The Eterna KonTiki – A True Tool Watch

 In Collecting Watches

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer, along with five crew members set out on a journey from South America to Polynesia on a wooden raft. They set out to prove the possibility of contact between the civilisations of the two regions in ancient times.

The name of the raft was KonTiki.

Crew members of the KonTiki were supposedly equipped with Eterna watches. A reasonable choice, as for what it’s worth, Eterna was one of these few brands, that managed to get just about everything right, waterproof cases included.

Oddly enough, it’s not known if Heyerdahl himself was wearing an Eterna. The watch on museum display, labeled as the “expedition’s chronometer” (well, hardly a chronometer as such) is…a military issued Longines COSD “Tuna Can”. Longines made them for British paratroopers during World War II.

It’s unclear just what a British milwatch was doing on the wrist of a Norwegian explorer, however – in all likelihood – it could’ve been a military surplus purchase. Many milwatches were decommissioned and sold after the war.

Anyway, Longines didn’t make it into the history books as the brand of the watches worn by the KonTiki crew. Eterna, however, did.

So, What did the KonTiki Crew Wear?

Obviously, they would’ve chosen a waterproof watch. Eterna managed to cater to the market for durable waterproof watches, making itself a contender in a sports watch arms race.

It can be safely assumed, that the crew’s Eterna watches were either hand-wound or bumper automatic pieces in cases with a screw-down back and a hermetic crown.

Eterna and Waterproof Cases

Eterna used a number of case designs for their waterproof models. Notably, Eterna has used “Clamshell” cases designed by Gallet, although that was only for a brief period in the 1930s. In the very same decade, Eterna tried to introduce their own model with a screw-down crown, and although some specimens of that did make it to the clients, apparently they didn’t sell many.

Instead, Eterna has focused on what constituted the basis of most waterproof cases from the period – a solid, screw-down back, and a non-screw-down hermetic crown. And they managed to get it right.

Most waterproof Eternas from the 1940s and 1950s had a reference number including either the letter code T, DT or BDT. T or DT simply stood for a waterproof case, while BDT indicated a waterproof case and a bracelet.

With their tall, threaded “collar”, the case backs (with either three or six wrench notches) on these were very reliable. The Eterna waterproof cases, even if looking sleek, feel fairly chunky, and except the more “rounded” cases used for the bumper automatics, they had a rather distinctive design with a “step” under the bottom line of the flank, unintentionally showcasing the space taken by the threading of the case back’s collar inside the case.

The Origin of the Species

In 1958, 11 years after the expedition, Eterna decided to celebrate their involvement with a new sports model – the Eterna KonTiki.

The cornerstone of the KonTiki was a new case design, credited in the reference system as “super-waterproof”, represented by the letter code TT. The dial was lumed with – rather obviously – radium, in oversized and highly legible triangular hour markers, and in the fairly broad hands.

Dozens of brands relentlessly copied the design in the following decades, and they still do (every now and then) until this very day.

Eterna KonTiki

Eterna KonTiki advertisement. Photo credit: Magazine Advertisements

If you’ve ever seen watches with lume-filled triangular markers with raised steel numerals in them, and you didn’t know where they come from… well, now you do.

Some would probably at this point shout: “Wait! What about the Zodiac Seawolf?! It also had the same style of markers…?!”

In theory, Zodiac introduced the Seawolf in 1953. In practice, it doesn’t appear that there were any Seawolf models made earlier than the Eterna KonTiki that featured that style of dial. Original adverts for Zodiac Seawolf diver watches with triangular markers date to well after 1960.

The Reference Numbers

The original 1958 Eterna KonTiki was given the reference 130 TT. Oddly enough, the KonTiki models that followed were given the reference… 130 TT as well.

That, of course, is unless the watch had a flat dial, with an F standing for that feature. Then it would have been a ref. 130 FTT (steel, flat dial, super-waterproof). For example, the Super KonTiki diver watches with a rotating bezel and a flat dial would have been a ref. 130 FTT.

However, what about a casual, non-diver KonTiki 20 with luminous stick hands and a flat dial? Yes, it would have been a ref. 130 FTT as well!

Eterna KonTiki

Mid to late 1960s KonTiki 20

This is a reference number mess. Eterna’s system was set on denoting the characteristics of the watch. Two watches could have been radically different but if the same features were selected as the ones defining the model, the same reference number was assigned to them.

Note that the reference doesn’t apply to any case/calibre combination, and in authentication, it’s fairly useless for pieces made until the early 1950s.

With later Eternas, with the reference stamped on the inner side of the case back, this can be telling because the first digit indicates the case material. If you see a reference starting with a “1” on a plated piece, run away.

Super KonTiki

The main sub-collection of the Eterna KonTiki line was the Super KonTiki, a series of diver models with rotating bezels.

In the 1960s, the two most popular models (both ref. 130 FTT) were the standard version and a slightly less common variant with a decompression bezel.

Eterna KonTiki

Super KonTiki ref. 130 FTT, standard diving bezel

The Super KonTiki was not wildly popular, however, its reputation did make it to the Israeli Defense Force, which purchased a number of Super KonTiki watches for its troops.

In 1973, Eterna completely redesigned the Super KonTiki.

Its case was made into more of a C-shape one, and the handset became even more suited for the needs of divers rather than for everyday wear. An almost comically undersized hour hand, a fat minute hand, and a rather thick one for the seconds.

Theoretically useless to the average watch owner, the design provided excellent legibility in terms of what matters during a dive.

What to Watch out For?

As pretty much all mechanical KonTikis were automatic, the dials on these were signed Eterna-Matic. Just like all automatic Eternas after the introduction of the Eterna-Matic ball bearing system and Eterna’s in-house rotor automatic movements with the same system.

“Eterna” only on a vintage KonTiki is a guarantee of it being a redial.

It’s also worth noting, that specimens with “Swiss Made” instead of “Swiss” marking at 6 o’clock are a no-no as well. Since the very beginning of Eterna having started to mark the dials with the country of origin, the three inscriptions used were “Fab. Suisse”, “Fabrique en Suisse”, and “Swiss.”

Availability

Early Eterna KonTiki watches are highly collectable and so are the Super KonTiki divers. This, unfortunately, means that the prices of these are nothing short of insane. However, you can find the KonTiki 20 for decent money.

Eterna KonTiki

1970s KonTiki 20

Eterna has brought back the original KonTiki dial design more than 10 years ago, and these models are still in production. The 42mm case might not suit every wrist, though.

The current models are powered by the Sellita SW-200, a clone of the ETA 2824. Some might not like it, but then again, it’s worth remembering that the ETA 2824 started its life as an in-house Eterna movement, with the production of it handed over to ETA by the end of the 1960s.

The modern KonTikis, like most of the current Eterna line-up, shed value rather quickly, which means that you can find them at reasonable (compared to the MSRPs) prices on the grey market.

All in all, an Eterna KonTiki – vintage or modern – will be a good choice for just about every collector, as the substantial variety of KonTikis made since 1958 offers a KonTiki option for every wallet.

Do you have an Eterna KonTiki in your collection or would you like to add one? Let me know in the comments below.

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