This article coincides with the anniversary of 100 years of Soviet/Russian history in the field of watchmaking. During the Soviet era, for a period of 60 years, 15 factories operating across a vast territory were producing millions of watches each year representing the 2nd biggest industry in the world, probably surpassing even the Swiss at some periods. The story line is ideal to become a book or even a movie. One such example is the work of Alan F. Garratt “The birth of Soviet Watchmaking”. The overall history is divided in two parts, the 20th century that covers the Soviet period and the 21st century developments from those who keep the heritage alive even today in the early 2020s.
It all began in 1920 with the establishment of Tochmekh consortium in Moscow, gradually engaged in the assembling of clocks and pocket watches with imported parts from Switzerland and other countries. The first discussions with the Swiss and the Germans for the potential of self sustained production facilities in Soviet Union started in 1923, but failed primarily due to the reluctance of the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin who was preoccupied with the Western practices. After his death in 1924, his successor Joseph Stalin proved more open to his approach, and in 1927 set a five-year plan for the establishment of the first watch factories. Swiss and Germans refused collaboration, and the Soviet team turned to the United States. The bankruptcy of DUEBER HAMPDEN provided a good opportunity, and in 1929 the Soviets did not hesitate to pay 450,000 dollars in order to buy all its equipment and spare parts, loaded in 28 tracks and transferred to Moscow. These assets, along with 23 American technicians who worked in Moscow for one and a half year, were the primary resources for the establishment of the 1st Moscow watch factory in 1930. The facilities of Tochmekh turned to the 2nd watch factory in the same year. These first efforts were successful thanks to the willingness and enthusiasm of few thousand young Russian technicians who learned surprisingly fast and produced large quantities of reliable timepieces, equipped primarily with mechanism Type-1, an American origin (Hampden) caliber that remained in production for 50 years.
Americans were not the only ones who contributed to the Soviet watch industry. From 1930 to 1935, twelve German technicians from Glashutte provided their expertise to the local workforce. In 1936, the Soviet industry began its 40-year collaboration with the French LIP watch company that proved very influential. Initially, the French provided the necessary resources for the establishment of a 3rd factory in 1935 at PENZA, 625 kilometers southeast of Moscow. In this factory, POBEDA the very first Soviet wristwatch, equipped with a caliber based on LIP R26, was presented in 1945 under the supervision of J.Stalin himself, for the scope of celebrating the war victory. During the 2nd world war, Soviets proved very proactive and evacuated 1500 factories from Moscow, before the Nazi occupation. Among them, the 2 watch factories that were relocated in Zlatoust and Chistopol continuing their operation and supporting the “red army”. It is noted that before evacuation in 1941, the 1st watch factory was producing 300,000 timepieces and 14,000,000 ammunition timers annually. After WWII, the story of Soviet horology is monitored through the products presented by the 10 most important factories operating across the vast union territory.
1st Moscow watch factory (1930-2011). It has been the most important plant presenting half of the most representative Russian watch models in the 20th century starting with the mass production of POBEDA in 1946 (after re-establishment from Zlatoust evacuation). In 1949, STURMANSKIE pilot watch was delivered to the Soviet air force, and kept in production till 1960. The same model was used by Yuri Gagarin in his first space mission in 1961 associating this particular design with later purpose built watches for pilots and astronauts. The annual production volume increased from approximately 1 million pcs in the 1950s to 5 million pcs in the 1990s. In 1956, the first Soviet automatic movement (Cal.2415) was fitted in RODINA model, and kept in production till the mid 1960s. In 1959, STRELLA chronograph was presented, equipped with caliber 3017, based on the Swiss Venus 150, and kept in production for almost 20 years. In 1964, the factory presented POLJOT brand that has proved the most representative name among Soviet/Russian watches diachronically. In 1976, the factory presented OKEAN chronograph, equipped with caliber POLJOT-3133, based on the Swiss VALJOUX-7034, and kept in production for approximately 10 years. The factory maintained its production capacity till 2004, and kept producing the chronograph caliber 3133 under a new administration (MAKTIME) till 2011, with unclear status ever since.
2nd Moscow watch factory (1924-2006). Despite the fact that this factory is older than the first, and had been operating under the name “Moscow Electromechanical Plant” before 1930 (it held Tochmekh administration) having clocks and watches assembled since 1924, it is considered second due to later reorganization and lower significance, primarily because the production was restricted to civilian low cost watches after WWII and its re-establishment from Christopol evacuation. In 1964, the factory introduced the brand SLAVA, presenting models equipped with in-house manufactured mechanisms from 1966. Two noticeable facts were the production of quartz movements and watches, and the high percentage of exports (up to 50%) in more than 70 countries, from the 1950s to the 1980s. After a gradual qualitative downfall in the following decades, the factory stopped its operation in 2006 and was demolished in 2011.
Chistopol watch factory (1941-2010). After WWII and the re-establishment of the evacuated 2nd watch factory back to Moscow, production shifted to civilian watches. Later on, the factory introduced the brand VOSTOK, with two major models. First, the VOSTOK PRECISION equipped with caliber 2809, based on the legendary ZENITH 135, produced from 1957 till 1964. Second, the diver model AMPHIBIA introduced in 1967, with water resistance up to 20 ATM for civilian models and 30 ATM for special military ones. This model along with its many variations, equipped with automatic caliber 2416B, remained the flagship of the factory till 2010, when its status turned unclear. Two noticeable facts are its exporting orientation from the 1950s, and the development of the advanced automatic calibers 2426 and 2432 on the account of the brand VOSTOK EUROPE, established in Lithuania in 2004.
Zlatoust watch factory (1941-2020+). After WWII and the hosting of the 1st watch factory, the plant kept producing military products, along with civilian. Especially for the military ones, it is noted that most clocks installed in soviet tanks and aircrafts had been produced in this factory. The two highlights are (a) the utilization of mechanism TYPE-1 for almost 40 years till the late 1970s, much longer than any other of the 5 plants that produced this very first SU produced caliber, and (b) The introduction of the big diver model VODOLAZ in the late 1950s. It is one of the very few Ex-Soviet factories that keeps operating today, and even more maintaining its traditional hand-made processes.
Petrodvorets watch factory in St.Petersburg (1949-2020+). Destroyed during WWII, the factory was rebuilt and began producing civilian wristwatches, before the end of the 1940s. In 1962, the factory was renamed introducing the brand RAKETA and focusing in the production of relatively high quality watches, equipped with “in-house” manufactured mechanisms, considered among the best ever presented during the Soviet era. It is noted that in the following decades before the collapse of USSR, RAKETA was selling approximately 5 million watches annually, a volume almost equal to the entire Swiss industry output at that time. Two of the most distinguished historical models were POLAR 24H introduced in 1969, and BIG ZERO introduced in 1983, associated with Mikhail Gorbachev and Perestroika. In 2009, thanks to the initiative of Jacques Von Polier, with the contribution of British and Swiss entrepreneurs, RAKETA brand started its reorganization introducing high quality heritage models, and establishing its position as the only remaining manufacture brand in Russia.
The rest Soviet production sites. Apart from Penza factory (1935) that has been mentioned earlier, there have been 4 more factories worth mentioning. Maslennikov factory (1945-2004) was producing military and civilian watches introducing the brand ZIM, equipped with mechanisms based on LIP, and in particular caliber 2602 (POBEDA) that remained in production for almost 50 years, from 1953 till 2000. Chelyabinsk factory (1947-2007) is noted for the introduction of MOLNIJA brand, and the almost exclusive production of pocket watches with CORTEBERT based calibers 3601/02/03, for 60 years. Uglich factory (1950-2006) is noted for the introduction of CHAIKA brand presenting both male and female wristwatches. Minsk factory in Belarus (1955-2020+) is noted for the introduction of the brands LUCH and ZARYA (female) utilizing primarily the mechanisms 1800/1801 (still in production) and 2209 (1961-1979). Τhe best supporting factory during the Soviet period, escaped bankruptcy in 2010 thanks to the contribution of the Swiss watchmaker FRANK MULLER, and today belongs to the few surviving Ex-Soviet watch companies.
The Russian period after USSR
After the collapse of USSR in 1991, four new companies have presented a great number of new models (re-issues or new designs) equipped with mechanisms introduced in the Soviet period. Most of these watches have been assembled outside Russia, but due to their origins, they are still considered Russian products. In 1992, Alexander Shorokhof created POLJOT INTERNATIONAL, located and assembling in Germany. In 2000, Valentin Volodko created VOLMAX introducing 3 brands, AVIATOR, BURAN, STURMANSKIE. At the same period (2002), a number of employees of the 1st watch factory established MAKTIME producing and supplying VOLMAX with chronograph caliber 3133 till the end of the decade. After 2010, VOLMAX production has shifted completely from Russia to Switzerland. In 2004, VOSTOK EUROPE was established in Lithuania introducing models equipped with improved automatic mechanisms produced in Chistopol factory till 2010. The last example of a company that takes advantage of the Soviet heritage is STRELA, a brand located and assembling in Germany since 2013, thanks to the initiative of Juri Levenberg to re-introduce this historical chronograph, equipped with caliber 3133 or the Chinese SEA-GULL ST19, in the spirit of perhaps the most representative Soviet model of all times.
Most probably the first decade of the 21st century was the last period of production for most of the Soviet/Russian mechanisms. The enormous stock availability allows for the assembling of Russian watches even today, ten years after, but collectors should bear in mind that this practice will not last forever. Apart from the established brands, there are several independent watchmakers and workshops presenting unique timepieces, with the primary example being that of KOSNTANTIN CHAYKIN located in Moscow. Moreover, Andrew Vorontsov and Artur Akmaev have presented distinguished artistic watches, and finally a great number of Russian and Ukrainian workshops are specialized in the assembling of usually anonymous watches, equipped with all kinds of vintage mechanisms. GS