The trouble with limited edition watches is that they often celebrate something incredibly esoteric and only significant to a select few. Seiko’s 55th anniversary trilogy is not one of those limited editions. Instead, it celebrates over half a century of innovation in dive watches. Many of us in the hobby found our way in through a Seiko diver, and that’s no accident. When it comes to democratic, innovative, and honest watchmaking, Seiko is at the top. Many of their dive watches specifically exemplify that notion. Think of Seiko’s limited edition trilogy release as a wearable history lesson in the long (and continuing) arc of how the Seiko dive watch has risen to become an icon. It’s a crash course in Seiko’s historical relationship with the ocean, exploration, and technical innovation.
Of course, these are not standard production models, and they’re certainly not spec’d or priced that way either. This is Seiko using the 55th anniversary of its dive watch as an opportunity to create something that doesn’t need to follow standard rules of scheduled production. Robust and accessible dive watches have long been a mainstay in Seiko’s line up, and it’s important to note the original examples that inspired this trilogy were exactly that. But with this trio, it seems like Seiko revisited the watches with this question: If we could max out the specs of these models, what would it look like? You’re looking at the result.
These three are packed to the bezel with technical features like an upgraded movement and a new case material, but that doesn’t change the way they wear. It does, however, change the way one can appreciate the watch.
The three watches that make up the trilogy are the SLA037, SLA039, SLA041. In other words, a modern re-creation of the 62MAS/6217 from 1965, the 6159-7001 from 1968, and the Professional Diver’s 600m from 1975. While the watches were announced all together as a trilogy, the actual releases have been staggered.
In a standard Hands-On post, we’d be taking a closer look at how a single watch wears, and we’ll do that, but this isn’t a normal Hands-On post because Seiko decided to bestow the trinity upon us all at once. It’s an opportunity to look at the watches together and analyze themes and common threads among the three models. Watches are rarely released in a vacuum. Before it was a collector-driven market, the introduction of a watch was primarily a reaction to functional demands of specific circumstances and needs. For the 62MAS, that was an Antarctic mission and, more broadly, the advent of SCUBA diving.
Now, of course, watches are an answer to the nostalgic longing of collectors. The 55th anniversary trio is squarely aimed at collectors – only 1,100 examples of each model will be built. So what is that nostalgia built on, anyway? Why are these three particular models worth celebrating?
The Start Of The Seiko Dive Watch
In 1965, Seiko released the 62MAS, the first-ever dive watch from the brand. It featured a non-hacking 6217 movement, a quick-set date, and an impressive 150m of water resistance. It wasn’t necessarily a response to the development of early dive watches coming out of Europe in the ’50s, particularly the likes of the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms or the Rolex Submariner. The impetus for the creation of the watch was to meet the needs of researchers who would be working in the harsh conditions of the Antarctic during the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition that would take place starting in 1968 according to Seiko. There’s been little scholarship to firmly establish that narrative, however. But the general connection between JARE and Seiko certainly has been established.
When the Japanese dive watch was released in 1965, Japan had emerged as the leading economic power in Asia. Extensive restoration efforts after World War II allowed Japan to flourish. A massive wave of technology and innovation swept through the automotive industry, shipbuilding operations, steel manufacturing, and electronics production. Watches also benefited from this economic boom, and when you’re talking watches in this era, you’re talking Seiko and Citizen. Seiko was arguably a zaibatsu, or a large Japanese company that had an economic advantage due to vertical integration. Looking back, the 62MAS was the primary competitor to the dive watches from Europe technologically, although its release predates the arrival of Seiko in America and most of the Western world. Seiko set up shop in the U.S. in 1967, when Tokyo’s K. Hattori & Co. established Seiko Time Corp. in New York, as Joe Thompson points out here.
The 62MAS set the stage for what would become a range of successful dive watches executed at every level. There’s always been an accessible model in the lineup, but as early as 1968, Seiko produced a “superwatch” in the form of the 6159-7001. It used a hi-beat movement and a monobloc case, and it was developed specifically for professional divers. It featured double the water-resistance of its predecessor at 300m thanks to a screw-down crown. In only three short years, Seiko doubled the water resistance and designed a watch that would meet the needs of the most serious divers of the era. In the ’60s and ’70s, Japanese engineering prowess, specifically Seiko’s, was on full display.
In the early ’70s, diving technology had outpaced that of horological design and a problem emerged: Crystals were popping out of watches due to helium build-up. A professional diver wrote as follows to Seiko:
“I am a diver who works at depths of 350m using a diving bell. When diving to such depths, we can pressurize to 35 atmospheres (ATM) over a short period of time before diving. However, after diving, we must use a decompression chamber to depressurize gradually. The ocean floor is an extremely harsh environment in which to work, and Seiko’s current 300m specification diver’s watch is unfit for use…”
Seiko accepted the challenge to meet the needs of this single diver.
They addressed this very specific problem by introducing the 6159-7010. It took 20 patents and an unconventional approach to create the watch. Rather than incorporating a helium release valve like some of its contemporaries, the 6159-7010 never let any helium in the watch to begin with. It accomplished this through specially designed gaskets and seals. Again, water resistance doubled, and the “tuna,” as it became known, was water-resistant to 600m.
It was these three milestone dive watches that inspired the 55th anniversary trio that’s being rolled out in summer 2020.
To fully understand the SLA037, one must rewind to 2017 when Seiko re-released the 62MAS in the form of the SLA017. The redesign was handled by Seiko’s longtime designer Nobuhiro Kosugi, and the guiding philosophy behind the reboot was to keep it as close as possible, aesthetically, to the original. They succeeded: The watch is regarded as a masterclass in how to re-create a classic. What put it over the top is the inclusion of the 8L35, which is assembled in the Shizukuishi Watch Studio in Morioka alongside Grand Seiko movements. That’s special. This isn’t the movement you would find in the Seikos that are heavily discounted at department stores (for the record, those movements, like the 6R15, are stupendous – and so are the watches they’re in).
Visually, the dial is the major update that we get with the SLA037. It’s a deep blue and subtly wears a faint sunburst pattern. It catches the light in such a way that a bowtie-shaped sheen appears when viewed at an angle. The thick surrounds hug the LumiNova indices to form a bold marker that’s incredibly legible. The 62MAS laid the foundational design language for many Seiko divers to follow, and it works just as good today as it did in 1965. The funny thing about this watch is that it demonstrates that, in terms of legibility, watches certainly have not come a long way. A design from 1965 can stack up to just about anything that’s been released recently. The same fonts are used, and the crown is signed.
Unsurprisingly, it wears like a vintage watch, too. At 39.9mm, it occupies that sweet spot that a growing number of consumers are excited about. The case is fashioned from Seiko’s proprietary “Ever-Brilliant Steel,” but the SLA037 features a matte finish, so it’s “brilliance” is muted. But, that’s only from a head-on position. The sides of the case are finished with zaratsu polishing (not to be confused with zaibatsu, a large vertically integrated Japanese company, which Seiko could be considered). The case finishing is a drastic improvement over the 62MAS. That seems like it would be obvious, but it also feels like this is certainly the watch that Seiko would make had they had the modern manufacturing technology available to them in ’65. A blue tropic rubber strap that matches the dial comes with the watch, and to my knowledge, it doesn’t come on any other Seiko model.
Inside is Seiko’s caliber 8L55. This is where the most dramatic improvement is; what makes the SLA037 even more compelling than 2018’s SLA017 is the upgraded movement. The 8L55 runs at 36,000 vph, while the old 8L35 operates at 28,800 vph. It uses 11 additional jewels, and the power reserve has been bumped up to 55 hours.
Anniversary celebration aside, the SLA037 seems like Seiko followed the watch to its logical conclusion, taking advantage of the numerous technological advancements they’ve made over the years and packed it into the ultimate expression of the 62MAS.
And it only took Seiko a short three years after the 1965 62MAS launch to come up with a watch that featured a case design that was well ahead of the contemporary crop of dive watches in 1968.
Monobloc cases just wear differently. The SLA039 sits tight and flat on the wrist because there’s no indentation or ridge formed by a caseback – it’s flush and tight. Again, Seiko has already re-created a watch that honors the original from 1968 to a tee in the form of the SLA025. It was a home run, and examples on the secondary market are quite sought after.
The new SLA039 uses the same case shape and general aesthetic, but it doesn’t follow the original as closely as the SLA025 did. There are no gold accents – instead, the same deep blue dial is used, and text and marker surrounds are now grey and silver to match the dial. It lends a modern feel to the watch. Two facets of the monobloc case form an angle at its leading edge, and both facets are zaratsu-polished. There’s a certain magic in the way the sides of the case light up and reflect light while the front of the case remains brushed. There’s also something distinctive about the way the watch wears. The monobloc case makes a big difference in bringing the 44.8mm size down to what feels much smaller. It’s a tall watch at 15.7mm, but again, something about a flat back makes it a totally manageable wear.
The SLA039 features the same host of upgrades that the SLA037 has over the SLA017, namely an 8L55 movement and “Ever-Brilliant Steel” case. This type of steel has a slight silvery sheen, and Seiko claims it’s 1.7-times more resistant to pitting than 316L, the standard metal used in most dive watches. When it comes to the SLA039, it’s the case that sticks out. The design is unmistakable, and the use of Ever-Brilliant Steel makes sense in this application as the watch was originally designed for professional use. And what’s impressive is that this 2020 model is rated for professional use. In case you’re skeptical, “FOR SATURATION DIVING” is engraved in the caseback. It’s got the specs to match the tool watch aesthetic.
But when it comes to the tool aesthetic, there simply aren’t any models in Seiko’s past that epitomize the tool watch look more than the “tuna.”
The “Grandfather Tuna,” the 6159-7010, was a solution to a very specific problem in 1975. It’s rarely lauded for balanced and restrained looks; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Sometimes, the results of design briefs land right in the middle of the functional-beautiful spectrum, other times they might skew to one side. The Tuna has always landed on the function side of the spectrum. In an account written for Seiko by Taro Tanaka, the lead developer of the original 6159-7010, he notes that the external appearance of the watch was indeed important:
We made numerous prototypes and worked to refine the various elements of the design: including the shape, texture and color of the outer case (the part that is most eye catching), the rotating bezel, crown (winding knob) and strap; the mutual balance of these elements and the overall operability of the watch when all of these elements are combined as one; the feel and comfort of wearing the watch; its sense of presence, and the atmosphere or aura that it exudes.
And because of its truly unique aesthetic, it’s developed a cult following among the folks the SLA041 is made for. Like the other watches in the series, it’s the ultimate expression of what the tuna can be. The specs have been maxed out, save for the movement. Instead of the 8L55, it uses the 8L35. The 8L35 is no slouch, though, as it’s still a close cousin of the 9S55 found in Grand Seikos.
Ever-Brilliant Steel is used for the bezel and blacked-out titanium for the rest of the case, just like the original. Titanium is superior to steel in many ways, so Seiko has only upgraded the bits that were originally standard stainless steel to its Ever-Brilliant Steel.
The dimensionality of the Tuna isn’t like other watches. It’s easy to wear, sure, but it doesn’t disappear. The light weight of the watch takes some of the perceived “presence” away, but it’s the kind of watch that you might keep in the drawer until a dive trip. Of course, some folks use the tuna as an everyday watch, but there’s also beauty in the idea that it’s somewhat of a ceremony to wear the tuna. Wearing the SLA041 is like breaking out the best china for a very specific meal.
When it comes to this trilogy, I can’t predict there’s anything left unanswered: A new material, a leading movement, and a dial color that’s loved by many make this trio incredibly attractive. These watches are executed at just about the highest level they can be within the operational limits of Seiko. The only thing I’d change? That more than 1,100 models are produced.
Pricing is as follows: $ 6,300 (SLA037), $ 6,800 (SLA039), $ 4,500 (SLA041). The watches are currently being released in a staggered fashion with drops in June, July, and August 2020, respectively. Each model is limited to 1,100 examples and will be sold through select authorized dealers as well as Seiko boutiques. The watches do not come as a set; they’re all individually serialized. Find out more about the 55th anniversary trio here.