A brand-new vintage dive watch, at a bargain basement price? Is that even a thing? Well, sign me up, comrade!
Given the explosion in watch prices for everything vintage, from top-tier Swiss houses, to humble sub-brands, how is that even possible? Well, pull up a chair and pour yourself a Stolichnaya, my friend. The watch in question isn’t from a secret cache of undiscovered new old stock, gathering dust in the back room of an elderly watchmaker’s shop. Nor is it from a faux-vintage microbrand built in an undisclosed Asian factory.
It’s vintage because they never changed it.
The greatest legit watch nerd bargain, hands-down, has to be the Vostok Amphibia, a Cold War relic of the former Soviet Union, and serious piece of horological history, available in enough dial and case variants to satisfy almost anyone. They have some serious street cred in the engineering department, and their durability borders on the ridiculous (more on this later). Unbelievably, they can still be had for less than $80 bucks any day of the week. It’s like getting a brand-new ‘vintage’ tool watch for almost nothing.
Here’s their website, where you can read all about Vostok’s history, enjoy some highly entertaining Russian-to-English translations, and see some very sober portraits of the staff.
When you buy a new Vostok, it’s like you’re a time-traveller to an era when gas was 35 cents a gallon, classic rock was just called rock, and we lived under the threat of mutually assured thermonuclear destruction. Nearly unchanged since the sixties, the Amphibia has been discussed on forum pages for years, yet somehow, they remain a cult curiosity at best to the majority of watch collectors. It’s one of the most, pardon the expression, ‘inside baseball’ watches you can own, and one that holds its own compared to its more widely known (and higher-priced) competition.
And you should own one.
A bit of history: Vostok, the state-run maker of clocks, watches, and other timing equipment for the Russian military since before World War II, were tasked in the 1960’s to build their first legitimate dive watch, to better compete with tool watches coming from Switzerland, such as the Rolex Submariner. Faced with restraints of cost, materials, and the lack of capacity to machine parts with the same tolerances as their Swiss counterparts, the engineers were forced to come up with some innovative solutions.
When you first handle an Amphibia, you notice a few things. You might think “Oh, an acrylic crystal, no wonder it’s so cheap”.
And you’d be wrong.
The thicker than normal 3mm crystal was designed to withstand tremendous pressure at depth, and actually flexes slightly, creating a more water-resistant case.
The same goes for the stainless steel caseback. Instead of a single screw-in piece sealed with an o-ring, the design is a two-piece bayonet/lock ring affair, with a wide, specially formulated rubber flange acting as a seal that increases water-tightness the further you dive down, similar to a supercompressor design.
The Amphibia is renowned for water resistance well beyond the stated 200 meters, with ridiculous endurance tests all over YouTube, like this one of some guy exploding his in the name of science. Spoiler alert: this one doesn’t give out until around 500 meters.
Perhaps the most ingenious design hallmark of the Amphibia is the stem and crown system.
Many new Vostok owners become gripped with panic the first time they unscrew the crown to set the time, only to discover the stem flopping about like some gasping trout. “It’s broken! What’s going on?”
Relax, it’s a feature, not a defect.
The stem is actually engineered to decouple into two pieces when screwed down, to prevent damage to the movement. When pulled out to set the time, it becomes one. Disconcerting the first time, once you get it, you have to give it up for the engineers’ innovative solution.
The movement? The venerable Vostok Caliber 2416, an unadorned yet rugged 31-jewel affair with a considerable history of its own. Without getting too, ahem, deep, it should run at -20/+60 sec per day, but many (including mine) run much closer in spec to more respected Swiss names, with a power reserve of 31 hours or so. On the plus side, the service interval is something around 10 years, so consider that a testament to durability rivalling that of a Kalashnikov rifle.
So, we’ve established the Amphibia’s ability to withstand being run over by a truck (no seriously, look it up). It’s got a place in history alongside the Sea-Dwellers and Fifty Fathoms of the watch world. And, due to the glacial pace of incremental changes to the design (and economies of scale), the value proposition is off the charts.
So what’s not to like?
Nothing that should scare you off.
Firstly, the timing bezel is a non-ratcheting bidirectional design, which, while not the best choice for actual diving, lends the Amphibia loads of vintage charm. The same goes for the acrylic crystal. While some dread the idea of scratching the highly domed plexi, I love the look, impossible to replicate in sapphire. And I’m not alone, given the continued popularity of the classic Omega Speedmaster with Hesalite crystal, and microbrand offerings from Lorier, among others. The look, durability, and impact resistance outweighs any perceived disadvantages, and yes, that’ll buff right out.
The lume? Certainly not up to Seiko or Superluminova levels of retina-searing brightness, but again, vintage charm. If you SCUBA dive at night, you’re probably a Navy SEAL anyway.
One thing you are going to want to rid yourself of immediately is the bracelet that many Amphibias are shipped with. A rattily, hair-pulling abomination before God, with worse build quality than the foil tray of a Swanson Hungry-Man Dinner.
Dispose of it as soon as possible.
Nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.
Fortunately, Amphibias are strap monsters, and look great on NATOs, tropic rubber, and any number of heavy leather straps. Go nuts, you’ll spend more than you did on the watch.
Quirks aside, we’ve established that the Vostok Amphibia is a mind-bendingly great deal. You can find them in several different case styles and shapes, and a seemingly endless variety of dial designs. The combinations can seem overwhelming, but trust me, this is the fun part…time to fall down the Russian rabbit hole.
They’re available all over eBay, all at roughly the same cost, but I recommend going through the Meranom store.
Shipping can take several weeks from Russia (especially during a global pandemic), so consider that.
Now with all that out of the way, here are a few of my favorites, including two from my collection.
This was my first Amphibia, and I think it’s one of the most handsome. It’s got a nicely sized tonneau case, a warm, legible silver dial, and best of all…no date! I neglected to mention that the movement does not have a quickset date, so a no-date Vostok is a winner in my book.
This is the one I had to have, the infamous ‘Zissou’ model, named after the world’s most revered fictional oceanographer, Steve Zissou, played by Bill Murray in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic.
The watch, with its somewhat hokey nautical design touches on the dial, porthole-like round case, and function-over-form aesthetic, is a perfect match for Murray’s character, a once-promising explorer, beaten down by a career of questionable choices and hard luck. Steve Zissou is no Rolex customer.
Murray wore his watch on a black rubber dive strap, but I usually pair mine on a NATO in the Team Zissou colors.
Among the dozens of choices you now face, possibly the most iconic Amphibia is the ‘Scuba Dude’ dial variant, available in several different colors and cases. It’s the gateway to all things Vostok, and probably their most popular design.
But again, you’re truly spoiled for choice when it comes to finding the perfect Amphibia dial. You’ll see everything from Russian heraldry symbols, to jets, submarines, tanks, and even Laika, the Cosmonaut dog. Some of the artwork looks like it was made with whatever the Soviet version of Microsoft Paint was, but it’s all part of the fun.
There are way worse ways to spend a few roubles.