By Andrew Huang
Seth Roberts deals in the commodity of time. Not “time” in the sense of a beachfront timeshare, or minutes for your phone plan, or the countdown of a parking meter. As the founder and watchsmith behind Hub City Vintage, Roberts specializes in “time” that is simultaneously literal and metaphorical: mechanical wristwatches, those impossibly complex and precise machines that keep track of time, powered only by motion. And, as you might have guessed from the name of his shop, he compounds that dimension of time with yet another, for his watches happen to be vintage Seiko timepieces.
To be a watchsmith in this day and age is to be an anachronism. There are plenty of more-capable tools for keeping track of moments — smartphones, for one. But Roberts has a history with timepieces: “When I was a kid, if I had extra money, I always wanted to buy a watch. My grandfather was a big watch collector, and he would give me all his broken watches. I would take them anyway, just to have another one.”
“When I was a kid, if I had extra money, I always wanted to buy a watch. My grandfather was a big watch collector, and he would give me all his broken watches. I would take them anyway, just to have another one.”
It didn’t hurt that his father was in the jewelry business, and when Roberts became a jeweler himself, his affinity for watches became a part of his professional repertoire. He found himself working with a jeweler whose father had been a watchmaker. “He was the first guy to sit down with me when I said I had an interest in learning about watchmaking,” Roberts says. “He handed me a pocket watch with instructions on how to take it apart and put it back together. It took me three days, and of course it wasn’t perfect. He gave it back to me and told me to do it again. It was very Mr. Miyagi.”
“He handed me a pocket watch with instructions on how to take it apart and put it back together. It took me three days, and of course it wasn’t perfect. He gave it back to me and told me to do it again. It was very Mr. Miyagi.”
The repetition and tedium didn’t turn Roberts away. Far from it. “Each watch is a small puzzle, and when everything comes together right, you get this machine that tells time. It just really fascinated me,” he says. But even as a jeweler, Roberts didn’t get many opportunities to apply his skills. These days, most watches are sent off to the manufacturer, rather than being serviced in-house. To satisfy his interest in watches, Roberts began working on them in his spare time, as a hobby. And that’s how this other dimension — vintage Seiko wristwatches — became intertwined.
“I had a friend who introduced me to Seiko. He brought me a chronograph watch — a yellow ‘Pogue’ [reference model 6139] — that hadn’t run in over 10 years,” Roberts says. Naturally, he opened up the watch to see if he could fix it. “It was the first 6139 I broke down, and I was blown away by the engineering in this watch.”
“All of Seiko’s manufacturing is vertically integrated,” he explains. “Everything they built for their watches was done right there in Japan. They didn’t outsource anything. The only other brand that does that is Rolex.”
“Take the ‘Monaco’ chronograph [reference model 7016], for example. It’s a five-hand, single register with a ton of complications, and it’s a watch you can buy for a thousand dollars. The Swiss counterpart is going to be five or six thousand dollars, at least!”
The Grammar of Design served as a brand guide for Seiko
Aside from the engineering, there’s another aspect of vintage Seikos that appealed to Roberts. “I always liken it to the birds of paradise,” he says. “They have no natural predators, so they’ve just evolved to attract a mate. They just get prettier. And that was the watch game in the ’70s. Everyone was just trying to create these immaculate-looking watches.”
Within Seiko, the governing design principles underpinning this aesthetic pursuit was known as The Grammar of Design. Invented by in-house designer Taro Tanaka, The Grammar of Design specified how surfaces were to interact with light, how cases were to be polished, and more. In essence, The Grammar of Design served as a brand guide for Seiko, and those principles imbued their watches with truly unique personas.
One look at Hub City Vintage’s catalog confirms as much. Some watches feature brilliant, deep cerulean dials; others showcase a subtle sunburst shimmer, visible only from the way light shifts across the dial. The watch hands even have their own character. An hour hand might be shaped like a slashing sword. By contrast, a sweeping seconds hand could be needle-thin and dipped in fire-engine-red paint.
Some of the watch cases are sleek and simple, elegantly tapered around domed crystal covering the watch face. Others are stainless steel behemoths encasing hardened mineral glass: robust, hardwearing, and reassuring. The names for these watches are remarkable, too: Monaco, Samurai, Turtle, Skyliner, World Time.
“There’s something about wearing an older watch that has a history,” says Roberts. “It might be linked to someone important, whether it be someone in your family or someone in history.” That very first 6139 Roberts worked on is a prime example: It’s the same model worn on the Skylab 4 mission by astronaut Col. William Pogue in 1973.
“Guys don’t get to wear a lot of accessories,” Roberts continues. “Besides my wedding ring, I only wear a watch. And so I want it to be the coolest watch it can be. For me, that means it needs to have a good story. I think that’s an opportunity every guy should capitalize on. You should have a watch you can talk about.”
The vintage watch world is a funny one. In one sense, the timepieces that Roberts finds and restores are timeless. They might be 30, 40, or 50 years old in some cases, but in that time, they’ve taken on lives of their own. They’ve grown beyond their original mandate for timekeeping and now exist outside their epoch. Simultaneously, these watches are running out of time. All the watches and parts have already been made, which means that the supply of both dwindles each day.
But as a specialist in the commodity of time, Roberts is perhaps the most acutely aware of this truism: for mortal beings and material goods both, time is a finite resource.