Last summer, a few months before I turned 30, my mom called and said she wanted to buy me a watch for my birthday. I felt a little overwhelmed by her very kind and generous offer, not least of all because I’m not a watch guy. They’ve always felt clunky and uncomfortable and wholly unnecessary (we’ve got phones!). $25 Casios and $100,000 Rolexes inspire equal amounts of nothing inside me. In my mind, a perpetual calendar is one of those thick pads you keep on your desk and every morning you tear away a page to reveal a new Far Side comic. So when my mom gave me a rough budget and told me to find something I liked, I didn’t quite know where to start. The answer availed itself not long after.
Be Water, ESPN’s moving documentary about Bruce Lee, artfully reframes the martial arts icon as a protest figure who spent his entire life fighting for equality and respect both onscreen and off. It’s also got a lot of footage of Bruce Lee wearing dope stuff. The first time I watched it last June, I caught a glimpse of something intriguing in an archival photo of Bruce in a production meeting. There, on his wrist, was a mysterious shiny band with a series of holes along the side. Was it a bracelet? A watch band? A few minutes of Googling delivered an answer: it was a Seiko 6139-6010 automatic chronograph, Bruce’s watch of choice in the final years of his life.
Just like that, I had a dream watch. I’d already been considering a Seiko as it was, for their value, reliability, and understated good looks. But a Seiko cosigned by Bruce Lee? That’s a whole other level of covetable, especially for a Chinese-Canadian kid like me. I grew up worshipping Bruce, one of the few visible Asian men in the Western pop cultural canon. And, as I quickly realized in the course of my research, I was hardly alone in my lust for his watch—in fact, it seemed like half the Asian actors in Hollywood had chased one of these rare vintage Seikos down.
Daniel Dae Kim, noted watch guy, is the proud owner of a Bruce Lee Seiko. Same with The Good Doctor’s Will Yun Lee, and The Daily Show correspondent Ronny Chieng. All three sourced their Seikos through the exact same dealer: Nick Ferrell, the Los Angeles-based proprietor of DC Vintage Watches.
Ferrell began flipping watches as a side hustle while working for the Department of Defense, and has since established himself in online watch circles as the go-to guy for all things vintage Seiko. That’s proved especially fruitful over the last two or three years, as interest in the Japanese maker has risen precipitously. Bruce’s 6139, he says, is “far and away the most popular” model he sources for clients, accounting for roughly 40% of his annual sales. Part of the appeal comes down to history: When the 6139 debuted in January 1969, it was the very first automatic chronograph on the market, beating several higher-profile Swiss watchmakers to the punch by mere months. It also happens to be a very handsome and wearable watch with a clean-lined face, a simple day-date function, and a single chronograph dial. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Seiko has never reissued the 6139 since it went out of production in the late ‘70s.
But as with so many other watches, the thing that elevates the Seiko 6139 to true legendary status is who else has worn them. Perhaps the best-known version is the 6139-6005 “Pogue,” the striking yellow-dial variant worn by astronaut William Pogue during the Skylab 4 mission in 1973—an attractive alternative for folks with a space watch hankering who can’t quite afford an Omega Speedmaster.
The “Bruce Lee” variant, meanwhile, is the black-dial 6139-6010. The fact that it’s even associated with Bruce Lee is a testament to the fanaticism of his fans and watch obsessives alike: Lee never wore the Seiko onscreen, but its appearance in a smattering of photos led to a yearslong, crowdsourced investigation—largely conducted on watch forums—to determine the precise year and model of 6139-6010 he owned. Ferrell himself played a major role in that research, going as far as to contact Bruce’s daughter Shannon for further information and constructing a full timeline of its known whereabouts. Based on all the available evidence, it appears that the true Bruce Lee Seiko is a 1969 version released only in Hong Kong, with Chinese characters on the day wheel—a small but enormously cool detail befitting the city’s favorite son.
What truly takes Lee’s Seiko from smart, well-made everyday watch to absolute banger worthy of the baddest man of all time is the thing that drew me to it in the first place: that band. It’s an aftermarket steel “rally strap”—those holes are meant to invoke the ones on driving gloves—and it screams the same audacious, balls-out ‘70s swagger that led Lee to pair lace-up shirts with dinner-plate belt buckles and bell bottoms or rock suits and boots with lapels, collars, and heels all roughly the size of the Grand Canyon.
There’s a lot you can speculate about Bruce Lee from his choice of Seiko: Ferrell points out that the 6139 was far from a cheap watch—it would’ve retailed for around $200 in the early ‘70s, roughly the same price as a Rolex Submariner in that era. Eschewing typical Western status symbols in favor of a timepiece designed and built entirely in Asia, then, might’ve been a pointed statement as Bruce struggled to gain traction as a leading man in Hollywood. There’s no question, though, why so many Asian Americans are chasing the 6139-6010 today.
“We truly only had one person,” says Will Yun Lee, whose father competed at martial arts tournaments alongside Bruce in the late ‘60s. “At that time, Bruce was the one Asian figure brave enough and bold enough to not follow in anyone’s footsteps. What takes him to another level of icondom, much like Muhammad Ali, is that he was the full package: a cinematic hero, a philosophical hero, a style hero. And growing up, I wanted to imitate him in every possible way.”
For Ronny Chieng, wearing his Seiko onstage is a way to channel some of that energy in a marginally subtler way than “frickin’ dressing like Kill Bill,” he joked. “It really gives me an extra swagger,” Chieng says. “It reminds me of Bruce Lee’s struggle to express himself authentically, which is the goal of stand-up comedy. You want to get to the truth of the matter, express yourself unfiltered and honestly, and bring joy to people—which I think is what he was trying to do, too. That’s something anybody can take inspiration from. But then as a Chinese person in America? As a Chinese creative, a Chinese performer in America? It’s too much. It’s too much. You just wear it and you get it.”
I do get it. Last autumn, I pulled the trigger on a pristine Seiko 6139-6010 from Ferrell’s stable, complete with a very similar rally strap to Bruce’s own—the back-up, in fact, to the bracelet Ferrell had sourced for Daniel Dae Kim. For the first time in my life, I understood the appeal of wearing a serious timepiece: the weight of it, the precise engineering, that stark but striking dial. It snaps all of my looks sharply into focus—my fits instantly feel a touch more considered, more finished, more grown-up. At a time when being Asian in America has never felt more fraught or complicated, that connection to Bruce Lee’s unwavering, unrelenting self-belief really does give me a jolt every time I slip it on. I stand a little taller and feel a little braver. It reminds me that I belong exactly where I am and that nobody can tell me otherwise. I feel powerful. And it’s proof, above all, of that greatest of all truths: Mom always knows best.