Acquiring A Taste For Vintage — A ZRC Diver Once Owned By A Member Of The French Air Force
Brands that share their backstories and celebrate their history, particularly with public exhibitions and museums, serve to inspire the next generation of watch enthusiasts. Here is one such story. If you’ve ever seen a vintage watch and been completely mesmerized, I’m sure that this story will strike a chord.
It is no surprise that we here at Fratello have a fondness for Omega. Our founder RJ has a pretty amazing collection, and we often feature watch reviews from the brand on our site. Oh, and don’t forget #SpeedyTuesday! There is another great thing about Omega (and several other brands that come to mind, including IWC), and that is an open celebration of its past with the establishment of a museum. These places serve not only to honor the brand’s historical endeavors but also to help educate the broader public about watchmaking. For one young collector and enthusiast in Melbourne, Australia, it was a visit to one of these museums that sparked his love of all things vintage watches.
Antonio (@tempovintagemelbourne on Instagram), can remember the first time he noticed a watch on someone’s wrist. It was his father’s, and it was some 15 years ago at the markets in Antonio’s hometown of Melbourne, Australia. “I can remember my dad taking me to the markets on a weekend. I would tag along as a kid. He would see the old vintage watch stalls as part of the ritual of going there. It was a pretty magical experience.” Antonio can’t remember exactly what his dad was wearing that day, but he does remember noticing the watch on his wrist, and it occurred to him that it could be something as interesting as the toy stalls Antonio would usually gravitate towards during those father-son expeditions.
Antonio, now a young watch collector, channels his father’s passion for watches into his own passion for vintage pieces. At 16 (Antonio is now 23), his obsession began to take hold. “My family has Italian heritage, and we have relatives in northern Italy as well as some in Switzerland. So I got to go on a family holiday to visit them, and as part of that, my dad took me to the Omega Museum. And it was like this Eureka moment. I just knew during that visit that I completely fell in love with them. I knew that I was definitely into watches and their stories.”
An Omega grail
The first watch that Antonio had a love affair with, fittingly after he visited the Omega museum, was a vintage PloProf owned by his uncle. “My uncle has a vintage 1970s Omega PloProf. He used to wear that, and I remember growing up and staring at that watch and thinking, ‘That is the coolest thing I have ever seen.’ That’s the first dive watch I remember too. On the day my uncle got it, he rang my dad and said, ‘I am working today; can you bid on this watch on eBay?’ He got it before I was born, so it’s been with him for more than 23 years. While it’s too big for me, and I’d never wear it, I would love to have one someday just to look at it kind of like a piece of horological art.”
Antonio’s interest and collection steer toward vintage dive watches. And he doesn’t just enjoy purchasing them but also taking them apart and cleaning them up. “Something draws me to diving watches. I think it’s because they are simple, functional, and tough. There is a beauty in that functional design.”
A left turn
This interest in functional (and quirky) tool-watch designs led Antonio down a winding path to the French-Swiss brand ZRC. This is a relatively uncommon brand to find in the wild, particularly in Australia, where the market for ZRC watches was nonexistent. So Antonio began trawling through forums on social media, market stalls, Gumtree, and eBay to find one. He explains, “I thought this could be something that I could wear, unlike the Omega PloProf, which was too big. It had similar vibes to it as a tough tool watch with an unusual and purpose-built design.” ZRC is a watch brand that is indeed under the radar. Even with the brand starting up again and some dive-watch collectors being familiar with it, the wider watch community may not know about ZRC and its rich history. The hunt was on.
ZRC was established in Geneva in 1904 from the partnership between Edmond Zuccolo (Z) and Joseph Rochet (R). According to its website, in a conversation in 1958 between Mr. Yves Pastre, watchmaker for the Navy, and Mr. Bourdarian, the brand’s commercial director at the time, ZRC’s management received word about a bid for tender from the French Marine Nationale. The resulting design, which took the name ZRC Grands Fonds, was a success in its bid with the Marine Nationale and was in use from 1960 to 1995. The watch has an unusual design with the crown at 6 o’clock to prevent it from digging into the wrists of navy divers. It required the attachment of the crown to a unique mechanism made of a canon cut into a single block. The housing was also antimagnetic thanks to the use of specialized steel reinforced with molybdenum.
Antonio was hunting Facebook Marketplace one day when he stumbled across his grail. The grainy photos couldn’t hide the unique case and dial design. Someone locally was selling a vintage ZRC! The original owner was a member of the French Air Force and now had dementia. His son was selling the watch alongside other memorabilia from his father.
After some negotiation, Antonio picked it up. When visiting the son, Antonio found a swathe of documents and photos of his father. Some of them showed the watch back in its heyday. (Fratello has chosen not to disclose the original owner’s name at the request of the family, who were nevertheless happy to share the watch’s story). Another one of the documents shows a Dassault Mirage III, one of the premier fighter jets of the era.
Dreams of Jacques Cousteau
The original owner was a man from Marseille in southern France. He was an avid diver and spent a lot of time in and around the ocean. He was a big fan of Jacques Cousteau, the legendary diver, explorer, and documentary maker. And being a fan of Cousteau, he looked at his wrist to see what watches he wore. At the time, Cousteau was pictured wearing all sorts of amazing watches, including Doxas, Aquastars, Rolex Submariners, and a ZRC Grand Fonds. As a diver himself, he decided on the ZRC Grands Fonds Series III. It would be the watch that the original owner wore while serving in the French military.
Antonio said he went to great lengths to see if it had been a military-issued watch or something that had been privately bought because the son was not sure. “ZRCs were commonly issued to the Marine Nationale and were serviced and inspected by Yves Pastre, the Marine Nationale’s selected watchmaker based in Toulon, not far from Marseille. He would keep a log of all the watches that he worked on and sign the inner case back with his initials. Pastre had three books full of each watch that he serviced for the Navy. Two are in a private collection, and one is missing. You can contact the owner of these catalogs and request an extract, which I’ve done. The first catalog came back negative, and I’m getting him to check the second.”
A different era
The original owner joined the French Air Force in the late 1960s and can be seen in pictures wearing the watch without the bezel, beating Marlon Brando by a decade or so. He had since gotten the bezel fixed. The son told Antonio that the watch was his father’s pride and joy and that he wore it most days. This watch played a role in his everyday life, from his job at a Marseille-based merchant shipping company to his involvement in the local rowing club. The watch was there for all of it, bearing the signs of a life well lived.
In the 1970s, the original owner met his now-wife in a clothing shop. She was Australian and was in France working and learning the language. They fell in love and moved to Australia in the same decade, and the trusty ZRC watch came with them. Once in Australia, the French Air Force officer had a family and settled down. Eventually, he gave the watch to his son alongside a whole collection of amazing relics, Antonio said. “The son showed me all the other beautiful objects he moved to Australia with — paintings, ceramics, furniture, and French Civil War artifacts. The events that led to this watch coming to Australia were fascinating to hear about. If he hadn’t run into his now-wife and worked for a merchant shipping company, would he have been able to make the move and bring all his beautiful objects here?”
A deeper dive
It turned out to be an exhaustive amount of research on whether the watch was a military-issued piece, including enlisting the help of Scott from Watchistry. As the original owner was in the French Air Force, Antonio said he couldn’t figure out why he had a dive watch rather than something more suitable:
“The main issue was whether I could determine if it was military issued or military ‘used’, as the son didn’t know. This led me down a rabbit hole, even contacting Scott, aka Watchistry, who is an expert in Marine Nationale watches and ZRC and has written books on both subjects. He shared his knowledge and said it presents as a military-issued watch since it has the “MN” notched crown as well as a drainage hole on the bezel to help with water drainage after a dive. This hole was implemented by watchmaker Yves Pastre, which got my hopes up. After opening the watch and not finding Pastre’s signature, I think it was most likely a civilian piece.”
A fresh love affair for this vintage ZRC diver
The watch needed a thorough clean-up and servicing to bring it back to good condition when Antonio acquired it, but taking custody of such a rare piece has been a wonderful feeling. Antonio explains, “A ZRC was a watch that I never thought I’d get. It was like buying a vintage car, working out the story and the provenance. It was a collective effort on the collector’s front. The Grand Fonds is a work of art. It’s such a unique design. The date wheel is all red, and the lume plots have aged beautifully. At 38mm, it’s a great size and just a pleasure to wear, even just holding it on my wrist. It has got a beautiful logo, and I love how it’s such a meticulously made watch. It’s the first one I’ve seen in Australia. There’s something about those watches from the ’60s that is just magical.”
But for Antonio, the best part of all has been connecting to the original owner’s story through the watch: “To be the custodian of this watch is pretty touching, especially with the story about the seller’s father. It is something that I will always cherish in the years to come. This guy had a large selection of watches to choose from at the time, and he settled on ZRC. So, clearly, he was patriotic about his watch choice. He even was a diver himself.”
Antonio showed me his collection of other vintage dive watches, which shows a clear passion for the hobby. The ZRC is something special because of the story behind it and the fact that it was a grail find for him. But Antonio says he will always have a special place in his heart for the Omega PloProf. He is a collector whose passion was stoked not just by his watch-loving father but also by that visit to the Omega Museum seven years ago.
Dear Fratelli, have you ever come across a vintage watch with an interesting or incredible back story? Let me know in the comments.