Hi. My name’s Brent and I’m a Vostok-a-holic. It’s been three weeks since my last purchase, and frankly, I’m likely to do it again. Soon. I’m not asking for your help. I’m just here to explain myself. Some of you feel me already. For the rest, give it time.
Just so we’re clear, I am referring to that loveable Scuba Dude, the Vostok Amphibia.
Talk about a tool watch. In 1967, the first Amphibias rolled out of Chistopol in the Soviet Union. Chief designers, Mikhail Fedorovich Novikov and Vera Fedorovna Belova, had been charged with the task of producing a watch for the Soviet military that could withstand the pressure and temperatures of 20 atmos. But isolated from the West, the duo had to start from scratch. They did not have access to the same technologies at the disposal of more advanced Swiss watchmakers.
The solution? Keep it simple stupid (KISS). Use the pressure outside the watch to make it waterproof. Similar to a compressor case, the deeper the Amphibia sinks, the tighter the seal, the more waterproof it becomes.
Early Vostoks used 3mm thick lucite crystals and stainless steel casebacks with threaded locking rings that were twice as thick as the average dive watch. The extra-large gaskets required to withstand the pressures were made of sintered rubber–a product which had been previously developed for the Soviet space program.
The end design was brutal, but effective. In fact, like the Omega Speedmaster, the humble Vostok Amphibia was worn into space in 1975 by Soviet cosmonaut G.M. Grechko in Soyuz-17.
It reminds me of the urban legend that has NASA spending $12 billion to develop a pen which would write in space, while cosmonauts simply used a pencil. Only the Vostok story is true.
Even now, you can pick up a functioning vintage Vostok for less than $50USD. Heck, you can pick up a new one for $75!
Today, the Amphibia comes in more than a dozen different case designs. However, when you consider the various dials, bezels, hands, crowns, movements, and straps…well, I’m no mathematician, but the options appear innumerable. At the time of publication, Meranom (Authorized Dealer since 2012), offers 243 distinct models.
And yet, with all these options to choose from…the practice of Vostok modding has practically become a competitive sport. Dozens of online purveyors offer up after market parts for the industrious and creative enthusiast community. Vostokamphibia.com provides a wonderful catalogue of the “100 Best Vostok Amphibia Mod Watches”—which itself is but the tip of the iceberg.
It must be said, however, in spite of all the passion, that the Vostok Amphibia is far from perfect. The majority employ a bi-directional friction bezel, for example, that is very easy to accidentally move. You would hardly wish to be depending on such a mechanism while diving. It could also be argued that while attractive, the case design of most Amphibias lacks subtlety and elegance. And as for the bracelets, well, a friend of mine once called his “the Vostok Gillette.”
So, what is it about the Amphibia which feeds the frenzy of its admirers?
To be fair, Amphibias are notoriously tough. Beyond the Press, an entertaining YouTube Channel from Finland, recently published a video demonstrating just how tough, in fact. When placed inside a Deep Sea Chamber, the Vostok–rated only to a depth of 200m water resistance—actually withstood the ocean’s pressure to an astounding 800m before failure. Given that most recreational divers never descend below 30m—the point at which nitrogen narcosis sets in—and that the world record for a SCUBA dive is 332m, you can safely assume the Amphibia will not fail you in a pool.
And then there’s the aforementioned price. If you are willing to forgive the Russian postal service and order direct, then in three months’ time you will be the proud owner of a $75, tough-as-nails automatic dive watch. Even if you have no sense of delayed gratification, you can order a Vostok Amphibia from Amazon and other third-party sellers for under $100USD. The value is undeniable.
However, as a recent convert, I have another theory. People love an underdog. They make great mythology. And make no mistake, the origin of the Amphibia is an underdog story. I picture Novikov and Belova huddled around a shop table late at night under a single bulb staring at failed design efforts and a smattering of watch parts. Maybe there is a bottle of Vodka between them. Outside the window of a warehouse in the foothills of the Urals, where they are inexplicably holed up (cursing James Bond and his dashing Seamaster), three feet of snow has accumulated. Around them, the Cold War rages…and then, one of them has an idea. Eureka.
Honestly, it oughta be a movie…even if it didn’t happen.
About the author
Other Watchy Bits include op-ed pieces and articles of general interest. We’d love to hear your opinion in the comments section below.