Japanese society is underpinned by a desire for wa, harmony. The Japanese seek harmony and balance everywhere, from what they eat to how they live and work. It’s especially valued in art and design – celebrated in ancient arts like ikebana (flower arranging) and hokku (poetry). The previous gen Seiko Alpinist has wa. It’s a lot of things, but not too much of any one – a perfect example of Seiko’s designers walking on the edge of a knife . . .
First and foremost, the SARB017 is a tool watch. Seiko’s designers were inspired by ’60’s watches made for the yamaotoko – the “mountain men” who trekked into Japan’s craggy interior and led expeditions around the world. Hence the Alpinist’s robust stainless steel case and outer bezel, its extra crown (used to operate the rotating inner bezel) and beefy crown guards.
These sturdy elements are balanced by the watch’s baroque cathedral hands and the modest 38mm x 12mm case size. The Alpinist entrances with its deep, almost porthole-like appearance, driven by the deep inner bezel. In the right light, its emerald green dial looks like kiln-fired enamel. It’s an elegant detail – balanced by the plain and modern applied numerals. Yin, meet yang.
As a chronic purchaser of JDM Seikos, I’m here to say the SARB017’s finish and feel is two notches above a Prospex, on a par with Seiko’s higher end Presage watches and special editions. The Alpinist’s powered by the 6R15 23 jewel automatic movement with Diashock protection and the Diaflex unbreakable mainspring. Seiko quotes a 50-hour power reserve. On the rare occasions the Alpinist has been off my wrist for more than a day, it’s surpassed the stated stat by a considerable margin.
Seiko attaches a faux croc leather band with a plain stainless steel buckle to the SARB017. The short, cheap strap feels out of character. [ED: a shortcoming for many a new Seiko.] I replaced mine with a hand-stitched strap made from an oily brown leather. It plays, baby. A black suede strap, a NATO or a stainless steel bracelet would look just as good.
The previous gen Alpinist is a classic Seiko, a truly and legitimately Japanese watch in both character and design. The hype is real. Even jaded collectors will find manzoku wearing this unassuming little Seiko. The Alpinist certainly wasn’t “broken.” So why did Seiko discontinue the SARB017 and “fix it” with the new SPB121?
Seiko is a traditional old-line company, part of the Japanese keiretsu system. The vertically integrated manufacturer strives to control their own destiny, to act instead of react. At the same time, Seiko embraces change slowly. Their formula worked for many years. And then, in 2016, the Apple Watch fundamentally changed the mid-priced watch market, hammering Seiko’s sales.
Seiko decided to focus on enthusiast and aspirational customers, customers who could deliver both brand loyalty and higher margins. The new Alpinists (SPB119, SPB121 and SPB123) reflect this strategy. Seiko put a new movement in a slightly larger case, made some minor changes, added Prospex branding and raised the price by $150. Launched through Hodinkee, Seiko touted the Alpinist’s “heritage as an alpine watch” and its “legendary status” in the watch enthusiast community.
Did Seiko kill the golden egg-laying goose? No, but the changes are more than the sum of their parts. The larger case changed the proportions. The secondary crown sits a bit higher. The bezel appears visually smaller. The new branding on the dial ever-so-slightly drowns the dazzling color. The new Alpinist is still a nice watch, but it lost its balance and fell off that knife edge. There isn’t the wa.
I’m not mad at Seiko. This change in strategy is resulting in a lot of beautiful new timepieces and, hopefully, the ongoing stability of my favorite watch manufacturer. That said, in Japanese the word kaizen means “change for the better.” It doesn’t imply that change is continuous or absolutely necessary. In the case of the Alpinist, the change wasn’t better or necessary. It may be the right thing for Seiko, but it was wrong for the watch.
So put the new influencer-approved Alpinist out of your mind. New SARB017’s are still out there, somewhere, on line. As a daily wear timepiece the design, feel and balance is about as perfect as a watch can be. More than that, the SARB017 is a daily reminder that the watch market and community of 15 years ago was smaller, more innocent and less cynical than it is today. In the end, the ability to evoke that memory may be the SARB017’s greatest quality.
Seiko Alpinist SARB017
Street Price: $425
Model Year: 2018
Item Shape: Round
Display Type: Analog Arabic numerals
Case diameter: 38 millimeters
Case Thickness: 12 millimeters
Special features: Compass inner bezel
Water resistant depth: 200 Meters
RATINGS (out of five stars):
Design * * * * *
Balanced Japanese design perfection with a faultlessly reliable heart beating inside. As good as it gets in this price range.
Legibility * * * * *
Large hands with bold Arabic numerals and hour markers and a date window make it easy to get all the information you need at a glance.
Comfort * * * *
The weight and size are perfect and work on nearly any wrist, male of female. Toss the included strap and replace it with something better and it gets five full stars.
Overall * * * * *
A tremendous value for a perfectly designed and engineered watch. Get one while you can.
Luke Ibis is a recovering watch junkie, auto enthusiast and travel lover from Minneapolis, MN. Follow him on Instagram @elljayeye