The other afternoon we took a short trip out of the BaselWorld halls, 1.2 km north, into residential territory. Where, amongst the 3 or 4 story buildings is Fossil’s Basel HQ. This taller-than-average building for the city was buzzing with hundreds of people from around the world darting back and forth from meetings. There, on the seventh floor in a small, but pleasant corner office, we got to meet with the creative director and brand manager of Zodiac Watches.
Zodiac is a brand with a rich history that we love here at worn&wound. Vintage Zodiacs are amongst the most affordable and eclectic pieces to collect. With styles and mechanics that range greatly as well as exceptionally unique and occasionally peculiar designs. For two such pieces that are likely to win you over, check out our articles on the epically iconic Sea Wolf and the mechanically exceptional SST 36000. Though Zodiac is not a household name, they created many “firsts” in the history of wristwatches, which should be noted.
Like many brands, Zodiac didn’t survive the 80’s, despite being the first Swiss brand to make an analog quartz watch. About 20 years ago, the brand was acquired by Fossil, who still owns and operates it to this day. In the last decade, they’ve continued to produce watches, but never have come close to regaining their former popularity. While the new watches have always had a unique DNA that drew on Zodiac’s history, their designs felt a bit too distant. Dominated by very large aggressive tool watches with quartz movements, the brand never really caught on with new audiences, or tempted collectors of the original watches.
Now they aim to get Zodiac back on track, reviving it as a brand for watch enthusiasts, young and old. Their new Heritage line draws closely from their archives, recreating classic designs, with slight updates for a contemporary market. The watches are all Swiss made in Fossil’s facilities, and feature Fossil’s in-house automatic movement, the STP 1-11. We got the chance to look at and handle current models and prototypes of ones to come, all of which impressed.
But before we get to them, it’s worth talking about Fossil and the movements used in the watches. Fossil is a brand with a bit of a stigma. Everyone knows them, everyone has owned a few (I had and loved a few of the Stark series many moons ago), but the general association is one of a very inexpensive mall brand. We assume that anything by Fossil is made in China, and that they are more fashion watches for the general public, than watches for collectors. While we all know that many great watches are made in China, and that their production quality is up there with anyone else, when a brand then claims to be producing in Switzerland, there tends to be some doubt. Doubly so, when the watches cost a fair bit more than their typical goods.
Well, we were assured that Fossil’s Swiss production facilities are massive and on par with any major Swiss brand. Their movement company, Swiss Technology Production (STP), makes and assembles their STP 1-11 movement, which can be seen through the case backs of the Zodiac watches, and is elegantly decorated with perlage and Cote de Geneve. It’s a 26-jewel automatic with date and 44-hour power reserve. Not sure about handwinding and hacking, but I would expect both. Visually, it looks a lot like an ETA 2824-2. Just let that sink in for a second, Fossil has a Swiss movement manufacture.
Most importantly, the watches looked and felt like the $1,000 watches they are. They feel solid in the hand and are finished very well. While I didn’t take a loupe to them, the dials looked flawless. Perhaps most exceptional were some of the box, sapphire crystals. They mimicked the dimensions of the acrylic crystals they are based to a T, while giving you the scratch-resistance we all love sapphire for. These couldn’t be easy or cheap to make. The plus side of a brand on the scale of Fossil making watches, is that they can keep costs down more than a boutique brand. They own their production and can manufacturer large quantities consistently. Considering that Zodiac was once a large brand, it makes sense for a brand of scale to revive them.
The first major release, which is out now, is the Astrographic. As a watch with which to relaunch the brand, this is a bold move. The Astrographic was originally released in 1969, was and still is one of the most bizarre and striking mechanical watches ever. What makes it so special? The hands are graphics that float over the dial, printed on rotating, transparent disks. The result speaks to the campy space-age aesthetic of the late 60’s. Think the Jetson’s, but on your wrist. It’s a risky design that is love it or leave it, and looks as shocking today as it must have in 1969.
The modern interpretation stays very true to the original, with a strong, rectilinear barrel-case, and a layered dial that emphasizes the novel floating effect. In person, it’s truly magnetic. Whether or not the design is one that suits your personal aesthetic, you’ll find yourself lost in the layered dial, hypnotized by the smoothly orbiting red dot, which indicates the seconds. Though the 1969 model is very clearly represented in the new version, added levels of detail and finishing, such as the polished markers which hang over the dial, make it more complex.
The case is strong and masculine, coming in at 45 x 39mm. The gently curved back makes it hug the wrist, which tempers the size, though it’s still a noticeably large watch. It’s fitted with a tapering steel bracelet, which looks the part. Unfortunately, the lug width is 30mm, so you’re not going to be able to find a leather to swap in. The Astrographic runs $1,195 for the 3 steel models, and $1,395 for the LE gold PVD model. This isn’t a watch for everyone, but if you’re drawn to the design, you’ll be very happy with it.
Zodiac Sea Dragon
The next model we looked at has a much more versatile design that is sporty enough for casual wear and elegant enough for the office. Like many classic watches from the 60’s, this is a gentleman’s sport watch. Starting from the outside, the Sea Dragon features an incredibly elegant 39mm barrel case with faceted lugs and superb finishing. The top surface, which domes slightly, features sunburst brushing from the center out. It meets a polished beveled edge and polished lugs with a clean, crisp line. The profile really impressed me, as they kept the case really thin, making for a very comfortable watch to wear.
Once again, the dial nailed the vintage look, but have an updated feel. It’s a simple and successful design that plays with color and texture. The center surface is sunburst, and has applied markers for the hours, each featuring lume and touch of color. The outer edge features a contrasting chapter ring with a dense minute/second index that adds a sporty to feel to the otherwise formal elements. Colors play a big part in the Sea Dragon design, as each dial variety mixes and matches several colors, sometimes for harmony, other times for contrast. We were quite taken with the blue, cream and orange palette, which was handsome, but fun.
The Sea Dragon is available on a steel bracelet for $1,195 or on a leather strap for $995. I’d spring for the bracelet, as it was expertly made, with polished center links, hidden deployant clasp (marked with their awesome logo), and end links that fit the case just-so-well. The burnished leather straps were very nice as well, but with 20mm lugs, you can find plenty of leather straps to pair these with.
Zodiac Sea Wolf
Lastly, we got to see what’s coming down the line, which kind of blew our minds. Up next, will be an extensive re-issue of the Sea Wolf, Zodiac’s most iconic watch. If you haven’t read our article on the Zodiac Sea Wolf, go do it now and come back to get some context. Make no mistake, Zodiac is bringing a classic watch back to market. While it wont get as much buzz as Rolex/Tudor creating an homage to their own vintage divers in the Black Bay, this is just as cool if not cooler. They didn’t really re-interpret the watch, creating something that never was, so much as modernized a great design.
They stayed true enough to make it distinctly Sea Wolf, yet changed enough to not make it a look-alike prop. These will be useable sport watches, sized up a bit but not too much, that are priced the way a tool watch should be. As with the Sea Dragon, they plan on playing with colors to extend the line, keeping the classic dial, case and bezels. We saw rugged models with steel bezels on NATOs, dressier models with gold surrounds and black acrylic bezels.
There were bright colors and drab colors. Clean steel models and light, patinated teals. They were all gorgeous. The only thing I didn’t see that I hope they add is a no-date model. Arguably more classic than one with date, it also would have a more symmetrical dial.
The downside is that they aren’t going to be out for quite a while, so take a deep breath, and try to suppress that itch I know you are feeling. We’ll be sure to keep you updated on their development.
And that’s Zodiac. We’re really excited by what we got to see and feel confident that this is going to be a great brand for us affordable watch collectors. Getting to meet with top people at the brand was fantastic too, as I can tell you they are legit. This wasn’t a meeting with a bunch of stiff business men who crunched the numbers and decided this was a good idea. Nor is Zodiac a brand on 100 people, running around, doing focus groups, designing by committee. Rather, it’s a few enthusiasts within Fossil, who were given the opportunity to rebuild something that once was great. They are interested in what you all have to say too, so be sure to comment here, and follow them on instagram (@zodiacwatches) for a rolling dialogue.