’s machines come out of their purgatory, the old retired watchmakers are recalled, and the production of Seiko mechanical chronographs restarts in 1998. But the Japanese, who have become dominant on the quartz watch market no longer believe in the international appeal of their mechanical production and confine it to their prestigious Credor line, then reserved for the Japanese market alone. Under the Credor label, Seiko launches several new automatic calibres, gradually updating them with various improvements, up to the calibre TC78 which they decide to sell to third parties. TAG Heuer, eager to escape the tutelage of ETA, will not only buy some but will conclude an agreement to be able to “reproduce” it by transforming it somewhat and manufacturing it under the name “calibre 1887”.
Back to international
It was not until 2009, 40 years after the “5 Speed Timer” and its calibre 6139, that Seiko made its international comeback in the automatic mechanical chronograph with the launch of the Ananta collection. The calibre 8R28 launched then takes the traditional elements of Seiko chronographs, such as column wheel, vertical clutch and “Magic Lever”, while bringing some innovations such as the simultaneous return to zero of all chronometric indications.
- Ananta Diver Chronograph
- Equipped with Calibre 8R39, launched in 2014.
But if one moves away – partially – from the only mechanical chronograph, it is important to emphasise that Seiko, in parallel with its traditional production, has launched new lines of research that led to the Spring Drive line, released in 2005. Its technology combines mechanical energy production and its conversion into electrical and magnetic energy. As tradition dictates, the Spring Drive chronograph is equipped with a column wheel and a vertical clutch, but its control system offers superlative precision compared to the traditional chronograph: +/- 1 second / day.
- The Grand Seiko 55th Anniversary Drive Chronograph, presented in 2015.
- A specially tuned version of Spring Drive calibre 9R96, providing an accuracy of 1 / - 0.5 second/day (+/- 10 seconds per month). A limited edition of 400 pieces.
Precision being one of the major qualities required for a chronograph, the Spring Drive movement deserves a place apart.