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In 1967, Vostok was commissioned by the Soviet Defense Department to produce a dive watch comparable in performance to it’s foreign counterparts, proven watches like the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and Omega Seamaster – no small task for designers Mikhail Novikov and Vera Belov at the Chistpool watch factory.
They say the enemy of creativity is the absence of constraint. For Vostok, designing a watch that met the specifications of the Russian Navy without using the proven industrial design methods of the Swiss forced them to reimagine the fundamental elements of a dive watch.
Protecting the inside of the case from water penetration being the primary goal, Vostok was forced to innovate – coming up with novel solutions for the winding mechanism, crystal and caseback to prevent water entering the watch at depths of over 200 meters.
Ultimately succeeding in overcoming this challenge, the Vostok “Amphibia” was born, and today has become a cult classic amongst watch aficionados. Cheap, quirky, and reliable – the Amphibia is an interesting watch with a rich history, something truly unique in a world dominated by the Swiss and Japanese.
Today I’m taking a look at the Vostok Amphibia “Scuba Dude” – one of the dozens of style configurations available for this weird, yet iconic dive watch.
Thoughts on the Design
The Vostok Amphibia is currently produced in several different case styles, with about half a dozen to choose from. This particular “scuba dude” was issued with the “420” case, a classic round polished steel case with short lugs and no crown-guards. It’s relatively thick for its smaller diameter, and some might find it rides a bit tall, especially with a thick NATO underneath.
Other case styles available for this watch include the 090 (a “Tonneau” style case with a 70’s flair), the 710 (called the “ministry”, reminiscent of cushion style case like the one found on the Seiko Turtle), and the 110 (a funky angular case with sharp lugs).
The caseback of the watch features a nicely embossed “Amphibia” logo (in russian, of course), overlayed on a small textured marquee. Surrounding the case is some more russian text, mostly alluding to the functionality of the watch (“Waterproof”, “Automatic”, and “Shock Resistant” to be exact).
One of the unique features of the Amphibia case, and one of the innovations I alluded to in the introduction, is the design of the attachment mechanism for the caseback. Most dive watches employ a simple screw-down caseback with a slender gasket at the ingress points. As the caseback is tightened, the gasket compresses and spreads out, forming a water-proof seal. A drawback of this system is that the gasket is typically deformed by the shear load, and would need to be replaced each time the caseback was removed.
Vostok employed an entirely different system for sealing the back of the case. The caseback itself drops directly into the case, and a keyed locking ring is used to hold the case and case-back together. Because there is no shear distortion on the gasket, a large flat rubber gasket can be utilized. This gives the watch a much larger seal surface, contributing to it’s amazing 200 meter water resistance. As a bonus, the caseback gasket almost never needs to be replaced.
The quirky dial design of the Amphibia is part of what attracts many collectors to it’s off-beat, retro-infused charm. Many of the dials are emblazoned with tacky symbols of underwater exploration: ship wheels, submarines, and scuba divers to name just a few – but many find the charm of these dials what makes them stand out in a sea of stereotypical black submariner clones.
Smaller cases fitted with domed acrylic crystals evoke the feel of a vintage dive watch, and the subtle distortion depending on the viewing angle gives the dial a much more dynamic look. The crystal is also domed in a way that makes it more resistant to water pressure, sealing even stronger against the case as it flattens ever so slightly as water pressure increases.
The blue “Scuba Dude” dial I’m currently reviewing is colored in a beautiful matte ocean blue with muted shades of green. Metallic applied markers with slender lumed inserts surround the classic handset, which is nearly universal across the Amphibia models. A long and slender minute hand, with a shorter “arrow” style hour hand, is kept in time by the colored (red in this case) seconds hand, rotating smoothly around the case with a lumed circle near the tip.
The lume itself is nothing to write home about. The hands themselves are illuminated, but the dial contains only small points of illumination at the hour markers. If you’re looking for a watch that glows like a torch, you’re better off taking a closer look at Seiko’s entry level divers.
The bezel itself is bi-directional and non-ratcheting, meaning it spins smoothly in either direction with little resistance. While the design does allow for more precise “micro-adjustments” with dive timing, the lack of any actual markings on the bezel negate any hopes of using it for anything more than an approximation. Also, it is very susceptible to being bumped accidentally, so I wouldn’t really consider using a watch like this in a life or death situation (like real diving).
The Amphibia is available with many different bezel configurations and styles. Although the classic 60-minute submariner style bezel with the triangle at 12, or any of its subtle variations, are surely a popular choice, my personal favorite is the black and red “rope” style bezel reminiscent of the vintage Amphibia classic.
Red and black circles are embossed into the polished steel bezel, with small circular connecting lines dotting them together. Around the outside, a nice coin-edge makes gripping the bezel easy in wet or dry conditions.
While it’s certainly not the most usable or readable, it feels distinctly “Vostok” and is a design that is completely unique to the brand. Considering most dive watches stick to the tried-and-true 60-minute demarcated style that’s been in vogue since the mid-century, it’s nice to have something that truly stands out in your collection.
The Amphibia crown design is a very polarizing feature amongst enthusiasts, both derided as clunky and celebrated as an innovation. Signature to this particular model is a crown so wobbly it almost appears broken. The hollow crown is threaded over a thick tube, and once unscrewed and pulled out, appears to hang by a thread, wobbling freely in every direction.
Pulling it out a bit more engages the movement with a hidden clutch under the crown, reducing the wobble and allowing the movement to be engaged. Since there is no spring to automatically engage the clutch, a slight outward pressure must be applied during timesetting.
This arrangement makes setting the time a bit awkward. The clutch is only lightly engaged at this point, so any pressure toward the case tends to disengage the clutch and cause the crown to spin freely. It feels a bit cheap, and the wobbly crown feels like it could break off if handled too strongly. However, based on various schematics I’ve reviewed describing the design of this watch, it is an intentional feature designed to improve the reliability and durability of the winding mechanism and underlying movement.
How does it do that exactly? Because the crown wobbles freely, it reduces the possibility of lateral pressure damaging the stem. Additionally, when the crown is completely screwed down, it becomes decoupled from the movement entirely. This makes the case and crown a separate component from the movement and stem, protecting the internals from any shock or load imparted on the winding mechanism. Although crude, it’s quite innovative and serves the watch well.
Most Vostok Amphibia models ship with various “Zulu” or “Nato” style nylon straps, available in multiple colorways. Most people that purchase the Amphibia end up fitting them with aftermarket straps, as the provided options are not optimal. The “Nato” style straps are nice enough, similar to the majority of low cost nylon straps you can find on the web. The metal straps, however, should be avoided entirely. Although they look decent enough, they are very cheaply made, with rattly construction and hollow end links.
A nice aftermarket metal bracelet will likely cost more than the watch itself, so I would recommend a nice silicon two-piece strap as an alternative. This particular case style benefits from the two-piece strap as well, reducing the overall height and making it fit a bit closer to the wrist.
Inside the WatchInside the Vostok Amphibia is the Russian made caliber 2416B movement with 31 jewels and 31 hour power reserve. It’s a rugged and simple hand-winding automatic movement that was originally designed by Raketa and mass produced by Vostok in the early 70’s. It’s accuracy is comparable to Seiko’s entry level mechanical movements (7S26), with a daily accuracy somewhere around +25-30 seconds.
The movement also features a date window, but setting it is an exercise in frustration. Instead of simply setting a second crown position and turning, like on most Swiss ETAs, this movement only has one time-setting position. In order to set the date, you have to move the time back and forth between 12 o’clock and 8 o’clock, each time the date advances by one. You may have experience with this if you own a vintage watch. It’s not a deal breaker, but many people just forgo setting the date entirely to avoid the inconvenience.
The Zissou Amphibia
No discussion of this Vostok classic would be complete without reference to one of it’s most famously recognized incarnations, known by fans as the “Zissou”. In Wes Anderson’s 2004 film “The Life Aquatic”, oceanographer Steve Zissou and his entire crew wore the Vostok Amphibia throughout the movie. The film is an homage to the work and life of real life oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, a man known for wearing his share of iconic dive watches (Doxa Sharkhunters, Omega Profplofs and Rolex Subs come to mind), so it makes sense that Zissou (Cousteau’s comedic alter-ego), would wear such a quirky, offbeat dive watch.
The Zissou Amphibia is defined by its black ship wheel and anchor dial, and its classic rope and dot bezel. There are so many variants of the Amphibia, you may have trouble finding this exact style combination. Amazon is a great place to start though, as they carry hundreds of the Amphibia combinations.
Russian industrial design is often described as crude and simple, sacrificing aesthetics for the sake of reliability and economy. With the cheap and effective design of the Vostok Amphibia, it’s hard to counter that perception.
But despite its limitations, the watch does exactly what it needs to do. A reliable mechanical timekeeper with a rugged construction that can actually perform in depths of over 200 meters underwater. For somewhere between $60 and $90, it’s nearly impossible to find anything that competes in this price range.
For a bit more, you could likely get something just as reliable with a more robust construction in an entry-level Seiko SKX, but you’d be missing out on the unique history, affordability and quirky design that makes Vostok a cult-favorite amongst collectors.
In your watch box full of expensive Swiss and Japanese time-pieces, you might just find this cheap Russian watch has the most personality. And with the ludicrously low prices for these watches, both new and vintage, you might just need to buy an additional watchbox.
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