MILITARY WATCHES OF THE WORLD: ISRAEL PT. II

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In this second installment of Military Watches of the World: Israel, we pick things up in the 1970s, looking at divers issued to the IDF. You can read pt. I of this editorial right here. Lead image credit: Analog Shift

Jumping to 1970s dive watches, the timepiece that appears next on the scene is perhaps the best-known of IDF-issued watches: the cushion-cased Eterna Kon-Tiki Super. Issued beginning in 1970, this is the timepiece that would ultimately replace the Tudor Submariner on the wrists of Shayetet 13 commandos and other Shayetet operators (submariners, divers, etc.). With respect to S13, whether this change was a result of cost-cutting measures or the search for a more effective watch is unknown, but both are fair guesses. 

These watches features a 41mm stainless steel cushion cases, black dials with tritium lume and a highly visible handset combining sword and baton shapes, a ratcheting dive bezel that’s easily gripped when wearing gloves, an oversize crown, and the Eterna-Matic automatic movement with 5-ball bearing rotor mount and a chronometer-grade accuracy adjusted to six positions, including temperature. This particular Eterna Kon-Tiki Super was, quite simply, one of the most robust automatic watches ever put to military use.

Credit: Analog Shift
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Though numerous Kon Tiki Supers with supposed S13 provenance have been sold over the years, it’s the author’s belief that some of these may have been issued to Shayetet units other than S13. Case back markings clearly identifying these watches as Israeli military issue is inconsistent with a unit whose operations frequently take them into enemy territory. A Kon Tiki Super using the “sterile” M numbering system would seem a more likely candidate for an S13 watch, though the author has come across relatively few images of such watches — many fewer than those of watches with non-sterile IDF case backs. Until a database is established of original-owner watches and their case backs are catalogued, it will be difficult to confirm which watch was issued to which Shayetet. (The secondary market is also said to be rife with fakes.)

Credit: tomvox1 via Omegaforums

The issue is further confused by the fact that at some point, perhaps as early as the late 1970s or early 1980s, old stock of Eternas was sold off by the IDF in favor of newer, cheaper Seikos. In fact, one individual is said to have purchased a large number of these watches, many of which were largely in NOS (new old stock) condition and featured some sort of civilian — not military — “decommissioning” papers. This would explain how many of these watches ended up on the secondary market in such stunning condition.

Dive Watches: 1980s

Following a testing period, various Seiko models were chosen for use by the navy. It would seem that automatic models were ruled out in favor of more accurate quartz models, which were themselves replaced by Kinetic models.

Various references have surfaced containing sterile “M” numbering, and it’s conceivable that these watches were used by both S13 commandos as well as technical divers and other personnel. One such watch was the ref. 7548-7000, an early Seiko quartz diver largely based on the ref. 6309 sporting a black dial, offset crown at 4 o’clock, unidirectional dive bezel, day-date complication, 44mm stainless steel case and Hardlex crystal. This particular example dates to 1984 and features the sterile numbering system on the case back. 

At least one Kinetic model — in which a conventional automatic rotor charges a capacitor, rather than a spring — has surfaced with supposed IDF provenance. This ref. SKA371 features a black dial, date, unidirectional dive bezel, Lumibrite lume, a 42.5mm stainless steel case, 200m of water resistance, a power reserve indicator function using a pusher at 2 o’clock, and the cal. 5M62 Kinetic movement.

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Chronographs: 1970s & 1980s

Credit: On The Dash

What seems to be the first IDF-issued chronograph — the Heuer ref. 73363 — appears on the scene in 1971. Housed in a 40mm stainless steel tonneau case, it features a handwound Valjoux 7733 movement powering a dual-register layout with 30-minute totalizer at 3 o’clock and running seconds totalizer at 9 o’clock. On this particular reference, every other 5-minute period on the 30-minute register is given a tritium index, making for a striking, highly legible look. The dial is black and features no date window — rather, it’s simply adorned with white sword hands (tritium-filled), applied indices, and a 1/5th-seconds track, as well as an outer rotating count-up bezel marked in 5-minute intervals.

Credit: On The Dash

Another Heuer reference, introduced in 1972, also appears with IDF markings: the Autavia ref. 73463. Similarly to the ref. 73363, it features a 40mm stainless steel tonneau case and a dual-register chronograph, this time powered by the Valjoux 7734. The black dial features a 30-minute totalizer at 3 o’clock, a running seconds totalizer at 9 o’clock, and a date window at 6 o’clock. The watch’s sword hands and hour indices are again coated in tritium and the dial features an outer 1/5th-seconds track. An outer rotating count-up bezel completes the look. Both of these watches feature the “sterile” M-based numbering system on their case backs. 

Credit: S.A. Vintage Timepieces via Chrono24

Another version of the Autavia that’s well-known to collectors but less associated with the IDF is the famed ref. 1163V “Viceroy,” at least one example of which featuring IDF “sterile” markings has reared its head on the internet. This 1163V features the automatic Heuer cal. 11, a tonneau case, a dual-register chronograph layout and the cal. 11’s unique pusher/crown layout (two pushers on the right side of the case and the crown on the left). The unique red, white and blue livery of the Viceroy cigarette brand graces the watch’s dial, which is topped off with an acrylic crystal and count-up bezel calibrated in 5-minute intervals.

Credit: Christie’s via On The Dash

Fast-forward a decade to the years immediately following the First Lebanon War in 1982, and we come across yet another interesting chronograph: the Heuer Autavia ref. 113.603, a cushion-cased, 41mm, dual-register watch featuring an early black PVD coating. This time powered by the famed automatic Heuer cal. 12, this Autavia features a black dial with 30-minute totalizer at 3 o’clock, 12-hour totalizer at 9 o’clock, and a date window above the 6 o’clock position. Baton hands, tritium lume, and a matching black count-up bezel make for a highly stealthy, tactical-looking watch, the back of which features the “sterile” numbering system.

Credit: Christie’s via On The Dash

To the author’s knowledge, the receiving unit of these Autavias has never been confirmed. Though Shayetet 13 is a possibility, given their need for highly water-resistant dive watches, rather than chronographs, it seems likely that these watches weren’t destined for them. (The time period for issue of these Heuers also coincides with that of the aforementioned dive watches, so we can presume the unit was covered, in any case.) 

Other guesses include, once again, fighter or helicopter squadrons or certain special operations units that operate from the air, such as Shaldag, the Israeli air force’s commando unit, or perhaps 669, which conducts commando-type combat search and rescue missions. (Sayeret Mat’kal, the army general staff’s reconnaissance unit, is another possibility.) Both of these units were founded in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, and it’s conceivable that their operators — or the helicopter pilots ferrying them to and from missions — may have been issued these special watches.

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The Modern IDF Watch

 

The era of the issued watch in Israel largely seems to end in the 1980s, though it’s more than conceivable that there are other references that were — and still are — issued to special units and are still awaiting “discovery” by the watch community at large. Several other watches, though not strictly “issued” in the classic sense, are worth mentioning, however.

Adi, Israel’s native watch company mentioned earlier, manufactures a “tactical” line of inexpensive timepieces that are often adorned with the logos of IDF brigades and special units. Most of these are sub-$100, quartz-powered, dive-style watches with black analog dials, date complications, rotating dive bezels and rubber straps — not all that different in design from the Seiko 007. 

Other models, some of which feature analog-digital displays or day-date displays, also exist. In the late 1990s, certain elite units received donations of Adi watches adorned with their respective logos, but a unit that operates undercover, for instance, could hardly wear such a watch into combat. Though several hundred thousand Adi tactical watches have been produced, their use isn’t widespread within the modern army — a place in which the digital G-Shock is long the watch of choice.

Marathon Navigator

Two other interesting watches to consider for their connection to the IDF are made by Marathon Watch Company of Canada. The Navigator, a 41mm fibershell, quartz-powered watch with tritium-tube illumination and a rotating 12-hour bezel, was developed from a special request by an officer of Kelly Field in San Antionio, TX (formerly Kelly Air Force Base) in 1986 and is available with several dials, one of which is adorned with the logo of a unit called Duvdevan. Duvdevan (“cherry”) is a commando unit currently housed within the IDF’s Commando Brigade tasked with undercover operations in Arabic-speaking communities. The use of the unit’s logo is evidently officially sanctioned by the IDF, and evidently a batch of these watches was in fact gifted to a draft of Duvdevan operators.

Again, however, Duvdevan operates undercover in Arab communities and not as a conventional field unit, and as telegraphing one’s identity as an IDF soldier via a unit logo on one’s watch can hardly be considered good operational doctrine, we can safely assume that these watches are not, in fact, used during operations. 

One other watch made by Marathon is notable: the Jumbo Diver’s Automatic (aka JDD, or Jumbo Day Date). Housed in a  whopping 46mm case, this oversized automatic diver powered by the ETA 2836 features a black dial, day-date display, tritium tube illumination, unidirectional dive bezel, oversized, knurled screw-down crown, and a rubber dive strap. One particular variant of this watch is not in fact issued to Shaytet 13, but rather, adorned with the unit insignia of the Ya’Mam (yechida merkazit meuchedet, or “central specialized unit”), a special counter-terror unit within the Isreli border police. Given the watch’s price point (retail is $1,800) and analog display, this is another instance in which the author surmises that these watches may have been gifted/awarded to Ya’mam operatives, but are not in fact regularly issued or used during operations. Inexpensive, highly legible and accurate digital watches are the name of the game these days in almost all branches of most of the world’s armies, the IDF included. 

Though the G-Shock or similar rugged, digital watches are the de-facto timepieces of combat soldiers within the IDF, recent advances in smartwatch technology seem to indicate a future in which commanders, perhaps down to the squad level, are issued connected wearables to monitor vital signs, send and receive intelligence, and navigate terrain. In an age in which even the most basic smartwatch is stunningly sophisticated and capable of providing GPS, health monitoring, and more, it seems highly likely that the bulky, barely man-portable communications systems of the past several decades will slowly be supplanted by smaller, more portable systems. 

As miniaturization and Moore’s Law take hold, perhaps we’ll finally be in a position to rid ourselves of 30- or 40kg loads and transfer most of this work to small, wrist-borne devices that are more efficient, less expensive, and easier on our backs. Such wrist-born wearables may lack the caché of a beautifully patinated Tudor Submariner, but time — as the old saying goes — waits for no man. 

Note: The author wishes to thank Akiva Gothelf of Gothelf A. Watches in Tel Aviv, Israel and Jeff Stein of On The Dash for their help in researching this article.

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Oren Hartov is the watches editor at Gear Patrol, a contributor to several other publications, and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. He is a reserve paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces and enjoys music, history, archaeology, militaria, scuba diving, languages and travel. He is of the opinion that Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam” may in fact be a better record than “Aja,” but he’s not positive.
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