Chronography 12: Seiko’s Modern Mechanical Chronographs

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In the last two installments of Chronography, we took a look at three excellent vintage chronograph families from Seiko and Citizen, and we then examined in detail the often overlooked vintage offering from Citizen–the Bullhead Challenge Timer. Today, we return to Seiko for a close look at its two modern offerings of a much-admired complication, the mechanical chronograph.

J8901I will start with the 6S—a lesser known movement that is truly Seiko’s first modern mechanical chronograph after the production of the 613X and 701X ceased in the 1970s. The 6S movement was introduced in 1998 alongside the 9S, the latter of which sees use in modern day Grand Seiko watches. This particular movement was never offered as an ebauche (unlike the 8R/NE88 movement). However, Seiko did provide it to Junghans as the caliber J890 and eventually sold the design to Tag Heuer, which tried to pass it off as its own in the form of the caliber 1887 (you can read more about the debacle here).2 - 6s78Surprisingly, Seiko chose not to resurrect the vertical clutch and column wheel features found in both of its historical automatic chronographs, but instead went with a more traditional column wheel and horizontal coupling arrangement with the 6S. The 6S has a fair number of variants, among them a manual winding caliber, a skeletonized version, a variant with a power reserve function as seen on the Flightmaster, and finally a fairly basic 6S28 (+25 sec/–15 sec a day) without the power reserve function.

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Like most modern chronographs, the 6S has a constant seconds feature aside from the central sweeping chronograph seconds. It also has two separate 12-hour and 30-minute counters. The basic form has 34 jewels. It can be hacked and hand-wound, and the power reserve ranges from 50 to 60 hours, depending on the variant. Unlike its historical predecessors, none of the 6S variants came with a flyback function. The 6S was discontinued sometime in 2014.

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Seiko Flightmaster Chronograph
Seiko Flightmaster chronograph with the Seiko 6S37 caliber.

Now, Let’s consider this for a moment—there have been Spring Drive Grand Seiko chronograph models, but never ones with mechanical chronograph movements. This is not due to a lack of ambition, nor ability given Seiko’s rich history and deep pockets. In fact, Seiko has introduced a number of mechanical chronographs throughout the years, just not in its top-tier Grand Seiko range, but in the Credor, Prospex and the Brightz lines that were largely only for the Japanese domestic market. Yet, it’s no coincidence that the 6S and Grand Seiko’s 9S movements were introduced at the same time, and that they share much of the same basic architecture (as pointed out in this post at SCWF.) What does this mean to the casual watch enthusiast? Probably nothing more than the fact that the 6S should have been the definitive Grand Seiko mechanical chronograph movement.


Let us turn our attention to the newer 8R chronograph family of movements, which today are the flag bearers of the Seiko mechanical chronograph. Now, I would argue that that’s not by virtue of the 8R family being the technically best that Seiko has to offer (in my opinion, that goes to be the 6S chronograph family mentioned prior), but simply because it is the only chronograph family that Seiko has in its stable at the moment.

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Autodromo Monoposto chronograph
Powered by Seiko’s NE88/8R caliber

Unlike the 6S, the 8R combines traditional chronograph features such as a column wheel, vertical coupling and the magic lever winding system with recent innovations like the three-pointed hammer that ensures all the chronograph counters reset simultaneously. The 8R has a 45-hour power reserve and features a constant seconds and two separate 30-minute and 12-hour counters. It beats at 28,800 bph, it hacks and hand winds, and it features 34 jewels. Like the 6S, it lacks a flyback function. Whereas the 6S adopts the 12, six and nine position for the sub-dials, which is perhaps an effort to be a replacement for the venerable 7750, the 8R adopts the three, six and nine position for the sub-dials.

The 8R was introduced in 2008 and was for a time offered together with the 6S family. Watches powered by 6S calibers were almost always more expensive than those powered by the 8R. Also the 8R models were available in both domestic and international markets, whereas the 6S models were only available in Japan. I liken this to the period when the highly regarded 4S family was used in mid-range watches, while the lower-spec’d 6R was being developed to fill in the void. Eventually, the 4S was retained solely for use in the higher-end Brightz and Credor ranges. Unfortunately for the 6S family, it did not have the same happy ending, with Seiko selling the design to Tag Heuer.

A simple way to differentiate the quality of these two modern Seiko chronograph movements is to look at their respective pedigrees. The 6S was developed from/together with the Grand Seiko 9S family, while the 8R was developed from the basic 700x/7S family, movements that were initially used to power the Seiko 5 line. Also, in contrast to the Seiko 6S, which was built from the ground up to be an integrated chronograph movement, the 8R has a modular setup with the mid-range 6R acting as a base (though it does have a column wheel and vertical clutch, as I wrote above).

SEIKO_PRESAGE_LE_CHRONO_7
The limited edition Seiko Presage chronograph unveiled at Baselworld 2016.

Given the modular nature of the 8R family, I cannot help but think that the 8R is miles cheaper to manufacture and service compared to the integrated 6S. Because it is modular, Seiko can simply remove and exchange the chronograph module. Imagine having a chronograph caliber where you already have the machinery to produce thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of the underlying base caliber every year. This would bring the fixed cost of investment down, and it would have the added benefit of offering cheaper turnaround time for servicing, something that the industry is currently struggling with. Compare this to the 6S, which is built on the more expensive 9S/8L base and is integrated. Servicing would be more cumbersome when compared to a simple module exchange.

It was simply a no brainer for Seiko to choose the 8R to be its flagship and sole remaining mechanical chronograph caliber (ignoring the Spring Drive chronograph movements). Sadly, for watch enthusiasts like myself, this seems to be an example where Seiko leaned toward the economics of business over the celebration of craft and quality.

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On the flip side, we can also see how the lower manufacturing cost of the 8R enabled Seiko to provide the caliber to third-party contractors in the form of the NE88, thus opening the market for more value-drive mechanical chronograph options beyond the Valjoux 7750 and its copycats. And with Swatch Group slowly but surely cutting off supply, the NE88 is a welcome addition.

ZQ’s a die-hard Seiko lover, an obsession first sparked by the purchase of a Seiko Orange Monster, the original 7S classic. ZQ has yet to find his way out of the Seiko rabbit hole, dabbling in both vintage and modern, but his love extends to watches of all kinds. This isn’t ZQ’s first foray into the writing about watches, and he’s excited to bring his bank of knowledge to worn&wound. ZQ currently resides in Singapore with his family.
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  • xu yuanduan

    Great article! I agree it slightly disappointing that Seiko has seemed to lost its drive in innovation and built for purpose movements when you look at the wonderful 50-60’s (bellmatics, chronos, worldtimers etc) in the lower price tier, but the realities of the market is now undoubtedly different than then.

    But one has to marvel at the engineering hoops they had to go through to make the humble base cal of the 7S family to 4R, 6R to a Chronograph, It a basis of a collection there with one of each!

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