Zodiac is a curious brand that, at its peak, made just about every type of watch you could imagine. Triple date chronographs, GMTs, 24 hour models, divers, dress watches and watches with all together novel designs were common place for this well regarded Swiss brand. Models such as the Sea Wolf, Olympos and Astrographic are classics in their own right, demonstrating great design and a remarkable amount of creativity. Zodiac was a genuine innovator amongst Swiss brands, and in the late 60’s was one of the first brands to bring out an automatic movement with a frequency of 36,000 beats per hour (detailed timeline here). Referred to as their SST or Split Second Timing line, these watches guaranteed (literally) to be the most precise in the world. The idea being that the higher frequency movements, which “tick” 10 times per second, are more accurate than watches with a frequency of the more standard 28,800 bph. While the previous claim is likely debatable, a more obvious benefit to a 36k movement is that the sweep of the seconds hand is incredibly smooth.
The Zodiac calibers 78, 86 and 88 appear to have been based on movements originally made by the Girard Perregaux brand. The primary difference being the addition of an automatic winding mechanism, which was developed as a collaborative effort by Doxa, Eberhard, Favre-Leuba, Girard-Perregaux, and Zodiac. Watches with hi-beat movements like this are still a rarity today, being made by only a handful of brands, notably Zenith and Grand Seiko, and cost a pretty penny. However, a good condition Zodiac SST from the 70’s should run in the $100 – $500 dollar range, leaning towards the cheaper end, which firmly places them in the “affordable” category. A quick ebay search for “Zodiac SST” will likely turn up several vintage Astrographics, a strange watch with “floating” hands, and maybe a couple dressier models.
I recently acquired one such dressier model from the PMWF sales forum for a great price that is in very nice condition. It’s a small gold plated dress watch with a simple design that very much speaks to the late 60’s / early 70’s. While there were a couple of dress watch lines, such as the Kingline and Goldenline, this model does not indicate which it was a part of. Rather it puts emphasis on the SST 36000 movement. This SST model features the Zodiac caliber 86. The 86 is a 17-jewel automatic with day/date, hacking seconds and quickset date. The quickset date is supposed to function via depressing the crown, though that appears to either have been not implemented in this design (there is no where for the crown to go) or is not working any longer. Nevertheless, the movement is running well and keeping exceptional time. The second hand indeed sweeps with a remarkably smooth motion that is altogether a pleasure to view, and if you hold the watch to your ear, the rapid beating can be heard.
The gold plated steel case of the watch measures 34 x 39.5 x 11.2 mm making it a compact watch, though a normal size for the time period. That being said, the watch has a pleasant thickness, which prevents it from feeling too petite. Overall, the case design is very simple, featuring a cylindrical body and very thin lugs. There is very little bezel area, which emphasizes the large domed acrylic crystal and the edge-to-edge dial. Amazingly, the gold plating is entirely intact and the case only has a minor amount of dinging. The crown, however, has faded somewhat and is not signed, leading me to believe it could be a replacement, though it still suits the watch.
The dial of this Zodiac is quite interesting. The face is a silver sunburst that works very well with the case around it, picking up some warmth from the gold. The hour index is comprised of large, chunky squares and rectangles. 12, 3, 6 and 9 are wide gold rectangles with a black filling of an unknown material. The remaining hour markers are simply gold. On the outer edge of each marker are small tritium dots that no longer glow. Between each applied marker are thin black lines for the minutes. This is a style of dial that one sees regularly on watches from this era, and it definitely has a dated feel, though that adds to the overall charm of the watch. At 3 is the large day/date window that is framed in gold. The day and date are presented in black on a white surface, which suits the watch. Perhaps the most interesting detail of the dial is actually what is printed on it.
There are two thin black lines that extend from the marker at 9 and run to the date window. Between the two lines, in a large and italicized font, are the letters “SST” with a smaller 36000 written below. The font has an oddly sporty feeling that doesn’t quite match the style of the watch, yet doesn’t look bad. The whole graphic along with the date bisects the dial, which breaks up the silver face underneath. Since the dial does run nearly edge-to-edge, there is a lot of face to look at, so this graphic element is important for the overall layout. Under 12 is an applied Zodiac symbol in gold and the word “Zodiac”. Interestingly, the symbol the brand used for their logo, the circle and cross that represent Earth, was the same symbol used by the infamous Zodiac killer. Above 6, in the same sporty italic font, is “automatic”, and on the very bottom of the dial it reads “T Swiss Made T”. The printing on the dial is incredibly sharp and hasn’t aged at all.
The hands of the watch are very simple, with just enough design to be interesting. The hour and minute hands are rectangles composed of a black line sandwiched between gold lines. About 1mm from the tip of the hands is a line of lume over the
Wearing a watch like this is a bit of a different experience. It’s small, simple and understated despite being gold. In that respect, it quite succeeds as a dress watch, which in my opinion should air on the conservative side. Naturally, it is also very light and comfortable. I put a brown Hirsch faux-croc leather strap on it, which works nicely with the gold, though a black strap could work as well.
My attraction to this watch is largely in owning and experiencing first hand a 36,000 bph watch, and the Zodiac has not let me down. I find interesting movements whether it is a single-register chronograph or a world-timer or a hi-beat to be very compelling, as they add a story to the watch that runs deeper than the surface. And with that said, there is something captivating about the smooth sweep of a hi-beat movement that really needs to be seen to be appreciated. Sure, the watch itself is not the most exciting looking thing on earth, but it’s not ugly either and definitely has the appeal of a 70’s watch. Considering that this watch in good condition can be had for under $500, and steel models on ebay go for even less, it’s genuinely a great find. Sure, servicing this watch is not going to be fun, and hi-beat movements, especially 40 year old ones, are not the most robust movements on Earth (higher speed equals more friction and wear, thus needs more lubrication…) but it’s still a lot of watch for the price. Regardless of this model, Zodiac is a brand to lookout for when shopping vintage, as they are very unique and clearly can be quite affordable. For more information on Zodiacs, check out the Vintage Zodiac Forum.
for more info on hi-beats from the late 60’s I recommend the following articles:
by Zach Weiss