Exploring the world of watches on a budget

Seiko SNZH57 Dagaz "Fifty Five Fathoms"

There are watch enthusiasts out there who love to modify their watches. They have no qualms about cracking open a perfectly sound case to fit a custom dial or to achieve the perfect handset. I am not one of those guys. It's not that I don't appreciate a custom piece, I'm just not that handy. Any DIY operation of mine is likely to end up with stripped threads, gouged cases, and bent hands. My changes are strictly superficial; straps or bracelets, maybe a bezel, that's it. I'm also not that picky. I usually like my watches just the way they arrive from the manufacturer. Usually.

Two years ago, I bought an Anstead Oceanis. This was one of the first micros to make a real go of it on Kickstarter, and a damn nice watch (you can read a Guest Bum review here), but there was just one thing wrong. You see, the Seiko NH35 movement inside had a misprinted day wheel. This was not unique to my watch, or even to Anstead. Every disc in that particular NH35 production run had the same flaw. The day dipped a tiny bit down the right, most noticeably on Thursday and Friday. It was just enough to be maddening. When I raised my concern with Tom Anstead, he offered a full refund, but I declined. In the end, I liked the watch too much to let it go. So I cooked up a plan B. With the help of Jake Bourdeau at Dagaz Watches, I learned the disks in the NH35 were interchangeable with that of the more common Seiko 7s36. The easiest way to get my hands on one was to buy a Seiko 5 and pull it out, but what to do with that poor Seiko? I couldn't just leave it that way. I'd have to find the right watch, take what I needed, and improve what was left behind. 

My donor was an SNZH57, which is a very pretty watch in its own right. It is 42mm wide and 14mm thick with a 22mm bracelet, domed Hardex crystal, sword hands, and a display case back. The case sides are rounded and polished while the top is brushed. The 120-click bezel is a standout feature, with its markers set deep beneath an acrylic insert, and toothy, polished edge. I'd describe the watch as more of a dress-diver or diver-style watch, than a serious diving instrument. It has the right look, but only 100m water resistance, the crown does not screw down, and the bezel action is a bit too loose for me trust with my oxygen consumption. Not that any of this matters, mind you. Once my Seiko gave up its spare parts, it was going to be a strict surface-dweller.

Of the several colors offered, I chose a black dial and bezel with gold hands and markers, and the coveted white-on-black day and date wheels. Right out of the box, the SNZH57 bears more than a passing resemblance to the legendary Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, but it is in no way a copy or homage; however, that was about to change. 

Dagaz Watches offers a range of replacement dials to turn your Seiko into the hybrid design of your choosing. Looking for a classic field watch? They have your dial. Like Doxa vintage divers? Order up a "Soxa" dial. Want a Tudor Black Bay? Order a set of snow flake hands, a "BB" dial, and a red bezel insert. For this project, I chose the $34 Vintage Style Fifty Five Fathoms (FFF) dial. The layout is a clear nod to the 1953 Blancpain naval officer's watch. It is brilliantly executed with applied and lumed gold markers, "Fifty-Five Fathoms" printed in a typeface that mimics the original, and a crosshair pulling it together. The Fifty-Five moniker is a play on Seiko 5, but also happens to correspond with the watch's actual water resistance rating. For obvious reasons, I opted for a no date-version. I suppose I could have swapped in some pencil hands as well, but I was not trying to duplicate the Blancpain and I prefer the Seiko's swords.

With both watches and my new dial in hand, it was time to get to work, and by that I mean it was time for someone else to get to work. Not me, of course. I'm an idiot when it comes to watch repair. I brought them all to my local watchmaker and explained the projects. Most of his customers don't ask him to swap parts between two perfectly good, brand-new watches, but he was willing to oblige and didn't charge me any more than he would for a basic service. In short: pop open the Seiko, remove the movement hands, dial, and day/date wheels, install the new dial, replace hands, and reinstall the whole works back into the case. There is no need to put any date discs back, the watch runs fine without them. The end result? Lovely, with spare discs for my Anstead.

I never replaced the stock bracelet. While it looked nice enough and had a useful flip-lock clasp, it was beset with a host of rattles and squeaks that make it seem unpleasantly cheap. Granted, this was not an expensive watch, and it has folded end links, but I have had several Seiko bracelets of widely varying cost and this was the only one that I considered to be sub-par. It went back into the box and has remained there ever since. In its place, I substituted a black sailcloth with gold stitching from Bradystraps, which perfectly complemented the black and gold color scheme. The watch looks smart on leather too. 

To most watch owners, this project must seem a little bit nuts. After all, the Anstead was not terribly flawed, and the SNZH57 was perfectly nice as it was, but that isn't really the point is it? The Anstead could be improved, the parts had to come from another watch, and that watch would be left dateless. Really now, I had no choice, and I did not have spend much to do it. I paid $150 for the watch, $34 for the dial, about $100 for the labor. If you care to count the Bradystrap it is just an additional $35. Hardly  a princely sum, and it even holds its value. I've seen used FFF mods go for about $250-350 on Watchuseek. If you have an old Seiko that needs new life, or even if you don't, head over to DagazWatches.com and browse the options. You might just be inspired but even if you are not ready to take on a modding project, the Seiko SNZF series is an excellent choice. It is inexpensive, attractive, and suitable for everyday wear. It looks fantastic as an FFF, but you don't need to change much to have an enjoyable, reliable watch for a song. Just swap the bracelet for a strap and you're good to go. 

Pro: Low price, classic charm.
Con: Flimsy bracelet, loose bezel. 
Sum: A sharp dress diver bone-stock, made even better with a Dagaz FFF dial. The Time Bum approves.

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