As all watch fans know (and now the half-century anniversary is upon us, most people who’ve ever looked twice at a TAG Heuer or Zenith), the race to create the world’s first automatic chronographs culminated in 1969. It was a three-way contest between a consortium formed from TAG Heuer, Hamilton, Breitling and Buren, Zenith and Seiko.
Who “won” this race is, and will forever be, the subject of some debate. I wrote about it in some detail when we discussed the importance of 1969 in watchmaking generally – it was a seismic year in many respects – and others have covered it in forensic detail, but arriving at a definitive answer of ‘who came first’ is almost certainly impossible.
However, most pundits lean (as I do) towards the conclusion that Seiko was probably the first to get automatic chronographs in full-scale production and on the market, even if it was only in its domestic market. But while the Swiss brands have made the most of the opportunity to congratulate themselves for their efforts, there hasn’t been a peep out of Seiko.
The race for an automatic chronograph was a huge deal; combining the post-war appetite for automatic watches with the equally huge demand for chronographs in a watch that wasn’t outlandishly sized or commercially unfeasible was a technical challenge with a potentially massive pay-off. No-one involved – not even Seiko, which I say for reasons that are probably already clear – knew that the watch industry would take such a downturn in the 1970s and 80s, but even despite the impact of the quartz watch on mechanical watchmaking, being a brand with an automatic chronograph movement paid dividends for TAG Heuer and saved Zenith all together.
As for Breitling and Hamilton – well, that’s a story for another time. Neither brand has made such a big deal of their role in the team that produced the Chronomatic movement; arguably they were partners of convenience, with Heuer the real leader; Breitling for its marketing dominance in the USA, and Hamilton for its acquisition of Buren, which was supplying the base automatic calibres.
TAG Heuer showcased its new movement in the Monaco, as well as Chronomatic versions of the Carrera and Autavia; Zenith created the A384 and A386 references for the El Primero. Both have been recreated this year to critical acclaim.
Seiko produced the reference 6139 to house its first automatic chronograph – often called the Speed Timer after dial text found on many, but not all, early models. It was accompanied by the two-register 6138, and it has a strong fan following in its own right. It was also the first automatic chronograph in space, worn by Colonel Pogue on NASA’s Skylab mission in 1973, and yellow-dialled versions with blue and red bezels are known as “the Pogue”. Production of the 6138 and 6139 series watches ended in 1978 (meaning it lasted longer than the Monaco and about the same as the original El Primero). But unlike those two, there has never been a revival.
When I visited Seiko in Japan in 2018, I asked Seiko President and COO Shuji Takahashi directly whether there were any plans to commemorate the 6139 chronograph. His answer, in full, was: “Whenever we look back on our history, we always make sure we have a modern interpretation of what we have done. It might be a little something we tweak, or it could be present technology that’s embedded into it, but it’s not going to be a modern revival for the sake of reviving something.”
Which is clear as mud, if you think about it: Seiko does plenty of reissues of its diving watches that, while they obviously do improve on the originals in the sense of being made by modern methods to higher tolerances and with modern materials (mainly the introduction of sapphire crystal), they are marketed as nostalgia-focussed limited edition revivals, with no particular emphasis on the technical aspects of updating a classic. They are as close as you can get to the definition of reviving something for the sake of it, i.e. to mark its anniversary.
But as anyone who has spent time in Japan knows, the official statement is only half of the story; diplomatic and well-rehearsed. Behind the scenes, the answer was a firm “no”, there will be no surprise 6139 50thanniversary revival. And I’m pretty sure nothing was getting lost in translation (although it must be said, I did detect a glimmer of regret among the watchmakers and product managers involved).
The real reason why there won’t be a watch to honour the breakthrough of 1969 is that for Seiko, the real breakthrough of 1969 wasn’t the 6139 Speed Timer. It was the Astron; the world’s first quartz wristwatch and the model that foretold the downfall of the Swiss watch industry. The Astron set the tone for Seiko for decades to come; it would be a watch company that pursued technological excellence no matter what the power source or regulating organ. Thirty years later, Seiko would come to market with another invention that it considers much, much more important; the Spring Drive (which had in fact been in development ever since 1977).
Not all of you will know that Seiko watches come from two separate factories (and just how separate might be surprising, as well): Seiko Epson and Seiko Instruments. Seiko Epson is home to all Spring Drive watches, all quartz watches, and the Credor Micro-Artists Studio. It is the arm of Seiko that deals in high complications and cutting-edge innovation. Seiko Instruments makes the highest-grade mechanical Seiko (mostly Grand Seiko) watches but the horological firepower here is concentrated mainly on the pursuit of accuracy, via the VFA and Extra Special models. If Seiko were to commission a wholly mechanical chronograph to pay homage to the 6139, it would have to come from Seiko Instruments, which is not the arm of the company tasked with producing complicated movements. It’s as much a political decision as a horological one, but that is the lie of the land.
Indeed, if you look at the current chronograph output of Seiko and Grand Seiko, you’ll see that high-end chronographs are exclusively Spring Drive powered. The closest thing you can get to a prestigious automatic chronograph is the Presage 60th Anniversary model, released in 2016, which is a fine watch, and while it may in some twisted and tortuous way trace its genealogy back to the 6139 (it is after all an in-house integrated chronograph movement; one imagines elements may have been handed down over the years), it has nothing to do with the 6139 in terms of its design, marketing or concept. The 60th anniversary, by the way, is a reference to Seiko’s first automatic movement in 1956.
There are just a few more ideas I can throw into the mix that hint at what, if anything, might come next for Seiko chronograph fans. It is yet to be formally announced, but Seiko intends to allow Spring Drive movements out from Grand Seiko to power other models, potentially from the Presage or Prospex families. It also intends to expand Grand Seiko’s market position to encompass a slightly higher price point, which may or may not mean more complications. And lastly, in an interview I did earlier this year with the designer Ken Okuyama, who is working with Seiko (not Grand Seiko) on designs that move Prospex into a higher price bracket, around the £4,000-£5,000 mark, he strongly hinted that a chronograph would be his next project for the brand. Does that mean there will be a Spring Drive powered, all-new design chronograph, priced to compete with a Speedmaster, El Primero or Autavia in the next couple of years? Maybe – but don’t quote me on it.
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