[VIDEO] Missed Review: The Seiko Alpinist SARB017

We all have unique origin stories about the watches that got us into the hobby, or the watches responsible for pulling us in deeper. As varied as those stories surely are, the overlap of appearances by a certain handful of watches is likely quite high. While not universal, I’d wager that the highest percentage of overlap is among Seiko watches, stuff like the SKX007, the 6139, and the Alpinist SARB017. Each of those references make appearances somewhere along the early stages of my own journey, and this Missed Review will focus specifically on that last one, the Alpinist SARB017, a watch that’s easy to take for granted these days. There was a time, however, when this watch had a near mythic appeal. In some ways, it still does. 

The Alpinist holds an interesting place in Seiko history, and while the name may no longer exist formally, it still holds a tremendous amount of equity when it comes to Seiko field watches and their enthusiasts. The name itself dates back to the early ‘60s with the Laurel Alpinist and Champion Alpinist, though it wouldn’t appear on a modern design until 1995 with the so-called ‘red Alpinist’ SCVF references designed by Shigeo Sakai. It is this design that would set the template for the 2006 SARB references, and the current Prospex Land watches which no longer employ the Alpinist nomenclature.


[VIDEO] Missed Review: The Seiko Alpinist SARB017

Stainless Steel
Almond Green
Super Luminova
Brown Leather
Water Resistance
Lug Width
Screw Down

The return of this design in 2006 happened at a perfect time, and would go on to become the darling of the enthusiast community just as the hobby was blossoming. If you got into watches around 2010 or thereabouts, the Alpinist was undoubtedly on your radar. The modern design was handled by Seiko veteran, Yasuhiro Kuzuya, creating what I think of as the definitive Alpinist design, a subtle but powerful evolution of the red Alpinist. Most importantly, it captured the same beautiful almond green dial that paired perfectly with gold accents and a brown textured strap.

The unusual color scheme was only part of the appeal of the SARB017 in particular (the watch was also offered with black and beige dials). The other part came from the fact that the Alpinist SARB watches were only available in the Japanese domestic market, and were something of a forbidden fruit to the rest of the world. Like Biz Markie in 1985, this watch was just a friend held at arm’s length for anyone outside of the JDM. These things combined to create a flurry of demand around this watch, lending to its lore which has persisted to this day. 

Getting a SARB017 around 2010 wasn’t exactly straightforward, and required a bit of poking around on places like WatchUSeek, or whatever your forum of choice happened to be. The discovery and subsequent chase was a big part of the appeal of this watch, it was the ultimate show of your ‘in’ status within the burgeoning community. If you were trying to track one down your search likely brought you to a website called Seiya Japan, an online retailer that brought watches only available to the Japanese market, to the rest of the world. How this was possible exactly, was a mystery to 2010 me, and only added to the spiciness of actually getting the watch.  

As charming as this watch was in 2006, the landscape has shifted considerably in many ways over the last 17 years, and the Alpinist today finds itself in a slightly different light than those early days in the hobby. The SARB017 does hold up surprisingly well, which we’ll get to, but (and this is me speaking for myself here) tastes change. The aura that once surrounded this watch isn’t quite the same today as it was back then. Instead, it’s been replaced by a heap of nostalgia around a far simpler time to be a watch enthusiast. However, there are still plenty of great details to rediscover with this watch, which we’ll do in this Missed Review.

The Alpinist is Seiko’s penultimate field watch concept that was first put forth in the late ‘50s for the benefit of Japanese mountain climbers, hence the name. What constituted a suitable field watch has of course evolved, but at its core the demand was for something reliable enough to withstand extreme temperatures at altitude, as well as the physical strain of getting there. Much like the first Smiths watch, as well as the early Explorer, these are simple watches stripped of any unneeded complexities. Easy to wear, legible, and reliable. 

When Seiko revisited the Alpinist concept in the mid ‘90s, they set a new design template for a field watch that introduced more stylish flourishes that reflected the tastes of a broader audience than actual alpinists. This meant a selection of dial colors, gold hour markers that made use of only the even numerals, a date window at 3 o’clock, and most prominently, cathedral hands. A curious element was also added to the perimeter of the dial, and that was a rotating azimuthal bezel that was operated by a crown located at 4 o’clock. 

Each of these decisions carry through to the Alpinist SARB017 of 2006, though with some subtle massaging to dial things in a bit further. One big change not apparent on the dial is the shift to a slightly larger, 39mm case, up from the 37 of the red Alpinist, utilizing the modern 6R15 automatic movement, allowing for 50 hours of reserve. With a lug to lug measurement of 46mm, and a thickness of 12mm, this is still an exceptionally well proportioned watch that is easy to get along with on the wrist, day in and day out. No harm, no foul on the size increase.

Let’s get back to that dial though, because that’s where this watch really sets itself apart. The SARB017 makes a big visual impact at a glance thanks to a few bold details that come together with aplomb. This begins with the color combination of the dark, forest green base of the dial, and the gold plated applications of the hour markers and Seiko signage. This is not a color combo I’d normally gravitate toward, but it somehow works here, and I believe that’s largely thanks to the specific hue captured in the green base. 

The subtle sunburst texture brings out warm undertones in the green, giving a depth that pairs with the gold beautifully. These specific colors were chosen for their ability to pair with the brown alligator textured leather strap, which the watch was shipped on. This picks up on a central theme of this watch, which is the whole working well beyond the sum of its parts. Almost every detail that I isolate is one that could be considered polarizing, or off-putting, but placed back into the context of the watch as a whole, it somehow works. 

This is perhaps best exemplified by the handset, which flies in the face of the established field/tool watch best practices. The red Alpinist used a set of cathedral hands, and they return in the design of the SARB017 in slightly revised form. The hands define the character of this watch, and while they aren’t exactly a common sight on field watches like this, it’s difficult to imagine the watch enjoying the status it does today with a more predictable hand-set.


I’m not ashamed to admit that cathedral hands aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse when it comes to personal preference, but I’ve always been drawn to them on this particular watch. Likewise with the green and gold tones, another defining feature I’d otherwise find slightly objectionable. Put them all together, and it just works. The rest of the dial may have something to do with why. There are a few other peculiar details that sit slightly at odds with the color scheme and the handset. 

The hour markers of this watch may be gold, but they present less formally than you’d expect, with triangular compass like markings sitting between the even hours marked in san serif Arabic numerals. They are simple, easy to read, and rather charming in their design. This design also allows for a more natural integration of the date aperture at 3 o’clock, which takes the place of a marker rather than a numeral. The date window is outlined in gold to remain consistent with the color scheme at work, however the date disc is not color matched to the dial. Unlike the red Alpinist, the cyclops magnifier has been left off the sapphire crystal. 

The other part of that equation is the internal rotating compass bezel. That sounds like an element that would overpower, or at the very least clash with everything else up to this point, but it’s been handled in a rather delicate manner, tucking itself neatly at the edge of the dial without really interfering with the rest of the dial design. This is another peculiar detail that adds an element of surprise to the watch, but again, it feels vital to the package as a whole.

The bezel isn’t of the usual timing or countdown variety, however, this watch uses a compass bezel, which can be used in conjunction with the hour hand to discern true north(ish). It sounds a bit odd, but this is how Seiko describes using it. With the head of the watch parallel to the ground, simply align the watch so that the hour hand is pointing in the direction of the sun, and then (if you’re in the northern hemisphere) rotate the south mark to halfway between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock position. If done correctly, you’ll have a rough idea of your bearings. Perfect stuff for being in the field, though I’m not sure I’d want to be reliant on this in a survival situation, personally. I’m also reminded of Nick Fury’s retort when the Helicarrier loses its navigation abilities after a crash, yelling at a confused navigator to simply put the sun on the left.

Doing all of this with a set of cathedral hands pushes this watch over the top. The bezel itself is thin, and the markings are quite small, rendering it somewhat difficult to actually read, but that almost feels besides the point here. Again, not a survival tool. It does bring plenty of character to the design, though, as is often the case with scales such as this. Let’s be honest, when was the last time you found yourself using the tachymeter scale on your bezel? But hey, it looks pretty cool. 

The Alpinist SARB017 seems to embrace that attitude as a whole. It’s useful with some great features, and an impeccably practical case, but it’s not afraid to lean into its stylish elements. That very fact is what has allowed the lore of this particular watch to flourish to the level which it has. It’s what led to its default recommendation status on the forums, and subsequently the rush of new enthusiasts down the path of securing one through less than straightforward means.


Perhaps more than any other watch, with the possible exception of the SKX007, the SARB017 tells a personal story about a phase of the journey, and crystalizes an era of the hobby that we’ve long since moved beyond. As such, this is a difficult watch to judge in a purely objective manner these days. On a subjective level, the watch works for me because of that built in nostalgia, and while it may no longer align with my current tastes and interests, it provides a sense of enjoyment in other ways. Whether or not that’s worth the ~$700 price that these watches are commanding in the second hand market will depend on exactly what this watch represents in your own journey. 

Today, the Alpinist name has been retired. Seiko has incorporated this family into their Prospex Land collection, and while you can still get a watch quite similar to this very SARB017 under the reference SPB121, it’s not quite the same, and certainly doesn’t hit the same nostalgic tones to my eye. The SPB121 has brought back the cyclops, but the jewel count and “diashock” labeling on the dial has been replaced with the Prospex “X” logo mark. It’s also gained a bit of thickness, now sitting at 13.2mm. Seiko have even produced variants without the internal compass bezel, in a range of dial colors and case/bracelet configurations. All these new options are great, but if the original from the ‘90s or the remake from 2006 is a watch that’s played any kind of role in your journey into this space, my feeling is that you’ll find them suspiciously lacking in character.

Thankfully, the current market never seems shy of a few good SARB017 examples. As mentioned, it’s a watch that holds up relatively well today by most objective measures, meaning it wears well and keeps decent time, as well as offering a surprising level of versatility on different straps. So much so that it remains an easy watch to recommend for both newcomers and seasoned collectors alike. It may not register on the hype scale as much as other options, but it’s still among the best gateway watches available. And in this increasingly crowded landscape of incredible sub $1,000 watches, that’s perhaps the highest praise I can hoist upon this Seiko. 

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Blake is a Wisconsin native who’s spent his professional life covering the people, products, and brands that make the watch world a little more interesting. Blake enjoys the practical elements that watches bring to everyday life, from modern Seiko to vintage Rolex. He is an avid writer and photographer with a penchant for cars, non-fiction literature, and home-built mechanical keyboards.