The Seiko Alpinist (SARB017) is such a unique and gorgeous timepiece, many hearts were broken when its discontinuation was announced in 2018. Fortunately, Seiko went back to the drawing board and was able to release the Alpinist's successor, the SBDC091/SPB121, in early 2020.
While many collectors were quick to rejoice to the SBDC091/SPB121's announcement, some people were left unimpressed with the modifications that were made. Did Seiko manage to build upon the SARB017's success while keeping its essence? Or is the SBDC091/SPB121 blasphemous? Let's find out what changed!
What are the biggest changes?
1. New Sapphire Crystal
The first thing you will notice straight away is the new crystal. Indeed, the SBDC091/SPB121's crystal now has a cyclops lens over the 3 o'clock date display. Personally, this is a change that I'm not happy at all with.
With so many Submariner homages floating around, I think it's important for Seiko to stay true to their original designs. I know that cyclops lenses are not exclusive to the Rolex Sub, but I think the SBDC091/SPB121 would've been better off without it.
However, not everything is disappointing about this new crystal. Seiko now applies anti-reflective coating to the inside of the glass. This greatly reduces reflectivity, whilst keeping the crystal as scratch-resistant (no outer coating to get scratched)
2. 6r35 Movement
Now here's an improvement no one can complain about. Seiko finally replaced the 14-year old 6r15 caliber for the new and improved 6r35 caliber. At its core, the 6r35 remains very similar to the 6r15, with one exception: the large 70 hours power reserve (20 hours increase).
The accuracy rating (-15 to +25 secs/day), frequency (21,600 bph), thickness (5,25mm), and hacking & hand-winding features all remain the same. However, the number of jewels is bumped up from 23 on the SARB017 to 24 on the SBDC091/SPB121.
3. Exhibition Case Back
The SARB017 had a regular stainless steel back, but that's not the case for the SBDC091. For this new model, Seiko uses an exhibition window which lets you peek through the 6r15 caliber. I guess this will please some people, but it's really no big deal to me.
If you're acquainted with Seiko, you probably know that their movements are renowned for reliability much more than styling. Indeed, the 6r35 is a workhorse movement, but it's nothing special to look at. To me, an exhibition case back is great when you have a gorgeous movement such as an Omega Calibre 8800, but the SBDC091's window leaves me unfazed.
4. Higher MSRP
The Seiko SARB017 was originally released in 2007 with a $550 MSRP. The new Seiko SBDC091/SPB121 has been announced in January 2020 with a $700 MSRP.
While the $150 premium might seem steep at first, it's a pretty reasonable price increase. Indeed, the 27,25% price increase over the SARB017 represents a 1,87% compounded annual increase. This figure is a bit below the estimated annual inflation for the U.S, so Seiko isn't greedy at all.
5. New Prospex Logo
The release of the SBDC091/SPB121 marks the end of an era. The SARB017 was part of Seiko's Alpinist collection, which has a deep history.
In an effort to consolidate its brands, Seiko released the SBDC091/SPB121 as part of its large Prospex collection. This isn't that big of a deal to most people, but I think Seiko went a bit too far by placing a Prospex logo on the dial.
In my opinion, this logo removes the last bit of dressiness that the SARB017 had, making the SBDC091/SPB121 even less versatile than before.
What remains unchanged?
1. Compass & 2-crown layout
There are many aspects of the SARB017 that made it such a distinctive watch. One of them is the inner rotating bezel (used as a compass) operated by a second crown at the 4 o'clock position.
Fortunately, Seiko kept this peculiar 2-crown layout and inner compass bezel that's both useful (for outdoors enthusiasts) and helps the SBDC091/SPB121 stand out from the lot.
2. Hands, Numerals, Dial
If it ain't broke, don't fix it! Seiko perfectly understands this idiom, and it's why they left most of the new Alpinist's styling untouched. Indeed, the gorgeous sunburst green dial and gold-plated hands & indices are what made the SARB017 so famous in the first place.
While it's not the most versatile color scheme out there, it's a design that's certain to get you tons of compliments if you find the right outfit to pair with.
3. Case Size
Part of what made the SARB017 so attractive was its perfect 39,5mm case diameter. This dimension makes the watch small enough for us slender-wristed folks, but just big enough not to look underwhelming on big wrists.
However, the introduction of a new exhibition case back makes the SBDC091/SPB121 slightly thicker than the SARB017, but it's not that significant.
4. Most Specs
With the higher MSRP, it would be disappointing to find out that some specs were downgraded from the SARB017. It's not that far-fetched to imagine such as scenario since Seiko released the SKX's successor with a higher MSRP and lower water resistance.
However, the new SBDC091/SPB121 keeps the original specs such as the 200m water resistance, Lumibrite formula, sapphire crystal, etc..
Why are there 2 different model numbers?
There seems to be a lot of confusion around the SARB017 replacement's reference #. The two references you will encounter are either Seiko SBDC091 or Seiko SPB121.
Those two reference numbers are used for the same watch. In fact, SBDC091 is the original reference number that's used by Seiko in Japan. On the other hand, SPB121 is used by Seiko for the rest of the world (including the U.S).
However, this doesn't mean that an SPB121 model can't be manufactured in Japan. As usual, you will need to look at the suffix (J1 or K1) to know where your piece comes from.
Is the SBDC091/SPB121 worth it?
The answer to this question is completely dependant on what you look for in a watch. To me, the changes Seiko made on the SBDC091/SPB121 degraded the iconic look of the SARB017, but that's a completely personal opinion.
If you're strictly talking about price/quality ratio, the inflation-adjusted price is the same, and the movement has a much larger power reserve, so I must admit that it has gotten better.
Let me know in the comments below if you think that the new Alpinist is better than the SARB017 or if they should've left the styling unchanged!