The French Branch of SLAVA in Besançon: A Fascinating Chapter in Soviet Watchmaking

Orologio Slava Besançon automatico con quadrante nero e indicatori gialli

Introduction

The history of Soviet watchmaking is enriched by fascinating episodes of international cooperation. A significant example is the French branch of SLAVA, located in Besançon. This branch, established to facilitate Soviet industrial activities in the West, played a crucial role in the production of high-quality watches.

Orologio Slava Besançon automatico con quadrante nero e indicatori gialli
Orologio Slava Besançon automatico con quadrante nero e indicatori gialli

Origins and Historical Context

Besançon, known for its long tradition of watchmaking, hosted the SLAVA branch at number 7 rue Auguste Jouchoux, right next to the famous Lip company. The choice of this location was not accidental: the city not only had a strong tradition in the sector but also historical ties with the USSR. In fact, collaborations between Lip and the Soviets in the 1930s laid the foundations for the post-war revival of Soviet watchmaking.

Production and Innovation

The French branch of SLAVA began producing gold-plated cases as early as the late 1960s. This strategy allowed the Soviets to leverage local expertise to create high-quality products for the European market. The factory also produced and marketed various models under the Raketa brand. The dials of these Soviet-Besançon watches bore the inscription « механизм cccp » (« USSR mechanism »), distinguishing them from those produced in the USSR.

The SLAVA Besançon supply catalogue, probably dated to the late 1960s, lists spare parts for Chaika, Zaria, Slava, Molnia, and Poljot movements. This document is a valuable testimony to the diversification and quality of SLAVA’s production in France.

Expansion and Development

Slava Besançon also registered the trademarks Diamant, Diamant de Luxe, and Saintis, under which it marketed watches entirely made in the USSR. Initially, Slava was located in place Saint-Pierre, the headquarters of S.I.C.E.H., then in place du Jura. The first factory was installed in rue Henri Baigue, but in 1975 Slava built a new factory in rue Auguste Jouchoux. The industrial park still bears the name Slava today.

By the early 1980s, the factory employed 70 people for assembly, quality control, and after-sales service. Soviet mechanical movements were gradually replaced by quartz movements, all supplied by France-Ébauches. The company also marketed, in the last years of the USSR, the Big Zero and Rising Sun models, classics marked “Made in USSR”. It is unclear whether these watches were imported, assembled from Soviet parts, or assembled with a Soviet mechanism and a Besançon case.

Changes and Decline

In 1983, the Soviet board of directors (Mashpriborintorg representatives) of Slava parted ways first with its Besançon director, Bernard Le Varlet, then with Maurice Carruzzo a few months later. Dismissed for “technical reasons”, Maurice Carruzzo distributed leaflets through his wife at the factory gates on 16 August.

One possible explanation is that he had brought Slava closer to Lip and France-Ébauches, sourcing quartz mechanisms from them and thus creating 100% French watches, which probably was not in the Soviets’ interest.

Slava Precision: New Directions

On 15 January 1990, the joint-stock company Slava-Précision was founded, taking over Slava’s assets. It was led by M. Aubach, already active in the para-watchmaking industry (Interstrap and Watch Design companies), with the Russian supervisory board president, M. Korolev. The company continued its watchmaking activities in the same building on rue Jouchoux, importing from Russia and Hong Kong, and exporting to Canada, Switzerland, and Italy, but moving its optical activities to the Paris region.

Slava Précision still employed 24 people in 2004 but went into judicial liquidation on 12 June 2006 (the procedure was closed in 2009).

Union of Expertise and Tradition

The watches assembled in Besançon used movements produced in the USSR, such as the 2602 movement from 2MChZ. These watches bore the inscription “RUSSIAN MOVEMENT” on the dials, testifying to the Soviet origin of their components. This production avoided the commercial constraints that would have made the use of the “Made in USSR” label problematic in Europe.

Conclusion

The SLAVA branch in Besançon represents a fascinating example of industrial cooperation between the USSR and Western Europe. This story not only enriches the narrative of Soviet watchmaking but also demonstrates how the union of different skills can lead to the creation of exceptional products.

The Amphibia Revolution: The Invention of Soviet Waterproof Watches

Michail Fëdorovič Novikov e Vera Fëdorovna Belova, sviluppatori degli orologi Amphibia.

This is an interview with Novikov and Belova, the inventors and developers of the Amphibia project.

Mikhail Fyodorovich Novikov and Vera Fyodorovna Belova, Developers of the Amphibia Watches

The developers of the Amphibia watches, Mikhail Fyodorovich Novikov and Vera Fyodorovna Belova. Image from a video by Vyacheslav Medvedev.

Michail Fëdorovič Novikov e Vera Fëdorovna Belova, sviluppatori degli orologi Amphibia.
Gli sviluppatori degli orologi Amphibia Michail Fëdorovič Novikov e Vera Fëdorovna Belova. Immagine tratta dal video di Vjačeslav Medvedev.

In 1967, a peculiar event caught the attention of many: a “Volga” car drove over a watch. This was not an accident but a public demonstration of the extraordinary capabilities of the Amphibia, the first Soviet waterproof watch. The article describes this moment as follows:

«…10 …7 …5. Неумолимо, метр за метром движется колесо машины. Затаив дыхание, застыли люди. Что же будет? … Три … метр и, наконец, произошло то, чего с таким любопытством ожидал собравшийся здесь народ: колесо «Волги» переехало… часы» (…10 …7 …5. Relentlessly, metre by metre, the car’s wheel moves forward. People hold their breath, motionless. What will happen? … Three … metres and, finally, what the crowd gathered here was so curiously expecting happened: the wheel of the Volga ran over… the watch.)

The creators of the Amphibia, Mikhail Novikov and Vera Belova, tell us about the genesis and peculiarities of this revolutionary watch. Novikov, then head of the New Developments Bureau, was tasked with designing a watch that could compete with the best foreign models, ensuring reliable operation up to 200 metres in depth and resistance to significant variations in pressure and temperature.

Novikov M.F.:

“The challenge was to develop a watch that was not inferior to foreign models and that ensured reliable operation up to a depth of 200 metres, in conditions of great pressure and temperature variations. The name ‘Amphibia’ was chosen through an internal competition, representing a being that feels at home both in water and on land.”

The design of the Amphibia required the adoption of innovative technical solutions to avoid patent issues and to overcome the limitations of the available technology. For example, the watch glass was designed with a special profile to withstand extreme pressures, while the rubber gasket was developed with highly specific materials to ensure perfect watertightness.

Belova V.F.:

“The glass of the Amphibia is thicker than normal: 3 mm compared to the 2 mm of the ‘Komandirskie’ watches. Not only are the thickness and configuration different, but the manufacturing process is also special. The glass is polished to ensure a perfect seal under high pressure.”

Belova emphasises that the processing of the Amphibia glass required extreme precision, with a production process that included polishing to ensure the absence of any imperfections. The watch case’s resistance was further enhanced using stainless steel, a material that was not common for this type of application in the USSR at the time.

Novikov M.F.:

“It seemed that we could simply copy foreign models, but many of their solutions were patented. Moreover, our equipment could not guarantee the necessary precision. We had to find solutions that were just as effective but without infringing existing patents.”

The Amphibia was not just a water-resistant watch; it was an engineering masterpiece. Every detail, from the rubber gasket to the stainless steel case, was designed to overcome the toughest challenges. Novikov and Belova, with their dedication and innovation, managed to create a watch that would mark an era.

In addition to the civilian version, a military version of the Amphibia, called the NVCH-30, was developed for Soviet Navy divers. These models were subjected to rigorous tests of resistance and operation, including drills simulating sea rescue scenarios.

Belova V.F.:

“These watches were tested with very rigorous programmes. Even the strap had to pass extreme resistance tests. The strap’s connection to the NVCH-30 looked a bit strange but was extremely robust.”

The legacy of the Amphibia lives on today as a symbol of innovative engineering and durability. Novikov and Belova, with their vision and expertise, have left an indelible mark on the history of watchmaking.

A Brief History of Watchmaking Art (1926 – G. Kann)

Copertina di "Breve storia dell'arte orologiera" di Genrich Kann

Original Title: Краткая история часового искусства

Year of Publication: 1926

Book Chapters

1. От автора (From the Author)

The author dedicates his work to Ivan Petrovich Kulibin, a talented Russian self-taught mechanic. Born in 1735, Kulibin showed an early passion for mechanics, building clocks and other complex devices with simple tools. His dedication and skill led him to construct a complex clock that caught the attention of Empress Catherine II, who generously rewarded him. Despite adversities, Kulibin continued to innovate until his death in 1818.

Trivia:

  • Kulibin built his first clock without professional tools, using only a knife.
  • The clock presented to Catherine II was egg-shaped and depicted a scene of Christ’s resurrection.
  • After impressing Catherine II, Kulibin was appointed to the Academy of Sciences with an annual salary.

2. Введение (Introduction)

The author discusses the lack of extensive literature on watchmaking in Russia compared to the West and hopes that his work will spark interest in this art. The text is inspired by a brochure distributed at the German Watchmakers’ Conference in 1925.

Trivia:

  • The author uses works from various European horology experts, including Ernst von Bassermann-Jordan and Claudius Saunier.
  • The book is dedicated to the memory of Kulibin, seen as a model of ingenuity and perseverance.
  • Western horological literature is much more developed than its Russian counterpart, with numerous specialized journals and watchmaking schools.

3. Точное определение времени (Precise Time Measurement)

This chapter explores various methods developed to measure time accurately, including astronomical clocks and synchronization based on the movements of the earth and celestial bodies. It describes how observing stars can help regulate clocks with incredible precision.

Trivia:

  • Astronomical clocks can measure time with precision up to hundredths of a second.
  • Time signals were transmitted internationally via radio stations to synchronize clocks in different locations.
  • Berlin used a telegraph signal system to synchronize the clocks of railway stations.

4. Искровая станция Наузн (Spark Station of Nauzen)

Describes the Nauzen radiotelegraph station, used to transmit global time signals, aiding the international synchronization of clocks. The Nauzen station represents a significant step in the evolution of precise time transmission.

Trivia:

  • The Nauzen station began its modern operations in 1920.
  • Time signals transmitted from Nauzen were used for precise clock adjustments worldwide.
  • The station was equipped with two transmission towers, each 260 meters high.

5. Измерители времени в древности (Time Measurement in Antiquity)

The chapter traces the evolution of time-measuring devices from ancient sundials to more complex water and sand clocks. It examines how ancient civilizations used shadows and other techniques to keep track of time.

Trivia:

  • Sundials were used as early as 2679 BC by the Chinese.
  • The first water clocks included complex mechanisms that indicated the hours even at night.
  • Sand clocks, also known as hourglasses, were used for both daily purposes and in courtrooms to limit the duration of speeches.

6. Первые колесные часы с тормазом (The First Wheel Clocks with Brake)

Examines the invention of mechanical wheel clocks, attributed to Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert of Aurillac) around 1000 AD. These clocks represent a significant technological development in the evolution of time measurement.

Trivia:

  • Mechanical wheel clocks represented a huge advance over previous time-measuring devices.
  • The accuracy of these clocks was improved compared to water and sand models.
  • The first public mechanical clock was installed in Milan in 1335.

7. Башенные часы (Tower Clocks)

Describes the development of tower clocks in Europe, highlighting notable examples such as the clock of Strasbourg Cathedral. These clocks not only marked the time but also became works of art and prestige symbols for cities.

Trivia:

  • The Strasbourg Cathedral clock is considered one of the seven wonders of the mechanical world.
  • These clocks were often adorned with animated figures that moved every hour.
  • Cities competed to have the most complex and beautiful tower clocks, often employing the best craftsmen of the time.

8. Карл V часовщик (Charles V the Watchmaker)

This chapter recounts Charles V’s passion for watchmaking and his personal contributions to creating and repairing clocks. After abdicating the throne, Charles V devoted himself entirely to this passion.

Trivia:

  • Charles V abdicated the throne to devote himself to monastic life and watchmaking.
  • He worked with the famous watchmaker Juanelo Turriano to create complex and precise clocks.
  • Charles V found in watchmaking a relief and refuge from the heavy duties of state.

9. Изобретение карманных часов (Invention of Pocket Watches)

Covers the invention of pocket watches, attributed to the Nuremberg locksmith Peter Henlein in the 16th century. These watches brought time measurement to a more personal and portable level.

Trivia:

  • The first pocket watches were known as “Nuremberg eggs” due to their shape and size.
  • These watches revolutionized timekeeping, making it portable and accessible.
  • Henlein was able to miniaturize the complex mechanisms of clocks, making them suitable for pocket use.

10. Морской хронометр (Marine Chronometer)

Explains the importance of the marine chronometer for navigation and how the Englishman John Harrison solved the longitude problem with his precise chronometers. Marine chronometers were crucial for the safety and efficiency of ocean navigation.

Trivia:

  • Harrison’s chronometer could measure time with unprecedented accuracy during long sea voyages.
  • Harrison received a significant prize from the British government for his contribution to navigation.
  • His invention allowed navigators to determine their longitude with great precision, reducing the risk of shipwrecks.

11. Последовательные усовершенствования карманных часов (Subsequent Improvements of Pocket Watches)

Describes the various improvements made to pocket watches, including self-winding mechanisms and new materials for greater precision. Technical evolution continued to improve the accuracy and reliability of pocket watches.

Trivia:

  • Self-winding watches eliminated the need to use a key for winding.
  • The accuracy of pocket watches continued to improve with the introduction of new materials like the Breguet balance spring.
  • Some high-quality pocket watches included complications such as perpetual calendars and moon phases.

12. Изобретение маятника (Invention of the Pendulum)

Explores the importance of the pendulum’s invention for improving the accuracy of clocks, attributed to Galileo Galilei and later perfected by Christiaan Huygens. The pendulum represented a revolution in precise time measurement.

Trivia:

  • Galileo first noticed the isochronous properties of the pendulum by observing a swinging chandelier in the Pisa Cathedral.
  • Huygens developed the first precise pendulum clock, drastically improving time measurement.
  • Pendulum clocks quickly became the standard for accuracy and were widely used in astronomical observatories.

13. Новый уровень выработки часов в девятнадцатом столетии и подъем их производства в настоящее время (New Level of Watchmaking in the 19th Century and the Rise of Current Production)

Discussion on the industrial growth of watchmaking in the 19th century and its development until the early 20th century. Industrialization allowed for mass production of watches, making them more accessible to the public.

Trivia:

  • Technological innovations of the 19th century allowed for more efficient and mass production of watches.
  • Watch factories in Switzerland and Germany became world leaders in producing high-quality watches.
  • Mass production reduced costs and made watches more accessible to a wider audience.

14. Типы изящных современных карманных и браслетных часов (Types of Elegant Modern Pocket and Wrist Watches)

Describes the various styles and types of pocket and wrist watches that became popular in the early 20th century. The evolution of design and technology made watches not only precision instruments but also fashion accessories.

Trivia:

  • Wristwatches began to surpass pocket watches in popularity due to their practicality.
  • Innovative designs and the use of precious materials made these watches not only precision instruments but also fashion accessories.
  • Some wristwatches of the era included functions such as chronographs and moon phase indications.

15. Часовая промышленность в Шварцвальде (Watch Industry in the Black Forest)

Explores the watchmaking industry in the Black Forest, famous for its cuckoo clocks and high-quality craftsmanship. The region is renowned for its horological tradition and the craftsmanship of its products.

Trivia:

  • Black Forest cuckoo clocks are famous worldwide for their craftsmanship and unique design.
  • The region has a long tradition of watchmaking dating back to the 18th century.
  • Black Forest watchmakers were known for their skill in creating intricate and decorated clocks.

16. Фабрика Юнгганс в Шрамберге (Junghans Factory in Schramberg)

Description of the Junghans factory and its contribution to modern watchmaking, emphasizing mass production and technical innovation. Junghans has become one of the leading watch companies in Germany.

Trivia:

  • Junghans was founded in 1861 and quickly became one of the world’s largest watch manufacturers.
  • The factory introduced many innovations, including new production methods and modern designs.
  • Junghans was known for producing precise and reliable watches, including chronographs and wristwatches.

17. Фабрикация карманных часов в Пруссии (Manufacturing of Pocket Watches in Prussia)

Analysis of the production of pocket watches in Prussia and the region’s role in the development of European watchmaking. Prussia was an important centre of watchmaking in the 19th century.

Trivia:

  • Prussia was a significant centre for producing high-quality watches during the 19th century.
  • Many Prussian watchmakers were known for their craftsmanship and attention to detail.
  • Watchmaking production in Prussia significantly contributed to the local economy and the region’s reputation as a centre of horological excellence.

18. Часовая фабрика Адольфа Ланге с сыновьями в Гласхютте в Саксонии (Adolf Lange & Söhne Watch Factory in Glashütte, Saxony)

Explores the history of the Adolf Lange & Söhne watch factory, founded in 1845 and famous for its precision watches. Lange & Söhne is one of the most respected names in high-end watchmaking.

Trivia:

  • Adolf Lange is considered one of the founding fathers of the German watchmaking industry.
  • His watches are still regarded as among the best in the world for their precision and quality.
  • The Lange & Söhne factory has overcome many difficulties, including the devastation of World War II, to maintain its reputation for excellence.

19. Электрические часы (Electric Clocks)

Describes the introduction and development of electric clocks, one of the most significant innovations of the 20th century. Electric clocks revolutionized the watchmaking industry with their precision and ease of use.

Trivia:

  • Electric clocks revolutionized the watchmaking industry with their precision and ease of use.
  • The technology enabled the development of globally synchronized clocks.
  • Electric clocks were the forerunners of quartz clocks, which further improved accuracy and reduced production costs.

20. Германская школа часовщиков в Гласхютте в Саксонии (German Watchmaking School in Glashütte, Saxony)

Analysis of the training and education of watchmakers at the Glashütte school, an important institution for German watchmaking. The Glashütte school has trained many of the world’s best watchmakers.

Trivia:

  • The school was founded to raise the standards of training for German watchmakers.
  • Many of the world’s best watchmakers received their training in Glashütte.
  • The Glashütte school is known for its academic rigor and attention to the technical and artistic details of watchmaking.

21. Часовое искусство в нашей Республике (Watchmaking Art in Our Republic)

Discussion on the state of watchmaking art in the Soviet Republic and the challenges faced by the industry. Despite economic and political difficulties, the Russian watchmaking industry continued to develop and innovate.

Trivia:

  • Despite economic difficulties, Russia continued to develop its watchmaking industry.
  • The author emphasizes the need to support local craftsmen and improve access to modern resources and technologies.
  • The Soviet government recognized the importance of watchmaking as a symbol of technological progress and invested in training and research programs.

This article offers a detailed overview of each chapter of G. Kann’s book “Краткая история часового искусства,” revealing the fascinating history and technical evolutions of watchmaking.

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