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James Michael, Yahoo Contributor Network
Jan 26, 2010
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Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in mechanical watches. They are more interesting and more collectable than their quartz-driven cousins. Yet, they can be expensive. Sure, you can get a see-through automatic mechanical watch at Wal-Mart for $50, but will it ever be something worthy of collecting? Probably not. Russian watches do offer the irresistible combination of low cost and collectibility. The brands are likely not familiar to North American buyers, so we'll touch upon some of the most collectable brands within easy reach.
The top of the heap as far as quality goes. Poljot has become famous for its robust hand-wound aviator and dress watches. Fetching top prices are the Poljot chronographs with the 3133 movement - an extremely accurate movement derived from the Swiss Valjoux 7734.
Alas, Poljot as a company is no longer survives in its former guise. There are many successor companies that continue to use the still-produced 3133 movement, however. Poljot continues as a brand name, but much of the machinery and best employees went to Volmax, which markets some really nice watches under the brand names of Aviator, Buran and Sturmanskie. To complicate matters, the 3133 movement machinery was sold to Maktime. The good news is that Poljot, Volmax and Maktime all make some really nice watches. There are some imitators out there, so see my "Where to Buy" section below for research tips.
For maximum collectability, it's hard to beat Soviet-era Poljot Chronographs. They are accurate and have a certain robust elegance to them. They are not cheap - at least by Russian brand standards - but they are still affordable compared to other collectible watches. If the chronograph style is not to your liking, or is too expensive, the regular hand-wound watches are still interesting pieces. One such watch is one with a buzzer alarm function. It's quirky and useful at the same time, and won't break the bank to buy in nice condition.
Another interesting watch brand with technology you wouldn't expect in a model so cheap. Classic Slavas (Slava = "Glory" in Russian) feature two mainsprings. Mainsprings are the engines, that when wound, drive mechanical watches. The problem is that they tend to deliver more or less power depending about how "wound" they are. A fully wound watch tends to provide a different amount of power than one that is more unwound. As you might guess, this can affect accuracy. Slava worked around this issue by having two mainsprings for more consistent, more accurate drive power. Few watch brands ever used this technology because of its expense. Notable exceptions are the premium brands A. Lange & Sohne and Omega.
Slava with this double-mainspring design can be had in hand-wound and automatic versions. The styles can range from clunky (but surprisingly fashionable by today's standards) to clean and tasteful. You'll need to do some digging to find a style right for you.
The real Slava company is no longer producing these interesting watches, but a Chinese company makes watches with the "Slava Sozvezdie" name on them. Search for "Russian watch" on ebay and you're likely to find a ton of these imposters pop up. There is simply nothing Russian about them.
Note that Slava meant for the export market were labeled "Slava." Russian models are spelled in the Cyrillic alphabet and English speakers often mistake the word for "Craba" - as it would appear if Latin letters were used.
The king of easy-to-buy and fun-to-collect Russian watches. Vostok has a history as the supplier of watches to the Soviet and Russian militaries, so the often cartoonish military-themed dials attract a lot of buyers. Vostoks come in a bewildering array of dial designs, case styles, movements and water-resistance, so we'll focus on the two most popular styles here.
These "commanders" watches are - as you might guess - designed for military commanders. Either hand-wound or automatic, these watches are cheap to buy (as low as $15-20 used, under $50 new), robust and with some adjustment, accurate. The most prized are the Soviet-era ones, as they are purported to be of higher quality than recently produced ones. Most prized of all are the ones made specifically for the military. These models can be identified by the "Zakaz Mo CCCP" - "by order of the Ministry of Defense" - written on the bottom of the dial. These models went through added quality control and could only be sold through military stores that were not open to the general public. The Soviet-era models fetch a premium, with really nice "Zakaz" examples reaching into the hundreds of dollars. That's a tiny amount compared to Swiss-made collectibles, but worth noting.
My personal favorite, the Amphibia, is arguably the best dive watch bargain around. Still to be found for around $60-70 new, this watch features a true diving ability of 200 meters. Older models from the 1960s-1980s often featured hand-wound movements, all the new ones are usually automatics. There are several permutations of cases styles and dials, so there is much to attract most buyers interested in Russian watches. There are now even updated versions of this model (more accurately called "Amfibia"), and reproductions of the first Amphibia model from 1967. Aesthetically, these new models can be appealing, but they can run into the hundreds of dollars.
Vostok Europe watches are made by a separate company in Lithuania with Russian Vostok movements inside. The designs on these watches appeal to more mainstream Western watch buyers. Since the company has only been around for a few years, it's hard to judge how collectable these will become. The fact that many of the models are limited runs augers well for collectability. The styles are so attractive and unique that many collect them for pure enjoyment, and that's as it should be.
There are several smaller brands that you may run into, many of which were never really marketed outside of Russia.
One of these brands is Raketa. Raketa still makes interesting watches, including many varieties of 24-hour dial watches. The cases on Raketas tend to look a little less beefy than Vostoks, but some collectors find these watches irresistible.
Luch watches are harder to find, and even less well know, than Raketa. Luch watches are technically not Russian since they are made in Belarus, but they still have a Soviet heritage that attracts collectors.
Zim is another rare brand outside of Russia. Some models had very cheap movements, but again, collecting watches isn't always about the highest-quality construction. And Zim did make some attractive, reliable timepieces.
Molijna was primarily a pocket watch company, but there are watches floating around with Molijna movements in them. The Molijna company itself is no longer in business.
Orion watches were assembled in Russia with Russian and Chinese movements. Lately, the only new Orions you are likely to see are their skeleton watches that are 100% Chinese.
There are other lesser-known brands such as Moscow Classic, Zariya, Denissov, Rekord and Chaika. Some of these brands are worth a look and can be found either on ebay or through internet sellers.
Where to Buy?
I hesitate to recommend where to buy watches, as the places come and go with regularity. It's also a really good idea to do some research on the brands you like - their foibles, the best models and where the best place to buy them is. A great starting place for all that information is the internet. Russian watch collectors have their watch collections, company histories and other valuable information on their sites.
Watch forums are probably the best single place to get all of the necessary info. I suggest reading through the Russian Watch Forum on Watchuseek.com for a wealth of information. Better still, join the forum and ask for advice. Members of this forum are courteous and knowledgeable.
When buying Russian watches, two bits of caution. One, ebay is a great place to find bargains, but know as much as possible about what you want to buy. Several overseas sellers use various parts of broken watches to piece together workable "Frankenwatches." There's nothing inherently wrong with these watches; they probably keep time very well. If you are seriously thinking about collecting original samples, though, these reconstructions will not suit your needs.
Note of Caution
Another key point is that of spare parts. Many watchmakers won't touch a Russian watch because of a lack of spare parts. Even Vostoks that are currently in production are difficult to get parts for. There's no good reason for this except poor planning on the manufacturer's part. Happily, enough inexpensive watches are floating around on ebay to supply most of your needs. Getting a watchmaker to work on something other than a Swiss or Japanese watch may still be a problem. There are shops that will happily handle such pieces, even though it might mean you'll have to mail the watch to them.
Collecting Russian watches may never offer much of a return on your investment, but I think its satisfaction-to-dollar index makes it a whole lot more fun than "serious" watch brands. And if you decide it's not for you and sell off your collection, you probably won't have lost any money. You can't say that about too many hobbies.
http://voices.yahoo.com/collecting-affo ... tml?cat=24
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