Watches You Should Know

Elite Naval Commandos Wore This Vintage Military Watch in the 1970s

December 7, 2019 Watches By
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Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Eterna Super Kon-Tiki.

Much regarding the Israel Defense Force’s naval special operations unit known as Shayetet 13 is top secret, but the watch that was on the commandos’ wrists during the 1970s is known to be the Super Kon-Tiki made by Swiss watchmaker Eterna, and it’s nothing short of legendary among watch collectors today.

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Military watches have a special status not only due to the emotions, values, and history that are naturally associated with them, but also because of the type of extreme situations they need to withstand. One can get a sense of the kind of rigors such a watch might face by understanding a little bit about the Isreali Defense Force (IDF) unit that used the Super Kon-Tiki.

Shayetet 13 is an elite military unit of the Isreali Navy, often compared to the famous US Navy SEALS, that are deployed in a wide range of military and covert actions. According to the IDF’s own website, “Shayetet 13 is a marine commando unit operating in the sea, on land, and in the air in a variety of daring and special activities.”

Training in the ruins of a medieval fortress not accessible to civilians (seriously), the unit is also known as particularly secretive, ominously nicknamed “people of silence.” Upgrading from Tudor Milsubs the commandos had previously worn, the Shayetet 13 used Eterna Super Kon-Tiki watches in the 1970s. (The year 1973 is specifically called out by the brand in the name a modern reissue of the watch, which was also the year of the Yom Kippur War.)

Eterna’s Kon-Tiki watch collection is named for the brand’s watches that allegedly accompanied Norwegian author, ethnographer, and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl on his famous 1947 raft voyage across the Pacific. Thus the Kon-Tiki has an aquatic background, appropriate for its modern life as a dive watch, and for the special naval unit. Eterna has a range of dive watches called the Super Kon-Tiki (or Kon-Tiki Super, if you prefer), but the brand made a reissue of the IDF watch in 2010.

With a utilitarian, military plainness, the remake is nearly identical to the 1970s model, though it measures 3mm wider than the 41mm original, and it’s powered by an ETA 2824 automatic movement instead of the Eterna-Matic. (It also features sapphire crystal, which was uncommon in 1970s watches.) While the same watches were available to the public, those used by the IDF will be marked as such with Hebrew engravings.

However, it retains elements like its very ’70s case shape and the handset — which might appear quirky to the casual civilian observer but was undoubtedly designed based on pragmatic considerations. Here, the hour hand is de-emphasized, whereas the minutes and seconds hands are prominent. This might make reading the time a little unintuitive until one is accustomed to it, but it’s meant for use in situations where minutes and seconds are the more critical information.

…you know, like the kind of situations involving national security, the cover of darkness, and a tiny team of elite, deadly commandos.

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Zen Love

Zen Love is Gear Patrol’s watch writer. He avoids the snooty side of the watch world, and seeks out food in NYC that resembles what he loved while living in Asia for over a decade.

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