Nota: Esta es la entrada original. La versión en castellano la encontraréis en este vínculo.
I would dare to affirm that among watch enthusiasts in general, it is hard to find anyone who does not know the Vostok Amphibia. Now over 50 years in production, this piece has become the most recognised showcase of Russian-Soviet watchmaking. Throughout my years as an enthusiast and collector of watches, I have heard many an epithet about the Vostok Amphibia, mostly along the lines of it being a crude, basic and poorly finished watch… However, would you think this way if I told you that, in terms of design and functionality, it was better built than the contemporaneous, and much acclaimed, Blancpain Fifty Fathoms? In fact, our protagonist was born with such great technical characteristics and design that it continues to be produced in the very same way today. Let’s now explore this first Amphibia, known as the Type 350.
It was in the 1960s when the Soviet Navy entrusted the Chistopol factory, renamed Vostok, with the production of a submersible watch which was to be comfortable, practical, durable and fit for use both on land and at depth under water.
At that time, the only Soviet Navy issue watch used by its divers was the impressive Vodolaz 191, which we already covered in a previous post.
However, the Vodolaz was becoming increasingly obsolete compared with the new generations of diving watches that appeared in Western markets and that were replacing the generation of watches that had seen combat in WWII. In the images below we show some of the most representative new diving watches of this era.
As discussed above, the order to manufacture this watch was awarded to the Vostok factory, which already made watches for the Soviet Army and were known by the label “Komandirskie”. This is a good opportunity to go off on a tangent, and to address an issue that I have often asked myself. Is the “Amphibia” a mere “upgrade” of the “Komandirskie”? I have carried out some research along this line of enquiry, yet I have been unable to find anything on the matter. However, it is undeniable that they have similar looks and build.
The engineers Mikhail Fedorovich Novikov and Vera Feodorovna Belova oversaw the design of the first Amphibia. There is an invaluable document available describing their ordeal. It is an interview with the creators of the watch, and it is possibly the best information source to understand the birth of the Amphibia1.
The first important point to emerge from the engineers’ statements stresses that they designed the watch by themselves, without purchasing any foreign patent. It is well known among enthusiasts that the Soviet Union developed its watchmaking industry thanks to the acquisition of patents, factories and equipment from Western countries, such as the examples of purchases from Hampden in the USA or LIP in France. In their own words:
“At that time there was a set of waterproof watches of various designs produced in Switzerland. It would seem that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. But we couldn’t repeat the designs as our equipment did not allow to provide the required accuracy. Besides, almost all designs were protected by patents and it was impossible to copy them. The question of the patent acquisition didn’t even arise, as far as I remember, there was no attempt to purchase a patent or a license for use in the USSR. We patented our work, protected it, and didn’t buy “their” patent.”
Thus, Mikhail Fedorovich and Vera Feodorovna focused on the study of the various ways to waterproof a watch, seeking a low-cost solution that was both effective and functional. Again, in their own words:
“Our task was not to find a technical solution but to deliver the same effective solution, as good as foreign examples, if possible, a better one, but not via a patent. And therefore we developed our own design which we could manufacture and which didn’t repeat someone else’s. Of course, at the same time, many sealing options were considered, we rated them by the efficiency of sealing and their cost.”
Studying the end result for the Type 350, we can infer that the engineers based their design on the principal of dynamic water tightness, i.e. the greater the pressure the watch bears, the more watertight it becomes. This does not mean that the watch is not watertight in a vacuum, yet the greater the depth, the greater the pressure it is able to support, until a mechanical limit is reached.
This principle had already been used and patented in watchmaking, by Edwin Piquerez. Years before the Amphibia came to be, Blancpain, alongside LIP, developed a dive watch for the French Navy based on this principle of dynamic water tightness. Is it possible that LIP engineers provided some “help” to their Soviet counterparts, considering their strong relationship?
In the images below we can compare the case back of the Fifty Fathoms with that of the Type 350
In the images below we can again compare the acclaimed Blancpain against a disassembled Amphibia Type 350. At first glance, there would seem to be a lot of similarities between both watches, yet the differences are also undeniable as well shall examine shortly.
If we read carefully through the interview with Mikhail Fedorovich and Vera Feodorovna, we can ascertain that they focused on four elemental, and critical, components to guarantee the water tightness of the watch, namely the crystal, the case back, the crown and the case. Guided by the above-mentioned interview, and following the guidelines from this article, we aim to unravel below how these Soviet engineers managed to create one of the best dive watches ever made.
The first Amphibia used poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA), i.e. acrylic or Plexiglas. This plastic material is very flexible, resistant and transparent, and is also easy to polish. It had been widely used in the military industry, for example to manufacture aircraft canopies, submarine periscope lenses, etc. Its domed shape is very much intentional. This design better spreads the load borne by the surface, which together with the flexibility of the acrylic, meant that it was able to expand up to 0.5 mm when subjected to 20 kg/cm2 of pressure (the equivalent to 20 atmospheres, or 200 m depth), increasing further the water tightness of the watch. It is important to note that the thickness of the acrylic for the Amphibia was some 50% greater than that used for the Komandirskie, reaching 3 mm. The advantages relative to mineral crystal were evident. The latter, due to its lack of flexibility, requires huge thickness to withstand such high pressures, and once scratched, it is difficult to polish. Moreover, they mineral crystals is more expensive to produce. The use of sapphire in dive watches is a relatively new phenomenon, and it also entails certain problems.
The case back is made from two parts, unlike traditional screw down ones. The first is secured into two small flanges in the case, above the sealing gasket. The second is a screw down pressure ring that compresses, and secures, the other two elements. This system was already in use for the Komandirskie, as we observed in an earlier image. However, compared to the latter, the thickness of the parts was increased for the Amphibia, including the rubber sealing gasket, which is wider and has a greater diameter. But how does pressure act on these three elements?
If we look closely, the first thing that we notice is that the gasket sealing surface in an Amphibia is noticeable larger than the round sealing rings used in the Blancpain, for example. This alone is an advantage in terms of achieving water tightness and coping with rises in pressure, as this is spread over a much larger surface than usual. At high pressure, the rubber gasket could contract up to 30% relative to its maximum thickness yet return to its normal size once the pressure was reduced. This characteristic was also very useful for diving in very cold water. In order to achieve this performance, a special type of rubber had to be used, superior to that used in the Komandirskie, and made for the space race. It was ionised, totally uniform and free of all porosity.
The Amphibia had a screw-down crown, with a rubber sealing gasket within it. Its most notable feature was the use of a clutch between the stem and the crown. When pulling out the crown, or pushing it in, this clutch results i a very particular feeling, as if the crown were loose. This system provides additional protection for the stem and the caliber, as neither must bear any pressure. Thus, the stem cannot deform, or break (this, improbable as it may seem, can ordinarily result from a big knock to the case, or the crown). We are always mindful, and careful, of not actuating the crown when a watch is worn on the wrist, as this could bend the stem. With the Amphibia design, however, this become impossible. This novelty was specifically designed for the caliber 2209 used in the first Amphibia model.
The case of the first Amphibia is round-shaped, and the last digit of its type indicates it was fully made from stainless steel. This represented a major advance relative to the chrome plated Komandirskie case, given that stainless steel is more resistant to corrosion, withstands knocks better and is anti-allergenic. Yet I think the most noticeable characteristic are the swivel lugs. The watch designers explained that they could not design a case with fixed lugs able to pass the pressure testing process. This might be the case, but I doubt it; I find it very surprising that during a period when the Soviet Union thrived, they did not have the equipment to manufacture a fixed-lug steel case. Mind you, this is mere supposition on my part, and regardless, the solution delivered is magnificent as the swivel lugs allow for a more comfortable and quicker adjustment of the strap over a diving suit. The Type 350 case is 38.5 mm wide without the crown, and 42.5 mm with it. It measures 45 mm between lugs and the case is 12 mm thick.
This entire set of rather ingenious solutions allowed the Vostok Amphibia (which was tested to withstand the pressures down to 200 m of depth) the incredible capacity to operate down to 500 m depth. The case did not collapse until exposed to 82 bars of pressure, as evidenced in this video.
There are some further simple issues, although also interesting ones, in respect of the Type 350. When did they first show up? Did the Type 350 follow the military version, known as the NVCh-30, and which was factory tested down to 300 m of depth?
Let’s return to the direct testimony of its creators to find out.
“Also, military modification NVCh-30 of “Amphibian” was issued. When seamen came to NIICHASPROM with the order for diver watch, they were told that they already produce a similar model in Chistopol. To provide the hermeticity required for 30 atm pressure we had to modify serial “Amphibia”. In NVCh-30 there was a different glass configuration and thicker cover.”
Thus, it seems clear that the first model manufactured was the Type 350. The differences between the two types are significant. The NVCh-30 (designed to withstand 30 atmospheres) has swivel lugs adapted for a single pass strap without the need for spring bars (what is known nowadays as a ZULU). In fact, the swivel lugs of the military models have such a distinctive shape that this watch has acquired the nickname “eared”. It also has a thicker case, a thicker double domed crystal and a thicker case back. Overall, this confers a more robust look versus our protagonist. According to my dear friend Matt Brace, who authored an unmissable study about the NNVCh-30, its production began in 1971 (or at least this is the earliest reference known about this type of watch). The NVCh-30 was tested under extreme conditions:
“The main part of tests was carried out in NIICHASPROM, and the component acceptance test was passed during maneuvers of the fleet in the North Sea. By the way, there was a rehearsal of something similar to the rescue of Kursk crew. The submarine laid down on the bottom at a depth of 120-130 meters, imitating accident. There were two saving ships, the enormous pontoon crane “Carpaty”, diving bells, decompression cameras, and a crew of divers. The scheme of operation is this: the bell goes down from the ship, it is set on the special attached platform by the boat, it is forced to it by the pressure. People go from the boat into the bell and they are lifted up to the decompression chamber. During that training, we lifted one group of six people. Divers who worked at depth had our watches. Both tests and maneuvers went well.”
However, did the military also use the Type 350? We assume so, as the Soviet Navy made, or instigated, the order to develop the diving watch. In the image below we show a second generation NVCh-30, alongside an illustration from a combat diving manual dated from 1980.
Now let’s return to the Type 350. The design and development of the Type 350 was completed in 1967. The first reference (from a first-hand source) that I have encountered stems from another diving manual, from 1969. This book recommends using the “modern Amphibia” with the capability to dive down to 200 m.
The following graphic references have been extracted from several catalogues, from 1970, I estimate, and 1972 (the one in colour). In the images we can see that the bezel is very different from the one on my units, since they are made of aluminium.
The next known catalogue where our watch appears is from 1976, and we can already see a version with Latin characters on the dial, destined for the export markets. It can also be appreciated that the bezel is different again.
Lastly, in the following image we see a catalogue for the Polish market, dated to 1977 and which appears to show a seconds hand of a greater thickness, although this cannot be clearly ascertained.
I would like to end this exposé making a small historical claim for this magnificent watch. The Vostok Amphibia deserves, in my opinion, a place of honour among diving watches that were developed in the 1960s. I have no wish to judge why the market values a Blancpain, or vintage Rolex, of the era at more than 1,000 times what a “modest” vintage Amphibia Type 350 fetches. It is more basic than this. We are talking about a watch that has not had to change any of its basic design characteristics for over 50 years, and yet remains a sales success. This aspect alone makes it really “special”, and I consider that its low price, in this case, represents an additional attraction and not a reason to ignore what is an exceptional watch.
PS. I want to mention that the Amphibia Type 350 was also used by Soviet cosmonauts. Another achievement to add, in the lengthy history of this watch…
1 The general meaning of the word amphibia was used in the Soviet Union to designate diving watches. There are other examples, such as the Poljot Amphibia and the Raketa Amphibia.