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Time Is Money: The Seiko 5 “Sea Urchin” and Diving Headfirst into Mechanical Watches

Amid affordable watches, the Seiko 5 line stands tall.

There’s something about a watch you could actually buy with your current bank account, right now, that gets the heart thumping and the synapses firing. These watches — specifically, the ones that cost less than $1,000, many of them less than $500 — are the subject of our new series “Time Is Money“.

My writing desk at home is cramped and messy. I’ve been using it for years now, and it’s beat to hell. It wobbles when I type. All of this is as it should be — it’s from Ikea. My decaying mousepad, far older than the desk, has left sheddings on the desk’s white surface, which seem to have melted and become unremovable black dirt-looking stains; there are beer and water stains too…currently a beer is sweating out a new ring. It’s not pretty. Still, the desk has done its job, holding my papers, my beers, my computer, and supporting my writing (and web surfing) habits well, ugly or not.

MORE AFFORDABLE WATCHES: Complications Under $500 | Best Affordable Dive Watches | Six Great Quartz Watches

My Seiko SNZF17K1 “Sea Urchin” dive watch, the first watch I ever bought for myself, is in some ways a lot like this desk. It’s dirt cheap, considered entry level. I got mine for around $130 in an eBay auction, about three weeks before it was delivered me in unopened box condition, shiny and beautiful. It’s meant to be used, hard, and it has been. It might look out of place amid a trove of expensive dive watches, not because it’s shoddy but because it’s without a particularly fine finish. There’s just not a lot to it.

And yet, in a few weeks when I throw out my desk and start looking for a new one, with fine wood grain and proper drawers (no old mousepad, either), my Seiko will stay on my wrist. I’m not infatuated with my desk — I am with my watch, which for my money (and yours) is one of the best entry-level options out there, because it doesn’t feel entry-level, and its diverse iterations have a look to match just about anyone’s style.

Back a few steps. You heard last week about my goal in this column, Time is Money: to prove that you can buy a great many excellent watches for under $1,000, many for under $500. I’ve got a solid lists of watches lined up to write about, from functional to fashionable, but when it came down to it my bosses and I decided to apply Occam’s Razor — straight to the easiest entry point. That’s the Seiko, because the Seiko was my first watch, and a damn good one.

The Seiko 5 is a watch that makes affordability a caveat.

Seiko sells watches between $45 and $554,000, which plants its flags solidly in both prince and pauper territory, though it’s definitely known for its affordable movements. The company gets a lot of credit in the watch world, even among serious collectors, and plenty of that renown comes from its proven Seiko 5 line. The 5, so named for its (1) automatic winding, (2) day/date display, (3) water resistance, (4) recessed crown at 4 o’clock, and (5) its durable case and bracelet, has been around for just over 50 years and retails deadly close to that low-end minimum price range. The line’s three prongs include a military, sport and sport diver model, all three handsome, simple and affordable.

I bought my Seiko 5 about a year ago, and I had hardly a clue about watches. My colleagues, GP’s watch buffs, pointed me to the 5 in its different forms on eBay when I told them my range, which was less than $250. I immediately took a liking to the Seikos. They were simple and classic in stainless steel and black. My taste found its mark in the Diver, which I looked at twice before bidding and winning for around $130. It had the day/date and the same stepped black-and-white dial of the Sport, but with a big black and silver timing bezel and a long, thin second hand with a delicate counterweight bulb that seemed deliciously out of place. This was clearly a dive watch, which struck me as particularly cool, but it also had the trappings of a field watch, and yes, in my novice eyes, I could see myself wearing it under a suit, the sort of guy who could throw off his jacket and dive into a blue lagoon to save a drowning dame.

Putting that Sea Urchin (a name I hadn’t found out until mine was already on the way, much to my delight) on my wrist for the first time cemented my newfound love of watches. Here was all that Tuesday Timekeeping talk put into practice. It was perfectly thick, especially because through its crystal case back I could see the inner mechanical workings that made it so. It had the perfect heft. I’d worn plastic quartz-powered watches in high school and they’d always felt fake; this one had the weight of a treasure. Shaking it, I could feel the counterweight winding the mainspring with a vibration that felt sturdy. I set it, fiddled with the date. Then I turned the bezel and timed how long it took me to edit my next piece.

If you want your first watch to be a mechanical one, the many variations of the 5 are your best choice.

Like I said, I know the Seiko is for real because no shiny new additions to my collection have replaced it. This is my “daily wear”, and it’s perfect as such: the 40mm model fits my wrist just so, and can jostle its way under a shirt cuff; it’s just big enough to catch eyes, but not ostentatious or showy; it keeps time damn well and I’m still delighted to use the bezel to time my French press or my laundry; it looks the part to take a beating too, and feels like a tool watch worn camping, hiking, and yes, diving into the waves at the beach. I usually pair it with a cream khaki NATO strap, which is comfortable and gives it more of the outdoorsy feel I so strive for amid my city home.

At this price range, the Seiko 5’s main competition comes from Swatch and Timex models, all with quartz movements. There’s no shame in those, but if you want your first watch to be a mechanical one — do yourself a favor and get one with a clear case back so you can look at its inner workings — the many variations of the 5 are your best choice.

The Seiko 5 is proof that you don’t have to pay a lot for reliability, usefulness, toughness, and a definitive look. The nooks and crannies of those qualifications, when the watch proves itself not just good but excellent in little real-world moments, separates it from what people think of as “entry-level” — Ikea desks, Toyota Camrys, the sponge cakes of engineering. Those have affordability and quality, but the Seiko 5 Sea Urchin has soul. This is a watch that makes affordability a caveat. At $100 bucks and change, it inspires me to match my days to its daring, to push my limits so that I can push its.

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