Today, I would like to introduce an iconic Soviet military watch. The Vodolaz ChS 191 is a watch with a lot of history behind it. It is special for many reasons.
During World War II, the armed forces of many countries created submarine combat units. These elite corps were established to perform sabotage actions in ports against ships and other enemy naval targets, and to defend against these same types of attacks. Perhaps one of the best known of all is the Italian “Decima Flotigia Mas”, although most of the nations involved in World War II created their own units. The Soviets were no exception, creating their Combat Diver Troops unit in 1939, based out of the Baltic Sea.
These special underwater combat forces, being so new, had to innovate and design almost all their equipment. This also applied to the watches they wore, which were an essential part of their kit. Let’s see some examples of these.
There is no specific information that I have encountered indicating that the Soviets developed a dive watch for their specialist units during WWII.
In 1941, of course, the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany, so the Soviets drew up, and executed, evacuation plans for all their watch factories to the east of the country, as we explored in our post about Chistopol. It was precisely in a factory evacuated to the Urals (Zlatoust) where the Vodolaz 191 began to be manufactured in the early 1950s.
The Vodolaz 191 is an impressive wristwatch. It has a diameter of 60 mm without the crown, a height of 20mm, and weighs in above 250 g.
The website german242.com has a fabulous detailed review of the Vodolaz 191.
The piece is housed in a monobloc stainless steel case and has a water resistance of 300m. As far as I can tell, it was the first monobloc case design ever built.
It was in production between 1950 and the mid 1970, approximately. During this time, these versions were built. This reflects the classification made by a collector according to case type and serial numbers. We show these three types below, with suitable descriptions. Like much else to do with Soviet watches, this classification, while well documented, cannot be ruled as definitive.
According to the above classification, my unit would have been produced in the late 1960s, and the dial is fortunately free of radium paint. Below we show catalogue information about the piece.
It is, as mentioned earlier, a large and heavy watch, adapted to the suits of Soviet combat divers, as we can see in the following images.
However, the best graphic testimony that I have found is in the 1964 Soviet film”След в океане” (or Footprint in the Ocean), where we can see close-ups of the watch, roughly in the 28th minute.
As we have already mentioned above, the watch has a monobloc case and access to the caliber is not easy. Once achieved, we find a Type 1 movement, signed with the Zlatoust factory logo.
The strap is very long and is a mixture of rubber and synthetic green textile. The strap incorporates a fixed pin buckle.
Iconic as it is, by the late 1960s, the Vodolaz 191 was showing signs of age. In a book about equipment for Soviet divers, from 1969, there is a section which reads: “the modern Vostok Amphibia is recommended for diving.” I believe we can conclude from this either that the Vodolaz 191 was only supplied to the armed forces, or more likely, that it had become obsolete against the Amphibia.
Being an iconic military watch, collectors need to be mindful that fake versions abound. Below, I list some key issues you must take into account if you are considering acquiring a real vintage Vodolaz 191.
- Originals have no brand or diver markings on the dial, or on the case back.
- Originals have cases exclusively made out of stainless steel, with a matte finish, and are never polished. The case backs, of all three types, have concentric rings.
- In originals, the serial number, if included, will appear perpendicular to the crown. There are some exceptions to this, but it is better not to take the risk.
- Originals have three fixing screws for the crown. Always ask for photos showing this.
- Originals have three-segment cathedral hands and no seconds hand. The first type does have minute markers on the dial. The second and third types only have them at five-minute intervals.
- The dial of originals should show two screws to secure the caliber. These should be at the 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock positions. If elsewhere, other calibers, likely from Molnija or Raketa, are used and are therefore not original pieces.
- A lot of attention need to be placed on any “box and papers” versions. Almost perfect fakes were built in Piter in 2007, albeit finished in a polished case and with a red stamp in the passport, in English, that reads “No Radiation.” These passports, normally dated to 1976, are also fake. Flee from these!
- Originals never had “shrapnel guards”, which are a sure sign of a fake.
Below we can see some examples of fakes watches. More information about fake vintage Vodolaz 191s can be found in the link.
Lastly, it is important to mention that there are some “grey area” versions. For example, Agat produced several re-issues, which are definitely legit, but clearly not original. Invicta built a re-edition too. I have also encountered reports in several sites suggesting that Undefeated built 100 units for the Soviet government, and that such a re-edited version predates any of the Agat ones, although I have found no official record of this.