If you’re a watch enthusiast I don’t need to tell you that the hobby can be misunderstood. The uninitiated can view it as stuffy, something reserved for wrinkly old rich white dudes with too much money to spend. People who are passionate about watches know better. It’s not about the money, it’s about high-level craftsmanship, engineering, design, and history. An inexpensive watch can be highly regarded and sought after because of its merit in those areas. With this series, I want to help bring to light watches that are relatively inexpensive but deserve your attention nonetheless. Watches that can serve as an entry point into this usually very expensive hobby.
First up, the Vostok Amphibia line. The Vostok is a Russian watch company founded in 1942, then referred to as only the Chistopol Watch Factory. The brands’ story reads like a spy novel. From being commissioned for the military to spending time in space the Vostok Amphibia has a backstory that competes with any watch. The brand was appointed as the official supplier of watches for the Ministry of Defense of the Soviet Union in the ’60s and in 1967 was commissioned by the USSR Navy to make a watch that could compete with contemporary dive watches. However due to copyrights, patents, and the fact that Russia didn’t have the proper tools or infrastructure that Switzerland had they couldn’t use a lot of the techniques used by their foreign counterparts. The constraints turned out to be great for creativity.
Designers Mikhail Novikov & Vera Belov had to innovate and come up with a new type of dive watch. The traditional way of making a dive watch at the time, and today, was to make the watch impervious to the influence of the environment around it. But this type of watch is static in this state, it’s the same sitting on your desk as it is 1000 feet underwater. Vostok came up with a rather ingenious design solution that utilized the outside pressure experienced when sinking deeper into water. The deeper you go, the higher the pressure, the more tightly sealed the watch gets. Using special gaskets that could compress and retract as needed as well as plexiglass for their watch crystal that would flex under pressure, they created a watch with 200m water resistance in 1967. Over time the watch proved to be a capable tool and companion worn by military and civilians alike.
Fast forward to 1975, Soviet Cosmonaut Georgy Grechko takes the Soyuz-17 spacecraft on an expedition to the Salyut-4 and what watch does he take with him on the voyage? A Vostok Amphibia. The watch was with him all 29 days of the trip and when he returned he gifted it to the Vostok Chistopol watch factory. A watch proven to work as great deep in the ocean as it does in the harsh environment of space. A quote from Vostok’s website sums up their watchmaking ideology “Time will always respect and support that which is strong, but will turn to dust those that are not durable.” It’s because of this great history and purpose-built design that the watch has such a strong cult following to this day. I suspect the watch could cost multiples more and still be perceived as a great value. Even with the romantic history and toolish charm, the Vostok Amphibia is still a niche in the already niche hobby of watches.
I first came across the Vostok Amphibia about 8 years ago. I was up late at night browsing the watch internet when I came across an article from a less well known at the time website called Hodinkee. As far as I can find it’s still the only article on the site about one of these watches. A few things about the watch immediately resonated with me, first I thought it looked great. There was a definite no-nonsense appeal to the watch. You could tell it was built for a purpose, the “scuba dude” as he is affectionately referred to by many Amphibia fans leaves no room for questioning what the watch was built for. Second, the ingenuity of the design. Like a judoka who uses an attacker’s force and momentum to hurl them through the air, the designers of the Amphibia took the crushing pressure of the ocean, the demise of many great watches, and used it to make the watch stronger. Third and arguably most importantly for any watch was the price. You can essentially have your pick of the litter among the numerous Amphibia configurations for less than $100. After reading the Hodinkee article I hunted the internet and bought one within minutes. I had never owned an automatic watch before, and I especially loved dive watches. I still own it to this day and upon winding it kicks right back up where it left off ready for whatever may be thrown its way. The Amphibia, for me, is the best value proposition in mechanical watches. You get an automatic dive watch with great looks, storied military and space exploration history at a price that rivals an SUV’s tank of gas. *Sips coffee, change my mind.