Posted on July 04 2019
I'm a big fan of the Vostok Amphibia. It’s an iconic piece that ticks so many boxes for the watch collector. It has history. It has innovation. It’s a watch with a clear sense of time and place. And it’s affordable.
Part of the appeal is that it looks like it should.
First, let's look at the history.
The company that became Vostok can be traced back to WWII and Russia’s involvement in the conflict. At the tail end of 1941 one of the Moscow watch plants was evacuated, in 150 railway carriages, to Kazan in South West Russia. From there the story goes, the equipment, workers and their families covered the final 100KM to the city of Chistopol in a convoy of three thousand carts pulled by horses.
By April 1942 the factory was up and running and producing its first items for the military. However, wristwatch production didn’t begin until after the end of the war. 1965 is really where the story gets interesting for watch fans. It was then that the Chistopol Watch Factory became the official supplier of watches for the Ministry of Defense of the Soviet Union. It was also in the same year that the factory, now using the Vostok name, released the Komandirskie or Commanders watch. This is an iconic military timepiece that has its own unique story and fans.
The Komandirskie had a direct influence on the design and creation of the Amphibia.
The brief for the Vostok team who designed the Amphibia was no small task. It was to create, for the Russian Navy, something to compete with the Rolex Submariner and Blancpain Fifty Fathoms that were being used by the British and French navies.
They couldn’t steal the patented technology of the Swiss firms and they didn’t have a great budget for their own development. Importantly, one requirement was that the watches were to be produced cheaply and be equally cheap to repair and maintain.
The job was given to chief designers Mikhail Fedorovich Novikov and Vera Fedorovna Belova.
These unfavourable conditions forced the team to innovate, to find cheaper solutions to familiar problems encountered by mechanical dive watches. That’s just what they did. As Novikov said “Seemingly the Vostok Amphibia is not so different from the regular watches. But in fact almost every element in it is exclusive and each of them required a lot of work”.
One notable feature, for example, was the method by which the glass aids the watches water resistance. With the Amphibia’s construction the outside pressure of the water pushes the glass into the case and thus makes the seal tighter. The deeper the watch goes, the more water pressure and therefore the tighter the seal. To do this the watch uses a plastic crystal, 50% thicker than normal, that can slightly deform under pressure - unlike glass and sapphire crystal that would crack. This crystal is cheap and doesn’t require a rubber seal or a high pressure crystal retaining ring. The same functionality produced, but for a lower price.
The first Amphibia’s were released in 1967 and that is where we start with our list of favourites.
Amphibia 1967 Re-Issue
Like many brands Vostok have reissued an updated version of their own earlier design. This model was released to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launch of the original Amphibia. It’s a limited edition watch with a production run of 1967 pieces. Due to demand for more pieces a new version is now available too.
The watch itself has the retro Amphibia cushion case shape and there were two dial options - with and without numbers. The case is finished better than the standard Amphibia (this ltd ed was a significantly more expensive watch) and with a contrast of polished sides and brushed case top. The 22mm lugs are hidden and the 42mm diameter case arguably looks a little larger.
Like all the Amphibia’s this watch has an inhouse movement. In this case it’s the 2415 non-date automatic movement. Like the watch, they’re bullet proof.
It has 200M water resistance and a domed mineral crystal.
These watches are difficult to find and more expensive than the standard Amphibia, but there is an alternative. Vostok have also released a standard Amphibia that looks similar to this watch. This cheaper option allows you to get the same aesthetic albeit with a reduced quality in the finishing.
Either way, if you want a retro Russian diver this is where you should start your search.
The Amphibia has been issued with a number of case styles and what seems like an infinite amount of dial options. This variation has two of the most common options and could be seen as the typical Amphibia.
This watch has the common 420 case shape and the iconic ‘Scuba Dude’ dial. The automatic movement is the dated version and rather than the mineral crystal of the 1967 reissue, this standard Amphibia has a domed plastic crystal. The rear of the case has the various markings in the Cyrillic alphabet, a nice touch.
Overall this variation is quite a modestly sized watch, 39mm diameter and with 18mm lugs for the strap. But it’s not a delicate watch. Like all Amphibias it feels substantial and has a large chunky crown.
On this model the dial is presented without numbers and with the date at 3 o’clock - very much the classic configuration. There are also options for the Scuba Dude to feature numbers and a date at six. The green dial variant I have also features the Dude in the centre of the dial and additional Russian text above the date window.
One of the reasons many of us collect watches is because of the history and stories behind each piece. The Amphibia has that history but little in the way of stories in popular Western culture. Probably the nearest they get is with what is known as the Zissou Amphibia.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a film that plays with the story of French diving legend Jacques Cousteau. Bill Murray stars as the lead character. Cousteau had an interesting relationship with watches wearing at different times all of the pioneering divers brands - Omega, Rolex and Blancpain. For the film the Vostok was chosen as the official watch for Team Zissou.
The watch itself is the same model as the Scuba Dude above but with its own distinct dial. This features the large ship’s wheel and anchor graphics and the rope design around the dials edge. It’s a little gaudy for some tastes but for many that, and its film role, give the watch its charm.
Following the sinking of the Titanic a number of safety measures were put in place for international shipping. One lesson learned from the tragedy had been that the radio airwaves had been very busy as the ship sank and a number of the crews distress calls were lost in the chatter.
A series of regulations resulted in an agreement that every fifteen minutes there should be a three minute period of silence where all radio rooms did nothing but listen for distress calls. Clocks and wristwatches were produced with dials that displayed these periods. Vostok was official supplier of radio room clocks to the Russian Navy.
The Radio Room Amphibias are available in a number of case options and with either a black or white dial. Both dials have the three minute radio silence period highlighted in red and create a very unique and bold aesthetic.
This release is a bit of an oddity. A US military watch made in Russia to celebrate the war in Iraq that the Russian government was against? Like a lot of watch stories there’s both fact and fiction woven into the tale.
The basics seem to be this.
American company Timepeace Russian Watches agreed a deal with the Vostok factory to supply 10,000 watches. These watches were to be produced to commemorate the First Gulf War, code named Operation Desert Shield. In the end the actual number of watches produced was increased to 40,000 and the first ones released in 1990. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that these watches were issued to the US military.
The watch itself is a standard Amphibia in the 420 case, although on release it was priced higher than other Amphibia models. The dial is the real difference, apparently being designed by the Flag Research Center. The design features the American flag, the Saudi coat of arms, two tribal swords and a palm tree. On these original watches there was no Vostok logo.
The design has proven popular and there was a second series produced before it then started getting a little more difficult to keep track of who was producing what. It’s wise to exercise a little caution, and do some research, before buying one of these Vostoks. They’re popular, and were over-priced when new, so they can be more expensive than many other Amphibias.