The Best of Both Worlds? : Seiko's Kinetic Watches Explained
1986, Basel Watch Fair. It was a special year for the trade show as watch and jewelry manufactures from outside of Europe were participating for the first time. The official reason from Basel was that it was in response to the large amount of foreign visitors who came to the event but I would guess there was some morbid curiosity as well. Seiko and other Japanese manufactures had crippled the traditional watchmaking industry and now the shuffling mechanical behemoths were inviting their conquerors in, hoping to keep up with the pace. All eyes were firmly locked on the new booths, inquisitive yet skeptical gazes searching for anything. For the last ten years most Swiss companies had been forced to elevate themselves to a market where quartz wasn't welcome or they had swallowed a bitter pill and started making quartz themselves.
Hamilton's experiments in the 1950's with electric watches had been short lived as the combination of traditional watchmaking and electric components had proved to delicate for everyday use. Bulova's Accutron had been the first electronic wristwatch and had touted the achievements as making "the finest watches - even electric watches - obsolete" yet it too had been made redundant by the creation of the Seiko 35SQ Astron just six years later. Despite the incredibly high price of the Astron, over 8000 times the average monthly Japanese wage at the time, it was incredibly popular with the efficiency of quartz beating the romanticism of mechanical.
The one downside to quartz has always been the battery, it always runs out just as you need your watch the most. Whilst all watches need a service, the benefit of mechanical is that unless something has gone really wrong you can just keep on winding the movement, ignoring the whispering screams of the movement begging for oil and lubrication. So what Seiko unveiled at Basel in 1986 must have terrified the Swiss watchmakers present, a Kinetic watch that had the accuracy of quartz but the longevity of an mechanical quartz.
It had taken over eighteen years and over fifty patents to create this prototype watch, dubbed the AGM. Inside was an integrated circuit that had a total energy consumption of only 0.9 microwatts of power, just 3% of what the Seiko Astron needed nearly twenty years ago.
Before we go any further, I want to clear up one thing. Kinetic does not mean perpetual motion.
There is no such thing as perpetual motion and don't let your weird uncle or mall jeweler sales assistant tell you otherwise. Unless the first and second laws of thermodynamics just happened to take a day off, perpetual motion is not possible. End of story.
A kinetic movement is similar to an automatic movement as the energy needed to power the watch is generated by the rotor which spins on an axis as the watch is worn. Instead of winding a mainspring, the energy generated by a rotor in a kinetic watch creates a small electrical charge that is stored in a capacitor. This capacitor then transfers energy to the step motor which powers the hands and movement of the watch. Two years later in 1988 the Seiko AGS, short for Automatic power Generating System, was introduced in Germany with a three day power reserve and no need for a battery replacement ever. Just like the Seiko Astron the AGS (also called Auto-quartz in other markets) was expensive and cost $3000 brand new.
These early kinetic watches have received mixed reviews from watch fans over the years. To generate a full charge, the earlier 5M2x and 5M4x movements required 800 full rotations which would only happen if the watch was in motion. Unlike mechanical movements, you were not able to store energy in the movement by winding the crown so your only choice was to wear the watch constantly. The capacitors used in the early models were prone to failure and leakage causing watches to not hold charge. Seiko would eventually replace these faulty capacitors with a rechargeable titanium lithium ion cell that held more power and was far more reliable. Seiko calls this lithium cell a kinetic energy storage unit or Kinetic ESU and it is still in use in their watches today. Depending on the model of cell it could hold a charge from one month up to four years.
In 1998 Seiko released the Kinetic Auto Relay that utilized the 'at rest' function which would "remember" the time yet not display it on the watch. When the watch began to be worn again the movement would "wake" and the hands would skip to the correct time. Anyone who has put a Citizen Eco-Drive in a drawer for a month will be familiar with that satisfying swosh of the hands right back to the current time. As of 2007 Seiko reports that over eight million Kinetic watches had been sold world wide.
This brings us to the Seiko Sportura SRG017 and the Direct Drive complication. Straight away the Sportura improves over its predecessors as it the crown can be manually wound to charge the watch. Whilst the crown is being wound, a gauge at nine o'clock shows the real-time power generation whilst charging the watch with a maximum of six hours charge displaying. After four seconds this gauge then resets to show the total amount of charge the lithium cell has with a maximum capacity of one month. Small indicators display an approximate power reserve of a month (M), week (W), day (D), 12 hours and empty (0). The watch still requires almost constant motion to continually charge the cell however and the instruction manual recommends the watch be worn daily for at least 10 hours.
Seiko has developed quite a cult following among the watch community over the last few years, both for their vintage and modern pieces. The model I was sent is only a prop watch (I won't say how long I spent winding the crown waiting for the movement to charge before I remembered this fact) so I can't attest to the efficacy of a kinetic movement for a daily wear but what I can say that for the price of $725, you are getting a very good looking watch. Like forty years ago, Seiko are amassing at the gates of Switzerland, showing them how affordable watches can be made.
The dial itself is a deep navy blue with a carbon fiber pattern running across the entire dial. These repeating sequence of little diamonds catch the light wonderfully and makes the dial pop in sunlight. The stainless steel hour markers, including the arabic numeral 12 & 6, are applied to a raised chapter ring that adds even more depth to the watch. A great watch doesn't need to have applied markers (in fact I'm wearing a one now that doesn't that I'll be sharing in a few weeks) but the practice is defiantly welcome in a larger, more "practical" sports watch. That extra attention to detail is truly welcome and for $725 you would be hard pressed to find a Swiss watch with the attention to detail that this Seiko has.
The glossy power reserve gauge is sunken down to provide more depth and has an engraving similar to the grooves of a vinyl record that differentiate it from the rest of the dial. The brushed stainless steel measurement gauge is finished with a red highlight to alert you to a low power reserve and adds a splash of color to highlight the dial nicely.. I don't know if the two end screws actually hold the gauge to the dial but again, they are more nice details that really make this watch look great at this price range.
The overall feeling I got from the SRG017 is that it is far nicer than it has any right to be. Kinetic watches sit in a very small niche of watch movements alongside high frequency quartz. They don't hold the same antiquated romanticism that a traditional mechanical movement has, nor do they really have the practicality of traditional quartz. The SRG017 has the finishing and dial of a watch twice its price and for that achievement alone Seiko deserves respect.