The "True Bruce Lee" - A Black Dial 1969/70 Seiko 6139-6010 Proof/Proof, Likely with Hong Kong Day Wheel
After researching this for some time - to include outreach to Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter - we assess there exists sufficient evidence to name this as the Seiko 6139 legendary martial artist Bruce Lee - yes that Bruce Lee - wore.
We feel confident this Seiko 6139 variant is worthy of the name “True Bruce Lee” - a black dial 1969/70 Seiko 6139-6010 Proof/Proof, and with slightly less confidence, that it featured a Hong Kong day wheel. We base this assessment on numerous photographs, a constructed timeline, interweb sleuthing, and some excellent research done in various watch forums.
Why? Read below!
Building on previous Scholarship: Based on attached photographs, as well as excellent threads on this topic on several forums, it becomes quickly evident Bruce’s 6139 was not the commonly assumed SpeedTimer dial variant (see side by side comparison between this one and the Proof Hong Kong dial variant below).
The True Bruce Lee
Despite the lack of clarity in photographs from the era (when compared to modern-day photography), it’s a safe assessment there is no “5 SpeedTimer” lettering on the dial at the nine o’clock position (ruling out the Japanese Domestic Market SpeedTimer dial variant as the True Bruce Lee dial), nor is there a lume plot (ruling out the later, post-1972 dial variants (the 6139 appeared on multiple occasions on Bruce’s wrists well before 1972). This said, a photo from February 1972 below stands out for its quality and allows us to see – albeit not well enough to differentiate between proof and resist nomenclature – the presence of white font at the 9 o'clock dial position and nothing else, ie: no “5” or blue SPORTS branding we would see were this a JDM SpeedTimer dial variant.
Close up, Lee's Black-Dialed 6139 on a 6139-8020 rally bracelet, 1972 - Bruce Lee at a Singapore press conference
February 1972 - Bruce Lee at a Singapore press conference
Bruce Lee with his mother, son Brandon (late May/early June 1969, per the lee timeline publication above - Getty appears to have gotten the date incorrect)
Bruce Lee's Mother Comes to Los Angeles for a Visit: Bruce’s mother (likely based in Hong Kong) per the excellent bruceleewashere.com/timeline, visited Bruce in Los Angeles in 1969, arriving on May 30th (as seen in the picture below) – while Getty notes this photo was from 1970, this may be in error (Getty applied generic dates, frequently a year or two off, when they moved their catalog online; we observed this when researching other Lee photos against known timelines). Subsequently, and nearly a year later - as recounted in the excellent 2016 book, “Bruce Lee, Letters of the Dragon: The Original 1958-1973 Correspondence” - in a letter to his wife in April 1970, Bruce notes his presence with his son in Hong Kong, while his wife and daughter remained in Los Angeles.
In the same letter, Bruce offhandedly notes his mother had purchased for him numerous items from Hong Kong; that said, there was no mention of a watch among the gifts from his mother – and pictures exist, preceding this letter, of Bruce wearing the watch before his 1970 trip to Hong Kong. This leads to the logical assessment Bruce already possessed the 6139 before this 1970 trip. Per “Manufacturing Time: Global Competition in the Watch Industry, 1795-2000, “Hong Kong was an important market during this time period, and already a major player in terms of watch assembly [in particular, eventually, for Seiko]," making it logical to assess Hong Kong as a prime destination for the earliest non-JDM 6139s. That Bruce's 6139 had a Hong Kong day wheel is more of an assessment made from logical conclusions, vice solid proof seen above in our first observation regarding the True Bruce Lee dial variant.
Close up, Lee's 6139 on a Stelux Kreisler rally bracelet - Bruce Lee with his mother, son Brandon (Late May/early June 1969)
The Mid-May 1969 National Karate Championship in Washington, DC: Through a combination of internet research and aforementioned Bruce Lee timeline, the earliest dated picture of Bruce wearing his 6139 we could find was 10 May 1969, attending the National Karate Championships (NKC) in Washington DC. Cross-referencing the source of the NKC picture below ("The Greats of Tae Kwon Do, JOSEPH HAYES,") with the aforementioned timeline at https://bruceleewashere.com/timeline, and it notes Bruce was only in Washington, DC, once in 1969 - on 10 May. The timeline also noted his attendance at the same DC-based NKC event in 1967 and 1968 (which appeared to be held during the same May/June time frame annually), but this is well before the early 1969 debut of the 6139.
Seiko 6139 case backs have surfaced dating the watch's first production to January 1969 - and some even back to November 1968, allegedly - and if we hold to the general supposed rule of six months lead time, May 1969 is within this time frame. While some assert it wasn't possible to purchase the 6139 before it was sold internationally in June 1969, we assess there enough evidence - and Lee was a well-known figure by this time in Asia, rendering it feasible he could have been gifted the watch by an interested party before it was reportedly released (for those unfamiliar with the entertainment and watch industry this was, and remains, a common practice) - that play of a month or two before this June date is well within reason.
Of note, in the late 1960s, a son of a founder of Asia-based Seiko distributor Thong Sia, Wan Fei Lui, was heavily involved in both Thong Sia (with his two brothers), a Grand Master of the Shao Lin "Mai Chung" martial arts, and the head of the Hong Kong-based Martial Arts Division of the South China Athletic Association - the same city-state the black-dialed Seiko 6139 was sold. The same individual also served at the chairman of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Watch and Clock Merchants Association. A healthy coincidence? Or the source of Lee's Seiko 6139? More research remains to be done on this angle (and special thanks to Paul of @vintageseiko on Instagram for this fact).
May 10, 1969 - Bruce Lee attends the national karate championships in Washington, dc (http://www.lacancha.com/hayeshof.html)
Close up of the 6139 on a Stellux Kreisler rally bracelet (May 10, 1969 - Bruce Lee attends the national karate championships in Washington, dc)
Importantly, Lee wasn't known for possessing more than a handful of watches, and the stainless-steel rally bracelet was not/not identified in photographs on any other watch Lee wore - leading to the assessment that if the unique bracelet was present, he wore it on his black-dialed 6139. A rally bracelet can be easily discerned in both 1969 pictures, as well as a quite similar hour indice lume pattern. Per forum scholarship and pictures, Lee first wore a Stelux-Kreisler rally bracelet on his black-dialed 6139 and subsequently a Seiko 6139-8020 OEM rally bracelet altered to fit; the rally bracelet can be easily discerned in both 1969 pictures, as well as a quite similar hour indice lume pattern.
Related, the earliest known date for the 6139 non-JDM variant and 6139-6010 HK day wheel variant is at least March 1969, per forum research - these early dates safely rule out the “Water 70 Resist” dial variant, which did not appear until after Bruce was first seen wearing his 6139. Finally, of important note and per excellent previous forum research, advertisements for the Hong Kong version of the Seiko 6139-6010 appeared around the time Lee was first photographed wearing the watch, namely, mid-1969.
1970 6139 SpeedTimer; True Bruce Lee, with Proof Dial & Hong Kong Day Wheel; and a 1972 6139 Resist Dial
Bruce Lee with his Daughter and black-dialed 6139, Undated
Bruce Lee with his daughter, close up of Lee's 6139 on a stelux Kreisler rally bracelet
A Closing Note: Watch scholarship, like most scholarship, is an inexact science - watch aficionados do the best they can with spotty records, advertisements (such as with the recent excellent finds regarding the "Aussie Pogue"), and blurry photographs from an era before the internet. Should the seemingly in-depth timeline on Lee's appearance at the Washington, DC-based NKC tournament be off (keeping in mind, the timeline had no other subsequent attendance at this high-profile event for Lee in DC), the worst case scenario is this a 1970 vice a 1969 vintage - the "TBL" would feature the same black dial configuration, two-piece handset, and proof/proof model nomenclature. We have loosened the date to include 1970 for this reason.
Somewhat related, the Bruce Lee is like the Pogue, in that there were multiple variations of the dial, but with one "true" variant. While some insist there to be only one "Pogue" - namely the "True Pogue" – it’s not misleading to call all gold 6139-600x's "Pogue." Same for the black dial 6139 Bruce Lee in discussion here. Some may disagree, but this is the approach we take when referencing this watch.