Not all Speedmasters come from Switzerland

In one of my impulsive buying-at-auction moments, I picked up this little watch for what I thought was an OK price (not a bargain, but not bad – all of about £240 incl commission). It wasn’t running properly, so after a while I sent it off for a service and also replaced the crystal; so all in, it owes me about £400 – maybe a 10th what a nice, mid-70s Omega Speedmaster would cost.

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This 7a28-7040 watch is sometimes described (normally by eBayers) as a “Seiko Speedmaster”…

A brief history lesson

The 7a28 movement within was the world’s first analogue quartz chronograph, released in 1980; this particular watch hails from December 1982. Production of the 7a28 watch family carried on until 1991 or 1992, with perhaps the pinnacle being the RAF Gen 1 chronographs from 1989 on: they periodically pop up for sale online, at the going rate of about £1,000, which is small change in Omega Speedmasterland but big money for a quartz Seiko …

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The 7a28 / 7a38 movements were proper things, too – no plastic parts, 15 jewels, you could regulate their timekeeping and the whole thing can be disassembled, cleaned and re-lubricated.

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The Japanese Seiko catalogue from 1983V2 p38 – shows a selection of bizarre looking things designed by Giugiaro (and featured on the wrist of Sigourney Weaver’s character in 1986’s Aliens – in fact, the SAY068 shown below is known as the “Ripley”, and a modern recreation was released in 2015)…

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Seiko sold these watches as “Speedmasters” (that’s the translation of the text headline to the left of the SAY058). Not sure if Omega even noticed at the time, or maybe they didn’t care.

Some JDM examples even had the name on the clasp – it was aimed at young motorbike riders, apparently…

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… while non-JDM ones typically have additional text like SPORTS 100, MIN and 1/10s markings on the dial, and simply Seiko SQ on the bracelet clasp. Many earlier JDM mechanical Seikos were co-branded as Speed-Timer, usually on the dial, though none of the 7a28s seem to have it written up front.​

Another 7a28 watch was also worn by Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, and for the fans of the truly obscure, was featured in They Might Be Giants’ video for “Older” (this bit).

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Back to the present

I managed to acquire another one, this time from November ‘83. It was another impulse buy at auction, thinking that I might combine the best bits of that one with the bits of the one above, as the bezel on the top one is a little beaten up but it has been serviced, and the hands on the new one might be nicer than the first…

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Sure enough, this new one is a little nicer in places but in the end I decided to leave it in one piece. It’s still got the original crystal, which is a bit scuffed but doesn’t harm the watch too much.

Case size is 40mm excl pushers & crown, so it’s notably larger than many of its 7a28 and 7a38 cousins (the 7a38 being a later model that added day & date readout to the 3 o’clock subdial).

Here it is in comparison (L-R) with an Omega Speedmaster 145.022-71, the 7a28-7040, a white-faced 7a38-7190 from 1986 and an issued 7a28-7120 aka RAF Gen 1, from Gulf-war-era Jan 1990.20180905_08563320180905_085612

If you’re interested in reading more about the 7a28 family, check out the really excellent Collectors Guide on The Springbar.

Seiko “RAF Gen 1”

Seiko claimed numerous world firsts throughout their years, from (arguably) the first automatic chronograph, the first commercial quartz watch (which, at the time, was way more expensive than mechanical ones), and they also were the first to launch a proper analogue chronograph watch that happened to be quartz – the 7A28.

There were a number of variants in case style, but the most sought-after of the 7A28 is the military-issued one known as the RAF Gen 1 (and an RAF Gen 2 came along later using a different movement). To give it the correct name, it’s a Seiko 7A28-7120.

The first 7A28s appeared in 1983 and their successor, the 7A38 – which featured a date and day display on the 3’oclock subdial – showed up a year later, yet the mil-spec model that was made for the RAF was first issued in 1984 and continued unmodified until 1990. In total there were just over 11,000 produced and stamped with MoD numbers.

The most obvious differences between these watches and the consumer 7A28 is that they have fixed bars on the case (rather than spring bars) – a common standard on military watches – as well as a circled P mark on the dial and some other insignia on the rear. Otherwise, it operates exactly like the 7a28 or 7a38s that are available in lots of other case styles.

See the video at the bottom of Chris’ podcast interview with me, talking about Seikos and showing the 7a38 doing its thing.

The NATO Strap that’s normally worn with these got its name from the NSN or NATO Stock Number that’s stamped on the back of military-issued equipment – in the case of the Seiko, here, the NSN is 6645-99 7683056, which decodes as

6645 = Time Measuring Instruments

99 = United Kingdom

768-3056 = individual part number

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Below the NSN and the “Broad Arrow” mark (actually called the Admiralty Arrow, and historically stamped on any number of things indicating they were property of the Crown) is the issue number and the year it went out, and below that is the actual Seiko serial number. So the watch above was given to some service person in the RAF in 1990, and by decoding the Seiko serial I know it was made in January 1990. Gulf War era then.

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I bought two of these from an auctioneer who was disposing of all kinds of military surplus stuff; both were a bit beaten up and not working, so off they went to my Seiko specialist and came back in great shape with new crystals and having had a full strip down and re-assembly.

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Quartz watches got really cheap in the 1980s, and had a reputation of being disposable – lots of fragile plastic bits inside, and no reason to try to service them. If you own a high-end watch with a quartz movement today, and you send it to the manufacturer for a service, it’s standard practice just to replace the whole movement.

Not Seiko, though. This was a proper movement that could be stripped, cleaned, oiled and reassembled just like a mechanical one.

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Note the P on the dial – military specifications dictate that they needed to carry this mark as there is a trace of mildly-radioactive Promethium in the luminescent material on the dial. The same circled P is on the Seiko RAF Gen 2 as well.

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So, fully rebuilt and on a raw leather NATO, it makes a great tool watch. And it probably saw a much harder life in the hands of its first wearer than it ever will with me.