Guides Watches

The Vintage Zodiac Sea Wolf Diver Is Having a Renaissance

Zodiac Sea Wolf Ref. 722-946

With sales of pre-owned watches expected soon to exceed those of new watches – according to one of the top financial news sites – the landscape is changing. Supply and demand have always been a factor, but price escalation, especially for Rolexes and Pateks, have inspired savvy customers to look beyond the usual suspects. And there are treasures to be found among less familiar manufacturers which have yet to suffer from inflation, among them Zodiac and specifically their classic Sea Wolf diver.

Oracle Time readers know that their new models have been making a comeback thanks to fresh management, led especially by the legendary Super Sea Wolf. Every brand with longevity – and Zodiac dates back to 1882 – seems to develop a signature model or two, and the Sea Wolf is the timepiece which earned Zodiac a cult following. Personal experience alone tells me this devotion is real: for a number of years, I attended a vintage watch fair where one vendor always had at least a half-dozen on display, but no coaxing would get him to part with them.

1950s Zodiac Sea Wolf ad

1950s Zodiac Sea Wolf ad

What is it about the Zodiac Sea Wolf that makes it stand out in one of the most crowded sectors in the watch kingdom? Are there not literally hundreds of diving watches on the market today, let alone almost a century’s worth of vintage models from nearly every house?

In part, it’s the provenance, Zodiac having once produced its own movements, from 1908 when the company name was registered. In the 1920s, Zodiac released an ultra-thin pocket watch, and it was among the first brands to offer a self-winding movement, the Autographic, in 1932. Equally notable was the Astrographic of 1948, which featured a power reserve indicator, a rarity at the time on a wristwatch.

Early 1960s Zodiac Sea Wolf ad

Early 1960s Zodiac Sea Wolf ad

As with all but a few manufacturers of mechanical wristwatches, Zodiac, too, struggled after the Quartz Crisis, which decimated the industry in the 1970s. Zodiac was among the first to produce an electronic watch, the Dynatron of 1968, and in 1970 was part of the group of makers that employed the Beta 21 movement, Switzerland’s response to the quartz onslaught. Further innovation came with the first chronometer-certified LCD watch in 1977. Having weathered changes in ownership and briefly merged with Zenith, it has re-emerged with a more secure financial footing under the aegis of Fossil.

Early 1970s Zodiac Sea Wolf ad

Early 1970s Zodiac Sea Wolf ad

It should, therefore, not go unnoticed that 2023 marks 70 years of the Sea Wolf, which appeared in 1953 alongside other milestone diving watches introduced that same year. I have seen prices for vintage Sea Wolves escalate inexorably over the past five years, with fans of this diving classic coveting in particular the 1963 version supplied to the US Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams, a subset of naval diving that has parallels in Panerai. Most distinctive are triangular indices at six, nine and 12 o’clock, with dagger hands and a date window at three o’clock. Its black dial contrasts with the engraved steel bezel, the watch initially secure to 10 atmospheres, while current models are rated at 20 atmospheres.

1970s Zodiac Super Sea Wolf ad

1970s Zodiac Sea Wolf ad

Adding to the choices are numerous variants, including the more robust Super Sea Wolf launched in 1970, while even those with small wrists are served by vintage models which were a mere 35mm in diameter. As with all diving watches, the cases tend toward the thick, and Sea Wolves and Super Sea Wolves have been offered with rubberised straps or steel bracelets.

Thanks to the recent ascent of the current Super Sea Wolf range, prices of pre-owned vintage examples, which plateaued at £400 to £1,000 for a decade or more, are now skyrocketing. Colours affect the values, too: while the most popular Sea Wolves have black or grey dials, the less common white dial versions are now commanding as much as £1,300 in well-worn condition, up to £2,800 for near-mint examples. Super Sea Wolf chronographs and compressors command even more.

Zodiac Sea Wolf Grey Bezel

Zodiac Sea Wolf Ref. 722-946 (1955), image credit: Christie’s

Arguably the most distinctive of the vintage models is the circa-1960 Sea Wolf with black dial and light grey plastic bezel. This pale colour is no sign of wear, like so-called ‘tropical’ bezels which have simply faded over time. Instead, it is the actual factory colour scheme, and you should expect to part with around £1,500 to £2,000 for a near-mint example. But, like all genuine diving watches which were purchased back in the day by those who actually got them wet, most will show signs of serious usage.

Zodiac Super Sea Wolf 53 Compression Limited Edition Grimoldi Milano

A Modern Super Sea Wolf: The 53 Compression Limited Edition Grimoldi Milano

Having failed in my own attempts to acquire a specific vintage Sea Wolf, I copped out and bought a new one, opting for a limited edition in green made for Milan watch specialist Grimoldi. The current catalogue features more than a dozen Super Sea Wolves, many of them paying direct homage to the historical models, which will assuage those averse buying a well-worn example thanks to the authenticity. And all of the Super Sea Wolves boast a quality that has become increasingly important of late: they’re bargain-priced.

More details at Zodiac.

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About the author

Ken Kessler

Ken Kessler is unimpressed by the 21st century and enjoys retro, if costly, boys’ toys, such as cameras, mechanical watches and fountain pens – of late, he is obsessed with Italian red wine. He has written four books on luxury hi-fi equipment and collects chronographs and film noir DVDs.