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Review: The Chronograph That Channels Groovy ’70s Watch Design

The ’60s are often heralded as a high point in watch design, but in the ’70s, watch companies dared to be avant-garde.

Henry Phillips

In one of my favorite scenes from Judd Apatow’s short-lived series Freaks and Geeks, one of the show’s leads, Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), struts into school wearing his “Parisian nightsuit” to Joe Jackson’s “Look Sharp!” What starts out as suave, cool confidence quickly turns to terrifying self-awareness as other high-schoolers point and laugh at his Saturday Night Fever getup, in spite of their own big collars, sweater-vests and bellbottoms. That was just how things seemed to be in the 1970s: tasteless. After all, the decade gave us leisure suits, wood-paneled dens and bulky malaise-era cars.

According to Kirsty Hislop and Dominic Lutyens, in their book ’70s Style and Design, the experimental design styles of the ‘70s were a product of the “enthusiasm for technology and psychedelic excess” of the 1960s. Somehow this ethos permeated the stuffy watch industry, and watches of the early ’70s were characterized by departures in case design and more predominant use of color, mostly for styling’s sake, rather than the slick minimalist design ethos of the decades before. Think of the overly conspicuous bright-orange seconds hand of the Rolex Explorer II (debuted in 1971) that has become that watch’s calling card, or the octagonal case of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (debuted in 1972).

It was the bold, avant-garde watches of this era that came immediately to mind when I first laid eyes on the Zodiac Sea Dragon. The first thing that stands out is the case, a massive 50mm by 42mm squircle (which, new for 2016 houses an ETA 7750 chronograph movement) with its tall circular bezel sticking out like a porthole window juts out the side of a bitchin’ custom van. The next prominent feature is the watch’s face. The Sea Dragon comes in a variety of dial designs, but each makes use of contrasting bright colors. Generally, simple and cohesive color choices have become the predominant choices for watchmakers striving for elegance, but the use of orange, blue, cream and silver on the Sea Dragon is a reminder that sometimes the watch industry likes to have fun.

The Sea Dragon is not a direct reissue of any one watch, but moreso inspired by a variety of the brand’s timepieces from the era. As with any other high-profile company from the time, Zodiac wasn’t afraid to experiment with offbeat ideas. For example, the squared-off, striped tips of the Sea Dragon’s hands are reminiscent of the Astrographic, which put the hands on transparent discs, giving them visual effect of floating in mid air. The case itself is reminiscent of Zodiac’s angular, oddly shaped Sea Wolf SST.

It takes a sense of humor to really appreciate the look. The Zodiac is kind of the Bruce Campbell of watches — brash, a little absurd but undeniably groovy and cool.

Admittedly, it, and other ’70s-style watches, aren’t for everyone. The large, chunky case isn’t graceful and won’t pair particularly well with anything beyond weekend casual. And in an era with design characterized by stark minimalism (think Apple, street style, downsized watch cases and anything with a Red Dot award) the boldly colored dial doesn’t quite synch up.

What it takes to really appreciate the look is a sense of humor. The Zodiac is kind of the Bruce Campbell of watches — brash, a little absurd, but undeniably groovy and cool. Look at a similarly outlandish Omega Seamaster Bullhead or a Seiko 6139 “Helmet” from the same era; if you love watches, it’s difficult not to crack an admiring smile.

It wasn’t long after this era of experimentation that most of the Swiss watch industry tanked due to the growing influx of cheap quartz watches into the market from Japan in the latter half ‘70s. Zodiac was among many watchmakers to fold, and was eventually purchased by Fossil, which has been careful to pair the brand’s history with its entry-level prices; that’s been apparent in the relaunched Zodiac Sea Wolf, the Astrograph and now with the Sea Dragon, which offers a distinct design while giving it a quality Swiss movement at a very reasonable price point. Even if you firmly believe brash ‘70s design is as embarrassing as a Parisian nightsuit, Zodiac deserves plenty of credit for that.

Buy Now: $2,495+

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