Laurel, the first Seiko wristwatch

History of the Laurel

At a time when pocket watches dominated the scene, Kintaro Hattori, the founder of Seiko, realized that the wind was changing and decided to start the production of wristwatches.

According to Seiko, the Laurel was introduced in 1913 and is considered the first Japanese wristwatch, although its movement was originally designed for small pocket watches.

With the tools of the time, manufacturing and assembling components much smaller than usual was not easy. The production of the Laurel was a major challenge for Seiko, which allowed the Japanese company to develop new techniques and sophisticated machinery.

It is said that, at least at the beginning, they were only able to produce a few dozen Laurels per day.

In those years, wristwatches were rare also in Europe, but they were used by soldiers during the First World War (1914-1918), and subsequently steadily growth in popularity.

Laurel, SKS case with fixed lugs.

Movement

It is said that the Laurel movement was probably based on the Swiss A. Schild 55, but it appears that its components were produced, wholly or in large part, by Seiko in Japan.

It operates at 18,000 bph and has a diameter of 26.2 mm (12 lignes). Most of the examples appear to have 7 jewels, while others have 10, and it seems that there is also a version with 11 jewels.

In this video from my Instagram page @the_seiko_guy, you can see the movement in action. More than 100 years old, and it still keeps good time without missing a beat.

The difference between the movements for wrist and pocket Laurel watches is immediately visible, due to the different position of the crown.

The comparison shows how the original design was intended to have the crown at 12 o’clock. To move it to 3 o’clock it was necessary to “cut” a part of the bridge in the center of the movement, so as to allow the repositioning of the crown wheel and the ratchet wheel.

Crown at 12 o’clock
Crown at 3 o’clock

It is also possible to notice a series of small differences between the movements, due to the period of production or the type of case on which the movement was mounted.

In the following photos you can see some differences between two Laurel wristwatches: the different position of the screws to fix the movement to the case, and the shape of the ratchet. These distinctions are present in both the wrist and pocket versions.

Laurel movement 1

Laurel movement 2

The following images show four variants of the 7 jewels movement.

Movement with crown at 3 o’clock
Another movement with crown at 3 o’clock
Movement with crown at 12 o’clock
Another movement with crown at 12 o’clock

The following image depicts a specimen that I found during my research, with a greater number of jewels, apparently 11.

Movement with 11 (?) jewels

Case

The Laurel was marketed with many different cases, but it is important to notice that, among the few examples that can be seen today, many use third-party cases, which have been replaced to the original ones damaged by time and wear. The Laurel watches still in existence with the original case are rare, expecially those in good conditions.

The most authoritative sources suggest that the first version of the Laurel had a silver case with movable lugs, called “Senbai”, in Japanese characters “専売”.

Photo: Tokyo Seiko Museum

This case is made up of 3 main parts, and is very similar to pocket watches of that era. Some specimens have decorative engravings, usually with flowers or natural landscapes.

Inside the case we find the fan-shaped “SKS” logo, accompanied by 0,900 (silver) and the watch’s serial number.

There is also an 18-karat gold version of the Senbai case, which I can show you thanks to the kindness of the watch collector Tito Ogami (Instagram: @tito_ogami).
Inside the case we see again the SKS logo, followed by 18k which indicates the gold carat, and then the serial number.

Photo: Tito Ogami
Photo: Tito Ogami

We then find another type of case, again in silver, but this time with fixed lugs.
Again, inside the case we find a serial number, the fan-shaped SKS logo, and 0.900 to indicate that it is made of silver.

In this particular specimen, which I had the opportunity to purchase at a Japanese auction, in addition to the symbols expected to be engraved inside the case, I was surprised by the presence of a Japanese character.

This kanji “賞” (Shō) symbolizes an award, or a gift possibly received at some event or celebration.

A gift for what? It is not known. For whom? I have no idea.
It is probably a mystery that will never find an answer, but for me it adds even more value to a watch that already has an amazing story to tell.

Laurel, case with fixed lugs, kanji 賞 – Shō

There is another version of the case with fixed lugs, almost identical to the silver one, but in nickel, a material that will become widely used by Seiko for wristwatches produced in the 1920s and 30s.

To date, I am not aware of any documented specimen with a fixed lugs case made of gold, however I hypothesize its existence, given the presence of gold versions of both the case with movable lugs and that of pocket watches.

Speaking again about pocket Laurels, we also find here different types of case.

From what I was able to verify in my research, it seems that the first one had a case similar to that of the oldest pocket watches produced by Seiko from the late 1800s.

Among the specimens of this type that I have managed to find, there are some in silver and others in gold.

Laurel pocket watch, type 1 case in silver (front)
Photo adapted from Yahoo Auctions
Laurel pocket watch, type 1 case in gold (front)
Photo adapted from Yahoo Auctions
Laurel pocket watch, type 1 case in silver (back)
Photo adapted from Yahoo Auctions

Laurel pocket watch, type 1 case in gold (back)
Photo adapted from Yahoo Auctions

In addition, there is also this version with a front cover, at least of the gold variant. I have not been able to track down a similar model in silver, but it is entirely possible that it exists.

Laurel pocket watch, type 1 case with front cover
Photo adapted from Yahoo Auctions
Laurel pocket watch, type 1 case with front cover
Photo adapted from Yahoo Auctions

We then find another type of case, with a more “modern” style, which I can document with two examples in my possession, in silver and 18-karat gold.

Laurel pocket watch, type 2 case in silver (front)
Laurel pocket watch, type 2 case in gold (front)

Laurel pocket watch, type 2 case in silver (back)
Laurel pocket watch, type 2 case in gold (back)
Laurel pocket watch, type 2 case in silver (inside)
Laurel pocket watch, type 2 case in gold (inside)

Finally, here is the version with a front cover of the second type of case. The specimen depicted is made of 18-karat gold, as are the other two of this type that I was able to track down.

Laurel pocket watch, type 2 case with front cover
Photo adapted from Yahoo Auctions

Dial

The Laurel sports an elegant enamel dial, like most watches of that era. The enamel is practically immune to the effects of humidity, and for this reason some of the dials can still be admired today in their original beauty.

The only problem is that, over many years, the enamel can develop small cracks, which are quite common on existing Laurels today.

There are various versions, quite similar to each other, but with some differences in the style of the indexes and the font.

The first version of the dial, according to the most authoritative sources, seems to be the one at the top left in the photo above.

The Laurel shown in the photo below is a specimen from the Seiko Museum in Tokyo. It can be seen that the font of the Laurel writing is different from that used in other versions.

It is also noted that the 12 is red, a touch of style that was fashionable in the early 1900s, and that we find only on a few Laurels.

Laurel Seiko Museum
Photo: Tokyo Seiko Museum

Serial numbers

In most of the Seiko watches we are familiar with, the production date can be easily deduced from the first two digits of the serial. However, at the time of the Laurel, more than a century ago, this standard had not yet been adopted, and it seems that the first two digits reveal absolutely nothing.

The hypothesis of some experts is that the serial numbers are progressive, so the lower the number the older the watch, but I have some doubts left about it.

There is nothing certain, as not even Seiko seems to know the answer. Much of the product documentation from that era has apparently been lost or destroyed.

Over the past year I have had the opportunity to observe numerous Laurels. Of those on which I was convinced of the originality of the case, I took note of the serial numbers, which I will list in the following table, according to the type of case.

The only obvious thing is that gold Laurels always seem to have a 6-digit serial, while all the others have a 5-digit serial.

Laurel wrist watch

CaseSerial Numbers
Sanbei silver40285
86306
Sanbei gold319260
Fixed lugs silver45481
82310
Fixed lugs nickel80623

Laurel pocket watch

CaseSerial Numbers
Type 1 silver35113
Type 1 gold?
Type 1 gold (front cover)?
Type 2 silver23949
97858
Type 2 gold357429
414229
589839
604063
738421
916862
Type 2 gold (front cover)?