It’s a poorly kept secret that the Seiko 5 is the perfect first watch for new watch collectors. Back in 2014 my editor declared his first watch, the Seiko 5 “Sea Urchin” Diver, the perfect starter watch. Hodinkee‘s own Jack Forster wrote in a review of a Seiko 5 that his first mechanical watch was a Seiko 5. My Seiko 5 wasn’t my first watch, but it was my second vintage purchase on eBay, acquired for a cool $25, shipping included. Google “Seiko 5” and you’ll find plenty of other op-eds praising the 5 for its quality, looks and low, low price.
Like the Mazda Miata to car enthusiasts, the Seiko 5 has everything watch lovers crave, sans the big price tag. Mechanical movement? Check; Seiko’s 7S26 movement is an evolution of the simple and durable movement found in the 5 for decades. Durability? Check, thanks to 100 meters of water resistance and shockproof build. Good looks? Check; with countless designs released over the years, there’s genuinely something to accommodate all tastes. History? Check; the Seiko 5 has endured for 53 years and counting. Sure, it’s not perfect in small details and finishing, but these are small concessions for getting a mechanical watch for under $200. Almost all rivals in the Seiko’s price range are powered by a battery and quartz.
Putting it bluntly, the Seiko 5 has been the budget mechanical watch — at least until earlier this year. In August, Swatch announced the Sistem51 Irony, a new version of the original Sistem51 launched in Baselworld in 2013, now complete with a stainless steel case in lieu of plastic. While that original watch was generally lauded for its Swiss automatic movement and unorthodox manufacture, the Irony version brings the Sistem51 deeper into the realm of collectability for hardcore watch enthusiasts.
While the original Sistem51’s fully automated construction meant it was one of the few mechanical watches that could be bought for under $200, it was cased up in plastic that gave it a cheap feel. But beyond the lowbrow feel of the material, this meant that the watch had to be hermetically sealed, which, in turn, meant the watch couldn’t be serviced. So rather than a long-lasting, serviceable piece of horology, it was meant to be disposed of if and when the movement crapped out. The new stainless steel case remedies both of these problems.
So yes: the Sistem51 Iron might lack the stylistic versatility and the proven track record of the Seiko 5. But the bar has been set insanely high.
Likewise, the Sistem51 Irony comes in six varieties, including more grown-up dial designs and the option of either a leather strap or a steel bracelet. The “Soul” version (pictured) is by and large the loudest of the six designs and manages to evoke the pop-art dial designs that were a hallmark feature on the standard Sistem51 while keeping with the more dignified look the steel case provides. The case, by the way, is brightly polished, which is nice, aside from being a magnet for fingerprints, and substantially thick and slab-sided at nearly 14mm — a lot for a three-hander that makes it difficult to fit under a dress shirt sleeve.
But of course, the issues with the case can be overlooked, because when you turn it around you get a clear look at that lovely Sistem51 movement. After all, that’s pretty much the point, isn’t it? It’s a unique engine, manufactured autonomously from as few parts as possible (51 is a fraction of most automatics) and held together with a single screw. It lacks the polished, high-class look of high-end pieces put together by hand, but show off the mechanical workings of the watch in a unique way. The gray plating has a cross-hatched design (other variants of the Sistem51 have other designs printed on the plating) and an outer ring that works as the winding rotor. When you spin the watch, it rotates with the screw at the center of the movement — a mesmerizing display of mechanics.
The Sistem51 might have the technological advantage, but it’s up against a stalwart workhorse movement from Seiko. Unlike the Swatch, the 7S26 movement within the Seiko was put together by hand with a traditional layout. It lacks the visual appeal of the Swatch’s Sistem51 movement; still, the point here is cost-effective production and reliability, which parts made from plastic, including the calendar wheels and spacer ring, accomplish. (Scoff if you like, but plastic is lighter than metal and doesn’t require lubrication.) Seiko also uses a “magic lever” system, which allows the rotor to wind the watch both directions and only requires four parts. This is in conjunction with Seiko’s Diashock shock-protection system, making for a movement capable of, in the words of our own Ed Estlow in 2013, “running year in and year out for decades with a minimum of fuss or maintenance.”
But where Swatch really loses to Seiko is variety. The Sistem51 Irony comes in six variants. The Seiko, on the other hand, has over the years bloomed into an almost infinite multitude of styles and looks, from divers, pilot’s watches, field watches and dress watches. There’s an option to match almost anyone’s taste, while the Swatch’s chunky silhouette and six dial configurations are all you can choose from (as of now), creating more of love-it-or-hate-it situation. The Sistem51 also uses a four-tang lug system in lieu of a traditional spring bar, so it can only accommodate straps and bracelets from Swatch.
So yes: the Sistem51 Irony might lack the stylistic versatility and the proven track record of the Seiko 5. But the bar has been set insanely high; this shouldn’t preclude the new Swatch from being considered a great entry-level watch, especially for the contrarian or someone who’s simply interested in something new. The unorthodox manufacturing method behind the Sistem51’s evolves the watchmaking process, much in the way the Seiko 5 did when it undercut the prices of other mechanical watches when it launched in the ’60s. It makes a strong statement: affordable watchmaking can and should evolve.