In 1959 Seiko released the Seiko Laurel Alpinist, a recreational sports watch designed specifically to meet the needs of Japanese mountain climbers – the Yama-Otoko, or mountain men. That first Alpinist featured bold, luminous markers, a rugged water-proof case with a screw-down case back and was supplied on a hefty bund leather strap.
According to Seiko, the design of the bold triangular, lume-filled hour markers at 3, 6, 9 and 12 evoked the mountainous landscape implied by the Alpinist branding, with their positioning representing the four main positions on a compass. The original Laurel Alpinist was powered by the same Seikosha 17 jewel movement found in the original Marvel (see here) but the second generation Alpinists released in 1963 were branded under the Champion sub-brand and were initially powered by a 17 jewel variant of the Cronos movement (see here). With the change in model-line alignment came a change in dial and case aesthetic. The circular dress case of the Laurel Alpinist was replaced by a much more stylised, assertive and angular design whilst in the J13033 the four compass point inverted triangle dial was superseded by a Polerouter-esque design in which the outer perimeter of the dial was encircled by a black ring with a figure ‘4’ azimuth at the 12 position to align with magnetic north.
The Cronos movement continued in a quick succession of different Champion Alpinist variations, with a settled aesthetic achieved in the J13043 in which the Azimuthal 4 had been replaced by a tri-coloured inverted triangle that spanned across three bands: the outer black ring, the minute track and the inner part of the dial
One additional very appealing design detail was the lumed half-moon tip to the seconds hand. This essential look then carried over into the third generation of Alpinist models, marketed under the Champion 850 sub-brand and powered by the rather basic 850 calibre that would form the basis of the 7622 series of calendar-equipped hand-wind regular Champion 850’s and later 76-series automatic movements used in models such as the Seiko 5 Sportsmatics.
The most well-known of the third iteration of Seiko Alpinist and consequently, the most sought-after, is the J13079. It is an example of this model that forms the basis of the present entry.
It is fair to say that this example has seen some abuse: the crown is missing, the seconds hand detached, the crystal crazed, the dial badly water-damaged, the lume on the dial and hands has turned black. In summary, it’s a bit of a basket case. But if it weren’t in such a dilapidated state, I probably wouldn’t be in the process of documenting its revival because I would likely have bailed on the auction before it reached its zenith.
On a positive note, the case back is in beautiful condition, aside from one notable ding, with the now well-known Alpinist triple mountain icon sitting at its centre.
The case back is press-fit rather than screw-down, a curious backwards step compared to the original Laurel Alpinist. With the back popped off, the movement reveals itself.
Although it looks relatively clean overall, you will notice straight away that the Diashock setting has migrated from the balance to occupy a rather more constricted environment, pinched between the case back gasket and the case back. It clearly didn’t get there without some careless human intervention, evidenced by the fact that the Diashock frame had been crushed in the process.
With the movement removed from the case, we can better appraise the dial. I would have to say that this is a dial that under normal circumstances, I would have been tempted to declare it beyond salvage.
The lacquer is water-damaged across the whole dial surface and in patches, very badly so. Some green copper salts have leeched through from the substrate below and the lume is black and crumbly. In some places, the dial markings and text have come away from the surface. However, I knew that it would not be pretty when I bid on this watch; I knew also that there was no chance of finding a stand-alone replacement dial; and I knew that I would have paid at least twice what I did for an example with a presentable dial. I resolved to press on and see what might be achieved with some remedial attention.
Before beginning work on the dial, I wanted to take a quick look at the setting parts because, before removing the hands, I had not been able to set them using a substitute crown and stem. The reason for this became quickly obvious.
The setting spring was snapped off at its base. This, seemingly, is one of those failure points that it is highly unlikely that you will not encounter with these movements. Fortunately, I was able to source a replacement part easily from Cousins.
The success or failure of this project was clearly going to hinge on what could be achieved with the dial and so I made a decision to focus initially on that and to press on from there, depending on the outcome. The lume was in such bad condition and so far degraded from anything approaching an appealing patina, that felt I had nothing to lose in undertaking a relume of the dial and hands. With that decision made, I started the painstaking and careful process of removing all of the luminous material from the dial hour markers.
The old lume was carefully teased away from the dial using a sharpened piece of pegwood, and the powdery remnants then dabbed off with a piece of rodico putty to avoid the spread of potentially contaminated lume dust. I worked my way around the dial and before long, I had a slightly more presentable-looking template.
The lume on the hands, similarly, was in very poor shape. I dropped the hands into some petroleum spirit, let it soak in and then removed the lume with a piece of sharpened pegwood (see below, clockwise from top left).
The dial would require several rounds of careful cleaning to remove as much of the discoloration as I could get away with without further compromising the dial text and other markings. Once I was satisfied that there was no more to be gained, and potentially plenty to lose, I moved on to make up some fresh luminous paste and set about reluming both the hands and dial, starting with the former.
Before attending to the dial, I wanted to protect the rather fragile original lacquer and seal in the remedial work, and so made a decision to lacquer the dial. This required quite a bit of research, plenty of thought and a considerable amount of experimentation. I practiced on a number of spare junk dials with both satin and gloss lacquer and in the end opted for satin. The end result was as good as I could possibly have hoped for. With the dial sealed, I set about, with the careful haste, to relume all twelve markers before the binding lacquer started to dry.
I reckon this is a pretty good result considering its parlous state at the start of this process. Before moving onto the movement, I wanted to source a replacement crown and stem. The stem is a stock part at Cousins but the crown required some foraging on Yahoo Japan auctions. This yielded a correct old stock part (top left, below) but inevitably one with a rock hard gasket (top right, below). And so I undertook my habitual process of extracting the old gasket in a million tiny fragments (bottom right, below) and squeezing in a suitable replacement, aided by lashings of silicone grease (bottom left).
Confident that I would have a presentable and potentially water-tight watch at the end of the process, it felt safe to move onto the movement.
In addition to the destroyed Diashock setting, the balance hairspring was out of flat and there was something fishy about the geometry of the balance cock, more of which later. For the moment though, let’s focus on the deconstruction of the movement, starting with the setting parts.
This photograph does provide a view of the extent of the general state of grubbiness of the movement as a whole. Out with the balance, pallet bridge and pallet, ratchet wheel and crown wheel. These latter two parts were cosmetically a bit rough and I earmarked both for replacement.
Having removed the train bridge, I discovered the location of the missing balance Diashock spring.
The barrel bridge came next at which point we can see that the configuration of this movement is very much classic Seiko movement 101: a centre wheel and cannon pinion, secured by a large centre wheel bridge and with a triangular arrangement of escape, third and central sweep seconds wheels forming the rest of the gear train.
The mainspring looked clean, intact and undistorted out of, or in plane.
A quick interlude while the parts are percolating: I had naively thought that with the dial and hands titivated and a new crown sourced and renovated, I was over the hump and on my way down the gentle slope to completing all of the necessary work to the external-facing components. I hadn’t bargained though on the crystal choice throwing up some imponderables. After some research I had established that the crystal part number for the J13079 Alpinist was 327W14AN and sourced a new old stock example from Yahoo Japan at a cost of about £35, shortly after winning the bid on the watch.
These crystals sit around a raised lip and the waterproof seal is then created by the force exerted around the outer circumference when the external steel bezel is pressed into place. The problem with this particular crystal, however, is that while its external dimension correctly fitted the bezel, its internal diameter was too large for the aperture in the case. I wondered if perhaps the 327W14AN had undergone some subtle change in dimension during its production and so a full two months after buying this first 327W14AN, I sourced a third party period replacement (also from Yahoo Japan) for the J13079 and awaited its arrival.
Guess what? It didn’t fit either. It was at this point that I started to doubt the veracity of the information I had obtained that suggested that this was the correct part number for the J13079. Either that, or my watch case is not a J13079, in spite of the identification as such suggested by the case back. In carefully examining my watch and comparing it to other examples of the Alpinist J13079 on the internet, I saw no reason whatsoever to suggest that mine is not a correct case. Maybe the received-wisdom part number is simply wrong? I decided to try other variants of the 327W and, for good measure, 325W, families of crystals which the American Perfit Crystal Corp. catalogue suggested should fit a selection of 7622-powered models from the period (the 7622 is the calibre number that superseded the 860, the calendar-equipped version of the 850).
As a result, I purchased examples of the 327W09AN as well as 325W04AN and 325W05AN. I also tried one of the 327W01AN crystals that I have reserved for one of my Grand Seiko projects. All four of the 327W variations fitted as badly as each other and while the two 325W crystals fitted the case well, they were too small to form a tight fit with the bezel. Six crystals down and no closer to solving the problem. I couldn’t keep throwing good money after bad on wild guesses and so decided to measure the case lip and bezel diameters and see if I could find a generic crystal to fit. The most promising candidate ended up being a Sternkreuz XS 330.425, a reproduction of the Citizen 54-0054. The inner dimension of this crystal is 31.3 mm and its external diameter 33.0 mm. The former is more or less bang on, the latter a little too large, but too large can be reduced whereas too small cannot be inflated.
Sure enough, this new crystal fitted the case snugly but was a little oversized for the bezel.
Some patient circular sanding of its outer periphery resulted in a perfect, tailored fit.
If anyone has a copy of a casing parts catalogue from the early 1960s who can definitively confirm what crystal should pair with the J13079, I would be interested to hear from you! With that done, I do believe that the only significant hurdle left is the reconstruction of the movement. A trifling undertaking. Not.
Let’s begin with the, now cleaned mainspring, fitted back into its barrel.
There being no Diafix settings to deal with on this movement, the reinstallation of the mainspring prompts a start to the reassembly of the main plate components. We begin with the setting parts, noting the new setting lever spring before flipping over once to fit the centre wheel and its bridge, and then again to fit the cannon pinion.
The gear train comes next, followed by its bridge, the barrel and its bridge, topped off with the click spring, crown wheel and ratchet wheel, the latter two having been replaced by cleaner replacements.
Earlier I highlighted some concerns I had about the condition and geometry of the balance. That concern extended not just to a suspicion that previous watchmakers had wrought some bad juju through incompetent tampering but also to the wear and/or damage to both Diashock frames. Attending first to the main plate Diashock, I had noted that its hole had become oval with wear and so I set about replacing it with one farmed from a spare movement.
The replacement is first seated into position and then pressed home to the correct depth using a jeweling tool.
The balance caused a considerably greater degree of grief. I spent several days attempting and failing to correct the bent hairspring and then several more experimenting with replacements farmed from a selection of 850 and 860 equipped parts watches, all of which it turned out had been ruined by previous expert ‘adjustments’. To cut to the chase, the solution was found in a complete balance taken from a B-variant of the 7622 whose charms extended not just to having an unmolested hairspring that responded well to some tweaking, but also to being equipped with a moveable stud-holder which allows easy adjustment of beat error.
With the movement finally running to my satisfaction, the path is now clear to reuniting the movement with the dial and hands. First though we need to fit the minute wheel, its plate, the hour wheel and its film washer.
If you look closely, you may notice that one of the teeth on the hour wheel is damaged. I trawled through my parts stores in search of a substitute, but the only potential candidate was from an 860 and that was too tall. There being no stock at Cousins either, I resolved to re-use the original part, having satisfied myself that the chipped tooth had no detrimental effect at all on the operation of the movement. With that complete, we can fit the dial and then the hands.
All that remains is to trim the new stem, fit it to the rebuilt crown and recase the movement.
This has been one of those projects that one imagines should not throw up too many headaches. This expectation derives from the simplicity of the movement and its lack of complications but as it turned out, ‘complications’ has been a watchword of this project.
Clearly the poor external condition at the outset should have signalled the potential for a bumpy ride and this was not helped by some red herrings thrown up by the less-than-helpful interventions from previous watchmakers.
Nevertheless, a successful outcome in this case is all the more satisfying. I have a number of watches in my collection that reveal their history plainly through their external scars or the evident compromises that have had to be made in completing their renovations. In spite of their flaws though, I view these watches with affection and feel far more disposed to keeping them than some other examples that present a more flawless external character.
This sentiment extends equally to this lovely watch, its resilience in the face of mistreatment a testament to the survival instincts that one might expect of a watch intended for the mountain men (and women) of early 1960s Japan.
Paul Cornforth said:
Remarkable outcome Martin. Those last photos of the watch appear ghostly , ethereal. Perfect balance of originality and patina.
Thanks Paul! Yes, I think it’s turned out very nicely.
The Robinsons said:
A brilliant account of some outstanding work Martin. Thank you. My apologies for not following through on my interest in one of your âfor saleâ watches a few months ago. What happened was that an old (1968) 36mm Rolex Datejust Iâd owned for 30 years or so (as a replacement for my Dadâs Rolex gift to me at my 21st which was stolen), Iâd sold three years ago (to fund a solar telescope of all things) and then deeply, deeply regretted doing so. Out of the blue a couple of months ago the small dealer Iâd passed it to got in touch to say he was getting it back in PX for a Submariner he was acquiring for his same client. So I bit his hand off and now have it back . But that meant I had no money for your 7018-7000!
All the best
I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed this account. I had fun (and frustration) working on it. And of course no worries at all on the other. I quite understand. That watch is now with a new owner so all’s well!
Well, I would say it was a “champion” effort to even persist with this one. I’m sure most people would have scrapped the watch for parts!
On a peripheral tangent, I have just bought a new watch for my holidays fitted with the Seiko VH31 mechaquartz 4hz sweep second hand. It’s surprisingly effective; I had no idea until recently that such a nice quartz was available. Have you ever thought of resurrecting a well- dead watch with this movement?
Some people may think that sacrilege, but if you’re in the position, as you were here, where the interest of the watch is in the way it looks, and the movement is otherwise unremarkable and well broken, I wonder if a transplant may be an option? It’s got to be better than giving up and scrapping a watch?
Just a thought, even if it is a sacrilegious one!
Any movement swap requires that the donor satisfies the basic dimensional requirements of the outgoing part. For the movement, that means diameter, depth, dial foot compatibility and crucially stem height. For these reasons, options are usually severely restricted other than to substitute variations of the same calibre. As a result, I have only ever substituted a 7546 quartz for a 6309 and an ETA 536.121 quartz for a 2824 (going the other way). It is always fun though to imagine other possibilities.
Yes, agreed. I have sometimes swapped movements. Dial foot incompatibility can be overcome by grinding and judicious non- permanent adhesive. And many after market movements like the Seiko come with alternative hand heights which allows a modicum of spacer use to accommodate stem position. In other words, provided the replacement movement is the same or a smaller ligne size, and no thicker, you can usually come up with a fix.
The attraction of the Seiko mechaquartz is that the second hand doesn’t tick at one second intervals and so at a casual glance you can’t tell it’s not mechanical.
I understand the appeal of the mechaquartz but I’ve never liked sticky dial pads in place of feet and removing dial feet is not really a reversible operation. But yes, there are ways and means of getting around some incompatibilities but my instinct is to preserve as much originality as I can or when I do modify to try to keep it reversible.