Compare and contrast: the Gold Cap vs. steel Seikomatic

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When I was a young man, I never gave much thought to the relative merits of the gold watch. In fact, like most reasonably normal teenagers, the greatest concern to me in matters horological, was the number of functions possessed by my watch and whether or not the sensitivity of its pushers allowed me to bring the inevitable stop watch function to a halt precisely at an integer second value rather than one or two hundredths either side. I seem to remember that I tended to opt for gold plated cases but I don’t think that was a deliberate choice – just happenstance or an unconscious momentary impulse or something.

As I aged, I suppose my tastes matured slightly and in my 20’s I found myself drawn to the watch as an object of desire for the first time rather than as an essential accessory. My first semi-serious watch was an Oris automatic, purchased during a two year stint working in Japan as a postdoc, and worn subsequently as my daily watch for a decade or so subsequently. That watch had a steel case but gold Roman numeral indexes and matching gold hands and so while I seemed to have weaned myself off the plated gold case, apparently I wasn’t prepared to forego entirely a spot of golden bling. By the time of my 40th birthday, I had purged the urge to decorate my wrist with anything other than manly stainless steel. The watch to celebrate that landmark was a meaty Citizen Promaster Eco-Drive, purchased with the genuine intention that it would serve me for the duration. That expectation was dashed about two years later with the inevitable failure of its capacitor but that failure coincided with the awakening of a dark force, precipitated by the eBay purchase of a Seiko 6105.

In the intervening years, documented to a large extent in these pages, middle age has advanced and I find myself a small handful of years past another landmark. I have a relatively generously proportioned collection of working watches, worn on some sort of rotation, all of them steel. That consistency of choice has sustained on the back of a genuinely-held disdain for base metal cases plated in gold. I can’t abide them, partly because of the awful way in which they wear, base metal exposed and corroding, but also because a plated case is neither fish nor foul. It simultaneously aspires to ostentation but that aspiration is fake, revealed for what it is by the passage of time and wear. So, while I have bought a fair number of gold plated watches during my fettling period, all of them have been destined to offer up parts to projects more worthy.

All of that notwithstanding, one of the side effects of advancing beyond the half ton is the gathering appreciation for the concept of the gold watch (as opposed to the gold-coloured watch).   The epitome of that appreciation has to be the Rolex Day-Date but it is possible to get some way up that particular ascent without venturing anywhere near the expenditure required to plant one’s foot on the summit.

Photocredit: hqmilton.com

How so? Solid gold watches of any breed these days require serious investment. So is there a half way house of some sort? Well, yes of course there is. The answer lies in the gold cap case.  Where gold plating involves electrochemical deposition of a very thin coat of gold on a base metal substrate, gold capping involves molding a solid piece of gold into the shape of a watch case and placing it on top of a steel base – essentially capping the steel under-case with a gold overlayer. The result is a watch case with slightly softer lines than a steel equivalent but with an exterior that to all intents and purposes resembles a solid gold case. The tip-off that one is dealing with a gold cap case rather than solid gold, is the two-tone finish to the underside, the steel foundations revealed by the undersides of the lugs.

A proper appreciation of the merits of the gold cap variant can best be obtained through some sort of compare and contrast exercise. To that end, I present to you a pair of near identical twins, born 4 months apart in 1965. The two watches share the same model number and both are part of that wonderful sub-brand of Seiko watches from the 1960’s, the Seikomatic. The earlier of the two is a steel cased Seikomatic 6218-8971 from April 1965 and the later, a gold cap 6218-8971 from October 1965. We’ve met the steel version of this model before and so I don’t propose to describe the workings of either watch in anything like the same level of forensic detail but having two very similar watches side by side always offers the potential to throw up interesting contrasts.

I’ve had both watches for three or four years and they have languished in a partially disassembled state housed in their own dedicated watch parts tray, sitting atop my reservoir of watch crystals. I have become so accustomed to carefully removing the tray of Seikomatic twins when seeking access to my crystal store that they have become simply part of the fixtures and fittings of my watchmaker’s desk. Recently though, it occurred to me that the time was finally ripe to tackle this pair as a pair, killing two birds with one stone.

The reason they have languished for so long is that the case of the gold cap watch was seriously corroded to the extent that in places the gold cap was bubbling up under the pressure of the hydrated iron oxides beneath.

And so this particular project was shelved while I waited for some sort of solution to the gold cap case corrosion to present itself. What was abundantly clear though was that this particular case was a write-off. Patience is a virtue and in due course, up popped a suitable candidate to the rescue. The auction that caught my eye was for a hybrid 6206/6218 gold cap, an amalgam of a 6206 movement, dial and hands with a 6218-8971 case. It was not clear at the time of bidding that the case was going to be any better than the one I had but with it in hand, it seemed we had a contender.

The plan then is to take the innards from the original GC 6218-8971 and fit them to the GC case salvaged from the hybrid.

The differences between the two original watches extend beyond the obvious presentation from the front. To the rear, we see that the case back of the GC case is to some considerable degree the more charismatic.

As much as I appreciated the subtle embossing of the crowned dolphin on the steel cased back, the more pronounced emblem on the GC case is a thing of beauty. A further distinguishing feature is the presence of an embossed crane on the inside of the gold cap case back, signifying that this watch was produced by the Daini factory in Tokyo rather than the Suwa factory in Nagano. The absence of a similar impression on the steel watch case back suggests that this watch originated from the Suwa factory.

My plan is to tackle these two more or less in parallel. In practice, this involves a bit of ebb and flow as I switch attention from one to the other during disassembly and reassembly. We’ll start with the steel watch in keeping with the actual sequence of events.

Two noteworthy points: the movement would not run at all and the gasket groove exhibits plenty of signs of corrosion. We also observe that the movement is the A variant of the 6218, consistent with the early ’65 manufacture date. The tadpole regulator on the balance cock is a feature of the earlier versions of the movement,  destined to be replaced by rack and pinion by the time the C variant appeared a year or so later.

The dial looks to be in very decent shape but the tobacco staining visible on the date wheel suggests some sort of contamination beneath.

Indeed, removing the dial exposes a pretty comprehensive orange/yellow patina extending from the translucent dial spacer at the edge, across the date wheel all the way to the centre of the day disk.

The bleaching around the days of the week suggests to me that this is chemical contamination, most probably from an epoxy glue used to secure an acrylic crystal at some point in the watch’s past (although the dial itself seems to have escaped the same fate).

When I removed the dial, I noted that one of the dial feet screws was missing. Its location, and the reason for the non-running of the movement, became clear during the end stages of the disassembly of the movement.

Let’s turn our attention now to the movement taken from the Daini-produced gold cap watch.

A sense of déjà vu is partly diverted by presence of a metal dial spacer ring in place of the plastic used in the steel-cased watch. The movement is the A variant, in spite of the fact that this watch was produced 6 months after the first. I make that observation because the 6218-8971 featured in this blog some time ago was also produced in October ’65 but that one was fitted with a 6218B.

I’ll skip most of the details of the deconstruction because we’ve met variations of the 62xx on numerous occasions in the past, but I will just pause to note the seconds stop lever fitted to these movements, something absent from the lower tier 6205/6 and 6217.

Before breaking to clean the movements, it might be useful to note the relative conditions of the two mainsprings.

The top mainspring comes from the steel watch, the lower from the gold cap. Clearly the former looks to have lost a bit of spring to its step and there is a hint of a horizontal kink just before the final curve the to tail. For no other good reason than curiosity (as well as a smidgen of laziness), I opted to reuse both to see whether the relative conditions are then betrayed in the way the two movements run, post service.

Here are those two mainsprings again, now cleaned, lubricated and reinstalled into their respective barrels. The kinked, slightly tired mainspring is the one to the right (whose barrel bottom shows some brassing) but you’d never be able to tell from their state in situ.

With both movements each equipped with four Diafix settings, I was faced with the somewhat daunting prospect of installing 8 Diafix springs at one sitting and lubricating each without foul-ups. The process proceeded smoothly for the first four, slightly less so for the second set but by hook or by crook, I managed to complete the task, sanity more or less intact.

Here then, the train sides, partially complete:

It is worth pausing to survey the dial side of both movements to revisit, once again, a much-repeated incantation against the gratuitous use of decorative jewels in boosting the jewel counts advertised on the dials. The 6218 is fitted with 7 redundant jewels, supposedly there to ease the passage of the date ring plus a further 4 on the date and dial guards. Subtracting 11 from 35 yields 24, the same jewel count as the date-only 6205.  The only real added value provided by the 6218 over the 6205/6 is the provision of seconds hacking and of fine regulation to the balance cocks.

You will recall the condition of the date ring fitted to the steel watch. This proved uncooperative to attempts to remove the staining and so I resorted to a substitute from a parts 6206.

Similarly, the dial spacer from the steel watch would need replacing, not just because of its staining but because its exposure to the contaminant had rendered it somewhat fragile.

In the absence of a suitable replacement for the stained day disk, I opted to retain the original, hoping that the bleaching around the text would disguise the hidden patination with the dial in place. Before fitting the final calendar parts and dials though, I fitted the balances, wound both to the point where I could feel the gentle resistance of the slipping bridle and carried out a provisional regulation to get a measure of the relative health of each movement. The gold cap movement appeared in embarrassingly good health, in particular displaying slightly monstrous amplitude (left, below).

The movement from the steel-cased watch on the other hand, was embarrassed for the inverse reason (above, right). Clearly, the relatively unhealthy appearance of its mainspring has resulted in comparatively poor amplitude, although the timing curve itself looks exceptionally clean. I sort of knew this was going to be the result but pressed ahead in any case as an educational exercise. I slightly regret that decision at this point though because it means having to break the movement down again and come up with a substitute for that worn out mainspring.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I have fitted a balance from a 6218C, complete with rack and pinion fine regulation, to the movement from the steel cased watch. This turned out to be a compounding error in that it confused the subsequent diagnostic process that accompanied my serial substitution of different mainspring candidates in an attempt to duplicate the amplitude performance of the other movement. The net result of that process, which extended, by the way, to several days of trouble-shooting, was to settle upon a new 401470 mainspring intended for a 6216, via an alternate used 6206 mainspring, a substitute set of train wheels and the re-installation of the original balance! That little adventure concluded this morning just before setting out for a slightly drizzly Sunday afternoon standing on the touchline at a playing field in Newton-on-Ouse watching my 15 year old son play football. Although I’ve not been able quite to reach the heights of the gold cap movement, we seem to have settled between about 265 and 280 degrees with a noiseless timing curve. I am content.

One observation that I would make about both movements is that there is quite a strong timing/amplitude dependence, with the watches running faster or slower as a fairly sensitive function of displayed amplitude. With an automatic watch tending to maintain a higher state of wind as a steady state, this is not likely to be a cause of dissatisfaction – these are after all both well used examples of 53 year old watches – but it is not something that I’ve previously been struck by with 62 series movements in general. But then again, it may just be that I’ve not paid such close attention to the variation before. Anyway, now that I am satisfied with the performance of the movements, I can complete the assembly of the calendar parts.

The movement on the left is clearly in a much cleaner condition now than when it arrived with only the day disk retaining any hint of the previous overall patina. The movements were set aside at this point to allow me to march on with the preparation of the cases. Both cases were thoroughly cleaned and the gold case lightly polished with a Cape Cod cloth to remove several decades’ worth of oxidation.

The correct crystal for the 6218-8971 is the 330T06ANS/G. Unfortunately, supply of these is short to say the least and so, as with the last 6218-8971 to feature in these pages, I opted instead for the 330T07ANS whose correct partner is the earlier 6218-8970. That watch does not use the separate indexed chapter ring used by the later 8971 variant (see below), depending instead on an indexed tension ring fitted to the crystal (see above).

I have had success with this strategy before and so employed this approach initially with the steel cased 8971 featured here. First up then, we sit the original chapter ring into the case, one of its two indexing cut-outs oriented to the 2 o’clock position.

The tension ring needs to be removed from the new crystal to be replaced by the recovered correct tension ring from the outgoing used crystal.

The fresh crystal is then pressed into place and all being well, does so with a satisfying click.

I had imagined that the same process could be duplicated with the gold cap case. However, two obstacles presented themselves. Firstly, the two recovered tension rings that I have from the two gold cap cases were both broken.

Secondly, neither tension ring fitted the 330T07ANS, being too large in diameter. It would seem therefore either that the tension rings that I have are incorrect or that the 330T06ANG differs from the 330T06ANS by more than just the colour of its tension ring. In the absence of an alternative, I had to resort to using a Sternkreuz ATCH 331, sized appropriately and fitted with one of the recovered tension rings, cut down to fit.

This will serve as a working solution until I get my hands on a correct 330T06ANG. Back to the movements to fit the dials and hands. Before doing so, I am curious to see if the dating codes to the rear of the dials are consistent with those on the cases (see previous post on the Seiko 6306-7001). The rear of the silver dial is unmarked but the gold dial bears the mark 5N, dating the dial to November 1965, one month after the date suggested by the case serial number. In case you are wondering, I’ve partnered the original October ’65 case back with the case salvaged from the hybrid watch and so dial and case back are the original pairing.

Both sets of dials and hands refitted straightforwardly with all of the calendar functions operating correctly.

Having prepared both cases, we can now refit the two movements, securing them in place with tabs screwed to the movement rings.

The crown originally fitted to the gold cap case was distinctly tired and so I ordered a new replacement.

Before concluding proceedings, I thought it worth comparing the auto-winding mechanism fitted to this mid-60’s movement with that fitted to the late ‘70’s 6306A featured in the previous post. Where that auto-winder comprised 6 separate parts, including the plastic pawl lever retaining plate, rotor and screw, the mechanism used in the 6218 is composed of no less than 18 separate parts, 10 of which screws.

Here’s that little lot fitted together with the new crown and a fresh caseback gasket.

Repeating the process for the steel cased watch and it looks like we are nearing completion.

Of all the 35 jewel 6218 Seikomatics, the 6218-8971 seems to have been the one produced in the largest quantities – perhaps reflecting its greater appeal at the time in conforming to the classic date at 3, day at 6 layout of the earlier Weekdater Seikomatics produced in the early 1960’s.

It is a watch on undeniable appeal: a very decent size; a charismatic domed acrylic crystal; and an easy-going low-beat automatic under the hood.

The gold cap version is in much shorter supply and brings something quite distinct to the table compared to the classic steel cased watch.

That something is not exactly bling because it is too classy; but neither does it quite yet convey the proper authority of a solid gold watch. Whatever view you take of plated vs. gold cap vs. gold, the Seikomatic 6218-8971 GC (to quote its full moniker as inscribed on its case back) is undeniably rather splendid.

I seem to have come full circle: gold plate in my youth because I knew no better; gold cap in advanced middle age because I am getting to the point where reckon I can pull off a gold watch. Perhaps at some point in the not so distant future, I’ll graduate to the full monty and get myself something that weighs considerably more than either of the watches described above.