If, as they say, everything is cooler in Japan, then it must be true of their watches, right? While I can’t affirm that all Japanese watches are, in fact, cooler than those made anywhere else, I certainly can speak on behalf of many collectors when I say that Seiko watches made and sold exclusively in Japan are decidedly cooler than those sold in the United States.
These watches that Japan is getting off on withholding from us greedy Americans are called Japanese Domestic Market (or Model) watches, or JDM for short. If you’re into cars, then you might already know the term. Like the automobiles and their parts, these JDM watches are designed and marketed for Seiko’s home market. As a collector, if you want to buy a particular JDM Seiko, you’ll need to buy from a dealer who is willing to ship the watch overseas. Lucky for us, there are a few trusted online retailers.
But why do we want to buy JDM Seikos? What’s so great about them that we’re willing to endure longer delivery times and shoulder the customs duties for a Seiko–a Seiko? In this article, we explore the allure of JDM Seiko and what makes many of these models so attractive to collectors.
Seiko’s popular mechanical watches in the US use the 7S26 caliber. This means the SKX007 and the Orange Monster. The 7S26 and its variants are basic workhorses, and we have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to these engines. Movements as reliable as the 7S26 from Seiko give collectors an opportunity to own quality mechanical watches at affordable prices. However, the 7S26 is not as good as it gets from Seiko. JDM Seikos are where it’s at if you want some of the most robust Japanese movements available. Here are key examples:
The 6R15 may be Japan’s answer to the Swiss ETA-2824. The 6R15 is a modified 7S26. Unlike the 7S26, lamented for its lack of handwinding and seconds hacking capabilities, the 6R15 does come with those features plus an extended power reserve of 50 hours. While the 7S26 is rated for -20/+40 seconds per day accuracy, the 6R15 runs between -10/+15. You can find this movement in many popular and affordable JDM Seikos, including the Seiko Prospex Sumo, the Alpinist and the SARB line.
This is the movement you’ll find inside of the Seiko MarineMaster 300m, and it’s lauded for being an undecorated and unadjusted version of the very robust caliber 9S55 from Grand Seiko. That means you’re getting a Grand Seiko movement in an exceptionally solid watch for $2,000–the value is incredible. The 8L35 beats at 28,800 bph and has handwinding and hacking features. Like the 6R15, you’ll get 50 hours of power reserve with an expected accuracy within -10/+15 seconds per day.
Grand Seiko calibers
Although technically not JDM any longer since Grand Seiko has been released, at least partially, to the United States, it’s hard not to talk about Grand Seiko’s mechanical calibers that are the pinnacle of Japanese timekeeping. Grand Seiko refers to both the brand of the watch and the chronometer specifications, which are more stringent than COSC specifications. Probably the most notable of the Grand Seiko movements is its 9S series that includes the Hi-Beat 9S85, an automatic caliber with 50 hours power reserve and 36,000 bph, like the Zenith El Primero. Grand Seiko calibers are on par and often more durable and accurate than their Swiss competitors, which threatens the Swiss value proposition.
The Seiko Orange Monster and the SKX007 are excellent watches for the money, good looking and will last a lifetime, but they’re not demonstrations in fine case or bracelet finishing.
My go-to examples for insanely well done finishing are the Seiko MarineMaster 300m (SBDX001) and the Seiko Sumo (SBDC001/2/3). Let’s start with the Sumo, which retails for slightly more than the SKX007 or the Orange Monster. Notice the deep brushing on the case and how abrupt and stark the contrast is between the brushed and polished elements. The crown is deeply engraved with a Seiko signature. Although it’s Hardlex, the crystal almost completely disappears. It’s a case that belongs on a $5,000 watch. The bracelet is finished well, too.
Now, the MarineMaster enters a whole new league. Significantly pricier than the Sumo and thus the American Seiko favorites mentioned above, it boasts the finest brushing I’ve ever seen on a pair of watch hands. Minus the signed crown, the MarineMaster exhibits much of the same exquisite finishing details that you’d see on a much more expensive watch’s case and bracelet.
Visually and functionally, Japan’s got the good stuff. Series like the Premier and the Sportura in the United States can’t be described in the same language one would talk about the Prospex or Grand Seiko lines. One look at, say, the Sumo and you know that wasn’t made in this hemisphere. A lot of times it’s the US models that possess that hint of JDM character that makes us pull the trigger. Like many watches in the Prospex series, the Orange Monster and the Solar Chronograph Diver carry a blatant disregard for formal or business decorum that collectors love.
But what’s interesting about JDM Seiko is that they aren’t just bold, like in the Prospex line, but they can also be restrained but utterly flawless like in much of the SARB or traditional Grand Seiko models. You don’t buy many Grand Seikos to be noticed. In fact, a watch like the SBGH005 Hi-Beat is a mechanical manifestation of utility and poise that will disappear from your wrist. Similar to a Rolex Datejust, it’s perfectly executed–so much so that it might even be a little unremarkable at first sight.
The Prospex series, however, screams for attention. You’ll find oversized cases that refuse to be hooded by shirt cuffs; divers with dials so deep they could be cereal bowls; not to mention the brightest and longest burning lume in the watch market. The MarineMaster is the quintessential Seiko tool diver, a reflection of its first professional dive watch produced in 1965 that is boldly executed not only in aesthetics but its form. Boasting a monocoque case, its 8L35 movement, an unfinished and unadjusted version of the 9S55 Grand Seiko caliber, can only be accessed by removing the crystal. Its stainless steel bracelet features an innovative ratcheting clasp celebrated by collectors for its ingenuity and ease of use.
The Exotic Appeal
Hunting for the right piece is the real thrill of collecting. Seiko disrupted the watch industry with the first mass produced quartz watch, so it will always have a reputation for factory production. Searching for that ubiquitous SKX007, while a classic and a joy to wear, is less like hunting and more like making a trip to the grocery store.
But when you’re looking to scratch that itch with a JDM Seiko, it’s a little bit of a different story. The watches, while still machine made, are harder to get a hold of and this inaccessibility does add to the allure. Someone notices our Grand Seiko or our Alpinist and we don’t just tell them it’s a Seiko. No, we tell them it’s a JDM Seiko, only available in Japan, and so on until we talk the ears off of whoever dared ask the question. These are somewhat exotic watches to us and therefore more exciting to own than their American-sold relatives.