Seiko’s Game-Changing Watch Gets a 50th Anniversary Reissue
In watch enthusiast circles, it’s a story you learn pretty early on, and it’s one that has an easily identifiable villain, or hero, however you want to look at it. In 1969, there were a number of efforts being made to reduce quartz clocks to a size, and with a low enough power consumption, to be viable in a wristwatch, but on Christmas Day of that year, Seiko won the race by releasing the very first practical quartz wristwatch. This was the Seiko Quartz Astron 35 SQ. The Astron was very much a first-generation effort; it had a relatively short battery life (about a year, which was still pretty impressive by the technology standards of the time) and it was very expensive; Seiko only made 200 of them and they were sold only in Japan.
One of the most dramatic improvements in the performance of quartz watches has come from the development of timepieces capable of talking to the GPS satellite network, which requires time signals of extremely high precision in order to function. (One fascinating aspect of the GPS system is that it must take into account the effects of relativity, which cause clocks in orbit to run at a different rate from those on the ground – in a story earlier this year, on the prototype NASA Deep Space Atomic Clock, we were told that if the GPS system ever stopped taking relativistic events into account, it would immediately start producing “kilometer-scale errors” within seconds). The practical problem with GPS watches, as with conventional quartz timepieces in the beginning, was power consumption and early GPS watches were quite large and bulky. However, for the new The 1969 Quartz Astron 50th Anniversary Limited Edition, Seiko has developed a new movement which provides all the convenience of a GPS watch – very high precision, as well as the ability to automatically detect the time zone and correct the time display accordingly – in a much thinner-than-usual package.
The 1969 Quartz Astron 50th Anniversary Limited Edition is not an exact copy-paste of the original, but it’s quite close in a number of key respects. The case, as in the original, is 18k yellow gold and the very distinctive pattern of the original has been reproduced as well, with the engraving done by hand in the new model. The thin bezel as well as the black-on-gold dial markers, and vertically patterned dial, are all from the original as well, although the concave dial shape, date window, and legend “GPS Solar” are all new.
The rehaut is also, and of necessity, noticeably deeper than in the original Astron; in GPS solar Astron watches from Seiko, the rehaut generally acts as a function indicator as well. The various time setting and synchronizing functions are as is usual for GPS Astrons, handled via buttons in the side of the case, although in the the 1969 Quartz Astron 50th Anniversary Limited Edition, these have been considerably reduced in size from previous models, and are virtually invisible when the watch is viewed head on. The most notable difference between earlier GPS Astron watches and the 50th Anniversary LE, other than the overall design and execution, is the case size – while the first GPS Atrons were 16.5 mm thick, this latest model uses what Seiko says is, at the time of release, the thinnest solar GPS quartz movement in the world. This allows the watch to have a comparatively svelte case, at 40.9mm x 12.8mm thick.
If you like this sort of thing at all, the 1969 Quartz Astron 50th Anniversary Limited Edition is a very attractive watch indeed. It is as much an up-to-date approach to quartz timekeeping technology as the original was in 1969 and while the current record for autonomous accuracy in a quartz watch is held by Citizen, the Astron GPS watches do offer a very attractive feature set nonetheless. This includes accuracy which from a practical standpoint is far greater than anything anyone will ever need, plus worry-free solar charging, and the ability to automatically updated the time display based on position as detected by the GPS network. A common argument is that such accuracy is available to anyone with a cell phone, or a cell-phone controlled smartwatch but of course, the less-than-two-day battery life of such systems means that the GPS Astron offers a better degree of freedom from any external power source.
These technical features are essential to the credibility of the watch but of course, this is very much a timepiece produced for serious Seiko collectors and enthusiasts. There are only going to be 50 of them made and at a US price of $36,000, the cost matches the exclusivity. Historically speaking, this is, coincidentally, also faithful more or less to the original. When it first came out, the original Astron cost, in 1969, ¥450,000, which according to one online currency calculator is about ¥1.6 million today – or roughly $15,000. One comparison I’ve heard is that the original cost “more than a new Toyota Corolla” – if you max out the most expensive current Corolla with all the options, you have about a $30,000 car, so the comparison is still somewhat apt. Price aside, the new 1969 Quartz Astron 50th Anniversary Limited Edition does a lot of what the original did: acts as a statement of technical ability and thought leadership, while being extremely exclusive as well.