Are Quality Japanese Mechanical Watch Movements As Good As Swiss Ones?

Hung N. from Virginia, USA asks:

What is your opinion regarding the new entry level hacking and handwinding Japanese automatic movements from Seiko (4R35B or NH35A) and Citizen (Miyota 9015) compared to the Swiss ETA 2824? Obviously, the ETA movement is a proven reliable and accurate movement, but the initial reviews of the Seiko and Citizen movements are also very reliable and accurate but at a much lower price.

Older movements from these Japanese brands have proven to be very reliable as well. Are you still getting what you pay for or are these Japanese movements on the verge of taking over the entry level market in brands that used to use the 2824 movements?

While the ETA 2824 and, in a lesser capacity, the Soprod A-10 have earned their place as the defacto Swiss automatic movements for third parties and non-manufactures, the Asian contingents are catching up. While previous generations of the Seiko and Citizen/Miyota movements may not have been direct competition, as examples like the 7S26 and the 8215 were robust but not exceptionally accurate or well-featured (non-hacking and hand-winding), this gap is much more narrow in the current generations.

With Seiko's 4Rxx and 6Rxx and Miyota's 9015 we are seeing more refined movements that feature hacking and hand-winding as well as the possibility for more successful accuracy adjustments (accuracy is dependant on so many conditions). All indications would suggest that reliability should be as good or better and servicing should be roughly in the same cost range as an entry level Swiss, with components being cheaper in many cases. From a feature and a reliability standpoint, I believe the 6RXX and 9015 to be comparable to a standard grade ETA 2824, but there are subtle differences in use. The 9015, for example, has quite a noticible rotor noise. That is, when you swing your arm to check the time, you can often hear the rotor spinning within the case. You would need to have your ear pretty close to hear the rotor on an ETA. I only mention this to illustrate that they aren't identical, more like different actors playing the same role.

With Swatch limiting the supply of ETA movements to non-Swatch partners, I think the proliferation of Seiko and Citizen/Miyota movements will expand because the designs have proved adequate and there is a role that used to be filled by 28xx calibres. Just a couple of years ago you could get a micro-brand diver with an ETA movement for around ~$700 USD, today that price would push (if not exceed) $1000. Many small brands have made the switch to NH or Miyota movements due not only to cost and supply, but also because the these new generations proved to be significantly better than the 7SXX and 8215.

It seems the timing is in their favor, with the features and reliability being ironed out in time to fill a hole caused by the predatory pricing of middle-man ETA supplies. I have a couple watches with 9015s and, apart from the rotor noise, the movement would appear to be a very successful understudy for the 2824.

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  • Ulysses31

    Depends on your definition of “quality” doesn’t it?  The answer really only covers work-horse movements.  Many would agree that a high quality Japanese mechanical movement is often superior to anything that comes out of Switzerland in terms of finish, accuracy and reliability, though often lacking that European flair.

  • W_G

    The Japanese brands we’re kicked out of the chronometer competitions…because they were better than the Swiss brands!

  • isadikin

    You said: “… Soprod A-10 have earned their place as the defacto Swiss automatic movements….” That is completely wrong because Soprod A-10 is in fact a SEIKO cal. 4L25.

  • Ulysses31 What some would call lacking in flair, others would call restrained minimalism. Either way it’s funny how the Japanese seem to value understated subtlety and over-the-top-manga-crazy design at the same time!

  • socabaptist

    I would say the Japanese have superior movements. What they lack is the finishing and decoration of said movements.

  • bnabod

    isadikin  looking for supporting evidence on this but the 2 movements sure do look oddly similar

  • Jus_ad_bellum
  • notech47

    I own two NH35a sii movement watches that are great as long as you keep them wound. Had one regulated and now accuracy no worse than 5 seconds a day fast. The finishing and decorations are lacking but the value is excellent.

  • jalind

    I’ve got a number of watches with the entire range mentioned, from ETA 28xx (04, 24,34, 36, 92, and 93), ETA 6497 and 6498, and ETA 7750, plus Sellita SW200A (Swiss made 2824 clone), to Seiko 6R15 and 4R3x (including the SII NE equivalents) and the Miyota 9015, plus a couple Miyota 8215.
    Miyota (Citizen Watch Co. wholly owned subsidiary):

    The Miyota 8215 leave much to be desired. They’re durable, but Miyota’s older 8200 family was intended to be a very inexpensive mass produced movement for use in very low priced watches for 3rd World countries. To me they seem unrefined, especially when setting the time on one. I was very happy to see Miyota come out with their 9000 family which is a quantum leap in refinement. The winding sound you speak of is like the “rotor wobble” cited by many on the ETA 7750 family of chrono movements. The rotor only winds the watch in one direction and freewheels in the other. In addition, the “click” which is the ratchet on the mainspring barrel is a little more audible on the Miyota compared to ETA, Sellita, Soprod or Seiko. Maybe it’s my age or just the watches the Miyota 9015 I have are cased in. I don’t hear or feel it but on rare occasion may hear a bit of a freewheel of the rotor in the non-wind direction, following making an unusual motion of my arm. Must be very quiet without any ambient noise to hear it. On the up side, Miyota has the 9000 family beating at 28,8kbph (4 Hz), making them high beats like the ETA workhorses (which creates potential for greater timekeeping precision). The tradeoff with higher beat rates are greater stresses and potential wear. It appears for now that Miyota has that under control in their 9000 family design (24 jewels, increasing movement jewels being the first step in mitigating it).

    Seiko:
    Their venerable 7S26 and 7S36 automatic movement families have been exceptionally reliable, durable and robust movements. As you mention, the two big drawbacks have always been lack of ability to hand wind them, and the lack of hacking feature. The 6R15 and more recent 4R3x (SII NE3x) movements have been a breath of fresh air from the house of Seiko, incorporating both hacking and hand winding now. Furthermore, they’re proving to be just as reliable and durable. The one thing holding Seiko back some is continuing to use a 21.6kbph beat rate (3 Hz). Doesn’t bother me too much though. I believe Seiko has made a conscious decision to do this to guard and maintain long-term durability. The even more recent 8R28 chrono movement (SII NH78/88) is also a most welcome development. It has a 28.8kbph beat and has no shortage of jeweled pivots. The general design of the chrono portion of the movement is considered by some to be more sophisticated and refined than the ETA’s 7750 and 7760 families. Long-term durability will be answered as time goes by as these are rather new, but so far they are performing quite well. SII is Seiko Instruments, Inc., which makes movements. They are marketed to watchmakers through Time Module, Ltd, a division of the larger Seiko Holdings Group. The same movement will have a Seiko Watch Co caliber number when used in a Seiko branded watch, and a different SII caliber number when sold to other companies. The equivalent calibers are all made on the same production lines in the same factories.

    Regarding movement decoration:
    Some consider geneva stripes, perlage and other machine movement decoration to be a sign of refinement and precision. It’s not. Some of the cheapest and sloppiest of Chinese movements have copiously decorated bridges and rotors. The original purpose of decoration like perlage goes back at least 150 and more with pocket watches that often had their backs opened and movements openly exposed to ambient air which contained motes of dust, The perlage would catch and trap these tiny particles of dust and keep them from migrating into the movement works, gumming up lubrication and causing wear in pivots. With the amount of hand work done in assembling mechanical watches, the workers took great pride and developed their own decoration patterns. It’s all done by machine now except in the most exorbitantly priced, hand made and assembled movements. In modern wrist watches that have water resistance of at least 30 meters, often 100 meters, there is substantially less dust ingress and decoration has lost much of its utility, being now more artwork than anything else. Thus I’m not necessarily looking for much movement decoration as it doesn’t mean as much as it once did other than being nice to look at through a display back.

    For the present and into the near future, the true Swiss workhorses: ETA, Sellita and Soprod, will continue to command higher prices in the watches containing them, but Seiko and Miyota in Japan are rapidly catching up with them, the big difference now being how many decades of workmanship quality history are behind them that are tangible evidence of precision, reliability and durability.

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  • TimMai

    Great insightful reply! Are you a watchmaker?

  • notech47

    The Japanese have obviously, pun intended, carefully examined the Swiss movements to determine what makes them tick!

  • jalind

    TimMai No – I have a collection containing over 40 different mechanical movement calibers from US, Chinese, Japanese, German and Swiss movement makers, a few of whom (in the vintage pieces) didn’t survive the late 1970’s to mid 1980’s “Quartz Crisis.” I’ve made a concerted effort to learn something about the watch brands, their histories, and the watch movements inside them, who made them and their histories.
    Thanks
    John

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  • Beefalope

    Yes. The answer is yes.

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  • john molyneux

    just curious,what do people think about the new sii ne88 seiko movement in relation to the eta 7750

  • Dinkee, H. O.

    THE CORRECT ANSWER:

    Entry level Japanese movements are complete garbage and are not anywhere near as good as an entry level Swiss movement. This is reflected in the price.

    A top level Japanese movement like a Grand Seiko is indeed as good as a really good Swiss movement. As you will notice, they are priced in the same range — if not more.

    This is reality. The starting point of a Swiss watch is simply set at a VASTLY higher level of quality and accuracy and therefore price, than a shopping mall Japanese watch like a common Seiko. But that does not mean that Japanese watch makers can’t make an excellent quality movement that is on a level playing field with quality Swiss. They certainly can — AT A PRICE THE SAME AS THE SWISS BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT HIGH QUALITY COSTS.

    Get it? Good.

    • SR

      While it is true that price is typically indicative of quality, one can ALSO find gems with knowledge and persistence.

      Also, to say that JUST because it’s Swiss, it will have “VASTLY higher level of quality and accuracy” (uppercase is yours) is poppycock!

      Being an owner of Japanese high end watches (including a Grand Seiko Spring Drive GMT) and Swiss watches (including a COSC certified Grand Complication), one can say with confidence that JUST being a Swiss does NOT mean it’s “VASTLY” superior.

    • Abdul Karim

      incorrect. I have a 2824 which is +5 seconds a day. this is acceptable, even the watch manufacturer says within 10 seconds it is acceptable.

      My seikos are much more accurate. I have them in my watch winder for several months and find them only gaining about 2 mins or something. Some of the swiss are off by 10 mins or more for the same duration.

  • Abdul Karim

    it wasn’t a very good pun

  • Abdul Karim

    finishing will make the movement same as eta prices and people wont pay eta prices for japanese movements.

    The eta 2824 is probably machine made just like japanese