Modernity, innovation, and boldness are the signature hallmarks of Zodiac watches—and these particular style points reflect the larger context of the times in which the company was established.
As the nineteenth century transitioned into the twentieth, the classically inspired forms of the Victorian Era, proliferated by advances in mass production, began to move back into the shadows of history as modern simplicity moved into the foreground.
The flowery, ornate shapes inspired by antiquity began to disappear as clean, bold, and often simple designs found expression in the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modern movements—like the faces of iconic Zodiac vintage watches.
Featured image by @wristshotnomatterwhat who has a lot of beautiful vintage Zodiacs in his collection.
Ariste Calame, the founder or Zodiac, first set up shop in the Swiss municipality of Le Locle, where several other fundamental brands got their start—many of their stories showcased at the Le Locle Horological Museum housed in Monts Castle.
Having a long term vision of building a reputable and family-run watchmaking company, Calame sent his son Louis to watchmaking school; Louis took the reins of the business just five years before the turn of the 20th century, and the company would remain a family affair for almost a century.
Originally Calame had named the company after himself, but started shifting towards Zodiac, and registered the name in 1908. During their nascent years, Zodiac actually manufactured watch movements and parts for other makers, even ones as far away as Seiko, which had started in Japan in the early 1880’s.
Almost three decades later, Zodiac was ready to make their own watches. By 1928 they had released their own pocket watch, which used a unique caliber with a 1167 movement.
Can I get your autograph?
The Zodiac Autographic came next—aptly named for its status as a sports watch. Though there are several variations of this signature piece, some with chapter rings comprised of ticks, others numbers, and still others alternating combinations of the two, boldness and simplicity are two terms that stand out in every variation.
The self-winding Autographic boasted several features such as a hardened crystal, shock resistance, and a power reserve gauge. Moreover, it was also water-resistant, foreshadowing the arrival of one of Zodiac’s next iconic pieces.
A waterproof watch? Sea it to believe it.
In 1953, Zodiac brought the Sea Wolf into a world that was just seeing the reconstruction of postwar Europe and the rise of Rock n’ Roll. This forward-looking timepiece was (and is) remarkable for being one of the world’s first watches purposefully crafted for diving (hence its name). The other contender is the famous Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, released the same year.
The thick bronze-toned bezel ring was turnable and could help divers keep track of of how much time had elapsed—and therefore how much oxygen was left in their tanks. The black face was punctuated by almost enormous but aerodynamic arrow-hands, the signature icon of the Zodiac brand, and the words Sea Wolf and Automatic inscribed in cursive. Arrows pointed in toward the center of the face for the 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00 marks, while the remaining hours were indicated by commanding lines.
The robust and durable watch was not only an instant hit with divers (its intended crowd) but also many other athletes, both professional and amateur, who would benefit from its easily readable design and the useful timekeeping feature of the movable bezel.
But it only got better from there. In the late 1970’s Zodiac brought it up another level with the Super Sea Wolf, offering an increase in pressure rating to 750 meters—compared to the original Sea Wolf’s 200. Orange coloring was added to the dial and hands to make its visibility underwater even greater.
The future is on your wrist
Zodiac pushed the limits of design with their release of the Astrographic in 1971. The Astrographic came in round and square options, with transparent discs and floating batons that gave the appearance of hands magically moving around the clock face (have a look at this video to have a better understanding).
Though the idea was funky and well-placed into the future-looking zeitgeist of the 70’s (for example, when video games first started coming on the market), it was actually an idea with some older precedents expressed by Cartier, and even older models constructed by sleight-of-hand masters. Nonetheless, Zodiac’s spin on the idea had an almost outer-space like touch to the design, and was a huge hit with the consumer market.
The Dark Years
The family saga of the Calame Family as it relates to Zodiac ended with their sale of the company in 1978. The brand had already been faltering due to cheaply made Swiss competitors, and a near-death blow was delivered by quartz watches. Zodiac, now managed by the Swiss consortium Dixi Group, lost touch with their sports-watch-roots and phased into poorly-made imitations of popular dress watches.
In 1990 Zodiac was purchased by Willy Gad Monnier, a household name in the Swiss timepiece world. He gave up his command of TAG Heuer to purchase Zodiac, thinking he could bring the brand back from its funk and reinstate better days of making sports and divers watches. Unfortunately, he could not help the company avoid going bankrupt in 1997.
Just one year later, Zodiac was purchased by Genender International Inc, which discontinued many of the Zodiac models, but attempted to breathe fresh life into the business by focusing on their iconic sports and diving pieces, like the Super Sea Wolf. Unfortunately, Genender was unable to lock down steady suppliers, and switched production between quartz and mechanical movements in order to ration mechanical components. However, they did release a new iteration of the Astrographic, the Astrographic 2000, a millennial piece even more sleek and futuristic than its predecessors.
A Fossil find
In 2001, Fossil purchased the brand for almost five million dollars (thanks to Fossil being a listed company we can have an idea of a watch brand’s worth). The company recrafted the classic Zodiac piece into a new version, the Super Sea Wolf 53 (referring to the year of the original Sea Wolf launch).
The Super Sea Wolf 53 (and Super Sea Wolf 68) reflect a larger trend started by Zodiac’s current incarnation, begun in 2010, of creating watches specifically for outdoor enthusiasts. This idea, engendered by Fossil, finds expression in larger case sizes (44mm and wider) and use of rubber straps.
At the same time, the current Super Sea Wolf line of watches are vintage inspired, their outward appearance hearkens back to the bold and modern design of Zodiac’s most iconic pieces.