The Seiko SII NE88 Automatic Chronograph Movement: A Change In The Wind? (Archive)
There are few horological stories steeped in as much controversy and lore as the tale of 1969 and the first automatic chronograph. Not only do three different brands have a valid claim to being the first to have achieved making the historic complication, but the short-lived happiness of said achievements the very same year, thanks to the introduction of the quartz watch, make the story tragically bittersweet.
The realization of an automatic chronograph was huge for the watchmaking world, but over the following months and years it was more or less overshadowed by quartz technology. So much so that five years later in 1974, practically the last new automatic chronograph movement for the next few decades was released with little fanfare.
That movement, the Valjoux 7750, went on to be one of the most long-lasting and widely used movements for all price levels of watches in the modern era thanks to being the most cost-effective, reliable and easily configurable.
Over the years, the Valjoux 7750 has been released in dozens of configurations making it a true chameleon and nearly cornering the market for affordable mid-range automatic chronographs.
Problem on the horizon
For this reason there is also a problem on the horizon. Now produced by the Swatch Group-owned ETA, what is now known as the ETA Valjoux 7750 and its variants will be included in the current and expanding limitations on parts and ébauches for non-Swatch group brands.
Basically, if you aren’t on their team, you may not be able to buy 7750s in the near future. I do not intend to comment on such proceedings, but this little fact is useful to know because it makes it very clear that the industry is in need of at least another player.
Sellitta with its clone Caliber SW500 is a good example, but as of yet it cannot be made in the volume needed by the industry.
There are brands producing movements, yes, and companies producing chronographs and automatic chronographs, but not at the volume level of ETA and not at the sweet price point of the Valjoux 7750.
The 7750 is a no-nonsense, cam-driven chronograph that is relatively easy to manufacture at scale and a solid choice for a small brand to utilize. With the prospect of having to look elsewhere since the Swatch Group announcement that supply would be reduced and eventually halted, other movement makers have been in the crosshairs for desperate brands.
Enter the brand-new NE88 automatic chronograph movement by SII, Seiko Instruments, Inc. It might just be what the market has been waiting for. Actually, it might be better than they had hoped. But why?
White knight from the east?
That is a question with a complicated answer, and for this nerd writer it is taken from a perspective that Swiss isn’t necessarily better; instead, better is better.
And then we have the somewhat subjective question of what constitutes better. Let’s start with the obvious.
The NE88 is designed to be a possible replacement for the 7750 in general size, function, and, most importantly, cost. According to early reports, the NE88 will be available for approximately the same price as an ETA 7750. And Seiko is likely to be a reliable partner able to deliver high volumes.
That fact alone makes it a safer bet for long-term investment, even if you are hesitant about any perceived quality. A smart manager would not bet a brand’s future on something that has already been clearly stated to soon be unavailable except to the “chosen few.”
Also, the NE88 is available for development without any pre-conditions like long-term contracts or high volume commitments, or a need for the buyer to go through a vetting process; something which I have heard isn’t always the case with certain movement makers.
To help with that development, technical guides with all of the necessary measurements needed when designing around the NE88 movement are already available. While this is not unique to SII, it shows that the maker understands what is expected and needed to try to fight the big dog in the yard.
The NE88 has some features that really stand out, and a few causing even seasoned collectors and watch nerds take notice.
First off is a classic Seiko feature: a triple-tipped hammer that simultaneously and instantly resets all the subdial counters back to zero. It’s a very clean and effective solution already found on the Seiko 8R28, a higher end column-wheel triple vertical clutch movement utilized in the Ananta and Velatura models.
However, more important and eye-opening is the chronograph activation mechanism: a column wheel. Considered by the industry and collectors alike as a more highly coveted mechanism, thanks to its vertical clutch the column wheel offers a much smoother tactile feel than the harder click of the horizontal cam lever chronograph as used in the 7750.
This by itself makes the NE88 a “nicer” movement to use than the one it seeks to supplant.
Follow up that already rare-for-this-market-segment feature with the addition of a vertical clutch and you have a real winner. A vertical clutch was invented to solve many problems that chronographs face with jumping second hands, excessive wear on the center wheel, and the obviously rudimentary mechanism that sees a wheel “jammed” into another when starting the chronograph.
The NE88 employs a vertical clutch to avoid these issues, which goes toward creating a top-notch chronograph movement. Because a column-wheel chronograph is more complex to produce, more difficult to adjust and virtually impossible to service, it is a mechanism usually reserved for only the best chronographs on the market. So to find it as a standard feature on a reasonably-priced movement hoping to overtake the industry workhorse is a pretty big deal.
A pretty big deal
Actually, the whole movement is a pretty big deal if it can live up to claims as well as the rigors of the real world.
Also, I am hoping that it solves some other issues with the 7750 such as excessive noise and vibration from a slightly sloppy ball bearing on the rotor. This is a signature element of the 7750, which some collectors actually enjoy as it makes you very sure you have a 7750 on your wrist because you can feel the rotor moving as you wear it.
However, to many collectors, that element is a large detractor from the 7750. It could be a very big side benefit if the NE88 is nice and quiet on the wrist.
Also, the 7750 has never been a particularly attractive movement, but it’s possible that the new NE88 might prove to be something brands will put a little effort into embellishing since it has a better chance of being appreciated with the column wheel and vertical clutch.
Beside these features, the NE88 seems to be a very comparable movement to the 7750 in terms of functions. And in terms of dimensions, the NE88 has a slight edge for being thinner (by 0.28 mm) and smaller in diameter (by 2.0 mm).
This allows even more freedom in designing for the NE88 because you have more room to work with and can make an even smaller timepiece than you could with a 7750.
While it is only a bit smaller, every millimeter counts when designing a timepiece for the wrist. A common issue for automatic chronographs has always been size and the NE88 may be highly appreciated by brands and collectors wanting a more wearable piece.
The first brand to use it
So who will debut it? And when will be your first chance to get your hands on a wristwatch containing an NE88 automatic column-wheel chronograph movement?
Well, those two questions are easy to answer. The lucky brand that had first dibs and one that is a known entity for this writer is none other than Vostok-Europe. In fact, have a look at my review of the Vostok-Europe Radio Room here.
What did I say? Yup, the first watch to hit the market powered by this awesome, new, and possible 7750 killer will be made by Vostok-Europe in honor of its tenth anniversary in 2014.
Inspired by the world’s largest aircraft, the AN-225 Mriya, the Vostok-Europe Mriya will be a 20 ATM diver in stainless steel coming at 50 mm diameter. Not a small watch by any means (look at its inspiration), but definitely a bold debut for a possibly game-changing movement.
I for one am very excited to see where the NE88 goes and how the market and the industry react to it. I am also very anxious to hear reports on the build quality, longevity, and overall quality of operation.
If things pan out, we may have a solid and affordable automatic column-wheel chronograph alternative that defies long-held beliefs that only the best comes from Switzerland.
There is also no doubt that the Swatch Group has the industry in a tight spot. This might be the movement that changes the future, and makes quality, affordable watches not a thing of the past.
It is definitely too soon to know, and time will tell, but I am one nerd writer who will be as excited about this as a kitten in a feather pillow factory!
Quick facts Vostok-Europe Mriya
Case: stainless steel, 50 mm
Movement: Caliber SII NE88, automatic column-wheel chronograph
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; date, chronograph
Price: approx. $2,399
Limitation: 500 pieces, comes with two straps and a strap-changing tool
*This article was first published on June 29, 2014.
Also published on Medium.