There are so many things to say about vintage Seiko automatic chronographs, that it’s almost hard to find a place to start. They are iconic, well made, collectable, gorgeous, historically significant and…affordable. While it’s hard to give exact numbers, generally speaking a Seiko 6138 or 6139 will run you between $100 and $400, condition and scarcity depending. Which is fantastic, because there are a plethora of models out there, some of which are more famous than others, and the relatively low price makes it possible to own a few. While it’s tempting to write about them all, there have already been various articles, guides and forum posts on the topic, so I’ll defer to those for brevity.
Back in 2006, John Biggs put together a guide of classic Seiko movements, including the 6139, which is a good starting point. Felix, over at Hodinkee, did a splendid job putting together a guide a couple of month’s ago of specific significant models, focused on the 6139 and 6138 movements. And if you want to see an awesome photo archive of many models, from early hand wound 5717’s, through the 6139-38 movements to the 7016, which had minute and hour chrono registers on a single sub-dial, go here (but be warned…that archive can be dangerous to your bank account, as you are likely to find many models you want). Then, you can search any of the forums and many thorough discussions amongst collectors will appear.
It’s admittedly a bit silly to try to review a watch that is 42 years old, so take the proceeding article as a hands-on with a single watch that has qualities to it (shape, build, wearabillity, movement functionality) that are true to a series of watches. The condition, price, reliability of this watch is true only to this specific watch, so don’t expect to have the exact same experience. That being said, when you get your 6139-xxxx you’ll have some basic expectations on what it’s like to wear it and use.
Since this is w&w, affordability and value are key components we look for in watches, and as we discussed in our recent review of the Magrette Moana Pacific Chronograph, finding a modern mechanical chronograph at an affordable price is a challenge. ETA rules the market, and their least expensive chronograph movement, the Valjoux 7750, tends to be in watches starting at around $1000 new (Steinharts being a notable exception). And this price will only continue to grow in the next few years as those movements become less available. Ironically, one of the best places to find an affordable chronograph is actually in the past… Well, that is to say in a vintage watch. While there are many reasons to be interested in vintage Seiko chronographs, I dare say that simply being able to get a reliable automatic chronograph for a few hundred bucks was on the top of my list.
So, I had been debating purchasing a 6138 or 6139 for sometime, specifically looking at the 6138-0040 “bullhead” model, but just never pulled the trigger. When I came across a sales post on a forum with a model I hadn’t seen before, I was quickly drawn in. What makes the 6139-7010 (also the 7011), which dates to 1970, different from other 6139’s is that it has a numerical dial. Other models tend to have applied markers or hash marks. Is it more attractive? No, not really. I simply found appealing, the numbers add a bit more noise to the dial, which I felt work well with sporty, racing overtones of the watch. That being said, I didn’t get it for the dial, but rather because it was in good condition, from a seller who knew what they were talking about and at a fair price.
For $300, the watch clearly has the original dial, chapter ring, minute and hour hands. This can be told from the consistent patina across all three. The dial isn’t in like new condition at all, and for a 42 year old watch, that is a good thing. But the ageing hasn’t been so aggressive as to indicate damage, poor treatment or simply not look nice. The case, crystal, crown and chrono pushers too are original and have not seen much polishing or buffing. The only parts I suspect have been retouched or are aftermarket are the chronograph seconds and minute hands. The shapes are correct, but the color is too bright. They are a sharp and vivid red that jump off the dial and just don’t show the same ageing as the rest of the watch. The thing is, they look great, so I don’t personally care.
Of course, none of that would matter if the 6139 movement at the heart of the watch was in bad condition. This is where trusting your seller comes into play, and is a reason why I like buying from forums rather than eBay. The seller, who had been a forum member for sometime, had sold watches before and clearly knew the watch and watches in general, said the movement was recently serviced and in good working condition. There was also a picture of the movement, from which I could see with my own eyes no corrosion, dirt or other damage. With that in mind, I took a leap and purchased the watch.
The 6139 is a fun movement with great features. It’s a 17-jewel automatic with quickset day/date function, chronograph seconds and a 30-minute register with a frequency of 21,600 bph. There is no continuous seconds hand on the watch, which takes a moment to get used to. There is also no hour register, making this a very old-school single register chrono. One interesting feature of the 6139 is how the day/date are set. The crown is pushed in two clicks to change the day, and one click to change the date. While a very quick way to set the date, it has its obvious draw backs, making it not too surprising that it’s a design one doesn’t seen anymore. For one thing, when you progress the day, you automatically progress the date. So, it’s likely you will have to go through a whole month to get to the correct date. It also seems likely that one could accidently depress the crown, even though it’s recessed. That being said, the time remains accurate and the chronograph works well. The pushers have a proper amount of stiffness to them, so they don’t get accidentally actuated; the chronograph starts immediately, resets with a snap and always returns to zero. Considering the movement in this watch is about 42 years old that says a lot about the build quality of these movements when properly maintained.
The case of the 6139-7010 measures 41 x 44 x 13.2 mm with 19mm lugs, making it a fairly large sport watch for the time, and a small to medium watch by contemporary standards. The case has a barrel shape, which flows smoothly around and has no hard edges save the chrono pushers, which stand out. The crown itself has been recessed and is flush to the case. In order to set the time, the crown must be pulled out from underneath. It’s definitely a case that speaks to the 70’s. Models like the 6139-6005, a.k.a. The Pogue, have a flatter shape, with slab sides and a harsh break before the lugs, so this fluid case design is not true for all 6139 models. The look of the case is very soft and appealing, the lack of any hard angles or lines make it appear a bit smaller than it is. The body of the case is evenly bushed on top and side surfaces, and polished underneath. The bezel, which sits a bit above the case, is polished as well, adding some nice reflection to the top surface. The mineral crystal protrudes another 2 mm off of the case and has a steep beveled edge. Though I don’t know the total dimensions of the crystal, it has a reassuring thickness. The case back is screw down and is marked with “stainless steel 6138-7010 waterproof” in a semicircular banner shape that encircles a Seiko logo. The serial number and “Japan A” are located beneath that. Overall, it’s simply a very nice case design that was well built.
As I mentioned before, the 6139-7010 features a numerical dial with hours and no applied markers, making it an anomaly amongst the 6139 and 6138 watches. It’s actually a very simple, almost plain dial. The face is matte black and all numerals and markers are white. The hours are also marked with lume dots, though those stopped glowing sometime ago. At 3 is the day/date window, which is divided into two smaller windows. Both day and date are represented in white on a black (except Sunday, which is red), making them congruent with the dial design. The day is displayed in either Kanji or English, and since I tend to know what day it is, I have been using the watch in Kanji, as the symbols are more attractive than the font for the English. The beveled chapter ring on the outer edge has a Tachymeter scale in white text/markings on a matte black surface. Under twelve it reads “Seiko Speedtimer” and then a Seiko 5 shield logo. At 9 there is more text that reads “Sports” in italics, and underneath that “WATER 70m PROOF”. For the Seiko chronograph nerds out there, this makes it a “proof-proof” model (water proof on both dial and case back), which indicates that it was an earlier model. The 30-minute counter at 6 is marked in a thick white circle with breaks for the minutes and numerals every 10 minutes. The numerical dial is remarkably legible at a glance, and though lacking in the colors and detailing that many 6139-38 models have, the sheer purposefulness of it is aesthetically pleasing as well. It also serves to offset the bright red chronograph hands even more.
The watch is remarkably ergonomic and comfortable to wear. It simply sits very nicely on the wrist; the lack of protruding lugs keeps the mass of the watch centered, and the recessed crown guarantees nothing will cut into the wrist. It’s refreshing to wear a large watch from an era when watches were generally smaller, as this seems designed for wear, rather than attention. Aesthetically, the 6139-7010 is a very sharp looking watch, as are most of the 6139-38 models. It’s both sporty and mature, lending itself easily to daily wear. The watch did not come with the original bracelet, but instead an NOS brown leather racing-strap, with small perforated holes. I have to thank the seller for putting such a perfect strap on the watch, as I have had no motivation to change it.
So, am I satisfied with the venture into vintage chronographs? Absolutely. Like I said at first, there are may reasons to be interested in vintage Seiko chronographs, so you can pick and choose what’s most important to you. Like me, you might be interested in adding an automatic chronograph to your collection without breaking the bank. You might also be interested in that 70’s aesthetic, defined by the barrel cases and single register function. There are very few contemporary watches that offer that sort of styling, most notably would be the Oris Chronoris single register, which goes for about $2,400, making it hard to even compare.
Perhaps simply owning one of the first automatic chronographs ever designed is enough for you, which is very understandable. Get these historically significant watches while you can, and they still operate. As long as you pay attention to the details in the sale, that is to say original versus aftermarket parts, servicing of the movement, overall price and conditioning, these watches represent a lot of bang for your buck. They also make for a very easy introduction to buying vintage, as you can research just about every detail of every model before purchasing. The only trouble is that they are addictive. Since getting this one, I’ve been more seriously eyeing the 6138-0040 “bullhead”, as well as the 6138-8021 “panda”…not to mention the 7016-5000 “Seiko Monaco”, which is a watch I’m surprised hasn’t gotten more attention. Needless to say, this wont be the last vintage Seiko chronograph to be featured on w&w.
By Zach Weiss