Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Zodiac Sea Wolf.
The heritage associated with the first dive watches doesn’t have to cost you many thousands of dollars. That’s what you’ll pay for the descendants of the Rolex Submariner or the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms which, in 1953, helped introduce the world to the dive watch as we know it today. A much more affordable way to enjoy that history, however, is via the oft-forgotten but venerable Zodiac Sea Wolf, introduced the very same year. Whether you’re talking about a vintage piece or a watch from the modern brand, a Zodiac is the real deal and offers serious value.
1953 saw the introduction of the first dive watches with the features and style we recognize today, but they weren’t the first dive watches outright — there had already been decades of experimentation with water-resistant watch cases. Notably, the 1922 Rolex Submarine encased the watch’s head in a second watertight outer case of its own. Ten years later, the 135m water-resistant Omega Marine took a similar approach, and was considered the first commercially available watch made specifically for diving. (Its rectangular case, however, looks a lot closer to something like a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso than to what you or I would consider a “dive watch.”)
Meanwhile, the 1927 Rolex Oyster used a screw-down crown to create a water-resistant watch without an outer case that survived prolonged exposure in the English Channel. This was the solution that proved enduring, and it’s still a feature of most dive (and other water-resistant) watches today. Meanwhile, Panerai’s early dive watches, which debuted in the 1930s, displayed the bold hour markers and luminant that are characteristic of today’s dive watches.
Thus, the disparate elements of dive watches were beginning to coalesce. However, it’s undoubtedly the rotating bezel that has become the dive watch’s most iconic feature. This more or less burst onto the scene in 1953 on the Rolex Submariner, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, and the Zodiac Sea Wolf (as well as on watches not made for diving, such as the Glycine Airman with its 24-hour bezel).
Photo by Theo & Harris
These early dive watches all had markers on their bezels that were intended for use in conjunction with the minute hand: The wearer could turn the bezel to line the top triangular (or diamond-shaped, in the case of the Fifty Fathoms) marker with the minute hand to more easily track elapsed minutes at any given time. The specific use for divers was to time bottom time or decompression stops, in which one must stop periodically when ascending to allow time for gasses in the body to escape and avoid potentially dangerous effects. Like those of modern dive watches, these bezels were easily grippable to allow for use underwater.
According to Zodiac itself, the Sea Wolf was the first watch to feature the first 15 minutes of the hour highlighted on the bezel — a nearly ubiquitous feature on dive watches today, including on those from Rolex and Blancpain. (A signature of the Zodiac Sea Wolf is that its unidirectional steel bezel has a 30-minute marker and no other numbers on the bezel, allowing it to be used to count up or down.) Later Sea Wolf models would use colored Bakelite bezels, creating an even more vibrant and distinctive look.
The Sea Wolf in its most familiar vintage form is a bit quirky, with its prominent triangular markers at 3, 6, 9, and 12 o’clock, each with numerals inside. At 34mm wide, it houses an automatic movement made by A. Schild. Automatic movements were actually an important component of water-resistance, because regularly unscrewing a crown to wind it can also cause wear that will affect the seals, which keep water out. Sources differ as to whether the Sea Wolf’s water-resistance in 1953 was 100m or 200m; the Rolex Submariner’s was 100m; and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was — well, 50 fathoms, of course, which is equivalent to 91.44m.
Photo by Ad Patina
Each of the dive watches introduced in 1953 would go on to further refinement and increased water resistance, and would grow into a collection with different models and features. But it’s remarkable just how much of the winning formula was present right then in 1953, and that each of these watches emerged at roughly the same time.
The Zociac Sea Wolf would go on to gain popularity in the 1970s and become associated with US soldiers, some of whom may have worn them in Vietnam. Vintage models enjoy cult appreciation, but they’re small for some modern tastes — though that’s changing — and this has helped keep them more affordable. The modern brand also produces an entire Super Sea Wolf collection, including some models that are based on the original from 1953.
Well into five figures is where vintage Rolex and Blancpain dive watches start. Modern versions, of course, capitalize on their prestige and heritage, as well as offer incredibly impressive products. The Zodiac Sea Wolf’s claim to history and innovation, however, is just as real, and far more financially accessible — often for well under $1,000.