Seiko’s latest in a series of head-scratchers is more of a weird, vaguely depressing nonevent, that leaves us no closer to understanding what the brand is supposed to represent in 2019
If you want to be hyper-reductive about things (and who doesn’t, really), when it comes to brand equity nowadays a watch company can either try to “do a Rolex” or they can “do an Omega”. The former’s restricted production of its few most coveted lines leads, as we all know, to staggering secondary market premiums and a self-perpetuating public image of inherent value and rarity. Meanwhile, the latter’s tendency towards wide availability results in comparatively poor value retention and an undeniable public perception as the somewhat lesser product, but also gets more of said products onto actual wrists, possibly even capitalizing on frustrated consumers’ ill-will towards its more exclusive competitor. Determining which approach is most effective in the long run is highly subjective, and most brands find themselves charting a course somewhere in between, perhaps aspiring to one whilst doing the other.
This brings us onto Seiko, a brand whose position between the two extremes can be tricky to pinpoint right now. Beloved by enthusiast communities across all price points as it may be, the venerable Japanese corporation seems to be in a permanent state of identity crisis, torn between its nascent aspirations towards upper-market domination and a brand image yielded from decades of producing highly affordable and mass-produced mid-to-low-tier watches. Seiko’s decision to establish Grand Seiko as an independent brand in 2017 was effectively a public admission of this- that said, I get why they’re feeling the heat a little. Can you sustain a quality-to-affordability ratio as unequalled (in my opinion) as Seiko’s on being a “cult classic” brand alone? Evidently, CEO Shinji Hattori doesn’t think so.
The Seiko Prospex LX line is one of the latest byproducts of Seiko’s slow push upstream, which saw the integration of the 5R Spring Drive into its existing line of mid-range Prospex Divers in early 2019, and RRPs rising way into the +1000GBP range. Last month, we saw the fan-favourite Presage line get the same treatment with the announcement of the enamel-dialled Prestige, and it raised the same immediate questions amongst enthusiasts- primarily, who exactly is this for?
Like many fans, myself included were quick to point out when the LX announcement dropped, it looked like Seiko had utterly shat the bed, and “done an Omega” in the most pejorative sense. In shoving Spring Drives into a product line that has achieved cult status for unmatched quality at its price point, Seiko rammed the Prospex RRP up into premium territory where prospective buyers would be as well to just buy an actual Grand Seiko, particularly something like the SBGA229.
Hell, at that price point prospective buyers would surely already be looking to buy a Grand Seiko, if not side-stepping entirely to something like a Pelagos – people with that kind of cash to burn ain’t looking for a Prospex, and they’re sure as hell not looking for a Presage. Seiko seems to think they can change this. Where the relaunch of Grand Seiko had given the company a valuable opportunity for a calculated dichotomy between their upper and lower ranges a la Rolex/Tudor, this represented a further muddying of the waters, making it even harder for the market at large to work out what a Seiko actually *is* now.
The fact remains, of course, that all of the above is kind of moot until the market itself weighs in. How the Prospex LX fares in the long-term is still to be determined, and it’s going to be interesting to see whether or not it performs and actually finds its niche- I’m still of the opinion that it will come to be seen as purely transitional, but there’s no accounting for taste. Either way, the broader uproar it triggered over Seiko’s price hiking and aesthetic direction casts a long shadow over the release of the two new limited edition LX models announced this week. In keeping with the rest of the collection (and some of Seiko’s other recent forays into limited-run shenanigans), the announcement, marketing, and pretty much everything about these limited editions is suitably eyebrow-raising, the decision to time their announcement so close to the launch of the main collection being merely the tip of the iceberg.
The Prospex LX Limited Edition pieces represent an amusingly awkward jamming-together of two different aspects of Seiko’s broader design language- high-concept elemental wankiness and rugged hockey puck tool-watch aesthetic. I’m honestly totally here for the former, for the most part, while the latter has sometimes given me…mixed feelings. Spec-wise, they’re effectively identical to their counterparts in the existing LX line, with the exception of their cermet bezels, which Seiko previously used on the well-received Marinemaster. Cermet is a savvy choice if you’re wanting to walk the walk with a “luxury tool watch” shtick, far more so than something like pure ceramic in my opinion, although I’d imagine the main collection’s titanium bezels are hardly inadequate. As for the dials, it presents the same issue as an any Seiko limited edition- it probably looks out-of-this-world good in the metal, for all I know, but from the product shots there’s little to go on, so it’s going to be a bit of a dice roll for everyone taking a punt online. The clusterfuck of the Blue Alpinist’s dial comes to mind.
Speaking of which, this is probably a good time to talk about the whole “limited edition” thing, very much the elephant in the room right now. It’s no secret that Seiko have “done an Omega” here, and drunk every last drop of the limited-run kool-aid. It’s becoming a meme in its own right- I swear I thought that Godzilla LE last week was a joke at first. There’s a lot of speculation as to their motive here, with respect to long-term brand equity. Are they trying to increase the number of high-value Seikos on the secondary market and boost the band’s perceived value? Is something like the aforementioned Hodinkee Alpinist an attempt to test the water, in anticipation of a future wide release? Are they flirting with the kind of upmarket push that puts them in more direct competition with brands like Omega or Tudor, for customers who are frustrated by the steel Rolex shortage? The Limited Edition LX watches don’t really help us to work out Seiko’s game here- if anything, it just makes it all the more confusing. The quantity, 200 apiece, is far lower than recent LE’s, but for two products that have far too few points of differentiation from the rest of the LX line to make them covetable pieces. Furthermore, the massive case sizes, unusual design proportions and lofty price points won’t resonate with the Seiko enthusiast community, whose fondness for humbler watches like the SKX013 is well-known. This is a target audience who can clearly take-or-leave Spring Drive levels of accuracy in their Seiko divers, and who clearly value affordability.
400 pieces is a small enough run for a brand like Seiko that, sure, it’s probably going to sell out quickly (assuming their marketing campaign for it actually ramps up between now and the November release), if for no other reason than the mere fact it’s a limited edition, and that’s where the culture is right now: but who is it going to sell to, and what is that actually worth for Seiko as a brand? As a big fan of both Seiko and Grand Seiko alike, I’m honestly still of the opinion that the company should be trying to “do a Rolex” across the board, limiting the range of different watches they have in their collections, doubling-down on their few existing “icons”, and thereby making it easier for themselves to establish new ones. With a great deal of visible public pushback against many of its recent pricey LE’s, Seiko are playing a risky game, with clear potential for serious longterm brand dilution- let’s hope they actually have a plan.
Edwin McLachlan is a musician and audio engineer based in Edinburgh’s bustling city centre, with a particular fondness for Soviet, Chinese and Japanese watchmakers. You can Instagram him at @edwin_mclachlan, and work with him at www.edwinmclachlan.com.