A Short History Of The Russian Watch Industry And Where It Is Today
by Craig Hester
When it comes to manufacturing in Russia and Eastern Europe, the typical items that most often spring to mind tend to be nesting dolls, Fabergé eggs, amber jewelry and many of the world’s best-built fighter jets and machine guns.
But many aficionados of horology have known for decades that this part of the world also produces some of the most fascinating and cost-effective watches on the market.
From the first watch in space on the wrist of Yuri Gagarin, to a team that has just completed the Dakar rally with Lithuanian timepieces as part of its essential gear, the eight-decade history of Russian watches is anything but boring and never stands still.
Having gone from several massive manufacturing operations during the Soviet era to the boutique brands with a unique Eastern flair, these watches from the land of the Cossacks combine tradition with modernity in a way you probably wouldn’t expect.
“Our watches in many ways evoke the past of Russian watch history,” says Igor Zubovskij, managing director of Vostok-Europe, based in Vilnius, Lithuania. “But we also have created watches like no others from our part of the world.” For instance, Vostok-Europe is the first to use tritium tube illumination technology in a watch with a Russian movement, and also boasts being the first Lituanian watch to use Swiss Soprod movements.
From the simple timekeepers Russia started building under the name Pobeda (Russian: “Victory”) for its military in the early 1930s, these watches have come a long way. The founding of the First Moscow Watch Factory grew out of the specific intent of the Russian government to create an autonomous watch manufacturing apparatus, complete with movement-making machinery (which they bought from the shuttered Ansonia Clock Company of Brooklyn, New York in 1929) to the cases and everything in between.
At one time, the Russian watch industry produced millions of watches per year, the majority initially exclusive to the military, and only later made available to the general public.
Then, in April 1961, the world and Russian watch industry – whose brands, watches and names had evolved over the decades – changed forever with Yuri Gagarin’s inaugural manned space flight. Gagarin wore a Sturmanskie (meaning “Navigator”) in the Vostok capsule, a brand still producing watches today.
Oddly, there was no public relations “planning” for this, unlike Omega’s widely publicized participation in the American moon shot a few years later. It just happened to be Gagarin’s personal watch, which he received upon graduation from military flight school: a simple, three-handed, 17-jewel, manual-wind, 36 mm timepiece that didn’t even have a date function.
Sturmanskie, Poljot and Strela (the legends among Russian watches) became forever tied to the space race, with the Strela also the first watch used in a space walk thanks to Alexey Leonov.
The post-Cold War era produced more significant and sweeping changes for Russian and Eastern European timekeeping, and not all for the best. The government subsidies immediately ceased, and border trade with the Far East and Eastern Europe – big consumers of the watches – became next to impossible.
Poljot (meaning “Flight”), the leading Russian watch brand, which had emerged from the First Moscow Watch Factory in 1964, had attained a high degree of renown. And it went under, as did many of the movement manufacturers.
What has grown out of the chaos is both interesting and in many ways more accessible to the entire world than ever before, e.g. Lithuania’s Vostok-Europe, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. The brand’s watches, now synonymous with extreme sports, are still inspired by achievements in Russian history – often mechanical in nature – with design originating in the inspirational element.
The focus of these watches is now even more directed at quality, utilizing top-grade materials for watches meant to be worn while diving, driving, flying, you name it. And it is surprising just how affordable they are: most of Vostok-Europe’s watches are still under $1,000.
Sturmanskie is still making watches today characterized by very simple, retro designs, many quite similar to the one Gagarin wore. That brand’s latest model, Mars, is the culmination of a five-year project with the Russian Space Agency to give cosmonauts an all-around trainer watch. Outfitted with a Swiss ETA 2824 movement, Mars has a non-magnetic beryllium core, multilayer case, and a design unlike any Sturmanskie before it.
“We want Sturmanskie to remain both historical and forward-moving,” says Valentin Volodko, president of the company. “Our watches will always pay tribute to the space heritage of our roots, while looking to create new designs to appeal to today’s watch owner.”
Vostok, located in Chistopal, Russia – and not to be confused with Vostok-Europe – still produces both movements and watches. Other Russian brands continue to source 31- and 32-jewel movements from Vostok, many with additional and unusual complications.
These and other new boutique brands such as Moscow-Classic, Raketa, Denissov and Nesterov are keeping the spirit and energy of this fascinating and often tumultuous part of the world of horology alive for the next generation and beyond.
*Craig Hester is the owner of Détente Watch Group, exclusive North American distributors of the brands featured in this article, and www.russia2all.com, one of the biggest sources for Russian watches on the Internet. Quill & Pad thanks him for generously providing his expertise, photography library and time to contribute to our themed fortnight.