Price: £50 on average as new, £10 International shipping. Vintage models circa 1970s/80s significantly more.
Russia – a mysterious land. In the west, known mainly for communism, vodka, and a car company with an unfair reputation heavily ridiculed by 1980s British comedians. If Russia was ‘that kid’ in school, he would be the enigmatic hard kid that school bullies left alone, shrouded in endless rumour and legend; that guy who supposedly copped his first boob feel when he was 12 and got laid when he was 13. A country not normally known for a watch that gives a Casio G Shock a run for its money.
Enter the Vostok Amphibia, and the Komandiriskie.
Vostok was first created in 1942, based in Christopol and appointed official supplier of watches to the Russian Ministry of Defence in 1965 which gave birth to the Komandiriskie. In 1967, they were given the unenviable task of creating a watch with 200 meters water resistance that could compete with the Swiss in terms of ruggedness and durability, without their large budget. After some clever innovation, reverse engineering of existing diver’s watches, and looking under the couch then raiding the piggy bank for funds – they created a seriously impressive automatic watch for peanuts. Desired by collectors with an intriguing history and aesthetic all of its own, as worn by Bill Murray in the film ‘The Life Aquatic By Steve Zissou’ which has furthered the watches iconic status.
In the flesh
The Vostok Amphibia and Komandiriskie use a unique design that works in such a way that the further the watch is submerged, the more waterproof it becomes. The watches feature a threaded locking ring where the case back pushes into a rubber gasket that becomes tighter under increasing water pressure, combined with a screw down crown ensuring no water penetrates the watch. A YouTube search reveals the Amphibia surviving pressure tests well beyond their projected water resistance to double the manufacturer’s figures of 200 meters which is testament to the watches incredible design. Both watches feature a 60 minute bidirectional bezel, that can be used as a countdown timer.
For those uninitiated, both models are ‘automatic’ movements; they require no batteries with a free spinning semi circle shaped counterweight inside that moves and winds the watch when the wearer is walking around performing day to day tasks. In theory, such a watch can last forever until it eventually succumbs to mechanical wear and tear, or until the watch is taken off – lasting 31 hours before it stops. The watches have the option of hand winding if desired, but in a cycle of regular use shouldn’t be needed. Amusingly certain companies are championing these watches as “Eco Friendly” like it’s a new thing, despite the fact automatic wrist watches came into mainstream existence from 1930.
Day to day running and set up
Upon setting the watch, the new owner will be thrown off by the strange wobbly crown when trying to set the time and date – this is an anti shock feature to ensure the watch still performs after a sharp jolt or sudden impact. The watch should start from dead after being picked up for a minute or two, and can be set by pulling the crown out 2 clicks and with light backward force can stop the second hand at 12 o’clock to ‘zero set’ the watch to an accurate source of your choice. Setting the date is a faff, as you need to forward the hands to 12 am to make the date advance, turn back to 8pm then forward to 12am until you get the desired date.
Now that you’ve set the time. pulling the crown out to the first click and winding 20 times should fully power the mainspring. Screw down the crown to seal the watches innards from the elements, and you’re good to go.
Komandiriskie K35 variant
The Komandiriskie differs slightly, offering 100 meters water resistance versus the Amphibia’s 200 meters – something that shouldn’t bother most people unless they were planning on scuba diving with them; in everyday use both will survive messing around cleaning your pond, fish tank, getting caught out in the rain or washing the dishes. There are numerous variants, styles, and face designs of both watches – but the K35 is of particular interest.
Notably, this model features a 24 hour time window which tells the wearer the hour reading in a 24 hour permutation, date window, and a ‘day and night’ indicator. The latter is particularly quirky as the window slowly fades into black from 8 pm onwards to indicate night, and into white after 8 am to indicate daytime. One can argue such a feature is superfluous, but this adds to its overall charm. This example features a one piece zulu strap made from nylon, that feels similar to tent fabric and boot straps; aiding to its military style appearance, with thickened spring bars that hold it more securely.
Build quality and accuracy
Both models are particularly simple watches with a ‘meat and potatoes’ design centred on ruggedness and reliability over build quality. The watch glass is made from acrylic and can scuff easily, and metal bracelet models are particularly cheap, rattly, and badly finished resulting in tearing out arm hairs. Many collectors swap the terrible bracelet for an improved metal bracelet, leather, rubber or nato/zulu ‘one piece’ type – and fall down a rabbit hole of endless customisation possibilities adding to further watch personalisation. Accuracy is very reasonable, gaining around 10-12 seconds a day in the examples I own, although many first time owners of automatic watches lose sleep worrying about the differences in performance compared to quartz movements.
Short of going on holiday to Russia yourself and importing one, nearly all Vostok watches are purchased online. They are advertised on Amazon, but cost almost double due to coming from European or British dealers that have taken the legwork of importing them. Otherwise, the delivery can take 4-6 weeks due to Russia’s appallingly inefficient state run postal service – so it pays to shop carefully.
The official online store is Meranom.com, where the cheapest automatic models starting from around £50 upwards dependent on what style, case, and strap you desire. The best stockist on eBay is MoscowTimeSeller, with the cheapest deals where I’ve purchased my examples and are a pleasure to deal with.