Seiko can be trusted to make a serious tool watch, and the Alpinist is no exception. Originally intended for Japanese "mountain men" of the 1960s, its refined flourishes suggest, however, that these rugged mountaineers were also urbane. Equipped with a new automatic movement and premium updates, the latest generation of this classic outdoor watch offers charm, value and a hell of a tough product that the modern outdoorsman can take anywhere.
Case Diameter: 39.5mm
Case Depth: 13.3mm
Water Resistance: 200m
Movement: Seiko 6R35 Automatic
Notable: The Alpinist is a timepiece with personality and a story. It's got an unusual place in Seiko's wider range, with design elements not found in other models as well as historical appeal as the brand's first sport watch line. It's as robust as about any Seiko dive watch in its price range but is more versatile thanks to its smaller size and restrained design. With premium features like sapphire crystal, the new models revive and refine the popular designs of the not-too-distant past and feature an upgraded in-house movement with an impressive 70-hour power reserve.
Who It's For: Though aimed at collectors and enthusiasts, the Alpinist would readily serve as a satisfying option for someone wearing the same single watch day-in and day-out. At its core, however, the Alpinist is an outdoor watch, sufficient for swimming (even diving) with a water resistance rating of 200m; or camping/hiking/mountain climbing with its compass bezel. Though the Alpinist could never quite be formal, it's versatile and features some elegant touches that seem borrowed from dress (or pilot) watches and give it a more interesting vibe than that of a mere lackluster tool.
Alternatives: It's easiest to think of the Alpinist as a kind of field watch (though not of the military kind), since mountaineering watches aren't so much a genre. That said, the Rolex Explorer would certainly qualify as a much costlier ($6,550) alternative with an outdoor and mountain-climbing history, as well as a moderately sized (39mm) case. The Rolex Air King ($6,450) also comes to mind for its character and aesthetics.
Seiko at one time owned the budget price range for mechanical watches, but as large Swiss and indie brands have pushed to offer better value, Seiko's prices have risen — creating a pretty crowded arena and a lot of good choices. For example, Hamilton's Khaki Field King is 40mm wide with rugged, outdoorsy features, but with its crown guards and day-date displays, comes across as more modern than the classic military field watch. It also offers a lot of value for less than the Alpinist at $625, and features a Swiss automatic movement with an 80-hour power reserve.
Another option comes from Echo/Neutra, an Italian indie brand with a mountain climbing theme. Their flagship product, the Averau, offers a Swiss automatic movement in a 42mm case for around $590.
The name and the outdoor-oriented concept of the Seiko Alpinist date to 1961, when Seiko made a watch under its Laurel sub-brand — particularly significant as the brand's first dedicated sports watch. While those early models looked more or less like dress watches of the era, however, the distinctive style and features of the Alpinist as we know it today date to around 1995.
That's when a series (the SCVF) referred to by collectors as the "Red Alpinist" was introduced, and it included most of the elements we now recognize as classic. It had the inner rotating compass bezel controlled by the 4 o'clock crown, cathedral hands, as well as the dial designs reproduced in the newest releases — a tried and true design, it would seem. The Alpinist was at one time perhaps taken for granted, but the announcement of its discontinuation saw interest in it suddenly spike ahead of the current (SPB) series's introduction.
Now housed within the Seiko Prospex line, there are several dial variations of the SPB Alpinists, including green, blue (mostly sold out), white, cream and the black SPB117 shown here. The SPB117 has a different dial design than the rest of these watches, though it too originates with the 1990s Alpinists. It's also the only one offered on a bracelet. Seiko fans who remember the cheap feeling Seiko folding clasps of the past will be happy to find a solid and satisfying version on the SPB117: It's a sturdy three-link bracelet with an all-brushed, utilitarian feel and no taper from the 20mm lugs right to the clasp.
The wide bracelet is one part of an equation that makes the Alpinist wear more prominently than its 39.5mm diameter would suggest. The other element is a thickness of around 13mm, meaning it's got a noticeable presence. This makes it feel more bold and masculine, but Seiko got the proportions and ergonomics right, with a lug-to-lug distance of 46.5mm that should fit well on wrists of various sizes.
The overall user experience is further elevated by nice finishing, anti-reflective-coated sapphire crystal and even a display case back — something not often featured on dive watches with similar water resistance. The case back offers a view of Seiko's relatively new, upgraded 6R35 automatic movement that outdoes the circa 40-hour power reserve of many longstanding Swiss movements (though that is changing). The 6R35's 70-hour power reserve means you can wear another watch for a couple days and come back to find the Alpinist still running. You can't complain about that.
Some will complain, however, about certain nitpicky details. The "cyclops" magnifier over the date display tends to be a controversial feature, but this comes down to personal preferences (and can be considered added value). You may also hear grumbling about the compass bezel being ever so slightly misaligned with the dial markings — though any such deviation on the model Gear Patrol tested was difficult to confirm with the naked eye. The only issue we experienced was an occasionally uncooperative crown when setting the time and date, but winding was smooth and reassuring.
Central to its charm, however, is the Alpinist's unique design that's simply captivating, with its somewhat busy dial, cathedral-style hands and that second crown you just want to fiddle with. Backed up by a robust build and quality materials, all this amounts to a fun, satisfying and versatile character that's a bit different from that of your average Seiko.
Verdict: In the end, the details, specs and history of the Alpinist offer the experience and solid quality that many people expect from the Japanese powerhouse — but it's the copious personality that makes it stand out, not only in the wider world of watches but even within the brand's own catalog. Easy to recommend, the mix of refinement and tool watch vibe reinforce the Alpinist's status as a compelling classic.