Russian watches from the Soviet era:

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Russian watches from the Soviet era:

Post by koimaster » March 5th 2018, 10:28am

SINGAPORE — Born in the United States in 1949, in a family of Russian descent, Mark Gordon remembers growing up in a "viciously anti-Soviet environment."

"We were told at school that Khrushchev was a lunatic and the Russians were slaves of the communist system that produced shoddy goods," the 58-year-old businessman, now based in Singapore, recalled in an interview, referring to the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

In 1999, while browsing on eBay, his curiosity was piqued by an old wrist chronograph made from the recycled titanium casing of an SS-20 missile. He bought it and discovered that, far from producing shoddy watches in the 1960s, the Russians were actually improving on many Swiss technologies of the time.

The watch was a Poljot 3133 chronograph produced by the First Moscow Watch Factory, based on a Valjoux 7731 caliber from Switzerland but modified by Soviet engineers to make it more robust.

Gordon has since developed an all-consuming passion for Soviet watches dating from the dawn of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 to the demise of the Soviet system in the early 1990s. He owns more than 500 of them, though he says he doesn't see himself as a watch collector: "What's interesting to me about the Soviet watches is the social and political history that they represent," he said.
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"The Soviet state had very different industrial and aesthetic philosophies on production, and these watches represent this beautifully," Gordon said. "Where the Swiss loved elegance and complexity, the Soviets from the very beginning went for utility and reliability."

Watches had been a rarity in Tsarist Russia, affordable for only a select few and most often received as presents from foreign dignitaries.

Small Russian workshops would import parts and movements from Swiss manufacturers and then design a case to finish the watch. The market was dominated by a few Swiss watchmakers, including Paul Buhre of Le Locle; Borel of Neuchatel and Henry Moser of Schaffhausen.

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, demand for watches, especially from the army, was growing.

"Watchmaking was really the high technology of the day. You couldn't run a railroad, navigate a ship or run an army without them," Gordon said.

Some prerevolutionary watches were confiscated and "redistributed" - one of Gordon's watches is a small, copper cased, prerevolutionary, Swiss-made Anthos watch with an inscription on the back in Russian that translates: "To the honest warrior of the Red Army from the Petrograd Soviet Workers' and Red Army's Deputations."

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.

Having decided to set up its own watch industry, the government acquired two American companies, Dueber-Hampden Watch and Ansonia Clock, in 1930. All the production equipment along with 21 former Dueber-Hampden employees from Ohio were sent to Russia to help set up the First State Watch Factory - later renamed First Moscow Watch Factory - which went on in the 1970s to produce the most popular watch brand of the Soviet era: Poljot .

"Although the U.S. maintained a trade embargo with Communist Russia, Dueber Hampden was bankrupt and using outdated 19th-century technology, which is why the Americans let it go," Gordon said. "They didn't see any strategic value in it."

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.

In 1935, the Soviet Union began buying high-quality Chronoflight watches from Jaeger-LeCoultre to equip the cockpits of 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. "The Russians actually improved the function of the clock," Gordon said.

Over the next three decades, the first Moscow Watch Factory, and later the Tscheljabinsky factory, east of the Urals, would produce a whole family of precision chronographs "inspired" by the Jaeger-LeCoultre design, for a broad range of applications, he said.

In the 1950s, 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.

"Nobody is quite sure what happened, but the Zenith caliber 135 blueprints ended up at the Tschistopolsky factory, where a modified version was then produced called the Volna," Gordon said. "At first glance it looks like a Zenith, but in fact the movement is a bit different. The Soviet engineers improved the Swiss design by adding three additional jewels, moving the second-hand from a sub-dial position to the central pinion and enlarging the balance wheel. This improved the accuracy of the watch."

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 watchs, 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.

Gordon's passion, however, is not these, but earlier pieces, from the 1920s and 1930s which, he said, "are very esoteric, quite hard to find and hard to understand, because there is very little literature."

Until recently there were have been few serious collectors, and prices have remained relatively low, with interesting pieces still to be found for a few hundred dollars. But that is changing.

"In my eight years of observing the market I would estimate that the prices have at least tripled," Thommen said. Of late, Russian collectors have started to take an interest, he said. ... wanted=all


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