There is no denying the appeal of the Rolex Submariner. We all know it. Books have been written about it and watch nerd cults have emerged to praise or condemn it. Its design has been widely honored, imitated, and flat out ripped off. For the purpose of this article though, you just need to know two things: 1) James Bond wore one, and 2) they are really, really expensive. The challenge for the Bum was to find a cheap, but satisfying substitute. Not a fake, of course, but a quality watch in a similar style at the lowest possible price. The Seiko 5 SNZF17 is just the thing.
Seiko 5 has long been the value side of Seiko. They are solidly built, inexpensive automatics, sharing the same movements as higher end models. The SNZF series (known as either the Mini Sumo or Sea Urchin on Internet forums) has had a number of different color incarnations over the years, but with the same general design, starting with a 42mm stainless steel case with a brushed top and polished sides. It sits comfortably on the wrist and is nicely finished with no awkward edges or pointy corners. Nestled inside is the trusty 7s36 23 jewel movement, which may be seen through the glass case back. The view is workmanlike as the movement is properly finished, but not particularly decorated. It has a 3:00 push-pull crown that is protected by modest crown guards. Water resistance is 100m, which is not exactly dive safe, but is sufficient for immersion, swimming, and all around daily use.
The model 17 has a black dial and bezel. It features polished applied diver dot markers and broad hands that are far less fussy than the common Rolex "Mercedes" design. The second hand is also polished, with a lollipop on the tail. All are treated with Seiko's excellent propriety illumination. There is mistaking this for anything but a Seiko. The brand and "5" logo are prominent, and "100m" is sandwiched in between "water" and "resist" in Seiko diver fashion. There is a bit more text than I would like, but it does not overwhelm. The 12:00 position is marked by a split "V". The day/date window is located at 3:00, replacing that marker, and is white on black, blending nicely with the dial. The black unidirectional bezel moves stiffly as it takes its 120 clicks around the dial, and the grip is not nearly as secure as the gear-toothed Rolex. Or, I should say, how I would imagine the Rolex to be if anyone ever let me near one. It comes on a rather nice brushed, 22mm bracelet that tapers to a 20mm engraved diver's clasp.
The SNZF17 captures the essence of the Submariner style, but does not pretend to be a Rolex in any way, especially price. The Seiko has an MSRP of $260, but $150 is closer to the truth, and a sale price of $130 is fairly common. You make some compromises at that price. The bezel insert is painted, not enameled, and not lumed, and the bracelet end links are folded, not solid, but none of these are deal breakers.
So we have a nice little watch here, but not one that approaches secret agent coolness. For that, we need to do some research. You are no doubt familiar with the first three Bond films, but now you must view them with a watch nerd's eyes. Allow me to assist. In Goldfinger, Bond unzips his wetsuit to reveal a white dinner jacket, strolls into a cantina, eyes up the sexy dancing girl, then pauses to check the time while lighting his cigarette at the precise moment his explosives detonate a drug cache. It is a moment if pure, unfiltered awesomeness, so I forgive you if you did not notice his watch strap. It is a one piece fabric regimental stripe in olive and black (possibly navy) with dark red pinstripes. It is also inexplicably one size too small for the lugs.
In order for our humble Seiko to emulate secret agent coolness, we must first lose the bracelet. For a replacement, I chose the Maratac MI-6 striped NATO. Technically, Bond was not wearing a NATO with its extra strap and keepers, but it is close enough. It is also only $10 at CountyComm.com. The strap has brushed hardware for a proper military look as well as stitched and welded seams. Because I am not James Bond, Sean Connery, or anyone else approaching that level of cool, I took the safe choice and got a 22mm strap for the correct fit on my watch. Behold, the result.
Not too shabby, if I say so myself. I would not wear it with anything more formal than a summer suit, but it is a rather nice look. Still, I could not help thinking that I should try something else. Nylon is nice, but leather is better (come to think of it, that works on many levels). This picture of a Submariner on a rugged leather NATO by Peter Gani was my inspiration.
Mr. Gani is the artist behind Gunny Straps, hand crafting remarkable bespoke watch straps for customers the world over. I ordered mine in a lightly distressed red-brown "Verdi" leather for $75 plus overseas shipping, which is a bit more than the Mararac, but it was custom made to my specifications. A distressed Gunny NATO is just the thing to take the boardroom polish out of a Sub-style dive watch and put it squarely back on adventure footing. It moves a bit past our James Bond reference, but it seems like something he might appreciate.
The Seiko SNZF17 is a solid, versatile watch that can hold its own, without any Rolex pretense. It has a Submariner style, but it is clearly its own design and to my eyes it appears far more modern. As demonstrated above, with different straps, it can be tailored to suit a wide range if outfits or occasions. Best of all, it is a quality Seiko automatic that can be yours for a song.
Pro: Nice price, solid movement, classic design
Con: Folded end links, does not include garrote, buzz saw, or Geiger counter
Sum: Plenty O'Toole for not much Moneypenny.
Warning: James Bond is a fictional secret agent. In real life, mixing a dive watch and white dinner jacket is very risky. Pairing it an olive stripe strap is extremely dangerous. Adding an undersized strap to this ensemble may be fatal to your dignity.