Zodiac Watches: A Comprehensive History and Guide to the Modern Collection
1 Comment

Zodiac Watches: A Comprehensive History and Guide to the Modern Collection

If you’ve only recently discovered Zodiac watches — a strong likelihood, as its most well-known and popular model, the Super Sea Wolf, has only been back on the market since 2015 — you may be surprised to learn that Zodiac traces its watchmaking history all the way back to 1882, and that it launched the first Sea Wolf dive watch back in 1953, placing it in the same historical company as other pioneering dive watches debuting in that seminal year, like the much more heralded Rolex Submariner and Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. Today the most prestigious and historical watch brand within the huge, Texas-based Fossil Group, Zodiac continues its longstanding tradition of offering distinctively styled Swiss Made watches at accessible prices, with some of the most popular models reviving its milestone designs from the mid-20th Century.

Zodiac Sea Wolf - vintage

THE BEGINNINGS

Second-generation watchmaker Ariste Calame founded the workshop that would grow into the Zodiac watch company in 1882 in Le Locle, in Switzerand’s Jura Mountains. The first timepieces Calame made there were originally branded under his own name. In 1895, the founder’s son Louis Ariste Calame, who had also trained as a watchmaker, took over the business at the age of 20 and registered the name “Zodiac” in 1908, applying it to the innovative flat pocket watches, called Zodiac Triumph, which the company began producing in 1924, equipped with the in-house Caliber 1617 (below, via Watchuseek). In the wake of World War I, however, the era of the pocket watch as the standard timepiece for men was nearing its end, and by the 1930s Zodiac, like most of its competitors at the time, was primarily producing watches for the wrist. The company made some of the first Swiss wrist watches with automatic movements, equipping them with a patented, innovative shock-proofing system that used a Z-shaped spring clip over the balance. In 1937, Zodiac introduced a 10.5-ligne wristwatch caliber with an eight-day power reserve. Several subsequent generations of the Calame family steered Zodiac through the turbulent 1930s and 1940s, at one point concentrating much of its sales efforts in Japan, working with retail partners that included future Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori.

Zodiac Triumph Pocket Watch Caliber

MIDCENTURY MILESTONES

The 1950s and 1960s were a time of bold and widespread innovation throughout the watch industry, and Zodiac can lay claim to several historical landmarks. In 1949, Zodiac introduced the Autographic, one of the first self-winding sports watches with a power reserve indication on the dial, which was also noteworthy for its hardened, nearly unbreakable crystal and extremely water resistant case. The robustness built into the Autographic heralded the arrival of the first Sea Wolf in 1953. One of the very first wristwatches purpose-built for the emerging pantheon of recreational diving enthusiasts (the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, which preceded it to market, was initially targeted at military customers), the Sea Wolf had a 34mm steel case — rather small by modern standards, especially for a dive watch, but standard for the era — that was water-resistant to 100 meters and housed a self-winding A. Schild caliber. Like the Fifty Fathoms and the Submariner, it had a unidirectional rotating bezel with a 60-minute dive scale; probably unbeknownst to many, the Sea Wolf was the first to highlight the first 15 minutes on the bezel’s scale, a feature now ubiquitous on both those aforementioned models as well as most other modern dive watches. Distinguishing the original Sea Wolf’s dial were large, triangular markers at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock with their respective numerals inside; this vintage style lives on in the “53 Skin” subfamily of the modern Super Sea Wolf collection.

Zodiac Sea Wolf vintage ad

Because of its more accessible price point compared to those of the Rolex and Blancpain watches it debuted alongside in “The Year of the Dive Watch,” the Zodiac Sea Wolf became a favorite of soldiers and sailors during the Vietnam War era, who could buy one at their local PX. In 1968, the next generation of the Sea Wolf arrived, the “Super” prefix added to its name denoting the updated model’s increased water resistance of 750 meters (up from the 200 meters that had been achieved for previous models during the 1950s), aided by a new patented crown-and-stem system and improved caseback design. 

Zodiac Super Sea Wolf - vintage

Zodiac used the successful Sea Wolf as the template for its Aerospace GMT model (below) in 1960, replacing the divers’ countdown bezel with a 24-hour bezel that worked with a fourth central hand to indicate a second time zone. Advertisements for the Zodiac Aerospace GMT cleverly touted it as “twice the time for your money.” The Aerospace Jet (originally called the Hermetic) followed in 1962, combining a water-resistant Sea Wolf case, sans rotating bezel, with a 24-hour dial whose hands made a full rotation only once, rather than twice, per 24-hour period. This military-time functionality, as one might expect, made the Aerospace Jet a popular choice for Vietnam-era helicopter and jet pilots, much like the Sea Wolf’s underwater toughness appealed to military divers. Zodiac revived the Aerospace in 2019 in a limited edition that swiftly sold out, but followed it up with a Super Sea Wolf GMT version that carries on the model’s aesthetic and functional tradition. 

Zodiac Sea Wolf Aerospace vintage

As the 1960s drew to a close, and the Space Race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. exerted its influence on pop culture and design, Zodiac introduced the Astrographic, whose distinctly space-age aesthetic included a curvy rectangular case and an electric-blue “mystery” dial whose floating hands were controlled by stacked, transparent disks. The disks were driven by a high-frequency movement, Caliber SST, one of the first “high-beat” automatic movements, whose balance oscillated at 36,600 vph — the extra-brisk frequency ensuring the smooth movement of the red-dot seconds hand around the dial. A modern-day revival of the Astrographic, in 2018 (below), quickly sold out its 182-piece limited edition. 

Zodiac Astrographic Limited Edition

A LOGO’S BRUSH WITH INFAMY

While U.S. Navy frogmen and underwater demolitions experts were wearing Super Sea Wolf watches in their missions during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, the Zodiac brand, or at least its logo, entered the wider public consciousness for a different reason, and one wholly out of the watch company’s control. During this period, the so-called Zodiac Killer was terrorizing the city of San Francisco with a grisly and baffling series of serial murders — all the while taunting police investigators with cryptic letters (example below) signed with a circle-in-a-cross emblem strongly resembling the Zodiac Watches logo. When director David Fincher revisited the still unsolved murders in the 2007 film Zodiac, he left little doubt (at least in the minds of sharp-eyed watch aficionados) as to the movie’s guess at the identity of the infamous killer: the actor portraying Arthur Leigh Allen, long considered one of the main suspects at the time, wore a Zodiac watch in his scenes, as the real Allen, who died in 1992, was believed to have done in real life. 

Zodiac Killer letter w/ logo 

THE NEW ERA

Like many Swiss watchmakers with deep historical roots, Zodiac struggled through the Quartz Crisis period that spanned the 1970s to the early 1990s, though even this era wasn’t without its highlights. Zodiac introduced the Astrodigit, a digital chronograph with an LCD display (below, via 20th Century Watches, in 1977; it was the first watch of this type to obtain a chronometer certification. The following year, Zodiac introduced the world’s thinnest watch with a quartz movement. The decade or so that followed was largely quiet, and in 1990, former TAG Heuer executive Willy Gad Monnier purchased the Zodiac brand and, based on the Zodiac watches that emerged from that period, brought a lot of TAG Heuer design influences with him. This version of Zodiac, Montres Zodiac SA, went bankrupt in 1997, with all its assets and inventory sold to a firm called Genender International in 1998. Genender stripped down the Zodiac product line, discontinuing many of its automatic models and the original Sea Wolf references, before eventually selling the company to its current owner, Richardson, Texas-based Fossil Group, in 2001.

Zodiac Astrodigit watch

Having established its flagship Fossil brand in 1984, at the dawn of the 1980s fashion-watch boom, the Fossil Group is now the fourth-largest watch company in the world, making licensed watches, mostly in China, for brands like DKNY, Michael Kors, Emporio Armani, Kate Spade, Tory Burch, and Skechers, in addition to its stable of proprietary brands that includes Skagen and Michele. The acquisition of Zodiac in the first year of the 21st Century ushered in a new era for the conglomerate, which was determined to equip its only “heritage” Swiss watchmaker with legitimate Swiss-made movements. In 2012, the Fossil Group purchased a 51 percent ownership stake in Swiss Technology Production (STP), a movement manufacturer in Manno, near Switzerland’s border with Italy. While not as massive as the Swatch Group’s ETA, today STP makes more than 200,000 movements annually, most of them provided to Zodiac and a few other brands within the group but some also sold to outside companies. The base Caliber STP 1-11 (below), comparable to other ubiquitous three-handed automatics like the ETA 2824 and Sellita SW200, replaced the Ronda movements installed in the first series of Zodiac watches released under Fossil ownership. While technically a “clone” of the ETA 2824, with the same wheel architecture, the STP 1-11 offers a superior power reserve of 44 hours thanks to the addition of a lengthened mainspring. The STP 3-13, found in most of Zodiac’s Super Sea Wolf models today, differs from the base STP 1-11 chiefly in its inclusion of a swan’s neck regulation device for more precise rate adjustment.

STP Caliber 1-11 

THE MODERN COLLECTION

As watch consumers’ hunger for ever more vintage-inspired timepieces grew exponentially in the 2010s and beyond, today’s Zodiac has wisely responded with a renewed emphasis on its most fondly remembered and historically significant collection, the Sea Wolf (now all branded under the “Super Sea Wolf” moniker), while also branching out with a handful of revivals of some of its other cult classics. Here’s a snapshot of the current Zodiac watch portfolio. 

SUPER SEA WOLF 53 SKIN AUTOMATIC

Zodiac Super Sea Wolf 53 Skin Automatic

The Super Sea Wolf model that most faithfully re-creates the original (before “Super” was added to the name) is the Super Sea Wolf 53 Skin Automatic, available on either a rubber strap or steel link bracelet. The steel case measures 39mm in diameter, far larger than its 1953 ancestor’s case but still the smallest in the current collection. The dial features the prominent triangle hour markers with accompanying interior numerals and maintains a cleanly balanced symmetry, with no date window at 3 o’clock. The luminous material used on the markers and hands glows a bright orange in the dark. The movement inside is the STP 3-13 (following up the STP 1-11 used in previous generations), provided by parent company the Fossil Group. Shop here.

Price: $1,195 - $1,295, Case Size: 39mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Automatic STP 1-11

SUPER SEA WOLF 53 COMPRESSION AUTOMATIC

Zodiac Super Sea Wolf 53 Compression Automatic

The vintage-appropriate triangular markers of the Skin series give way for the slightly different but still quirky “keystone” markers at the quarter-hour points on the 53 Compression Automatic models, and the Skin’s pointy triangular handset is replaced here by skeletonized hands with shovel-shaped tips. A date window appears at 3 o’clock on these models — with either white numerals on a black disk or the inverse, depending on the dial color — for a more seamless integration into the overall dial. Like the 1950s’ and ‘60s’ watches that inspired it, the Super Sea Wolf 53 Compression Automatic has a round stainless steel case with no crown guards, and are mounted on either an Italian-made rubber strap or a steel link bracelet with butterfly clasp and quick-release spring bars. As of 2021, the Compression version of the Super Sea Wolf became the first in the series to use polished black ceramic for the dive-scale bezel insert. Shop here.

Price: $1,195 - $1,495, Case Size: 40mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Automatic STP 3-13

SUPER SEA WOLF GMT AUTOMATIC

Zodiac Super Sea Wolf GMT

Channeling the vintage spirit of the original Aerospace model is the Super Sea Wolf GMT Automatic, which was first released in several limited editions with bicolor 24-hour bezels in bright, eye-catching color combos such as the fan-favorite orange-and-cream “Sherbet” edition and the Neon Edition pictured above. The regular-production models introduced in 2020 offer either a steel or gold-tone bezel with a semi-gloss black dial, rectangular hour and minute hands that further distinguish the GMT models from the Super Sea Wolf divers’ editions, and a white-tipped, bright red GMT hand. Fossil Group’s STP doesn’t yet provide a GMT-equipped movement so Zodiac equips the Super Sea Wolf GMT Automatic with an outsourced but proven engine, the Swiss Soprod C-125, which replaces the increasingly hard-to-get ETA 2893-2 that powered the limited editions. Shop here.

Price: $1,695, Case Size: 40mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Automatic Soprod C-125

SUPER SEA WOLF WORLD TIME AUTOMATIC LIMITED EDITION

Zodiac Super Sea Wolf World Time LE

The Super Sea Wolf World Time uses both the same 200-meter water-resistant, steel Sea Wolf case of the GMT models and the same automatic Soprod movement. However, Zodiac has adapted this watch's bezel and dial for world time functionality. The bezel, in either rich red or deep black, is printed with the names of 24 world cities, enabling the wearer to use the GMT hand, in coordination with the 24-hour chapter ring surrounding the main dial, to track the time in any other time zone in the world. Zodiac first launched this simpler style of world-timer — different from a "true" world-time watch, in which the bezel rotates— in 1970. The watch is mounted on a sturdy three-link steel bracelet. Shop here. 

Price: $1,795, Case Size: 40mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Automatic Soprod C-125

SUPER SEA WOLF 68 SATURATION AUTOMATIC

Zodiac Super Sea Wolf 68 Saturation Automatic

Released in 2018, the 50th anniversary year of the original, 750-meter-rated Super Sea Wolf, the Super Sea Wolf Saturation Automatic is the biggest and most water-resistant timepiece in the line, with a tortoise-style case 44mm wide and 16mm thick and boasting a water-resistance of 1,000 meters, dwarfing that of its ancestor by fully one fourth. The watch features the innovative, lockable rotating diver’s bezel that distinguished the 1968 original, and a black dial with orange-accented hour markers and a handset that combines a sword-style hour hand with a “cobra head” minute hand as well as the Sea Wolf collection’s hallmark rectangular-tipped central seconds counter. The automatic, COSC-certified STP 3-13 caliber beats behind a solid caseback with an engraved Zodiac emblem; the now-scarce limited-edition version of the watch from 2018 is recognizable for its gray dial and an engraved illustration of the “Sea Wolf Dude” character, used in ads for the watch in the ‘60s, gracing the caseback. 

Price: $1,595, Case Size: 44mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 1,000 meters, Movement: Automatic STP 3-13

SUPER SEA WOLF PRO-DIVER TITANIUM LIMITED EDITION

Zodiac Super Sea Wolf Pro-Diver Titanium Limited Edition

The Pro-Diver Titanium Limited Edition, released in 2022 in commemoration of Zodiac’s 140th anniversary (and following up previous versions of the Pro-Diver model in steel), ramps up the water resistance to 300 meters (higher than the 200 meters of the Skin and Compression models but still below the bone-crushing 1,000 meters of the Saturation edition) and brings tough-but-lightweight titanium into the Super Sea Wolf fold as a case material. The colors of sea-foam green and light orange (collectively nicknamed “watermelon” by some) on the luminous divers’ bezel and flange are echoed on the shovel-headed hands, which sweep over a black dial with inverted keystone markers at 3, 6, 9, and 12 o’clock and pointed triangles (inspired by a “Sea Wolf’s” teeth?) at the remaining positions. Zodiac opted to install a tried-and-true Sellita SW200-1 inside this limited edition rather than an STP movement, so the power reserve is a somewhat pedestrian 38 hours rather than 44. The engineer-style seven-link bracelet can be swapped easily with the black-and-orange fabric strap that’s also included. Shop here.

Price: $2,595, Case Size: 42mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Sellita SW200-1

GRANDRALLY QUARTZ

Zodiac Grandrally QuartzThe Grandrally series, as its name might suggest, takes its cues from racing-inspired watches of the 1960s and ‘70s, with barrel-shaped cases, bicompax dials with subdials evoking gauges on the dashboards of classic race cars. Some of the dial options feature a subtle textured weave motif similar to that of carbon fiber and all are bordered by a tachymeter scale on the flange. The Grandrally chronograph collection, with five variants offered in steel, blackened steel, or gold PVD, also represents the biggest value proposition in Zodiac’s lineup thanks to its use of a Swiss quartz movement rather than either an STP or another outsourced automatic caliber.

Price: $347 - $417, Case Size: 41mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Quartz Chronograph

OLYMPOS AUTOMATIC

Zodiac Olympos Automatic

The original Zodiac Olympos, which launched one year after the Astrographic, in 1970, was positioned as a “more classical execution” of its predecessor’s floating-handed mystery dial. The revival of the Olympos, in 2018, included a limited edition based on the mystery-dial model, and another with a field-watch-style “military” design, as well as the dressy version with a quartered dial that remains in the collection today. The sharply angled “manta ray” case, in steel or gold-toned steel and measuring a modest 37.5mm in diameter, is reminiscent of the era from which the original emerged, with quirky details like the crown tucked between two protective shoulders at 2 o’clock. Like its sportier siblings in the Super Sea Wolf family, the Olympos contains the STP 3-13 automatic caliber. Shop here.

Price: $895, Case Size: 37mm, Lug Width: 19mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 50 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber STP 3-13

1 Comment

Join the Conversation

CB
Charles B.

Hello I own a Zodiac guardian and on the back is a symbol and word “Libra” . My question is when was it made?

The 7 Most Affordable Omega Watches for Men

10 Best Watch Winders for Any Collector's Budget in 2022

Authorized Retailer

Official Authorized Dealer of over 40+ leading luxury brands.

Customer Support

Dedicated customer service staff ready to resolve any purchase or product issues.

Shipping + Fulfillment

Swift delivery directly from our fulfillment center, no product sourcing or un-stocked consignment.

Curated Collection

We work with leading luxury brands to provide the best selection for discerning collectors.