Finally, Seiko has created a watch to honor the legacy of Naomi Uemura, one of the greatest Japanese explorers in the modern era.
To this day, the disappearance of Uemura remains a mystery. The last contact made with Uemura was on February 13, 1984. He had just summited Denali and was on the initial leg of his descent when two Japanese photographers in a spotter plane communicated with him on the radio.
And that was the last anyone had heard from him.
Uemura left behind an incredible legacy. He rafted the Amazon River solo, he reached the North Pole solo, and he had already once climbed Denali solo. He was also part of the first Japanese team to summit Everest.
And his watch of choice? A Seiko. A ref. 6105, in fact. Uemura wore the 6105 on a 12,500km solo dog sled run from Greenland to Alaska in 1976, and collectors have speculated that he wore the watch on a ’78 North Pole expedition. A New York Times excerpt chronicles the challenges that Uemura faced:
Three days after he began his journey on March 6, a polar bear tore into the tent where Mr. Uemura was sleeping, destroyed it and ate most of the supply of dog food. When the bear returned the next morning, Mr. Uemura was awakened by the dogs’ barking. He shot and killed the bear at 75 yards. The dogs then feasted on the carcass, and a new tent and more dog food were airdropped to Mr. Uemura.
Throughout his polar trek, Mr. Uemura’s progress – or, on some stormy days, lack of it – was tracked by the Nimbus meteorological satellite, which passes over the pole every 108 minutes. Signals from a radio transmitter mounted on the sled were received by the satellite and relayed to the Goddard Space Flight Center at Greenbelt, Md., where Mr. Uemura’s position could be pinpointed several times a day.
In his honor, Seiko has now created a limited edition modern re-interpretation of the very watch that Uemura wore with a blue bezel and textured soft blue dial, dubbed the SLA049, and a non-limited version of the watch with a textured grey dial and black bezel. That’s the SLA051. Both feature the 8L35 movement which comes out of Seiko’s Shizukuishi Watch Studio in Northern Japan. Additionally, the case on these watches features Seiko’s “super-hard” coating.
I’ve long thought that the legacy of Uemura and the 6105 is grossly overshadowed by the watch’s appearance in the movie Apocalypse Now, where it earned the nickname the “Willard” thanks to a prop master putting it on actor Martin Sheen’s wrist. I’ve even played into the nickname before. It’s a very Western-centric viewpoint, and I’ve been waiting for Seiko to lean into their history and spread the word about Uemura. I’d wager that before the release of this watch, more folks associated the 6105 with Captain Willard than Naomi Uemura. One is a fictional character in an iconic film, and the other was a real-life 20th-century explorer whose accomplishments are nothing short of incredible.
I’ve seen Seiko showcase Uemura’s history twice before. The first was at Baselworld 2019, with a small placard tying Uemura to the then-new SLA033. I thought it was odd that the Uemura connection wasn’t the focal point of the entire launch. With the release of the SLA049 and SLA051, we know why. The second time Seiko had showcased the Uemura connection was with a small display of Uemura’s personal effects that was briefly on display at Seiko’s Prospex boutique in Ginza last year.
It’s very exciting to see Seiko embrace Uemura’s legacy in such a public and appropriate way; Uemura would have been 80 this year.
The Seiko 6105 has spawned a number of modern watches created in its image during recent years. To understand what makes the Uemura tribute watch different, we’ll take a brief look at the others.
The original 6105-811X. This is the model that Uemura famously wore on a number of his expeditions. It’s also known as the “Willard,” for its role in Apocalypse Now. It should also be noted that it went to space with Dr. David Williams. It’s 44mm wide and 12.5mm tall. It uses the caliber 6105B.
While it’s not meant to be an exact recreation of the original 6105, the SLA033 comes very close. It incorporates modern, top-of-the-line elements like the 8L35 movement and a Zaratsu-polished bezel. It grew to 45mm from the original’s 44mm. It came on a “waffle strap” and was priced at $ 4,250. It sold out shortly after it was launched.
SPB151 and SPB153
Pictured is the SPB153, the SPB151 is the same watch with a black dial and bezel. When this watch was introduced, I wrote that the SLA033 addresses one market, and the SPB151/153 addresses another. The SPB151 and SPB153 are priced at $ 1,300 and $ 1,100, respectively. The bracelet contributes to the extra cost of the SPB151. This watch departs from the 6105 design language by slightly reshaping the hands, indices, and “stoplight” seconds hand. It uses the workhorse 6R35 caliber.
The new SLA049 and SLA053
The SLA049 and SLA053 sit somewhere between the SLA033 and the SPB151 and SPB153 design-wise. The case is 44mm, but is shaped in a way that’s closer to the SLA033. The hands and “stoplight” seconds hand are similar to the SPB151 and SPB153, but the indices on the dial aren’t tapered at all. And, of course, you may have noticed the date window creeped to the 4:30 position. Seiko says the change is to maximize legibility in the dark. The 8L35 has traditionally been used in a date-at-three fashion, exemplified by the SLA033. Around the HODINKEE office, there’s a theory that the date was moved in order to comply with updated ISO standards requiring luminous plots at all 12 positions.
As is common with Seiko releases in recent history, there’s a tie-in to the natural world. The limited edition SLA049 of 1,200 pieces features a slate blue dial that’s subtly textured like the face of a crag, and the color of the bezel points to the idea that Uemura spent a great deal of time in Earth’s upper atmosphere where the sky wears this particular hue of blue. The standard production model (SLA053) doesn’t entirely escape Seiko’s thematic treatment, either. The dial still features the crag-like texture.
The supplied bracelet skews towards modern, with a steel five-row design, although a color-matched silicon “train track” strap also comes with the watch. The sides of the 44mm case are polished, while the front facets of the case wear a circular-brushed finish.
While the thematic design elements of the Uemura watch will most likely appeal to a very specific type of Seiko collector and enthusiast, I’m excited to see Seiko widely embrace their own genuine history when it comes to exploration and adventure. Many watch companies must manufacture their own history, but Seiko has tons of history that it tends to stay quiet about. Why not lean in a little more? Hopefully, the Uemura watch signifies a newfound willingness to further honor significant characters in Seiko history. Perhaps Colonel Pogue is next?
Model: The Naomi Uemura 80th Anniversary Limited Edition and the 1970s Diver’s Modern Re-Interpretation
Reference Number: SLA049 and SLA051
Case Material: Stainless Steel
Dial Color: Blue (SLA049) and Grey (SLA051)
Indexes: Luminous, at all 12 positions
Lume: Seiko LumiBrite
Water Resistance: 200m
Strap/Bracelet: Bracelet, Stainless Steel
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, date
Power Reserve: 50 hours
Pricing & Availability
Price: $ 3,100 (SLA049) $ 2,900 (SLA051)
Availability: Seiko Boutiques and Authorized Dealers.
Limited Edition: SLA049 is limited to 1,200 pieces; SLA051 is not limited
For more, click here.