The swiss, the soviet and the pocketwatch...
Watches. The first thing we associate with that word is Switzerland. That's why it is no wonder why they are, to this day, the number-one producer of wristwatches in the world. However, when we think about Russia, items that may often spring to mind tend to be nesting dolls, Fabergé eggs, amber jewelry and many of the world’s best-built fighter jets and Rocket Ships. So a shocking revelation is the thriving watchmaking culture that many collectors have known for decades. This part of the world produced some of the most fascinating watches on the market.
The earliest Russian watches were first created in the 18th century, before Russia had a true watchmaking industry, and it is quite difficult to understand when these timepieces were crafted because unlike some later pieces that have a date stamp, the earliest watches for the Russian market usually have no production information on them.
When the Russian Empire had ruling Tsars, a pocket watch was a highly coveted and expensive commodity to have. Only the elite or upper classes could be able to source one of these, much less afford one, and most often received them as presents from foreign dignitaries. A few mom-and-pop workshops sprang up in Russia, who imported movements and parts (for the most part) from Switzerland, which were then assembled and sold on the Russian market. Generally, the only way to tell these watches from their Swiss counterparts is the Cyrillic writing that’s sometimes engraved or stamped into the case, and occasionally, the dials were in Cyrillic as well. A few of the Swiss producers from this era who helped bring the industry to Russia include Borel, Henry Moser, and Paul Buhre. At the time they were more Swiss-made pieces with a sort of Russian flair, and not entirely "authentic" Russian watches.
In the years after the October Revolution in 1917, watchmaking came to a near standstill as workshops ran out of Swiss and German-made parts. However, since Watchmaking was the the "cutting edge" demand for watches, especially from the military was growing. Watchmaking was really the high technology of the day were in high demand and vital for many professions. You couldn’t run a railway or manage an army or keep track of a navy without a reliable and consistent timepiece. Some pre-revolutionary watches were confiscated and "redistributed”. By the late 1920s, watches had become such an important commodity, Gordon said, that the Bolsheviks were buying them in the international marketplace, paying in gold.
The Military Market
So demand was growing, and shortly after the Soviet government was established in 1922, its leadership decided the country needed its own watchmaking industry, since this technology was the way of the future. The government knew they needed a leg up They didn’t have the infrastructure many Western nations had so in 1927 The Labour and Defense Council passed a decree to establish a watch industry to serve government and Red Army needs. The Soviet watches were to be accurate, reliable and not inferior in quality to their Western counterparts.
Since the Swiss were decades ahead, and Americans had a great head start with their watchmaking businesses. The Soviet state decided to buy two defunct American brands—the Dueber-Hampden Watch Company and the Ansonia Clock Company. At the time, Americans placed little value in these companies, which had gone bankrupt due to their reliance on older machinery. While I the debt-holders just saw an opportunity to get a dollar and took it. Although the U.S. maintained a trade embargo with Communist Russia, Dueber Hampden was bankrupt and using outdated 19th-century technology, they didn't see any strategic value in it, which is why the Americans let it go.
Three Soviets then traveled to Canton, Ohio, where these two companies were based, to pack up all the manufacturing equipment, leftover watch movements, and pieces to ship back to Russia. Though it’s hard to believe, the twenty-one former employees were delighted to have their jobs—and themselves—shipped overseas since this happened hortly after the stock market crash of 1929, the international maneuver wasn’t viewed as a competitive threat to American industry. They began making 7- and 15-jewel pocket-watch movements made with parts from Ohio. The Soviets changed all the lettering to Cyrillic to signify their new ownership, and there were slight design modifications, all very minor. The first 50 Russian-made watches were then presented at a ceremonial meeting in the Revolution Theatre, now known as the Bolshoi Theatre. Yet within a couple of decades, the Soviets had transformed their workshop into one of the world’s top watchmaking centers, second only to the venerable Swiss enterprise.
Soviet Boom Timeline
The Soviet Union began buying high-quality Chronoflight watches from Jaeger-LeCoultre to equip the cockpits of their military aircraft. The dials on these Swiss-made, chronometer-grade chronographs were customized with markings in the Cyrillic alphabet. Within a couple of years, the Soviet authorities had bought a license to produce Chronoflights themselves. Soviet engineers started modifying them by gold-plating some parts, which reduced friction actually improving the function of the clock.. In the late 1930s, the Soviet authorities began an enduring collaboration with the French company Lip to produce modern, world-class movements. This collaboration continued through the 1950s and resulted in several high-quality calibers that Soviet engineers subsequently modified and improved.
When World War II began, the demand for watches was unprecedented, and the Soviets went into overdrive. The "Commander" watch produced by the First Moscow Watch Factory was commonly used by officers of the Red Army. Watches with distinctive engravings were given by the army as a form of reward.
During World War II The First Moscow Watch Factory was evacuated to the city of Zlatoust. Throughout the war the factory worked for needs of the front producing aircraft watches and sea and aviation chronometers. The Chistopol Watch Factory was created and began manufacturing products for needs of the front. This is the origin of today's Vostok brand.
By the end of the 1940s
The Soviets had nearly a dozen factories producing watches, though some had been relocated during the war. They were still using the same movement designs from Ohio, but putting them into new forms.
The catalyst was a brand introduced in the late 1940s: The story is that Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, ordered the production of a watch called Pobeda, which means “victory.” It’s probably no big mystery why he chose that name, but that brand was used for some of the country’s earliest wristwatches and was extraordinarily successful throughout the ’50s. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of watches produced monthly during its peak.
“Soviet watches were highly egalitarian in their design and function; these were watches for the people.”
At one time, the Russian watch industry produced millions of watches per year, the majority initially exclusive to the military.
1946 The Victory Era
The First Moscow Watch Factory began production of Pobeda (Victory) watches. The name, design and characteristics of these watches were personally approved by Stalin himself.
1949 Flying High
The First Moscow Watch Company began production of the Shturmanskie watch. These watches were produced for the air force and were not available for the open market.
As precise timekeeping became essential for the success of modernized economies, the Soviet government threw its weight behind watch production, steadily opening new factories and overhauling out-of-date facilities. The country’s efforts were bolstered by the Allied victory in World War II, which allowed them to pilfer surviving equipment from German factories. By the 1950s, Soviet watchmakers were turning out timepieces that were at least as accurate and durable as their Swiss counterparts, yet also more affordable, making them desirable across the Western world, in spite of the Cold War.
The 1950s The same but different
As the Cold War became more intense and the internal demand for watches and clocks accelerated, Gordon said, the Soviets would sometimes take shortcuts by stealing movement designs from the West, "But, almost always, once in hand, they tinkered with these designs, improving accuracy and making them more robust."
The most notorious example was in the 1950s, when a Swiss company, Zenith, produced the first wrist chronometer approved by the Swiss certifying agency, the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres.
1957 To the moooon
The Sputnik watch was produced, in honour of the launch of the first Soviet satellite. This watch was produced in two versions: with a central second hand and with a transparent disk with a mark in the form of a satellite instead of a second hand. In the same year, by special request, the watch Antarktida (Antarctica) with a twenty-four-hour scale, was designed. This watch was intended for the participants of the first Soviet expedition to the South Pole. Both Antarktida and Sputnik are today a collection rarity, due to the fact that both models were only in production for one year.
The first Soviet mechanical watch with an alarm function, Signal, was developed. The manufacturing of the watch-chronograph Strela with a one-hand stopwatch and 45-min minute counter commenced. Its dial had extra telemeteric and tachometric scales. Strela watches were not available for open sale, as they were specifically developed for the commanding officers of the air force.
The First Moscow Watch Factory produced the first watch under the Poljot brand.
Russian technological advances were driven by industrial needs and use. Soviet clocks and watches had to provide time signals for navigation and targeting in Soviet strategic aircraft and naval vessels. They controlled lighthouses and marine buoys in the Arctic and coordinated traffic on the the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
"I work as a designing engineer, and I've always been fascinated by the Russian way of engineering, said Philipp Thommen, another collector of Soviet watches, who is based in Switzerland. "Complex engineering is something anyone can do. But the Soviet designs are, in their simplicity, still the most effective and reliable in the world."
Gordon said: "It is really in the specialized application of watches and clocks that Russian watches are interesting. By the 1960s, their mass-produced wristwatches employed sophisticated shock protection and hairsprings that the Swiss were only using rarely and in high-quality watches.
"Wherever there was technology that was appropriate for the accuracy or the robustness of the watches and it wasn't a complication for the sake of being a complication, the Russians were quicker to adapt it than the Swiss.
According to Gordon, the Soviet factories had little interest in producing status watches. Still, they were not completely egalitarian, and his collection includes some gold watches made after World War II for party members. "But even there, the aesthetic is very different. It's a very utilitarian aesthetic," he said.
An exception to that rule are the propaganda clocks and watches, produced in small numbers in the revolutionary and Stalinist years, and in a sudden burst of bright, "high-design" faces in the late 1980s and early 1990s, extolling Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost. These have become popular with collectors, as have the Vostok watches, with military-themed dials, which were the official timepieces of the Soviet Army in the 1980s.
In the 1950s, these watches were mostly domestic products, but in the early 1960s, Soviet watches were slowly recognized by other nations. As tensions softened and international exchange became more possible, the export market became huge for the Soviets.