When Swatch finally launched their much-touted Moonswatch follow-up in the form of their Blancpain Fifty Fathoms riff (to a relatively damp fanfare), something about it was nagging me in the back of my mind, something oddly familiar. So, I went rummaging around in my worryingly extensive box of old watches and dug up something that I now barely take off: the Fifty-Five Fathoms.
Don’t worry, I wasn’t stashing a genuine Blancpain in a random box. The Fifty-Five Fathoms is a Seiko that has been gussied up to look like the prestige diver. And it looks the part – at least from the front. The bezel, indexes, handset, they’re all bang-on for the source material. Sure, it’s a lot chunkier from the side and the exhibition caseback very definitely shows an NH35, but at a casual glance it’s easy to mistake for the watch it’s paying homage to.
It’s fun, it’s cool and if it’s something you might want for yourself, you don’t even need to buy one. A quick search will highlight plenty of guides for how to build your own using a standard Seiko watch as a base. There are suggestions for the bezels, hands, dials, even the sapphire crystal you might want to use, a full step-by-step guide on turning an uber-accessible sports watch into a legendary diver.
The Fifty-Five Fathoms is just scratching the surface though. It doesn’t take much digging to discover a vast sub-culture of watch collectors and tinkerers who love nothing more than building their own watches from the ground-up, using Seikos as a base. And while modding can indeed mean simply swapping a bezel or changing the handset on your watch, in this instance I’m using it to mean more in-depth, custom stuff. Think less changing the rims on your car, more building it from the ground-up using stock parts.
The question then is: why? It’s a broad question for sure, but one that I’ll start by answering a narrower one: why Seiko? Well, when you’re setting out on a custom project, you want three things: reliability, accessibility and compatibility. Seiko movements have all those things.
Seikos are basically the Mazda MX5 of the watch world. All you need to do is look at the vast and growing number of microbrands leveraging Seiko movements to get the hook. The starting point is that they’re among the most affordable movements in the industry, meaning that even relatively uninvested hobbyists can get their hands on a few without mortgaging the house. To put that in numbers, you can get a movement from AliExpress for under £30. You can get a case for around the same amount, hands for much less and end up spending less than £100 on the finished product.
At the same time, they have specs at least up there with the Swiss calibres (and better than some), offering superb reliability and serviceability. Seiko movements are ubiquitous; they’re everywhere and every watch repair shop can service one with a blindfold on.
Then there’s compatibility. The idea behind building a custom watch is to do just that – build exactly what you want. You don’t want to have to compromise on your vision (be that a cool homage or otherwise) simply because you can’t find the parts you need. Fortunately, Seiko is a prolific manufacturer, both in numbers and different designs, meaning that there are endless components available, all of which can be easily switched in and out of whatever base template you’re using.
Let’s take the Seiko Nautilus as an example. An homage to Patek Philippe’s Genta-designed sports luxe icon, it’s not the first thing you think of in the same breath as Seiko. And yet, with the right recipe (which you can see in our handy box-out; feel free to cut out and pop on the fridge), you can get a worryingly close approximation. All it takes is a bit of research, a set of basic tools and trawling a few Seiko parts stockists. Nothing here is hard to get hold of, as there’s nothing rare or exotic – just basic, off-the-shelf parts that come together to create the Seiko Nautilus.
Now, I’m going to be up-front here. I’m not well-versed in the world of Seiko modding – or modding in general. I can service a basic movement (given a bit of fiddling getting the balance back in) but that’s about it, so building a watch with my own hands has never really occurred to me before now. But after asking the modding community at large – seriously, the r/SeikoMods subreddit is by far the friendliest watch-centric group of enthusiasts I’ve ever come across – there are three main reasons for diving headlong into modding.
The first is the desire for something completely their own. Custom watches of the rarefied, grail-level Artisans de Geneve ilk are painfully expensive, unattainable for most collectors. Seiko modding is therefore a way to create your perfect watch without the need to spend big money and wait months for a workshop to send you a sketch. If you can picture what you want, the likelihood is that you can source the parts to make it happen – and build something above and beyond what you can get off the shelf.
As Redditor SlickPope put it: “I like that I get to be as picky as I want down to the smallest little detail. And there’s something to be said for wearing something that you made yourself. Gives me a sense of pride wearing it, which I can’t say about the watches I’ve bought off the shelf.”
The second is a love of the mechanical side of things. More than one responder to my outreach said that they wanted to be able to service a watch and needed something simple and accessible to practice on. Once the bug had fully bitten, they got completely sucked into the entire underworld of getting hands-on with their watches in a way that only modding can achieve. These are the kinds of guys that, if we were to take that aforementioned Mazda MX5 as a metaphor, spend their weekends head under the bonnet, tuning and tinkering with the car.
It’s a love that most of us can agree with. The chances are that if you have an appreciation for watches beyond their market value, you’re enamoured by the mechanics. This is just the next stage of that same appreciation. As Redditor carpenj explained: “for me, the interest in an automatic watch is the mechanics. I’ve been having a blast taking movements apart, putting them back together, modding the movements themselves to some degree, tuning the accuracy on a timegrapher.”
The final reason for Seiko modding, and in many ways the one that underpins it all is also the most practical: price. As I mentioned in the previous section, Seiko parts are incredibly accessible, and lowering the bar that much means that modders can build a watch – or at least a style of watch – they want, without having to fork over Bond Street hoards of cash. It’s not just a Fifty Fathoms or a Nautilus; you can approximate pretty much any pricey timepiece at a fraction of the price.
All three reasons are tributaries running into the river of Seiko modding, one that once you get swept up in, is hard to get out of. Sure, you probably won’t get something COSC-certified, but you will, with some effort, be able to get the watch you want, built by you, at a fraction of the price you’d pay at retail. Redditor Gratuitous_ Pineapple summed it all up nicely.
“A couple of years ago I went to visit some ADs for ‘proper’ Swiss brands with the intention of buying myself a nice watch. I started to wonder what I was doing there, got curious about making myself a watch instead, and stumbled on Seiko modding.”
“From there I realised I could do something actually unique if I make my own dials for these, so started doing that. I have no creative background so it’s been an interesting learning experience, I enjoy it as a fun creative outlet, and I’ve built myself several (ok, probably more than ‘several’…) unique watches while still only spending a small part of what I’d originally considered splurging on a mass-produced piece of Swiss (or possibly Japanese) jewellery. The timekeeping is definitely less accurate than a certified chronometer, but if that mattered to me then I’d wear one of my Casios, rather than an antiquated assembly of springs and gears.”
Why is it not a fake?
I figured I’d address one slight issue that some people have when coming to Seiko modding. Surely, if you’re building a Seiko to look like something else, it’s a fake? Now, that would be the case if these were genuinely being passed off as their inspirations, but that’s rarely the case. An ‘homage’ is not a copy, otherwise half the Swiss watch brands in existence would have lawsuits on their hands.
Because you’re generally using Seiko parts – and Seiko don’t have a habit of putting other brands on their dials – you’re trying to get the closest approximation to a more famous watch that you can, but never stepping over the line into full-blown infringement.
Take my faux-Blancpain as a prime example. It’s not a Fifty-Fathoms; it’s a Fifty-Five Fathoms, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the grand dame of diving. It’s the kind of touch you can see across the community and across a lot of the pieces you can buy for yourself. It’s not someone buying a cheap fake Rolex for street cred; it’s a horological aficionado showing their own appreciation for an iconic design. It’s not a rip of the original song; it’s a cover.
Now, while the results of Seiko modding are incredibly cool – that’s a fact, I’ll brook no argument on the subject – the downside for some of us is, well, having to do it ourselves. Yes, for certain people the hands-on nature of modding is the entire reason the hobby exists, but if you don’t have the time or inclination, but still want some ultra-cool alternative to a Royal Oak, you’re in luck – here are some of the best ready-modded Seiko’s around.
Royal Seikoak, £501
The name says it all, really. Seikoak offers a solid number of incredibly well-done Royal Oak homages. Other than that signature octagonal bezel with its visible screws, they have a fantastic selection of Tapisserie dials and, perhaps most impressively, that superlative, industrially machined bracelet. It has all the swagger of an original Jumbo (perhaps too much swagger if you opt for a Tiffany-adjacent dial), with a just over £500 price tag. There’s a lot to love there.
Seiko Speedmaster by Wrist Modding, $248.33
Customiser Wrist Modding have more than a few cool homage pieces in their line-up – including the requisite Nautilus – but for my money the coolest is this, a fun, racing riff on the legendary Omega Speedmaster. Leaning into retro aesthetics with that chequerboard chapter ring and combination of black, white and orange, it’s a lot more fun than most of the watches coming out of Biel these days. Even the tachymeter, with its flash of orange is supremely cool!
Seiko Ballon Bleu by Casioak Project, €550
Having made their name customising a different watch – Casio’s cult Royal Oak riff – Paris-based modder Casioak Project took on a watch that you likely can’t get standard Seiko parts for: the Cartier Ballon Bleu. The small, curvaceous watch is a fun, faithful interpretation of Cartier’s signature round timepiece, right down to that crown guard. All it’s missing is the brand’s sapphire cabochon – but that might be a bit too close to the nerve.
Artistic Sunset by Mister Khronan, €570
Instead of opting for a fun homage to a famous watch, Mister Kronan has instead landed on an artistic bent for this custom Seiko. The case has all the original watch’s dark, diving characteristics but the textured blue dial with bird footprints (or dinosaur if you’re a bit more fanciful) makes for an eye-catching, and instantly appealing piece of wrist candy. On an orange strap, it’s attention-grabbing in all the right ways.
Seiko Kermit 5KX by CS Watches, £560
A blend between the already superb Seiko Prospex and one of the most sought-after Submariner variations, CS Watches’ Kermit 5KX is a cut above your usual modded watch, complete with a laser-etched, ceramic bezel and a more-than-solid build quality. Even if you’re not looking for a Rolex stand-in, this is a great watch on its own merits – even if it has a slightly lower, 100m water resistance.