Fratello Editors Share Their Seiko Stories: How Working In Myanmar With A Seiko 5 SNZG11J1 Shifted Henry’s View On Wearing Time
It has been great to read about the exciting and personal experiences that my Fratello colleagues have had with Seiko. Reading about Fratello founder RJ’s journey with the Seiko Marinemaster and how it changed his views on the brand reveals something fundamental about our hobby. The way that our tastes and opinions about watches shift over time leads to fascinating journeys that we could never have envisioned at first.
RJ’s story on the Seiko Marinemaster and Daan’s story of having a Seiko stolen really got me thinking about why we keep finding ourselves drawn to this hobby. Besides the wonderment of mechanical designs telling time on our wrists, storied brand histories, and rare finds (among many, many other factors), I believe a fundamental part of what makes this hobby so great is that it can reflect (in a very small way) how we can change as people over time. Our life experiences and tastes evolve; perhaps we have a core concept of what we like in a design, but how we appreciate it will shift. Watches are a statement not only of our tastes now but perhaps who we aspire to be and what we aspire to change as we grow and mature.
The early days
My first serious brush with timekeeping came in my early 20s. I embarked on a career as a reporter and moved to Thailand and Myanmar to cover politics, social affairs, refugee affairs, health, and conflict for a news organization. It was an incredibly exciting opportunity for me as a young journalist who was passionate about refugee affairs and curious about the world.
I had not been into watches. Not at all. They had always been something my father was into, and also my step-grandfather (who was born in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, and owned and loved IWC watches. His Cal. 89 has come into my mother’s possession). Before leaving Sydney to take up this new role, my dad gifted me a mechanical Seiko watch to be my timekeeping companion. That watch was a Seiko 5 SNZG11J1.
On the plane flight to Singapore, before I would catch a connecting flight to Chiang Mai in Thailand, I remember marveling at the Seiko’s see-through case back, seeing the wobble of the rotor and the whirring components. It was my first time seeing a mechanical watch movement literally in motion and thinking what a fantastic oddity it was. The markers, hovering above the Arabic numerals on the watch’s dial, glowed intensely when the lights went off during the last leg of the flight. Another first was seeing lume light up a watch face in the dark.
I wore that watch every day of what ended up being a years-long adventure in Southeast Asia. But it was something that just got out of the way and told me the time when I needed it to. The mechanical capabilities were genuinely useful during longer trips into remote areas with little access to electricity and the sort of humidity that sits on you like a heavy, wet cloak.
Covering issues in Myanmar was often challenging, both physically and mentally. The country’s politics are complex, with a series of essentially independent ethnic microstates dotting the Thai-Myanmar border, all having their own militaries, politics, and competing objectives. These microstates have proud histories, and much of my work focused on Karen State.
The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has fought the Myanmar military for more than six decades for greater ethnic rights and freedoms. It is one of the world’s most prolonged continuous modern conflicts. I would spend more than 12 months working on issues around the Karen State and its spillover on the Thai side of that border region. It is sad and confronting to see how the conflict in Myanmar has spread, in no small part due to the brutality of the country’s military.
Flirting with red ants and denting the Seiko 5 SNZG11J1
These challenges bore their mark on my trusty Seiko. I remember waddling through a shallow river on the way to a KNLA and managing to blunder into a literal hanging ball of red ants, inconveniently sitting at head level. Stripping naked while yelping was the only option as red ants covered my body. I believe some swear words may have escaped my mouth in the process, and I must have said “OW!” about a thousand times. I had to jump into the river to wash the ants off, and I manage to dent my Seiko on a rock in the process. Welts covered my skin for a couple of days afterward. So not only was my pride dented but so was my Seiko.
Many of my trips involved river crossings in tiny boats. I frequently managed to go for an unexpected plunge when attempting to get into these ungainly yet elegantly petite wooden boats. My Seiko’s insides kept dry and ticking, even if I managed to get soaked consistently.
There were also times when it helped open doors and create conversations. There was a military commander who I wanted to interview in a difficult area to access because of the conflict situation. One day, I managed to tag along with a colleague at my organization, and as the commander was walking past during a military training exercise, he saw my Seiko and walked over to talk. He was a big Seiko fan and was wearing a 6309. Up until that moment, it had never occurred to me that a watch could lead to a connection and a conversation, let alone an exclusive interview with a reclusive military commander. He admired my Seiko’s see-through case back.
The Seiko 5 SNZG11J1 never failed. True, its timekeeping sometimes required some correction, but it kept working and taking a beating in the hardest of conditions, even if it now had a dent in the lower flank of the case where I had bashed it against a rock in my flirtation with those red ants. Being able to quickly glance down at something that didn’t have batteries (which can fail in the heat and humidity of that region) and instantly know the date and time was both comforting and genuinely useful if you had been away from civilization for days and days at a time. It is easy to lose track of the time and date in the midst of a story.
I could write much more about my time in Myanmar and Thailand, but, dear readers, I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. In the end, when I returned to Australia, I brought the Seiko 5 back with me. Battered and scratched, it was no longer keeping great time. While working on a story and hiking in a remote area, I knocked it hard against an unstable rock face probably one too many times. These days, this Seiko 5 lives with me still, though it needs a service. But as my Fratello colleagues’ stories (which inspired me to write this one) identified, sometimes watches become priceless for the memories they carry with them.
Nowadays, I don’t really wear the Seiko 5 SNZG11J1 anymore. As I’ve gotten deeper into this hobby, my tastes have changed. But seeing it again and wearing it has brought back so many important memories, so along with them, the watch will also have a place here with me.
For that reason, this is the watch that I will be proudest to hand down to a loved one in the decades to come. What would yours be?
Find me on Instagram: @onhenryswrist