It almost seems as though from birth people inherently know that a good watch is a Swiss watch. However, tastes will inevitably evolve and curiosity will strike, causing collectors to look elsewhere for horological fulfillment. Interest may wander to the German state of Saxony, to Japan, or even to Russia. While the Russian watch industry may not have evolved into what the Swiss watch industry is today, the Russians were producing an incredible number of different watches at one point in time; many of which are of great importance in Russian history. Let’s start from the beginning, however, and take a look at how watchmaking began in the Soviet Union.
Revolution and evolution
Following the October Revolution of 1917, during which the Lenin-lead Bolsheviks came to power, many businesses came together in an attempt to both stimulate the Soviet watch industry and address the overall need for timepieces. Under a conglomerate known as the Gostrest Tochmekh, which roughly translates to “State Trust of Precision Mechanics,” these businesses imported completed watches as well as unfinished ebauches and movement components mainly from Switzerland. They would then finish and case these in Russian workshops. The association of watchmakers, including H. Moser & Cie (located in Russia at that time), chose to largely import the unfinished parts instead of completed watches, as tax barriers limited the potential profit that could be made on an already completed, foreign-made product like a Swiss timepiece.
This marked what many regard as the birth of the Russian watch industry. The effort to expand the country’s watchmaking operations was supported and overseen by the government, as it was a venture that could have a tremendous impact on the Soviet economy. Shortly thereafter, a deal was struck between an affiliated Russian trading group and the Dueber-Hampden Watch Company of Ohio, which had gone bankrupt and was therefore liquidating their equipment and movement-making machines. The acquisition of this valuable equipment lead to the founding of the First Moscow Watch Factory, from which many of the notable Russian watch brands emerged. Former watchmakers at Dueber-Hampden were also hired on one-year contracts to train watchmakers at the newly founded factory.
Watches for the Space Race
They produced the Sturmanskie pilot’s watch, in addition to another line of watches that went by the name Poljot, which means “flight.” The Pobeda Sturmanskie is an immensely important piece in the history of Russian watchmaking, seeing as it was a Sturmanskie that was on the wrist of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin during the very first space flight. The Space Race is another time in history that plays a large role in the development of the Russian watch industry, as many brands looked to space programs for inspiration when naming themselves. Vostok, for example, another Russian watchmaker renowned for their “Komandirskie” watch took their name from Yuri Gargarin’s spacecraft. This not only speaks to the utilitarian nature of their watches, but also the spirit of nationalism that was synonymous with this era in Soviet history.
The present situation
Today, the face of Russian watchmaking is quite different, as one would naturally expect after several decades. Most notably, we’ve seen Russian watchmakers begin to focus less on utilitarian factors like durability, and more on honing their abilities to create more complicated, intricate designs. One watchmaker that embodies this notion is Konstantin Chaykin, who produces true works of haute horological art for his Moscow-based manufacturer. One of his most impressive creations to date is known as the Cinema watch, which features a mechanical animation window at six o’clock — a wildly unique and mesmerizing complication.
That being said, early watchmakers like Vostok and Sturmanskie are still producing tool watches, and continue to honor the legacy of their durable, functional, and often affordable nature. In addition to offering watches that pay homage to the earliest pieces made by their respective brands, both Vostok and Sturmanskie have departed from the familiar by introducing new collections, many of which focus on chronographs.
Although the future of the Russian watchmaking industry has been seen as uncertain at times, it always manages to persevere. As this area’s horological abilities continue to develop with the increase in wristwatch interest, we can’t wait to see what creations are in store.