Following this write up on the Quartz Revolution, it seemed appropriate to dig a little deeper into the topic of Seiko quartz movements. More precisely, a family of movements that many vintage collectors describe as “superior” and “elite” when compared to their contemporary Swiss counterparts. Having commercialized the first quartz-powered wristwatches, Seiko continued innovating to the point of making high-tech movements with accuracy and durability that most Swiss mechanical movements cannot compete with – even today. It seems that only Seiko could beat itself at its own game: (Grand) Seiko revolutionized the industry again when it unveiled the first Spring Drive movement in 1999. Source: www.fifthwrist.com
After releasing the Astron in 1969—the first commercially available quartz wrist watch—Seiko put their two competing factories to good use: Suwa, which made Grand Seiko, and Daini, which made King Seiko. At the time, both factories were competing to make the best mechanical movements, as well as the best finished and most luxurious watches. The period of the 1960s-1970s saw the birth of many iconic models such as the 44GS and 44KS, for example, as well as a few high-end quartz movements. The Swiss lagged behind while Seiko and its various faces were creating some of the most accurate wrist watches ever produced on earth (and still to this day!). Within this context, the Seiko group created three families of quality quartz movements: the King Quartz, Grand Quartz, and Superior.
In a somewhat confusing choice by Seiko, both factories frequently produced their own models using the same base calibers. So, to keep matters simple, we won’t get into all the details, as it would mean writing a mini-novel. As a quick example, each caliber I’ll reference below came in different versions—day/date, date only, or time-only. Many watches powered by these quartz movements were much more expensive than those equipped with the best mechanical calibers Seiko produced at that time. From roughly $2,300 at the lowest end to $23,000 at the highest end in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation. This means that most people could not afford a quality Seiko quartz watch in the 1970s, something that is hard to imagine in 2023 given how cheap good quartz calibers have become. These were different times.
The Seiko King Quartz
Introduced in 1975 with caliber 4823 from the 48KG family, the King Quartz movements were the least accurate of all three. Still, they were accurate to +/- 10 seconds per month, or an average daily variation of 0.3 seconds: still very impressive! King Quartz movements were produced from 1975 all the way to 1985. A total of eight main versions were developed during that time period. Each new version would be more accurate than the previous one, to the point where the last reference, caliber 94KQ, was accurate to +/- 20 seconds per year. Most King Quartz movements came with a day/date complication and were offered in a variety of models. Today, vintage King Quartz Seiko’s are rather inexpensive to buy online.
The Seiko Grand Quartz
The Grand Quartz also debuted in 1975 with caliber 4843 from the 48GQ family. Unlike the first King Quartz caliber that was produced by both Daini and Suwa factories, the Grand Quartz was only produced by the Suwa factory. These calibers came in fewer versions, mostly three, and were produced until 1985. They were more accurate than their King Quartz counterparts with the caliber 4843 being accurate to +/- 5 seconds per month. Because they were more accurate, Grand Quartz movements were more expensive to purchase. Still today, vintage models equipped with this caliber are more rare and expensive on the second-hand market.
The Seiko Superior Quartz
In 1978, Seiko produced what is regarded as being the crème de la crème of quartz movements ever produced: the Twin Quartz 99GQ family of calibers. The reference 9943 which was accurate to +/- 5 to10 seconds per year! These were the most expensive, and today, a 9943 in good condition can fetch prices of up to $2,000 or more. To put this in perspective, currently the 9R is the most precise Spring Drive movement Grand Seiko produces, with an accuracy of +/- 0.5 seconds per day (or +/- 15 seconds per month which equals to +/- 3 minutes per year.) This means that Seiko has not been able to produce a non-quartz movement more precise than the 9943. Furthermore, the 9F is Grand Seiko’s most precise quartz caliber which boasts an accuracy of +/- 10 seconds per year—the same as the 9943 from 1978.
When first researching the history of Seiko quartz movements, I had no idea how extraordinary these movements were, both in terms of accuracy and price. Perhaps just like you, I was under the impression that quartz movements had always been rather affordable. After all, most of us grew up with $15 quartz-powered Casios. But it wasn’t until I wrote about the 1969 Astron that I realized how silly I had been to think this. Naturally, brand new bleeding-edge technology would come at a higher price tag.
This price was due to the novelty of this technology: new machinery had to be invented in order to mass-produce the movements. I've been told that creating an in-house mechanical movement requires an investment of one to two million dollars in equipment and staff (to produce a basic movements, that is). So we can easily imagine the same must have been true in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Seiko was developing its families of high-accuracy quartz calibers.
What are your thoughts on the Seiko quartz movements? Would you scour the pre-owned market now to acquire one? I know I did!Featured image: www.adventuresinamateurwatchfettling.com