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Watches for the People - The Story of Russia's Watches

Russian watch industry - once one of the biggest and most successful in the world - on the brink of revival

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

A common claim about Russia is that it has never succeeded in making high-quality consumer goods.

The story of the Russian watch industry shows that isn’t true.

In this most high precision industry Russia was once a world leader.  Its leading watch maker, Raketa, still exists, leading to hopes that it might become a world leader again.

In its heyday - the 1950s to the 1980s - the Russian watch industry was the world’s biggest, making millions of strong and reliable watches, including high quality watches rivalling those of the Swiss.

The Russian watch story basically started with Stalin’s industrialisation drive in the 1930s.

Russia first started making watches in the nineteenth century.  Production was however on a very small scale, the work of a few individual watch makers.  The Peterhof Lapidary works produced watches at this time under the Talberg name using movements mainly imported from Europe.  They were very high end luxury items, bought by the sort of people who also shopped at Faberge.

After the Revolution, the need to set up a domestic large scale watch and clock industry became pressing.

A modern industrial economy organised on a continental scale across the vast expanse of the world’s largest country, of the sort the Soviets were determined to create, cannot function without accurate timekeeping.  Nor can a huge military such as the USSR had.

Building up a watch and clock industry was therefore essential, and the Soviet government accorded the task very high priority.

The first big Russian watch manufacturer organised on an industrial scale was the First Moscow Watch Factory, set up in 1930 during the USSR’s First Five Year Plan using machinery and equipment bought from the US. 

Following the assassination in 1934 of the Soviet politician Sergei Kirov, this factory was renamed after him, and his name appears on many of its watches.

The First Moscow Watch Factory is today most famous for two watches it started to make in the 1950s.

The first is the Shturmanskie watch, a pilot’s watch based on the Pobeda (see below) which was intended for Soviet airforce pilots.  It is sometimes claimed to have been the watch worn by Yury Gagarin (an airforce pilot) during the first space flight.

The second type of watch is the Poljot, a watch that used a variety of movements, some originally based on a Swiss movement the design of which was bought in the early 1950s from Switzerland by the Soviet government.  

The Poljot (initially often called the Strela), is sometimes considered in the West the premier Soviet watch, though domestically within the USSR top quality watches made by Raketa and Vostok (see below) were regarded at least as highly.  Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet General Secretary and the first and last Soviet President, for example wore a Raketa watch.

The Poljot (“flight”) got its name in 1964, when it became common amongst Soviet watch makers to give their watches names associated with the Soviet space programme.  

Two of the leading Russian watch brands “Raketa” (“rocket”) and “Vostok” (“east” - so named after Gagarin’s spaceship of the same name) also got their names at this time.

Poljot watches come in various forms, some of them of very high quality, intended either as presentation models or as watches for the Soviet elite.

The Second Moscow Watch Factory, also based in Moscow, also began production before the Second World War.  It was best known for rather cheaper watches sold under the Slava name, which were sold on the civilian market. 

The Second World War is associated in Russia with the launch of what was intended to be a mass market watch - the Pobeda (“Victory”). 

The decision to launch the Pobeda was made by no less a person than Stalin himself in a decree dated April 1945 - a month before Germany's surrender - made in anticipation of victory.

The Pobeda became an iconic watch.  The watch worn by the fictional Soviet spy Ilya Kuryakin - played by the US actor Armie Hammer in the 2015 film The Man from Uncle  - is a Pobeda.  In the film it plays a key part in the plot, having supposedly been left to Kuryakin by his father, a disgraced former close associate of Stalin's.  

It is in fact entirely possible that someone close to Stalin would have worn a Pobeda watch.

According to the Moscow Museum of Cosmonautics, the watch Gagarin actually wore during his spaceflight was not a Shturmanskie but a Pobeda.

Whether that is so or not, it has now been conclusively established that a Pobeda watch was the first watch in space.

Prior to Gagarin’s flight test flights to research space vehicles were made using dogs.  Before one of these flights a scientist attached his Pobeda watch to the paw of the dog.  Apparently he expected neither the dog nor the watch to survive.  To his astonishment the dog survived, and returned to earth safely with the watch in perfect condition.

Since the scientist acted without permission he was severely reprimanded.  This ensured that a record of the incident was kept, putting the question of whether this incident really happened beyond doubt.  

In a bizarre twist, the scientist was interviewed about the incident in 1989.  He was wearing the watch on his wrist, and it was in perfect working order.

Pobeda watches acquired an enviable reputation for simplicity, ruggedness and reliability.  The watch was loosely based on a French design, and was produced in various factories across the USSR.

Many of these factories were created during the Second World War.  The German invasion forced the Soviets to evacuate whole factories - including watch factories - from the European USSR deep into the interior of the country.  Following the end of the Second World War the old factories resumed production in their original locations.  However production at the new sites continued, causing total production of watches post-war to surge.  Many of the watches initially produced by these new factories were Pobedas. 

Amongst the watch factories created in this way was an important one at Penza, and another important factory, created at this time in Chistopol in the Tatarstan on the Kama river, where a part of the First Moscow Watch Factory was evacuated during the Second World War.  The Chistopol factory in the 1960s became “Vostok”.

Pobeda watches were also however made in Moscow and Leningrad.  The Shturmanskie watch, made by the First Moscow Watch Factory, is based on it.

Pobeda watches are still made today (with quartz movements) by the St. Petersburg company Raketa (the former Peterhof Lapidary Works), which owns the exclusive right to the name, and which has been making Pobeda watches since 1946.  It was Raketa that supplied the Pobeda watch worn by Armie Hammer (“Ilya Kuryakin”) in the 2015 film of The Man from Uncle.  

The end of the Second World War in fact marked the moment when the former Peterhof Lapidary Works - since the 1960s “Raketa” - returned to watch production.

The original factory, previously celebrated for its stone cutting, was destroyed during the Second World War.  

It was rebuilt principally as a watch factory.  Its experience in gem stones and stone cutting was invaluable in making successful and reliable mechanical watch movements, which depend heavily on jewels.  

Its first watches were sold under the name Zvezda (“Star”) - an appropriate name for a watch made by the factory that had made the Kremlin’s ruby stars.

The factory was also from the outset a major maker of Pobeda watches, and remains so today.   

In 1961, following Gagarin’s flight, it became Raketa.  

By the late 1960s Raketa was, along with the First Moscow Watch Factory and the Vostok factory in Chistopol, the maker of the USSR’s best watches.

The Vostok factory in Chistopol was initially also a maker of the ubiquitous Pobeda.  However during the 1950s it began to produce a wider range of watches, and established an increasingly close connection to the Soviet military, whose official supplier of watches it became in the 1960s.

Today it is most famous for two watches, the Vostok Amphibia underwater watch, intended for divers, and the Komandirskie watch, intended for military officers.

The Vostok Amphibia, and the rather similar but more massive and rarer Raketa Amphibia made by Raketa, are by general agreement amongst the best and strongest divers’ watches.  The Komandirskie, as might be expected of a watch also intended for the military, shares their strength and solidity.

These exceptional watches would have been sold to the Soviet military through special military “Voentorg” stores, though they eventually became available on the civilian market as well.

Soviet production of mechanical watches peaked around 1970.  At that time what were by quality the three leading factories - the First Moscow Watch Factory, Raketa and Vostok - were producing around 5 million watches each.  Many other factories existed around the country producing watches at this time, and total production was vast.

By general acknowledgement the quality of these watches was very high.  The bulk of the watches were made on production lines, but special presentation watches made by the big three would have been hand crafted.  

Some Poljot and Raketa watches were made with gold cases, and a small series of extraordinary watches made in the 1970s by Raketa used jade cases - symbolic of the company’s long heritage in gem stone cutting. 

A gold Poljot serial 0002865, produced in the mid 1960s in very limited quantities, is one of the thinnest mechanical watches ever made.

At this time top end Russian watches were comparable to the Swiss in quality, with the Russians emphasising reliability and simplicity, and the Swiss refinement and complexity.

A distinguishing feature of the watches made in the USSR is their strong and bold dials, often with Soviet symbols.  Some are highly collectable, and attract enthusiastic collectors.

In the 1970s the Soviets began to export their watches to the West.  

Most Soviet watches exported to Britain were sold through an intermediary company known as “Sekonda”.  The name was apparently chosen because of concern that Raketa - maker of many of the watches that were being exported - sounded too aggressive.  

This has led to a widespread though mistaken belief in Britain that Sekonda is the name of a Russian watch brand.  This is not true.  Sekonda still exists, but it now imports its watches from Asia and no longer has any connection to Russia, or to the Russian watch industry.

In the 1970s the Russian watch industry, like watch industries everywhere, had to contend with the effect of the quartz revolution.

Russia started making its own quartz watches in the 1970s.  From that point mechanical watches lost their purpose for the mass market.  Today, when highly accurate electronic time pieces have become ubiquitous, mechanical watches only make sense as high value items, appreciated by people who value the precision and artistry involved in their making.

The three top producers - Raketa, Vostok and the First Moscow Watch Factory - maintained quality standards for their mechanical watches up to the coming of Perestroika in the 1980s.  Thereafter standards across the industry began to slip, with the industry eventually overwhelmed by the crisis that engulfed the country in the 1990s.

Most of the factories closed. 

The Second Moscow Watch Factory, makers of Slava watches, went bankrupt and closed.  Watches sold in Russian today that use the name use imported Chinese quartz movements, and have no connection to the Slava watches produced in Soviet times. 

The factory in Penza has also closed.  It was acquired for a time by a company called MakTime which for a time made watches some of which used Poljot movements possibly left over from old stocks.  MakTime however went bankrupt in 2012, and has ceased production. 

The First Moscow Watch Factory has also closed.  It was acquired by the oligarch Sergei Pugachev, who is currently on the run from the Russian police, and is presently in exile in France. He was unable to keep the factory going, causing it to close.  Following its closure production of authentic Poljot and Shturmanskie watches using the original Soviet movements has entirely stopped.

Some former employees of the First Moscow Watch Factory subsequently set up their own company called Volmax.  

Volmax lays claim to the heritage of the First Moscow Watch Factory.  It sells watches which it calls Shturmanskie (which it heavily promotes as Yury Gagarin’s watch), and other watches with Russian sounding names like Aviator and Buran.  It is however actually based in Switzerland and its watches all use Swiss movements.  There is a misconception that some of its watches use Poljot movements.  This is not true.  The Russian connection has been lost.  

Volmax is however a serious well-run company.  It is to be hoped it will eventually return to its roots and once more source its movements from Russia.

Vostok’s situation is less clear.  

It too went bankrupt in 2010.  However the company subsequently undertook a restructuring, and its watches are still sold.  There is some uncertainty whether the watches are actually still being made, or whether they are simply being assembled from old stocks.

To confuse the issue further, a company based in Latvia sells watches under the name “Vostok Europe”.  It has no connection to Vostok, its watches are not made in Russia, it does not use Vostok movements, and it does not source its movements from Russia.

That leaves Raketa as the sole survivor of the once mighty Soviet watch industry.  

It continues making watches - including mechanical and automatic watches - of the highest quality at its factory in St. Petersburg under its own name.  The exceptionally high standard of these watches is shown by the fact that Swiss makers source from Raketa components of their watches.  As it happens, not only does Raketa make its own movements, but it is in fact one of only four watch makers in the world to make every part of its own watches (the other three are Rolex, Seiko and Swatch). 

Raketa is also the sole maker of Pobeda watches, which - as was the case with the original Pobeda watch - it positions as its cheaper though still high quality watch, using quartz movements.

Unlike other watches sold as “Russian watches”, watches made by Raketa are the real thing - watches actually made in Russia using Russian movements.  Many dials of their watches, both those sold as “Raketa” and those sold as “Pobeda”, are heavily influenced by or continue to use original Soviet dials made famous by the factory. 

Raketa watches today are worn by top members of the Russian elite including Putin, Medvedev, Dvorkovitch and Shoigu.  Raketa has acted to perpetuate the tradition of Russian watch making by opening its own school to train apprentice watch makers.  It is a well-run company with ambitious plans.  It is well positioned to lead the renaissance in Russian watch making.

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