Owned by the Fossil Group since 2001, and with Michael Pearson joining the senior management team as Zodiac’s global brand director, there is a new determination to tell the whole story of one of the most revered diving watch marques of the 20th century, as well as to promote its current iterations. “It’s not been looked after for a few years and that’s why I’m here,” says Pearson. “I believe in it. I think we’ve got something unique and special at a great price point. Basically we have something that nobody else in the industry has.”
Pearson admits that it is the history that really enticed him to join Zodiac as brand director. Celebrating its 140th anniversary this year, the brand was family-owned for a century, making pocket watches and later innovative calibres and shaped watch cases, 70 years before its famous Sea Wolf dive watch was ever imagined.
But it was the launch of the Sea Wolf in 1953 that truly put the brand on the map. Unveiled the same year as Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms and a year before the Rolex Submariner went into serial production, the Sea Wolf boasted a water-resistance of 300 metres. Its impressive depth rating meant that it was revered by the watch buying public, but its real success was based in the trust that the military — especially in America — placed in the watch. It was taken on by the US navy and also sold in the on-base PX and BX stores, especially during the Vietnam and Korean Wars.
“I hear stories almost daily from Vietnam soldiers, who have passed their watch down to their children or who are still wearing it because it has been through so much with them,” says Pearson. “The watches may be a little beaten up, or the bracelets might have been replaced, but this is history that we need to record and preserve. I had a gentleman reach out to me recently who was a submariner. He didn’t believe in the 1960s that this watch could go to 300 meters. So he tied it to the side of a submarine to test it. It is still working today.”
The cult-following of Zodiac was seen in 2015 when a limited edition Sea Wolf was released and, after an enthusiastic write-up by Hodinkee, went viral and sold out. Pearson acknowledges that the problems were as big as the advantages at this point, saying: “The standard way is to have a core collection and do a limited edition to support it. We had a limited edition that created a huge hype but we didn’t have anything to fall back on.”
Hence, Pearson’s mission over the past year has been to restore the reputation that Zodiac was renowned for. Today, everything is top quality from case suppliers to dial and hand suppliers and, instead of buying in all of the automatic calibres, Fossil has acquired movement maker STP, which has developed existing calibres to use exclusively within Zodiac watches.
Today the core collection consists of: the 39mm Super Sea Wolf Skin, which includes the Super Sea Wolf Skin 53, an homage to the original Sea Wolf from 1953 with the shark tooth hands and indexes; the 40mm Super Sea Wolf Compression that has the block hands and indexes that existed in the 1970s and is the perfect canvas for colour experimentation and limited editions; the 42mm Pro Diver powered by a COSC-certified Sellita movement; the complications, specifically a GMT and a World Time which pay homage to pieces from the past; and the entry point Olympos field-style watch which comes in 37.5mm or 39mm.
Zodiac is also experimenting with different materials like ceramic and titanium — and this year it launched a model with a meteorite dial. “It felt like we very much had our finger on the pulse in terms of colour and materials,” says Pearson. “But we are owned by the fourth biggest watch house in the world and they are pushing us and supporting us in everything we do.”
Last year the brand made just 6,000 units, but by the end of 2022, the figure will be closer to 9,000 — still a long way from the 1970s when Zodiac sold a quarter of a million units worldwide, but that, according to Pearson is not the point.
“I believe this is the dawn of something,” he says. We want to open just a few markets — mainly the US and UK — and to do it, right. And then we will then develop and grow throughout the continents. In the past couple of years I have concentrated on strengthening our core collection. We are improving the website every day and building new POS displays that will be really functional. So we will have our own window with the website plus places where people can come to see and touch the product. For retailers to trust us, we need to invest in marketing, ambassadors and displays to make these wonderful watches look like they should.”
Despite ongoing conversations with national outlets, Pearson is a committed supporter of independent retailers, as demonstrated by the brand’s sponsorship of that category in the WATCHPRO Awards 2022. “These guys are storytellers. At the moment, a lot of watch buyers need someone to really explain what Zodiac is and I truly believe that an independent store at this stage of our growth, is the right way to go. This year, the brand has opened 20 points of sale globally, on top of the 25 it already had. We have some really big online partners, but we need the retail side as that space is where the magic really happens “
For WATCHPRO Salon, Zodiac is bringing “a little bit of everything” — the core collection and some 2022 releases, with a suggestion that there may also be a couple of sneak peeks of what 2023 will bring. “But more than anything,” says Pearson, “I learnt last year that a lot of Salon attendees are on a journey of discovery and that’s why we go — there won’t be any bells and whistles, no experiences, we’re not bringing a plane or a dive bell.
“It’s going to be me, the team and some watches. We want to meet the right people who want to ask questions and converse. I think when you’re face-to-face at a place like WATCHPRO Salon, you meet true enthusiasts who see through any nonsense and are not interested in any social-media hearsay.”