Zlatoust, the Soviet-era Panerai

The title of this review may sound like a clickbait, since I’m comparing one of the most famous dive watches with a watch you’ve probably never even heard of, but if your stick around until the end of this review, I’ll try to change your mind.

The history of the Zlatoust watch factory can be traced back to the outbreak of WWII, when the First State watch Factory was moved from Moscow and the front-line of the war to the small town of Zlatoust, 1600km away, and aptly renamed after its new home.

Source: www.timesticking.com

During the war the factory worked to meet the needs of the war effort, producing marine chronometers, aerochronometers, watches for the commanders of the Red Army. Almost all military hardware, including planes, tanks, ships and submarines, was equipped with Zlatoust clocks. Even after the war, the Zlatoust factory continued its close collaboration with the army and didn’t produce anything for the civilian market.

Source: www.thedivewatchconnection.com

The watch we’re discussing today can be traced back to the ‘50s, when the Soviet navy commissioned the Zlatoust factory to produce a watch for their divers. Their answer was in very much typical Soviet-style, a “form-follows-function” design. The result? – perhaps the biggest wristwatch of its time – a whopping 60mm, 250g hunk of steel.

Water resistance was provided by the monocoque case, thick rubber gasket under the crystal and the canteen crown. The unwieldy size of the case was made to accommodate the pocket watch movement housed within. Super thick glass was used to reduce the radioactivity emitted from the luminous paint. The diver’s exposure to radioactivity was further limited by the fact that the Zlatoust 191 ChS, as it was called, was issued only for specific missions, after which it was returned to the navy’s warehouses.

The production ran until the mid-‘70s, when the project was shelved and the model discontinued. And it would’ve probably be lost to the tides of time and completely forgotten, if it weren’t for 2 things: the always curious community of watch enthusiasts and collectors and – Invicta. Yeah, you read that right. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

At the start of the ‘90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demand for memorabilia from the Soviet-era was at an all time high. And during these times, the Zlatoust 191 ChS models started resurfacing – whether they belonged to ex-divers who “forgot” to return them or warehouse supervisors who “helped themselves” when no one was looking, it’s completely irrelevant – the important thing was the watch was finally available on the open market and collectors couldn’t get enough of it.

As with all things in high demand and limited supply, counterfeits soon appeared on the market. And then, Invicta happened. Never the ones to miss an opportunity to rip-off an iconic design, they released their “Russian diver”, along with a concocted story, loosely (and falsely) tying the piece to their brand “heritage”. And while they shamelessly stole the Zlatoust design, they did further the interest in the watch community for this particular look.

And so, the Zlatoust factory re-stated the production – using the exact same techniques and tools as they had more than 50 years ago. Staying in tune with the recent trends of smaller watches, besides the original-sized 60mm (which you can still very much buy), they’ve started offering a medium and a small version – in 53 and 46mm. It’s not a typo, 46 is the small one.

Aside from the fact that you can now choose a right- or left-sided crown, mineral or sapphire and a mechanical or automatic movement, as well as the fact radioactive luminous paint is no longer used, the whole watch is hand-crafted using almost exactly the same process like 50 years ago.

Seeing how the watches are actually made is like stepping into a time machine. Even the wooden presentation box it comes in (used as a cartridge box in the past), along with the “passport” (a piece of rough paper containing technical data about the watch and the warranty), smell of a different era.

But enough about the history, let’s talk about the watch itself – the model I have is the 195 ChS, with a left-handed crown, sapphire crystal, automatic movement and a whopping 700m depth rating. What’s the watch actually like and how does it wear?

If there ever was a watch worthy of the moniker “tool watch”, this is it. Everything seems purpose-built, very solid, without any unnecessary bells and whistles. The case is machined from a single block of their proprietary corrosion-resistant steel (the Zlatoust region is famous for its steel-making), hand-finished, all-brushed and silky smooth to the touch.

The dial is black, with a grainy texture and stark white numerals, filled with lume, which emanates a green glow even in daylight. There’s a simple stick handset and a white seconds hand. The bezel has a coin edge, even though it’s only used to access the movement from the dial side. There’s no branding or text of any kind on the dial – the only marking is the ЗЧЗ (Zlatoust watch factory) and a serial number on the back of the case. Instead of spring bars, the strap is held in place by a couple of thick screws.

The movement is very fitting for a vintage Soviet dive watch – a modified and regulated automatic caliber by Vostok. And you couldn’t tell it’s a Vostok when you operate it – the crown action is precise and without any wobble and setting the time is a breeze. The canteen crown is beautifully machined and it threads nicely when you unscrew it to access the actual crown.

Size-wise, the one I’ve got has a diameter of 46mm, with 53 lug-to-lug and it’s around 16mm thick. And with its weight of around 150g, it’s not a small watch in any way. However, the crown on the left side, the flat back of the monocoque case and the dramatic downturn of the lugs make it surprisingly wearable on my 7-inch wrist.

But no watch is perfect and the Zlatoust is no exception. I’ll start with the negatives and there are only a couple for me – the biggest one is the strap. It simply isn’t up to the same level of quality as the watch itself – it’s too thin for such a big and heavy watch and the buckle is generic and unbranded. However, this is an issue that can be solved very easily – with a lug distance of 24mm, the Zlatoust will take any Panerai-style strap without any issues.

My other issue is not really a negative, but more of a concern. The Zlatoust requires special tools in order to remove the bezel and access the movement, which means it wouldn’t be possible for your local watchmaker to service it, but instead you’d probably have to ship it to the factory. This is where that Vostok movement turns into an advantage – with proven reliability and a 10-year service interval recommended from the manufacturer, chances are this one won’t require frequent servicing. And even if you run it down to the ground without servicing, they are quite affordable to replace.

The positives? There are quite a few. I love how they’ve decided to keep the dial clean and without any branding, staying true to Zlatoust’s tool watch origins. The lume is really excellent, and I do mean that – better than Seiko’s and that speaks volumes – they say it’s their own proprietary mix and they’re definitely doing something right. In summary, the Zlatoust is a watch with great history, heritage and military provenance, with a unique and distinguishable design.

As we’re nearing the end of this review, I hope that the similarities between Zlatoust and Panerai have become more obvious. But why is Zlatoust lesser known than its Italian counterpart? Well, I suspect there are quite a few different factors in play. The limited availability of the original watch to the general public, the fact that it was out of production for 50 years, the old-school approach of the factory and the lack of aggressive marketing – just to name a few.

Since they’ve re-started production, Zlatoust have been working to remedy this – they have quite a few strongmen, bodybuilders and other sportsmen as their brand ambassadors. And despite the small and limited production, they have a very loyal fan-base of watch enthusiasts. But I can’t help to wonder – if Stalone was filming Daylight in Moscow instead of Rome and if he stumbled on a Zlatoust instead of a Panerai in a shop window, would the Soviet-era diver be the watch of choice for action heroes? I’d like to think so.

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