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Review: Seiko Alpinist SPB121J1

There’s a watch that’s packed with features, dripping with quality and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg. This is the Seiko SPB121 Alpinist, and at £690, it’s long been mooted as the most perfect affordable watch money can buy. Let’s take a look at those specs, the quality and its competition to see if that’s true.


The Japanese watchmaker Seiko may be considered a fairly recent manufacturer of cheap quartz watches for the most part, but its legacy actually dates back to 1881, when founder Kintaro Hattori opened a shop selling and repairing watches in central Tokyo. Japan had recently been through huge reforms around its timekeeping and calendar systems, aligning with global standards, and so the country—and Hattori—were introduced to high quality Swiss watchmaking.

Hattori so admired this quality, he wanted to build his own. His focus was precision and detail, and despite isolation from Switzerland, managed to develop some exceptional timepieces. His Grand Seiko brand beat Swiss watches in timekeeping competitions. His quartz watch was the first in the world, changing the industry overnight. His dive watches furnished soldiers with high quality but affordable tools.

This is the origin of the Prospex line, an ongoing series of watches that provide professional specifications for an affordable price. It’s a step up from the more casual Seiko 5 collection and ladens up its watches with a wash of technical details. The Prospex series, even today, finds itself on the wrists of seasoned divers, soldiers and other professionals, its reliability, robustness and lack of battery a strong draw to keeping it in action.


The Alpinist series itself dates back to the 1950s, unsurprisingly intended for Japanese mountain climbers. Features unique to the Alpinist include an internal, crown-driven bezel, which is less likely to freeze in place in the icy mountain conditions. It’s also not primarily a timing bezel, although the internal section of the bezel can be used to count minutes. The dominant feature is a compass, which can be used in conjunction with the watch’s hour hand and the sun to find North.

Simply point the hour hand at the sun and bisect the larger distance between it and twelve to find North. This works in the Northern hemisphere. In the Southern hemisphere, that’ll be South instead. With the Alpinist, that direction can then be set with the internal bezel and quickly checked against the sun as you go, with adjustments to the bezel being made from time to time.

Granted, this isn’t particularly useful at night, but in the case of the mountaineers, it would be too cold and dangerous to travel in the dark anyway. That might explain why only the hands get luminous paint and not the markers, which instead are a contrasting colour against the dial and polished to catch the sun. In snowy conditions, the green colouration is much more readable than a standard monochromatic colouration.

Despite mountainous regions being pretty lacking in extremely deep bodies of water that anyone would particularly want to go into, to keep the general snow and ice situation at bay the Alpinist is massively overengineered with two hundred metres of water resistance.

For clear reading, the sapphire crystal gets an antireflective coating, and the date gets a magnifying window, which can be quickset by the crown. The seconds pause, or hack as it’s known, when the crown is pulled thanks to the calibre 6R35, which also gets a healthy seventy-hour power reserve thanks to a slower 21,600vph beat. Accuracy isn’t great as promised by Seiko, at -15 to +25 seconds per day, but real-world accuracy tends to be better, and can be almost chronometer spec when regulated by a watchmaker. To have Seiko regulate each movement would simply add more cost.

The steel case is 39.5mm across and 13.2mm thick, with a lug-to-lug of 46.4mm. It sounds thick but it wears well thanks to good case design. The calfskin strap gets alligator print and a deployant clasp, which should make it easier to put on, and will reduce wear on the strap too. The SPB121 replaces the older SARB017, adding the cyclops, Prospex logo and improving the calibre.


For such a rugged watch for use in extreme conditions, the Alpinist also boasts an abundance of qualitive features too, not least of all the deep green sunburst dial. Interspersed with alternating Arabic numerals and indices in a polished gold colour, the Alpinist inadvertently takes on a very festive persona.

The hands, cathedral style, are especially seasonal, surprisingly ornate for such a functional watch. But there’s method to that excess, allowing larger amount of luminous paint to be used in the hands without compromising the structural integrity of that lume. The same is true of Rolex Mercedes hands.

The case mixes polished and brushed surfaces for a premium feel, with the sides, bevels and bezel polished and the lug tops brushed. Both crowns have proper, chunky knurling that will be easy to use with gloves, forgoing the cheaper, finer knurling often present at this price point.

A clear case-back allows a view into the 6R35, which gets little to no decoration. It’s not the prettiest thing to look at, but for those looking to make this their first watch, there’s enough of a view in the escapement and other elements of the watch to be satisfied.


Whether a watch looks good or not is purely subjective, although this Alpinist divides more than most. The colouration, marker choice, hand style, internal bezel and crown placement are all quirky and unusual, and that’s what’s driven many collectors to either love it or hate it.

Usually at this price point, watch manufacturers focus solely on getting the best value for money from a specification perspective, and looks can take a bit of a back seat. Here, Seiko has raised the bar when it comes to the visual treatment, offering an unusual take on the norm that makes it a purchase possible with both the head and heart.

That being said, the very deliberate looks aren’t for anyone, and thankfully there are a few other options within the Alpinist range for other choices of colour, style and function for those not convinced by the SPB121’s approach. There are also other watches around that same £690 price point, so what else should you consider?


Because of the odd combination of features aimed solely at mountaineers, there aren’t really any other watches that offer the same specification at this price, however if you have this kind of money and you’re looking for a watch with bold, colourful looks and rugged durability, there are a few options.

Christopher Ward’s C63 Sealander keeps the green but foregoes the bezel, rocking a depth rating of 150m. The Hamilton Khaki Field loses automatic winding and gets just 50m of water resistance but is one of the Swiss greats. Or there’s Seiko’s own far more utilitarian Prospex, the SRPD33, with its internal compass bezel and 200m.

When laid bare and compared to its alternatives, it’s not hard to see why the Seiko SPB121 Alpinist has such a fan following. There’s lots on offer from a practical perspective, it’s built really well, and it looks better than your average sub-£1,000 watch, and it comes from a manufacturer that’s been doing all this before even Rolex started. It makes the Alpinist one of if not the best affordable watches—if you like the looks—and that’s why it’ll continue to sell all day long.

What do you think of the Alpinist?