Editor’s Rating

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A quirky, cheap automatic that's great for everyday wear. Has its share of problems, but for $60 it's better than expected.

The Vostok Amphibia is a classic automatic diver’s watch, and a special piece of wristwatch history. It’s also my top pick for a mechanical, affordable dive watch under $100. In my review of the Amphibia I’ll show you just why that is.

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Many people have an almost strange fascination with the Amphibia, a recent search I did on WatchUSeek (a major online forum for watch enthusiasts) returned almost 600 results mentioning the Amphibia.

Vostok Amphibia Review – 'Zissou' model displayed on wooden ships wheel

Whenever someone asks the question “I don’t know anything about diver’s, which dive watch should I start with?” online, you can guarantee the Amphibia is going to be mentioned, along with the Seiko SKX007, and usually the Orient Mako II.

It’s because of all of these overwhelming recommendations for it, as well as my need for a watch that can take a beating while I’m out giving kayak tours, that I chose the Amphibia for my first diver to review on this site. I’ll get into my thoughts on the watch in just a bit, but first some history:

History and Design of the Vostok Amphibia 

The Amphibia was first designed in 1967 at the Chistopol watch factory in the Soviet Union, by Mikhail Novikov and Vera Belov. It was designed to specifications from the Soviet Defense Department, who needed a cheap, rugged watch that would be reliable to 200m. 

Due to the available equipment on hand, Novikov and Belov could not simply replicate any of the current Swiss watch designs. The equipment simply couldn’t provide the needed accuracy when machining small parts. The standard method for designing a watch that could withstand great depths was to purely use brute strength, relying on strong materials and extremely accurate machining to fit the parts together.

To get around this problem, the Amphibia was designed to actually flex, the caseback pushing in more and more onto a large rubber gasket as the pressure increased. The water resistance actually increases that deeper the watch is taken, and the flexibility allowed the watch to be built with much looser tolerances.

You can find more in-depth information on the Amphibia at Hodinkee, and this excellent forum post about the design methodology behind the Amphibia.

Vostok Amphibia Variations

A by-no-means comprehensive selection of Amphibia models.
420059 – 'Scuba Dude' – logo'd diver on blue dial, bezel with red / black circles.420270 – black dial with Arabic numerals, bezel with red / black circles. 120509 – black dial, 12, 3, 6, 9 Arabic numerals. Bezel marked with bars and 15' increments.090660 – squarish case, black dial. First 15' on bezel marked with ticked red bar.420374 – 'Zissou' – ships wheel and anchor on dial. Bezel marked with red and black circles.

Vostok Amphibia Review – ‘Zissou’ Model

Out of all the different bezels and face designs available on the Amphibia, I decided to go with the one commonly called ‘The Zissou’. This nickname came about after Bill Murray appeared in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou wearing this style of Amphibia. 

The face has an old style ships wheel located at noon, and an anchor at the 6 o’clock position. Around the edge of the face appears a stylized 3-strand braided rope. Being a sailor, this specific watch looked like it would fit in with my boat-centered life-style.

I got my Amphibia from eBay seller Jectronics. There’s several places to choose from when ordering a Vostok watch, I ended up going with Jectronics due to them having a decent selection, and being located in the U.S.A, so I didn’t have to wait as long for the watch to arrive. With many of the Russian dealers you’re looking at 2 weeks to a month just in shipping time.

******Update 2016******

At the time I ordered, there weren’t any Amphibias being sold on Amazon.com, my usual go-to when buying online, but many different designs recently got listed at competitive prices to the eBay sellers. So if you also prefer Amazon over eBay, it’s worth checking out.

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The biggest complaint you’ll hear about the Amphibia is due to the horribly cheap bracelet it comes with from most sellers. I’ve heard people claim it has physically injured them while wearing it. As soon as it arrived I immediately took the bracelet off (which was sized way too large for my wrist) and replaced with this NATO style strap from the NATO Strap Company. I like how the colors on this strap match pretty closely with the colors of the watch dial.

First Impressions

Vostok Amphibia Review – Life Aquatic dial

When I first pulled the Amphibia out of the box, I was impressed with how good it looked. It was slightly smaller than I had been expecting, which is really a good thing as I’ve got pretty small (6.75″) wrists. The coloring on the bezel and dial really pop. The acrylic crystal has a curve to it, and pops out beyond the bezel a decent amount. 

I’m especially happy with how it looks now that I have the NATO strap on it. While the Amphibia doesn’t scream out ‘high-end watch’ it’s definitely a decent looking, quirky little diver.

Bezel Operation

Straight out of the box I had a hard time using the bidirectional bezel. The knurled edge is very thin, making it hard to grip properly, and the bezel was very stiff to rotate. I actually had the bezel completely freeze on me for a couple weeks after a trip into the surf on a sandy beach. No matter how much I cleaned it I couldn’t get it to loosen back up.

Mysteriously it loosened up at some point, and now is usually quite easy to use. I’m not sure why, but sometimes it’s still hard to turn. Possibly temperature variations are causing it to expand and contract. I’d love to hear if anybody else has had this problem with the watch.

The Crystal

Vostok Amphibia Review – Scuffs on acrylic crystal

The amphibia comes with an acrylic crystal, and like all acrylic it is very prone to scratches and scuffs. I’ve been wearing mine during all waking hours, and it’s been on my wrist for a lot of activities – from SCUBA diving to working on a diesel engine.

Needless to say, it’s not looking pristine any more. I have yet to put any actually deep scratches into it so far, it’s all just light scuffing. The dial is still easily visible, and I don’t think anyone would notice the scuffs unless they were looking closely.

Even though acrylic scratches easily, it’s also relatively easy to polish the marks out and bring it back to new. I’m planning on doing a watch crystal polishing tutorial here soon, so stay tuned!

The Dial

The dial is my favorite part of this watch. I’m constantly surrounded by boats in my life, and love the nautical theme of the ‘Zissou’ Amphibia. The dial features a stylized ships wheel at the 12 o’clock position, and an anchor at the 6. Around the edge of the bezel is a stylized 3-strand braided rope, a very common thing to find on ships.

Looking closely at the dial however, you’ll notice how cheaply made it really is. The luminescent dots marking the hours are slightly out of alignment with the silver markers. The date window on the right side looks out of place, somehow not fitting in with the rest of the design. 

Luminosity

Vostok Amphibia Review – The luminous hands and dial

The luminous markings on the hands and dial frankly sucks. Extremely bright at first when entering somewhere dark, it quickly fades to almost nothing, in less than 10 minutes.

Basically, completely useless for actual use as a dive watch if diving at night or with poor visibility. OK for entering into a dark space from outside, while your eyes are adjusting.

Winding & Setting

While the Amphibia is an automatic and self-winds from any movement, it can also be manually wound. After unscrewing the crown until it’s free, you apply light pressure outwards (to keep the crown from screwing back in) and turn the crown clockwise to wind.

I have yet to have problems with keeping the watch wound just from normal daily wear, and the power reserve (how long it will keep ticking when not being wound) on it is close to 2 days.

Setting the time is easy. After unscrewing the crown, it just needs to be pulled out further than the winding position. You’ll feel a slight click and then the hands are free to move. While technically the Amphibia’s movement doesn’t support ‘hacking seconds’, I found a trick where if you turn the crown clockwise, the seconds hand will freeze, allowing for more precise setting. From what I understand this is not harmful to the watch.

Setting the date is also pretty simple. While in set mode, spinning the hands through a full 24hr period will click the date over. But there’s also a short cut: moving the hour hand back and forth between 8 o’clock and the 12 o’clock position will also advance the date window. 

Russionwatchguide.com has a translation of the original manual available here, so be sure to check that out if you’re at all confused on the operation of the watch.

Timekeeping

Out of the box my Amphibia was gaining about 40 seconds a day, which was quite a bit more than what I’d read online from others, who gave the impression that 15-20 seconds a day was to be expected. After digging around online, I found a recommendation to let the watch wind itself down and sit for a day before wearing it again. Supposedly this could bring the watch back in line with expected accuracy. After attempting this one time, it’s now gaining ‘only’ 30 seconds a day, which I can at least live with.

Conclusion

My main issue with the Amphibia is the poor rotation of the bezel, as I actually find it extremely useful to have a quick timer available on my wrist for keeping track of many things. I know a lot of people never use the bezel on their dive watches, so this probably isn’t a big issue for most.

Overall, I’d recommend the Amphibia for anyone looking to buy their first mechanical watch, or for someone who’s looking for something cheap and quirky that can take quite a bit of abuse.

If you’re interested in one for yourself, below are some links to the various models available on Amazon and eBay.

Please consider purchasing through these links, as I get a small commission which helps me get more watches to review 🙂

A by-no-means comprehensive selection of Amphibia models.

420059 – 'Scuba Dude' – logo'd diver on blue dial, bezel with red / black circles.420270 – black dial with Arabic numerals, bezel with red / black circles. 120509 – black dial, 12, 3, 6, 9 Arabic numerals. Bezel marked with bars and 15' increments.090660 – squarish case, black dial. First 15' on bezel marked with ticked red bar.420374 – 'Zissou' – ships wheel and anchor on dial. Bezel marked with red and black circles.

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Reed

Reed

Writer, sailor, photographer, kayak guide and SCUBA diver. Based on Bainbridge Island, Washington State, USA