The 1950s was a very interesting period in the history of the Seiko wristwatch. It was the decade when Seiko started as a simple manufacturer, big in the Japanese market, whose watch designs and production methods were based on pre-war Swiss and American manufacturers. By the end of the decade, Seiko had become one of the world’s biggest watchmakers gaining world wide respect for quality and technical achievement by producing watches designed and produced inhouse.
At the time, the more remarkable Seiko watches were the Super, the Marvel and the Gyro Marvel. I will devote a part of this article to each of these watches with a final section on the smaller players like the Automatic, the Cronos, the Unique and the Laurel. As this is a fairly big part of my collection, there will be a substantial number of pictures. For completeness, the article covering Seiko watches from the 1950s should also deal with the Lord Marvel, but I am postponing discussion this watch for a later article.
The decade starts with a bang with the introduction of the Super in 1950 from the Seiko Suwa factory. Suwa continues its domination of the 1950’s with the Marvel, the Gyro Marvel and the Laurel, while the Daini division relies on the slightly less interesting Unique and Cronos series.
The Super was introduced in an 8j version and subsequently also in 9, 10, 11, 15 and 17j versions. It was Seiko’s first “modern watch” incorporating advances in watch technology and manufacturing. For the first half of the 1950s, it was the best selling watch in Japan presumably produced in very large numbers. According to Suwa, it was Seiko’s first center second design, leading me to conclude that the earlier centre second watch sold under the Seiko brand in the 1940s was either a licensed production or an ebauche base. Improvement to the basic design in later years included better anti-shock protection, date (both as a center pointer and as a date window) and water proofing (water resistant would probably be the right label with present terminology).
This is a 15j Super Self Dator from 1955. At 30mm, it’s a medium size Super.
This is a 15j Super from September 1956. At 34mm, it is one of the latest and largest Supers.
The Marvel and Gyro Marvel
On Time Memorial Day June 10, 1956 came the next revolution in Seiko watch production. Time Memorial Day was an event celebrated all over Japan, sponsored by the watch manufacturers to celebrate time and promote watches to a newly affluent Japanese society where a nice watch was becoming an important symbol. I have not been able to find evidence of any Time Memorial Days in earlier or later years, but 1956 was the crucial year for Seiko as it saw the introduction of the Marvel.
The technical construction of the Marvel was a development from the Super calibre. Changes to the movement were made to achieve better accuracy, productivity and ease of maintenance. According to Suwa, the greatest improvements were in the automation of production and decrease in production costs. The Marvel came to dominate the Japanese domestic market during the last half of the 50s and were, together with the Super, the first Japanese mass market watches.
The Marvel was made in 17, 19 and 21j versions and the caliber came in two sizes, 23 and 26 mm. This increase from the smaller movements of the Super, was an intention to better meet market expectations of larger watches.
This is an early 17j S mark Marvel from 1957 with the smaller movement and a 32mm case. The S mark seems to come and go on the Marvels and does not always indicate an early watch.
Marvels came in hundreds of combinations with more or less fancy dials. Her is is a fairly subdued version from 1958 with applied gold hour markers and what the Japanese call a “rice paddy” pattern on the dial.
Moving up one small step in dial design, this 1958 watch was labelled a backgammon pattern when I posted a picture of it on one of the forums.
The next step up would be to add a bit of texture rather than the printed patterns shown on the previous watches. This is another 19j 1958 watch. As you can see, the Marvel lettering and logo also varies between the watches.
The Marvel usually had simple casebacks and undecorated movements. This one, however has the more unusual copper coloured movement.
(Picture Credit: Yahoo! Japan)
When running out of ideas for printed dials and textures, Seiko added 3D design elements. This 1958 watch contains small silver plates applied to the dial.
Our final Marvel is a “waterprotected” version with a screw-in caseback.
In 1959, the Gyro Marvel was introduced with the 290 17j movement. Essentially this was a Marvel caliber with an auto-wind function attached. This was Seikos first affordable automatic watch.
This is a 1959 Gyro Marvel. The “ballet-dancer” logo was used on the Gyro Marvel to indicate that it was an automatic watch.
Here is the Gyro Marvel movement. Note the fairly substantial rotor.
(Picture Credit: Yahoo! Japan)
Even if the Gyro Marvel was Seiko’s first mass market automatic watch, Seiko had been selling an automatic watch since 1955. This watch had the added feature of a power reserve sub dial and is to my knowledge, the only Seiko vintage watch with this function.
Priced at three times the cost of a Marvel, it never sold in quantity but stayed in Seiko’s line up through the rest of the 50s. The Automatic came in both 17 and 21 j versions. The construction is not similar to any other Seiko calibre and most sources suggest that the movement was based or licensed on a Swiss design. My belief is that Seiko was not committed to producing an automatic watch at this time, but needed one in the product line to compete with the Citizen automatics. However, the Automatic has become one of the most collectible and sought after 50s Seiko watches.
My Automatic, pictured at the start of the article, is a 21j version from 1959 with a gold plated case.
While the Seiko Suwa division was taking great strides with the Super and the Marvel, the Daini division was trundling along with the Unique and the Cronos.
The Unique was produced between 1955 and 1959 as more or less, a contemporary to the Marvel. It is however more like the Super in design, market positioning and technical construction. The Unique came in 9, 15 and 17j versions.
This is a 1961 Unique with silver dial and gold hour markers which have been carved into the face of the dial. At 34mm, the watch is slightly smaller than you would expect from an early 60s watch.
The Unique also came in more flashy versions with elaborate dials, as shown by this 1961 Iceberg style watch.
Of the Suwa watches, it is the Cronos that is comparable to the Marvel. Introduced in 1958, the Cronos was produced in various versions until the mid 1960s using 17, 21 and 23j calibers. The Cronos calibre went on to become the basis for the King and Grand Seikos produced by Suwa. Cronos watches were the mainstay in the lineup and came in a large variety of styles and models such as Waterproof labeled watches, a Cronos Special high end version and a Golf design with a golf ball motif.
This Cronos is a good example of a late 60s high end dress watch. It features a goldfilled 14K case, the 23j caliber and a SD dial where the pattern is made by brushing the dial in different directions.
The Cronos also came with textured dials such as this one.
This is the Cronos Golf version.
Like the dial, the caseback also displays a golf imprint.
(Picture Credit: Yahoo! Japan)
The Laurel was a low end watch produced by Daini from 1958 to about 1962. Intended to fill the gap below the Marvel, the Laurels were produced in 11 and 17 jeweled versions. The Laurel and the Marvel share many design and technical components. The most famous Laurel is the early 60s Alpinist version but I will leave it out of this article for an upcoming special on Alpinists.
The first Laurel is a 1960 dress watch with an ivory coloured dial, applied gold hour markers and elaborate script. In my opinion, this Laurel looks as well made as any Marvel.
The next Laurel is a slightly more basic silver version with a 3D patterned dial. As you can see, Seiko was not very consistent with its logos.
I find pricing to be a very interesting source on marketing strategy and market perception of different watches. A watch price is of course not something that is absolute, but it (price) is set in accordance with what the producer thinks the market is prepared to pay and it shows how the maker values a watch relative to other watches and products.
The Seikomatic site (http://www.h4.dion.ne.jp/~smatic/), which is an excellent site for information on all vintage Seikos, unfortunately only in Japanese, has compiled a list of prices for Seiko watches in 1958. For comparision, Seikomatic mentions that the normal starting salary for a government employee at that time was JPY 8,600. Abbreviations used in the table are Stainless Steel (SS), Goldplated (EGP), Goldfilled (FGF) and Gold Capped (or heavier Goldfilled) (AGF).
SS 15J 3,750
EGP 15J 4,350
FGF 15J 5,700
SS 17J 4,900
EGP 17J 5,500
SS 11J 3,000
SS 17J 3,900
EGP 17J 4,350
SS 17J 4,500
SS dustproof 17J 5,000
SS 17J diashock 5,200
SS dustproof 17J diashock 5,550
FGF 17J 6,300
FGF 17J diashock 6,850
AGF 17J 7,200
AGF 17J diashock 7,750
18K 17J diashock 19,600
SS 19J diashock 6,200
SS 19J diashock special dial (SD) 6,750
FGF 19J diashock 7,850
FGF 19J diashock SD 8,400
AGF 19J diashock 8,750
AGF 19J diashock SD 9,300
18K 19J diashock 20,600
SS 17J 5,700
AGF 17J 8,300
SS 23J 9,800
AGF 23J 12,800
SS 21J 13,500
AGF 21J 16,000
AGF 21J SD 17,000
An interesting fact to note in the table is that the relative cost of a watch in 1958 ranged from about 1/3 of a monthly salary for a very cheap watch and extended up to a full montly salary for a 19j Marvel; a watch that we today are not considering as high end. Also, the 50% price difference for goldfilled watches and the 15 % increase for Diashock watches are noteworthy facts.