Affordable Vintage: Why the King Seiko 44-9990 (44KS) Rules Them All

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Grand Seiko may be first to come to mind when talking about vintage Seiko dress watches, but true Seikoholics know not to sleep on the King Seiko (KS) line. In 1959, Seiko split up their Suwa subsidiary into two separate entitiesSuwa Seikosha and Daini Seikoshato promote competition and product development within the company. Suwa and Daini operated separately, with the idea that they would not share knowledge and would therefore try to one-up each other and produce better products.

It worked, and this internal competition propelled Seiko to the cutting edge of design and technology. In 1960, Suwa Seikosha released the first Grand Seiko Chronometer, Seiko’s first high-end dress watch. In response, Daini Seikosha released the first King Seiko in 1963. Though it was a nice watch, the overall design wasn’t one to get overly excited about.In 1959, Daini Seikosha hired a young designer by the name of Taro Tanaka, the man who would in 1962 create a set of design principles that he called the Grammar of Design. These rules would go on to fundamentally change Seiko’s design language.

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First, all surfaces and angles of the case, dial, indices and hands had to be flat and geometrically perfect to best reflect light. Second, the bezels were to be simple, two-dimensional faceted curves. And third, no visual distortion from any angle was allowed, and all cases and dials had to be mirror-finished.The second King Seiko, the 44-9990, would benefit from the Grammar of Design rules to become, in my opinion, one of the best looking watches Seiko (or any brand, for that matter!) has ever made.

Let’s quickly lay out the timeline. The King Seiko 44-9990 (otherwise known as the 44KS) was produced from 1964 to 1968. The earliest releases in ’64 had the model number 44999 before switching over to 44-9990.Like the Grand Seiko line, King Seikos also featured a gold medallion inset into the case back, a practice which began with the 44KS. There were two versions of the medallion on the 44KS: an ornate shield with “King Seiko” above it and a simple “Seiko” with a textured background. The shield medallion appeared from the first release until around early-’67, and the logo variant appeared as early as late-’66 and was produced until around early-’68. There was a small overlap in the shield and logo variations between late-’66 and early-’67. At the very end of the 44KS run in mid-’68, the “Seiko” logo medallion began showing Daini Seikosha’s lightning bolt symbol. I’ve only seen a couple of these, and they were both from May 1968. As with all things vintage Seiko, there are probably outliers and variations that I have yet to discover, but this seems to representative of the general timeline.

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Now on to the watch. What we’re looking at today is my 1966 King Seiko 44-9990. The stainless steel case measures 36.6mm wide, with a lug-to-lug length of 43.3mm and 19mm lugs. It only came in steel. The simple round case is set off by the eye-catching fat lugs. The lug design is a prime example of Tanaka’s rules with the lugs featuring large, flat planes and sharp, angled bevels along the outer edge. The lugs are simply sublime, in my opinion, and no other Seiko before or since has had any quite like them.Like so many of the Grammar of Design cases, the 44KS is highly susceptible to being ruined by overzealous polishing. Even the slightest polish will destroy the razor sharp edges between the planes on the case, and it’s a travesty when this happens. The relatively thin and simple bezel, coupled with the tall, top-hat acrylic crystal give the 44KS the illusion of being a bigger watch than it is. The crystal really is kind of unique, as it’s quite tall and has nearly vertical sides rather than being domed.

Tanaka’s Grammar of Design would go on to fundamentally change Seiko’s design language.

As noted above, the case back was given the royal treatment (if you’ll forgive the horrific pun) with the gold medallion. My example has the shield logo, which is really quite striking. Sadly, because many vintage King Seikos hail from Asian countries with more humid climates, and because the case back is in direct contact with the wearer’s wrist, the medallions are prone to wear and sometimes even corrosion. Furthermore, some have also suffered at the hands of unscrupulous watchmakers’ polishing wheels. That said, nice examples can still be found and are worth the extra effort (and money) to acquire.The dial is done in the classic Seiko silver with a sunburst finish. There is an applied steel “Seiko” logo below the twelve. Above the six, “King Seiko” is printed in distinctive text, with “Diashock 25 Jewels” in smaller text below that. The hour markers are done in applied, faceted steel batons, with the 12 o’clock marker a double baton with a cross-hatched surface. The hands are a broad, flat dauphine-style with beveled edges that call back to the geometry of  the lugs. If I could change one thing about this watch, it would be to make the 12 o’clock marker smooth and faceted like the others. That said, I do like the design as it stands. Adding to the simple beauty of the layout is the lack of a date window, which gives the watch a classic, beautiful symmetry. What more could you want?

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The movement is the Seiko 44A, a hacking, 25-jeweled manual caliber that ticks along at 18,000 bph. Seiko would switch to a high-beat movement for their next King Seiko model, but there is something soothing about the slower tick-tick-tick of this one. While not ornately finished, it’s a good looking movement with a visually pleasing architecture.

There were two versions of the 44A movement with two different hacking mechanisms. The earlier models (those with the shield medallion backs) had an “external” L-shaped lever for hacking. The lever sits on top of the movement and has a small pin that sits down in a slot in the stem. When you pull the crown out, the far end of the lever pushes on a finely toothed gear that stops the second hand. This is a very unique and, quite frankly, odd design that almost seems like an afterthought. Structurally, the lever is very thin along the middle and is easily broken. Yeah, I discovered that the hard way, and I had to scrounge the horological world for quite some time until I was able to find a spare lever all the way in the UK. Around 1967 when the medallion switched over to the “Seiko” logo, the hacking mechanism was engineered inside the movement. Clearly, Seiko saw the fault in the design as well.

For some crazy reason, this watch remains preposterously undervalued.

Speaking of the crown, the 44KS crown is a really nice one. As with any manual wind watch, you want a larger crown with good grip, and that’s what you get here. The crown measures 5.4mm wide and has thick, gear-like grooves for an easy grip. It is signed “Seiko” with a “W” above, indicating it is waterproof. King Seikos would later switch to a “KS”-signed crown. I believe that the 44KS originally came with a strap and “KS”-signed steel tang buckle, and as far as I know it was not offered with a bracelet.With all that the 44KS has going for it, one might expect that they cost a fortune, right? Wrong. For some crazy reason, this watch remains preposterously undervalued. A beautiful and unique design? Check. An in-house, high-grade manual movement? Check, check. Killer case back with a gold medallion? Check, check, check. Oodles of vintage swag? You get the idea. Even with all this, the 44KS can be found somewhat regularly for anywhere between $250 and $1,000, depending on condition and the seller, of course. I’ve recently seen really nice examples in the $600-700 range.

The 44-9990 is an eminently wearable watch, with a perfect size and fantastic wrist presence. You want affordable vintage? Look no further than the 44KS.

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Christoph (Instagram’s @vintagediver) is a long time collector and lover of all things vintage, starting with comic books when he was a kid (he still collects them). His passion for watches began in 1997 when he was gifted a family heirloom vintage Omega Genève by his step-father. That started him on the watch collecting path—buying and selling vintage watches of all sorts, with a special appreciation for vintage dive watches and Seiko.
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