You all know how it is. You open the watch box, look at your collection and ask yourself the question: “what am I going to wear today?” A couple of days ago I was in the same situation, I opened the box and the first thing that caught my eye was the big DOXA T-Graph chronograph. Beside it was the other DOXA chronograph I own, the Coppa Milano Sanremo.
Both beautiful watches and both fairly expensive. Looking at them got me to thinking about the other chronographs in my collection and how a damn fine set of chronos could be had for not a lot of money. I then proceeded to pull out my other four chronographs, take a bunch of photographs and begin to thrash my keyboard. Here’s the story.
For many people, their grail chronograph is a Rolex Daytona. For many others it is the Omega Speedmaster. Both absolutely iconic watches and certainly in the case of the Daytona, outside the watch buying budget for most. Many, many people have heard of them, many less can afford them. But how many people have heard of the 6139 and the 6138? If I added Seiko to the name, maybe more people would have some sort of recognition, but with that invariably comes the…. Well it’s just a Seiko. Great watches but just a Seiko.
I could rattle on here for hours about the whole notion of more expensive equals higher quality and “better”. I could drone on about snobbery, perceived quality, I’ve got a … insert any very expensive watch brand… therefore what is in my underpants is bigger than yours etc etc etc. But I won’t, because I’m not smart enough to come up with any kind of coherent argument and besides, like most people, I buy what I want and what I can afford because I like it. So let’s forget the marketing and perception stuff and look at some great watches.
First the history lesson. I have taken a lot of the following information from a couple of spectacular webpages which are easily the definitive reference guides to the Seiko 6139 and 6138. Well worth a visit after reading what I have here.
The problem with history is that the further back in time we go the bigger the chance that the historical truth is forgotten or rewritten. Just about fifty years ago Seiko introduced what is claimed to be the first automatic chronograph. There were a number of groups developing chronographs at that time. Seiko began manufacturing the 6139 series of watches for the Japanese market in May 1969. The Chronomatic group comprising of Heuer, Breitling, and Hamilton-Buren released their chronograph in June and Zenith offered their watch to the public in October.
The Seiko 6139 is a single 30 minute register chronograph with 17-jewels and a quickset day/date function, and a beat frequency of 21,600 bph. It is also the first chronograph to utilize a column wheel and vertical clutch mechanism. There is no continuous seconds hand but most people just let the chrono run all the time. The day / date is set by pushing in on the crown. One click to change the date and two clicks to change the day. There were a number of different watch designs used with the 6139 but my favorites are the yellow and blue dial versions with the rotating inner bezel. The yellow one is affectionately known as “The Pogue”, named after Commander William Pogue who wore a 6139-6002 during the NASA Skylab 4 mission in 1973.
Shortly after the 6139 came the 6138. It always seemed strange that the numerically higher number was introduced first. The 6138 added an hour register and the functionality of being able to be hand wound. The day and date was also easier to set as the 6138 used the method which has now become standard for Seiko day/date watches, namely, first stop on the stem pull and turning the crown forward/backward to adjust the day/date. The 6138 was initially produced with 21 jewels (6138A) but this was increased to 23 for the 6138B.
My two favorites of the 6138 models have to be the blue dial and white dial versions pictured here. The white dial version is known as the Panda. The larger, blue dial version has a special place in my heart as it is the watch my brother bought back in 1977. I always liked it but was a poor student so couldn’t afford one. He wore it for years and beat the hell out of it, then one day gave it to me. Many years later I refurbished the case, got a new crystal and had it serviced and gave it back to him looking like new. I promptly bought another one for myself.
The 6139 was manufactured from 1969 to 1979, the 6138 from 1970 to 1979. In many ways these movements were equal if not superior to anything the Swiss watch industry were producing at the time, however, they eventually suffered at the hands of the quartz movement which ironically was released at the same time and received the lion’s share of the publicity and marketing.
As I mentioned earlier, the Seiko chronographs are relatively inexpensive watches to collect. They are also remarkably robust and run for years with minimal servicing. You owe it to yourself to have at least one in your collection.
© Dr. Peter McClean Millar