Seiko Ananta Spring Drive

First of all a warning: The introduction to this fabulous watch may be quite lengthy because there are just so many incredible elements that deserve a thorough description and presentation.

The initial response to this fantastic and fascinating watch is usually a reflection of the stunning aesthetics and, in particular, the unique case design. However, any review of this amazing collection of timepieces from Seiko should start with the even more amazing and unique proprietary movement.

In 1977 a young Engineer at Seiko, called Yoshikazu Akahane, had a vision and a dream. His aspirations could be broken down into three bullet points:

1) Create a new level of accuracy in a mechanical movement
2) Create an entirely new escapement – unchanged in 500, at the time
3) Create a movement that reflected the true motion of time.

After 28 years in development and 600 movement samples Akahane San realised his dream with the release of the Spring Drive movement. This important part of the Seiko Ananta Spring Drive GMT is usually the second aspect that people comment on. This is because this piece of genius engineering allows the second hand to perform a perfectly smooth rotational glide around the dial. Something never realised before. As Seiko proudly announce “This is the only watch in the world able to express the continuous motion of time. The true nature of time.” So, when using the Chronograph, for instance, the recorded time truly is the recorded time, and not to within a 10th of a second at best with other mechanical watches with an anchor/lever escapement.

A brief annotation of the long gestation period of this remarkable and groundbreaking new movement:

The first prototype was created in 1982. The second prototype took another 11 years to research and develop and was produced in 1993. In 1997 Seiko knew they were onto something very special and that they had the knowledge and tools to realise this already 20 year old dream. They finally had the confidence to make an announcement of the technology to the world. In 1998 the world was introduced to the Spring Drive technology when a presentation was made at BaselWorld. Following the positive response from the general public and press alike the highly anticipated manually wound version was released at Basel in 1999. That same year the first automatic prototype was created. With a second prototype following two years later in 2001 and a third and final prototype produced in 2003. Completion of the automatically wound movement came in 2004.

Let us not forgot, also, that these timepieces are completely in-house productions. Every single item, including the mainspring, dial, case, etc is manufactured by Seiko. Not many brands can claim that.

So, I hear you ask, how did they manage to produce a movement that glides, with 72 hours power reserve from one mainspring and an accuracy of better than 1 second per day (ten times more accurate than an average mechanical movement)?

With a normal mechanical movement the power is transferred from the mainspring, housed in a “barrel” with peripheral teeth, to the gear train. These interlocked gears have a ratio that allows the hour hand to pass around the dial once every 12 hours and the minute hand to make one pass every hour. The seconds hand is attached directly to the escapement. This is usually an anchor shaped device that stops and releases the cog attached to the seconds five times every second (for an average movement). This gives the impression of a sweeping seconds hand but in reality the seconds hand is actually jumping to each fifth of a second. This is almost imperceptible to the human eye, especially on sub-dials.

In contrast the Spring Drive replaces the mechanical escapement with a Tri-Synchro Regulator electromagnetic brake. Instead of a cog attached to the seconds hand there is simply a wheel. The “brake” is applied to this wheel to stop the mainspring unwinding as fast as it can and allowing the seconds hand to spin like a fan around the dial. Therefore, all the motion is uni-directional and uninterrupted. Therefore, creating the perfect sweeping motion. Another benefit is that this movement is completely silent.

In addition to the brand new “escapement” Seiko also had to incorporate two other new developments in mechanical watchmaking:

• A new generation mainspring, which allows 72 hours of power reserve and gives a smoother, more consistent power delivery.
• The 1959 patented “Magic Lever” system which allows a more efficient delivery of power from the winding systems. Making it quicker and easier. This results in a 30% greater efficiency than most mechanical watch winding systems.

Four different movement types are currently available:
• Small second hand – 280 components, 32 jewels.
• GMT – 296 components, 30 jewels.
• Moonphase – 288 components, 30 jewels.
• Chronograph GMT – 416 components, 50 jewels.

The story of this captivating collection of timepieces does not stop at the completely new movement. Let us now revert to the first element of these finely crafted timepieces that catches most people’s attention: That, afore mentioned, stunning new case design.

The perfectly polished edges have been inspired by the ancient Japanese craft of sword making, Katana. The precision, beauty and incredibly sharp blades of a Katana sword are perfectly reflected in the design of the Ananta cases.

In particular the highly polished mirror-like sides of the case highlight this historically significant art form. The hands have also been designed to reflect this ancient craft with sharp and highly polished edges. The use of these design elements is perfectly suited to the incredibly useful art and craft of the Seiko watchmaker’s endeavours to realise something truly special with the Spring Drive movement. A very harmonious combination. Needless to say, as with every high end Seiko timepiece, the polished and satin finishes are second to none. Indeed, they need to be. Seiko have made a brave move in incorporating the much heralded and highly regarded craft of Katana into their new top-of-the-range watch collection. Nothing but the very highest build quality would have been acceptable.

So, what else is special about the Spring Drive timepieces. Well, they do have the not-insignificant honour of being picked specifically to go into Space.
On October 12, 2008, Richard Garriott, became the sixth “Space Tourist” when he launched aboard Soyuz TMA-13 to spend 12 days on the International Space Station. He was wearing the Seiko Spring Drive Space Walk that he had specially designed for him by Seiko for this self-funded expedition.

Richard Allen Garriott was born in 1961 and is a British-American video game developer and entrepreneur. His father, Owen Garriott, was a scientist who became an astronaut. He flew with Skylab3 and Space Shuttle mission STS-9.

Richard always wanted to follow in his father’s outer-world footsteps. He had high aspirations of becoming an astronaut but, reports have it that, he wouldn’t have passed the required medical due to his eyesight. The income from a very successful video games career, most notably with the Ultima games, finally allowed Richard to follow in his father in to Space. He sold his business, Origin Systems and invested in Space Adventures. He purchased the ticket to become the first private citizen to fly into Space. Unfortunately, as is openly reported online, Garriott lost most of his fortune when the “dot-com bubble” burst in 2001. Sadly, he was forced to sell his ticket to Dennis Tito.

On October 12th 2008 Garriott finally became the sixth Space Tourist. Incidentally, he also became the first child of an astronaut to venture into Space. He landed on the International Space Station on 14th October.

On October 24th Richard, along with Russian Cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko landed 55 miles north of Kazakhstan after 12 days in Space.

Garriott also officiated in the first wedding to be held in zero gravity. The service took place aboard a modified Boeing 727-200 G-Force One, which was operated by Zero Gravity Corp: A company that specialises in weightless flight experiences and which Garriott is a co-founder.

Why is all this Space talk, despite being interesting, in a watch review? Well, Richard Garriott also used some of his substantial wealth to ask Seiko for a Spring Drive watch that he could use in Space. Seiko duly obliged and the Space Walk watch was born.

Garriott has worn this watch, and continues to wear it, during his Space expeditions. I can heartily recommend searching online video libraries for footage of Richard in space with his Space Walks on his wrists. A special limited edition Space Walk is available to the general public. Priced at £20000 it’s not cheap but just think of the exclusivity of owning this watch and remember what it was successfully designed for.

I think Richard Garriott’s request to have this watch made using a brand new movement design is an incredible testament to the public perception of Seiko’s innovation, build quality and, more importantly, for the new movement.
Of the original Space Walk there were six made: Two were destroyed during testing! Two were kept by Richard, both of which were worn during his Space expedition, and two were auctioned off for charity.

Richard asked Seiko to produce a limited run of a commemorative version of the Space Walk. He requested this because he wanted global awareness of the need for more Space exploration. Just 100 Limited Editions were produced. The watch has exactly the same specification as the original watch worn in Space except for one small detail: The commemorative limited edition has a screw in crown. The original six watches did not have a screw in crown because the designers were concerned about the efficiency of the self-winding mechanism in the zero gravity of Space. The non-screw in crown was therefore chosen for ease of manual winding. However, the automatic winding mechanism worked perfectly in Space so a screw in crown has been incorporated. This keeps the Outer Space functionality of the watch and also increases the security of the movement at the same time.

You don’t have to take my many words for it though: The Seiko Space Walk recently won best Sports Watch at the Grand Prix d’Horlogorie de Geneve 2010. Richly deserved even in this over-subscribed area of the market.

Here’s is the illustrious company it was in:

• The Grand Prize of “L’Aiguille d’Or” (the “Golden Hand”): Greubel Forsey – Double Tourbillon 30° Edition Historique
• Special Jury Prize: AHCI – Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants
• Ladies Watch Prize: Van Cleef & Arpels – Le Pont des Amoureux
• Men’s Watch Prize: Laurent Ferrier – Galet Classic Tourbillon Double Spiral
• Design and Concept Watch Prize: MB&F – Horological Machine N°4 Thunderbolt
• Jewellery Watch Prize: Chopard – High Jewellery Owl Watch
• Complicated Watch Prize: F.P. Journe – Chronomètre à Résonance
• Sports Watch Prize: Seiko – Spring Drive Spacewalk Commemorative Edition

• Prize of « La Petite Aiguille » (the Small Hand): TAG Heuer – CARRERA Calibre 1887 Chronograph
• Best Watchmaker Prize: Jean-François Mojon
• Public Prize: Vacheron Constantin – Historique Ultra-fine 1955

So, you can only imagine my excitement when I got to handle, try on and play with this example that Andrew Michaels has for sale. Possibly the last one of these avialable brand new anywhere. It is now one of my “grail” watches.

So, after that brief description (!), here is my review of the Seiko Ananta Spring Drive GMT:

I was kindly leant this fine example from the current Ananta range by Andrew Michaels Jewellers. During this period I grew to appreciate this amazing timepiece more and more.

The finish of the case and bracelet are second to none. The myriad of details are wonderfully executed and each exhibits the highest quality. The bracelet is actually the nicest I’ve seen in a long time and easily the best I have seen at this price point.

The centre links are slightly raised over the outer links with the step up chamfer being polished and the rest being meticulously brushed. Very beautiful and yet very strong looking at the same time. One criticism I would have is that there is no micro adjustment for the bracelet within the clasp. However, there are half links so most wrist sizes will be accommodated. The case back is slightly curved. Yet another feature that reflects a high end watch. This means that the Seiko Ananta watches are remarkably comfortable, given their oversize dimensions of 44mm diameter (48mm including crown), 14mm thickness and 50mm length.

The seconds hand sweep is as wonderful as any of Seiko’s excitable press releases lead you to believe and has to be witnessed to be truly appreciated. After years of watching, and being content with, seconds hands juddering around a watch dial it is almost mesmerising to watch the seconds hand of a Spring Drive timepiece rotate smoothly. I actually find it more visually arresting than watching a Tourbillon escapement. I can stare at it for ages. Very calming.

The Katana theme is continued throughout the watch with interesting and aesthetically pleasing design elements such as the curved shape of the power reserve indicator, another very useful feature, and the unique finishing on the winding rotor.

The crown is also very pleasing to look at and very comfortable and easy to use, which is a benefit of the patented Magic Lever system mentioned previously.

The hour hand can be adjusted on-the-fly without interrupting the time keeping. A nice feature for a GMT timepiece. The date can be adjusted both backwards and forwards using this feature also. A very unique and useful addition and yet another reflection of the time and effort that has gone into the thought processing behind the design and functionality of this awe inspiring new movement.

The GMT hand is highlighted in red and give a nice contrast to the matt black dial.

The accuracy is as stated by Seiko. I realised after performing some tests that I wasn’t all that excited by the fact that the mechanical movement of the Seiko Ananta Spring Drive GMT lost less than 1 second per day. I’m guessing this underserved apathy towards something this remarkable was due to the facts that Seiko made a big issue of the accuracy, so you expect it, and the rest of the watch is of such high quality, so you expect it.

The date window is in keeping with the rest of the dial in that it is nicely detailed and very legible.

Speaking of legibility: The Seiko Ananta GMT has incredible luminosity, both in illumination and long lasting abilities.

There doesn’t appear to be any antireflective coating on the Sapphire glass. However, despite the adequate 100m water resistance this watch has no diving aspirations. So, better, in my opinion, to leave the glass as clear as possible to witness the glorious dial details and high level of finish.

This oversized watch has the bulk to allow it to look sporty and yet, at the same time, has such finely finished and thought out details it can be considered dressy as well. It could be equally at home whilst complementing a t-shirt and shorts down the beach or a dress suit at the casino.

You might be one of those people for whom the main aspect of the watch is the case and overall design, including the dial/hands, etc. You may be one of those people for whom the movement is the most important component. I believe this watch is one of those true rarities in that both the case and movement are of exceptional quality, functionality and design.

Some people may baulk at paying £3000 for a Seiko watch with a simple GMT complication. However, I would ask you to consider what the asking price would be from any of the Swiss high street brands if they were to bring out a timepiece with such immaculate and high quality finish, a totally new totally in-house mechanical movement viewed through a Sapphire case back, 1 second per day accuracy and something totally unique to the, now seemingly, stagnated industry. Personally I think it’s an absolute bargain.

I started this review with a warning and I’ll end with one: If you are lucky enough to get to own one of these superb watches expect to lose minutes at a time simply staring at the wonderfully distracting gliding sweep seconds hand. Spoken from experience.

All words and pictures by Richard Atkins (unless otherwise stated). Please ask if you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article.


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