Affordable Vintage: Seiko SUS 4S15 “Military”

Around 1991 or early ’92, Seiko’s top brass felt that there was a disconnect between the products the brand was putting out and what younger consumers actually wanted. From that problem came the SUS project (SUS meaning “Simple” and “Strong,” with the “U” uniting the two), an attempt by Seiko to create a line of analog watches that would appeal to young adults who were weaned on digital watches.

Seiko tasked two young engineers to spearhead the SUS project–Chitoshi Funamoto and Atsushiko Matsuno. To gauge the interests of their target demographic, the SUS team conducted numerous surveys on young adults between the ages of 19 and 22, showing them pictures of Seiko watches from 1913 through the early to ’90s. Their preference? The minimalist, utilitarian designs of Seiko’s wartime watches. Using what they learned, the team set off to design the SUS series.

Photo credit: Seiya

Their guiding philosophy was that the watches had to be readable at a glance. For inspiration, the team pulled from other historical military, aviation, and railroad timekeepers—watches with designs that were purposeful and without ostentation.

To achieve that legibility, the SUS team focused on designs that would draw ones attention to the center of the dial first, and then out via the hands to the markers. To accomplish this, the hands had to be incredibly vibrant, and the face had to be without unnecessary embellishment. That also meant that all pertinent information was to be kept on the dial, and bezels were to remain unadorned.

SUS variants; Photo credit: Kohei@tz, timezone forum

The resulting watches were a big hit in Japan, and the SUS line lasted for 8 years before being discontinued. In that time, Seiko produced numerous watches under the SUS designation available with automatic, quartz, and kinetic movements, and with complications that included chronographs, GMTs, and even a perpetual calendar.

One of the best and most sought-after watches to come from the SUS collection is undoubtedly the SUS 4S15 “military.” Released sometime in early 1996, it was the purest expression of the philosophy put forth by Funamoto and Matsuno.

Photo credit: Kohei@tz, timezone forum

Despite the moniker, I should note that the SUS 4S15 was not actually a military watch; as I wrote above, all SUS watches were designed for the Japanese domestic market. The “military” nickname came from its popularity among military watch enthusiasts in the early days of the Internet—and for obvious reasons. For anyone with even a fundamental knowledge of military watches, the design inspiration is clear—there’s a whole lot of Mark XI/XII DNA packed into the SUS 4S15.

By today’s standards, the case is diminutive at 35mm. Heck, that’s even small by most ’90s standards. That said, the case is thick with a hefty bezel and a unique distressed finish, two details that give it some visual weight on the wrist. And yes, you read that right—the factory pre-distressed the cases, likely in an attempt to appeal to their target demographic. A display back—not something you’d ever see on a true military watch—shows off the beautiful 4S15 caliber within, but more on the movement later.

Photo credit: mayostard, WUS

The 4S15 came in two variants: the black dial (ref. SCFF001), and the silver dial (ref. SCFF003). The first thing one immediately notices are the hands. The shorter blunted hour hand stands apart from the longer thinner minute hand, so you can tell the two apart at a glance. The dial itself is stark and utilitarian, with white Arabic numerals against a black base (SCFF001) or black Arabic numerals against a silver base (SCFF003). One of my favorite little details is the discrete placement of the date window along the minutes track just below 4 o’clock. Unlike the disruptive nature of many date windows today, the placement here retains the utility of the complication without significantly impacting the symmetry of the beautiful design.

Photo credit: Brian Green, flickr

As the name suggests, the SUS 4S15 is powered by the cal. 4S15. The 4S15 was part of Seiko’s 4S family, a series of higher-grade movements introduced in the early ’90s as a higher-end alternative to the entry-level 700x and 7S lines, and the 4S15 itself is based on a King Seiko movement dating back to the ’70s. In terms of placement within the family, the 4S15 is the base model from which all other variants were derived. The 4S15 runs at 28,000-bph, hacks and hand-winds, and has a power-reserve of 40 hours.

Photo credit: JC-JM, TZ-UK

Since 2007, the 4S movement family has been reserved for exclusive use in Seiko’s luxury Credor line, and all modern 4S movements are hand-assembled alongside Grand Seiko calibers at the firm’s Shizukuishi Watch Studio in Morioka, Japan.

When the SUS 4S15 was first released it sold for roughly $300. Today, well preserved examples generally hover around the $1,000 mark, though I’ve encountered some high asks at around $1,500 for full sets. Some of the other watches in the SUS line, particularly the quartz variants, go for significantly less and can be a great option for those interested in collecting these watches.

For further information, visit AlanWatch

Featured image photo credit: mayostard, WUS

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Ilya is Worn & Wound's Managing Editor and Video Producer. He believes that when it comes to watches, quality, simplicity and functionality are king. This may very well explain his love for German and military-inspired watches. In addition to watches, Ilya brings an encyclopedic knowledge of leather, denim and all things related to menswear.