Discovering the Charm of Soviet and Russian Watch Collections

Strange as it may sound, even a collection of Soviet and Russian watches can be appreciated and recognised by non-enthusiasts. Andrea Manini, a 44-year-old from Milan, has been collecting these timepieces since 1992 and now boasts over 400 examples. “What amuses me greatly is that, unlike Swiss watches, the Russian ones always hide a story to tell,” says Manini.

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The world of Soviet watchmaking is rich with stories, particularly those surrounding Yuri Gagarin, the first man to conquer space. The exact watch he wore during his 1961 mission remains a topic of debate. Some claim he wore a Poljot Sturmanskie, produced by Moscow’s First Watch Factory, while others argue it was the Type One by Sturmanskie, citing a photograph as evidence. “But who can say for certain? Perhaps it’s just a shot taken during a simple exercise?” muses Manini, highlighting the mysteries often associated with these famous timepieces.

Manini’s passion for Russian watches began in 1992, the year following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russian watches started appearing in Italian jewellery stores, sparking his interest. His first purchase was a Vostok Komandirskie, bought for a few lire at a roadside stall. The military look and the rocket on the dial intrigued him, only later discovering its significance related to Gagarin’s historic flight.

Manini’s collection focuses on Russian space adventures and Soviet watches designed for the Italian market. There are also categories dedicated to Soviet polar explorations and Russian railways. Watches commemorating space milestones, like Sputnik, Laika, and Gagarin, are particularly numerous and fascinating.

The evolution of Russian watchmaking is complex, intertwining with the country’s social, political, and military history. Initially, Russian watches were crafted by artisan workshops during the Tsarist era. The Soviet era brought industrialisation, with factories producing watches en masse for civilians and the military, using machinery acquired from American companies.

Famous brands emerged, like Poljot (meaning flight), Raketa (rocket), and Pobeda (victory). Each name reflects a historical or cultural significance, such as Chaika, named after Valentina Tereshkova’s code name during her space flight.

Despite mass production, watches from the 1960s and 1970s are of superior quality, often misunderstood due to their low export prices and the Italian proximity to Swiss watchmaking. Many Russian watches were rebranded for export, like Raketa, Slava, and Poljot becoming Sekonda for the UK market.

For the Italian market, unique models were created, like the Slava Fri Fri with a pink dial and the California with a black dial and pink indices. Two unique chronographs used Vostok cases and Poljot movements, packaged in wooden boxes and sold at high prices.

One common misconception is that Vostok watches were used by the Russian military. In reality, they were state-commissioned but not exclusive to the military. The Amphibia model, developed for divers, is another highlight, featuring a unique screw-back case.

Among Manini’s rarest pieces is a Raketa Big Zero with a nephrite dial. Finding such rare models requires caution as the online market is rife with fakes and assembled watches. Manini advises consulting knowledgeable collectors and forums to avoid pitfalls.

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