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Nov072011

Soviet Era Clocks & Watches #0072

Soviet-era-watch

Soviet-era-watch-collector-Mark-GordonThe collector: Mark Gordon, Managing Director, Indigo Strategic Marketing Pte Ltd., Singapore.

The collection: Antique Soviet era Russian clocks and watches.

The story behind the collection... 
 

I became interested in Soviet-era Russian clocks and watches by accident. I was surfing eBay one day in 1999 when I came across a Russian wrist chronograph with what was claimed to be a case made from the recycled titanium skin of an SS-20 missile. The seller said that it was made in the early 1990s by the First Moscow Factory (Poljot) to commemorate détente with the U.S. I didn’t know anything about horology in those days but I decided to buy it as a souvenir of the end of the cold war.

When it arrived, I was really surprised. The case was a solid ‘brick’ of expertly machined titanium with a beautiful high-precision movement inside (caliber 3133). The quality I was looking at just didn’t synch at all with the American propaganda I had been fed about shoddy communist goods.

I started to look around for other Soviet timepieces and a few months later I purchased a 1977 Soviet-era deck watch chronometer from a seller in Moscow. It looked like a pocket-watch on steroids and it contained a beautiful gold plated movement that was decorated with Geneva stripes. The movement was beautifully crafted even though it was covered by 2 lids and was never meant to be seen by anyone, except maybe by a repairman. Obviously a great deal of care and pride went into making it. Once again, this didn’t fit with American propaganda I was exposed to in high school that claimed workers in the Soviet Union were oppressed slaves.

From that point on I wanted to learn as much as I could about Soviet-made watches and clocks.

The watches and clocks in my collection are artifacts from a single, very unique and exciting moment in Western civilization. That moment began on 25 October 1917 when the Russia’s 140 million citizens initiated a grand utopian experiment and ended in 1991 with economic collapse and dissolution of Soviet empire. In the years in between, as the Soviet Union became a world power, it spawned a watch and clock industry that was second only to the Swiss industry in the numbers and types of timepieces produced.

The story of the Soviet ‘time’ industry is worth telling, both because it is fascinating, even to the most casually interested person, and because the world of Soviet watches and clocks is an exquisite microcosm of the larger Soviet experience. In a very real sense, the development of the Soviet watch and clock industry mirrors the development of the nation itself. As the social, industrial and political priorities of the State evolved, so did the watches and clocks it produced.

This industry was homegrown in every sense. Its origins are rooted in watches and clocks that were confiscated from members of the ruling class in the days and weeks immediately following the Communist ascent to power. And, while there were periodic infusions of technology into the infant industry from Switzerland, France and Germany, these imported technologies were always quickly modified, ‘improved’ and adapted to the needs and philosophies of the Soviet State. 

Soviet engineers were talented and resourceful, and they were possessed of an almost religious reverence for the philosophies of Marxist-Leninist Socialism. Where Swiss and German technology emphasized complexity, Russian engineers stressed dependability. While European watch designers focused on elegance, Soviet watchmakers strove for practicality and mass production.

In just five decades, the Soviet ‘time’ industry leapt from non-existence to become the largest producer of mechanical clocks and watches in the world after Switzerland. In 1972, alone, the First Moscow Watch Factory, produced more than three-and-a-half-million watches and movements for domestic consumption and export to more than sixty countries around the world…  And, this number does not include production from a network of more than half a dozen other major Soviet watch and clock factories that stretched from the Western borders of the Ukraine to Eastern foothills of the Ural mountains in Siberia.

This unique and exciting history is why I collect Soviet-era Russian clocks and watches. 

I have been collecting since about 1999; more seriously since about 2004. Currently, the collection contains about 1500 pieces. 

The collection is carefully cataloged and stored in a special climate-controlled room.  Both temperature and humidity are regulated 24-hours a day. I remove the straps from most watches and store them in special covered trays that hold 12 large or 18 small pieces.  This is because Soviet factories usually did not supply straps with the watches they produced. The end-user purchased these separately.  I only retain straps or bracelets if they were factory supplied.  Clocks are kept on shelves or in special boxes.

The collection is comprehensive.  It spans the entire period from the October revolution in 1917 until the dissolution of the Soviet state in 1991. All of the factories and laboratories that produced clocks or watches in the Soviet Union are represented, and there are also many pieces that were imported into Russia by the Soviets for technical or personal consumption.

To be honest, I am not really interested in collecting watches.  I have no interest in Rolexes or Breguets.  What I really collect is history – the history of the one of the Western world’s most unique industrial adventures.

Images (from top to bottom)

1. A Vostok Dive watch produced by the Tschistopolsky Watch Factory in the 1980s. This is a very rare watch. Only 4 or 5 are known. I think it is one of the most beautiful dials produced in the Soviet Union.

2. A solid gold Poljot caliber 2200 wristwatch produced by the First Moscow Watch factory circa 1965. At 1.85 mm, this is the thinnest Soviet mechanical movement ever produced and one of the thinnest mechanical movements ever produced anywhere in the world.  Fewer than 6 pieces of this caliber are known to exist. This caliber was never put into production because the bridges were so thin that they easily deformed in everyday wear. The few that were produced were put in solid gold (.583/14K) cases w/Soviet hallmarks.

3. & 4. An engineering bench prototype for a transistorized chronometer with a contactless electromagnetic balance drive produced before 1960 by NII Chasprom (Science Institute of the Watch Industry) with mechanical components from 1st Moscow Watch Factory.  This chronometer represents the development stage of an extremely accurate timepiece was under development for the military.  However it was never manufactured because of reliability problems with the battery power source & because of the astronomical cost of the units.  Apparently only a few engineering prototypes (including this one) were produced. The project was eventually cancelled and this is probably the only piece of its kind still in existence.

5. & 6. A rare military Clock produced by the 2nd Moscow Watch Factory in the 1950s with a complex mechanical mechanism for controlling a radio beacon for aircraft navigation. This model clock was originally designed & produced in Berlin by the German firm Pintsch Bamag for the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). The German factory was confiscated in 1945 by the Soviets as war reparations & completely rebuilt in Moscow where almost identical pieces were produced with Soviet markings.

7. & 8. A Tin-face khodiki propaganda pendulum clock featuring Leon Trotsky delivering speech in Bukhara, circa 1923.  This is the only clock with this face known to exist.  Trotsky was a Bolshevik revolutionary & Marxist theorist & one of the leaders of the October Revolution. In the party hierarchy he was second only to Lenin, serving as People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs and later as the founder and commander of the Red Army, and the People's Commissar of War. He was expelled from the party by Stalin 1928, sent into exile and murdered in Mexico in 1940.

Mark's website www.ussrtime.com is frequently updated with new pieces and new information. 

All images © Mark Gordon and used with his kind permission.

Reader Comments (3)

Astounding collection! The watches and especially clocks such as these are extremely rare in Russian homes nowadays as they were all sold or just thrown into garbage somewhere in the 90's, just to replaced with some Chinese-made trash. I guess all the remaining pieces now have sedimented in private collections such as yours.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEfenstor
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