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The return of the King: meet the King Seiko ‘Garyu-Bai’

Seiko thrilled fans last year by announcing that its cult brand, King Seiko, would be returning to its core collection in 2022. Ben Winstanley takes a closer look at the plum red ‘Garyu-Bai’ model, one of five new colourways, to find out more

King Seiko ‘Garyu-Bai’ watch

The King Seiko watch brand is a name that sends collectors around the world all aquiver. The long lost brother to the esteemed Grand Seiko, today it’s a favourite among vintage watch fans who fell in love with the mystique behind this once dormant brand, together with its budget-friendly collection of finely crafted timepieces.

As part of a slew of releases to celebrate its 140th anniversary in 2021, Seiko gave the people what they wanted by creating a limited-edition recreation of the great King Seiko 44-9990 (known as the 44KS) named the King Seiko KSK. Looking back now, it feels like the storied Japanese watchmaker may have been testing the water for a full comeback, as this year it has announced five King Seikos joining its core collections.

To understand the hype around the relaunch of King Seiko, it’s important to know where it all began. Back in the 1960s, Seiko operated two watch factories independent of one another, Daini Seikosha in the Kameido area of Tokyo and Suwa Seikosha in the Nagano prefecture. The goal: a little friendly competition between factories encouraging both sides to strive for excellence.

And so it proved. Grand Seiko watches, primarily created at Suwa, brought Seiko’s vision of luxury watchmaking to the world, while Daini’s King Seiko models showcased high quality watches to a broader market.

To understand the hype around the relaunch of King Seiko, it’s important to know its beginnings

Both brands, however, shared the “Grammar of Design” philosophy of Seiko’s legendary head designer Taro Tanaka. Inspired by the principles of gem cutting, the “Grammar of Design” was intended to give Suwa and Daini designers the tools to compete with the best Swiss watchmakers and create commonality between the watch designs.

By 1962, Tanaka boiled his methodology down to nine guidelines: double-width indexes at 12 o’clock; multi-faceted rectangular markers and hands; a curved side profile for the case; a flat dial to minimise distortion on the dial from any angle; an inward-slanted case side to make the case look thinner and sit comfortably on the wrist; highly mirror-polished case surfaces and bezel; and a half-recessed crown. What this adds up to in reality is quite simple: King Seiko watches blend practicality and legibility, with a geometric design that is accentuated by high levels of polishing.

The dawn of the Quartz age brought production to a halt on King Seiko models in 1975 as Seiko turned its focus towards conquering the battery-operated watch world, but the love for the King Seiko brand has persisted through the decades. Which brings us to the modern day and the watch currently on my wrist: the new King Seiko ‘Garyu-Bai’.

The plum red dial immediately catches the eye, and has a rather charming backstory. The Kameido area, home to the Daini factory, is famous for its plum orchards with the Garyu-bai being the most popular. It’s also known as the dragon plum tree as the Garyu-bai is said to resemble a dragon laying on the ground.

The design draws inspiration from the aforementioned King Seiko 44-9990, honouring the “Grammar of Design” principles with strong geometric lines and highly polished edges. As a bonus, you’ll find the King Seiko shield medallion on the caseback – the same as on the 44-9990.

At 37mm, it’s true to vintage sizes, but there’s a certain ruggedness here, too. The tall case height and chunky lugs, the box sapphire crystal sitting proud of the case, and angular bracelet mean it’s far from dainty. I’ve seen a few writers label this watch as elegant, perhaps mistaking its high degree of craftsmanship for dressiness, but this watch is a practical daily wearer not afraid of the outside world. It looks damn good doing so.

Inside, the workhorse 6R31 movement boasts an impressive 70-hour power reserve and an accuracy of -15/+25 seconds per day. Now, there are some grumblings within the inner circle of so-called ‘Seikoholics’ that this isn’t representative of the original hacking calibre 44A hand-wound movement of the collection’s inspiration, and perhaps there is some truth in that. Personally, I’d have loved to have seen Seiko bring back the 4S movement, which features a slightly higher precision and neatly ties into the calibre 52 used in the last King Seiko models before production ceased, but that’s me being picky.

I can’t argue with the notion of a seriously dependable movement at the heart of an accessibly priced model. King Seiko is a moniker that carries a certain prestige and I feel it’s carried that into its reprisal models, while striking a fine balance between the mid-range Seiko Presage collection and its higher-end sister brand Grand Seiko. So what’s the verdict? King Seiko is Goldilocks-right for the Japanese watch
fan looking for boatloads of history, vintage looks and an attractive price point to boot. King Seiko is dead, long live King Seiko.

Prices from £1,470; seikoboutique.co.uk

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