Poljot History: Soviet Watchmaking Excellence

soviet watch Sturmanskie Type 2

The Poljot brand represents one of the most significant symbols of the Russian watchmaking industry, with a history rich in technical successes and space adventures. Since its founding, Poljot has embodied the Soviet ambition to achieve technological self-sufficiency and establish itself as a world leader in watch production.

The Origins: From the United States to the Soviet Union

In the late 1920s, the Soviet Union relied heavily on imported watches, a necessity that cost the government precious gold. To end this dependency, it was decided in 1927 to start domestic watch production. In 1929, through the Amtorg Trading Corporation, the Soviet government purchased the facilities of two bankrupt American factories: the Ansonia Clock Company and the Dueber-Hampden Watch Company. Twenty-one former Dueber-Hampden employees moved to Moscow to train local workers, marking the beginning of the First Soviet Watch Factory.

Initially, the factory produced four main models: a 15-jewel pocket watch for the Ministry of Communications, a 7-jewel wristwatch for the Red Army, a 7-jewel civilian pocket watch, and a 15-jewel ladies’ wristwatch. Thanks to the training received, local workers soon managed production autonomously.

The War Period and Innovation

With the German invasion during World War II, the factory was relocated to Zlatoust and returned to Moscow in 1943. During this period, the factory also began producing ammunition. In 1946, the K26 Pobeda model was launched, followed in 1949 by the Sturmanskie model, designed exclusively for military aviation. This watch became famous when Yuri Gagarin probably wore it during the first human space flight on April 12, 1961.

In the 1950s, the factory continued to innovate, introducing the first automatic watch under the Rodina brand in 1956 and special models for unique missions, such as the Soviet Antarctic expedition in 1957. That same year, to celebrate the success of the Sputnik mission, commemorative watches were produced, remaining in production for only one year.

The Establishment of the Poljot Brand

In 1960, the first models bearing the Poljot name, which means “flight” in Russian, were launched. The brand became synonymous with quality and precision, exporting watches worldwide. The Strela chronograph, inspired by the Swiss Venus 150, was used by Alexei Leonov during the first spacewalk in 1965.

With the introduction of the Poljot brand in 1964, the factory consolidated all its models under a single label. The 1970s saw a renewal of available movements and the acquisition of production lines from the Swiss Valjoux, leading to the creation of the 3133 movement, a chronograph used for both military and civilian purposes.

The Post-Soviet Era and Revival

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992, Poljot was named the official supplier to the President of the Russian Federation. The company ceased quartz watch production to focus on a niche market, introducing new lines based on modified 3133 movements. However, the company had to downsize and sell machinery to other companies, leading to the founding of Volmax by some former Poljot employees.

Despite the challenges, in 2003, Poljot adopted the name First Moscow Watch Factory, continuing production for the international market. Today, the Poljot brand is recognized for its tradition of precision and reliability, keeping alive a history inseparably linked to aviation and space adventures.

Curiosities and Iconic Models

Among the most famous Poljot models are the “Sturmanskie” worn by Gagarin and the “Strela” chronograph, symbols of Russian space exploration. Poljot watches are handcrafted by skilled artisans, giving them a distinctive and unique character. Limited editions and the “Aviator” collection are particularly appreciated by collectors for their bold design and cockpit readability.

Insights into Poljot’s History

The 1930s: The Birth of the Soviet Watch Industry

In 1930, with the construction of the factory in Moscow, watch production began at a brisk pace. The first watches produced still bore the Dueber-Hampden brand, but soon Soviet technicians managed to develop entirely new models. The First Soviet Watch Factory, renamed in 1935 in honor of Sergei Kirov, achieved notable success, producing millions of pocket and wristwatches.

The 1940s: War and Reconstruction

During World War II, the factory was evacuated to Zlatoust to avoid capture by the Germans. During this period, besides producing watches, the factory contributed to the war effort by manufacturing ammunition and other military materials. After the war, in 1946, the factory launched the famous Pobeda model, a symbol of Soviet victory.

The 1950s and 1960s: The Space Era

In the 1950s, Poljot began producing watches for military aviation and Soviet cosmonauts. The Sturmanskie model, worn by Gagarin during his historic space flight, became an icon. With the launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957, Poljot celebrated the event with a commemorative watch. Producing automatic watches and chronographs became a priority, leading to the creation of models such as Rodina and Strela.

The 1970s and 1980s: Innovation and Expansion

During the 1970s, Poljot continued to innovate, introducing advanced movements such as the 3133 chronograph. The factory acquired production lines from the Swiss Valjoux, enabling the production of high-quality watches for both military and civilian markets. The 1980s saw an increase in exports, with Poljot becoming an internationally recognized brand.

The Foundation of Volmax and the End of 3133 Production

In the late 1990s, Poljot ceased quartz watch production to focus on high-quality mechanical movements. However, economic difficulties led to the sale of movement production machinery to other companies, including Vostok. In 2002, some discontented employees left Poljot to found Volmax, a company that continues to produce watches under the Aviator, Buran, and Sturmanskie brands.

In 2003, Poljot adopted the name First Moscow Watch Factory, limiting the Poljot brand to the domestic market. Production of the 3133 chronograph movement, a milestone in Poljot’s history, ceased definitively in 2011, marking the end of an era.

Vintage Soviet Watches from the 1980s

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Recently, I had the opportunity to delve into a vintage watch magazine from the late 1980s. The issue in question is “Orologi da Polso,” Year III – No. 9, dating back to March-April 1989, published by Edizioni Studio Zeta of Monza. Among the various articles, one particularly intriguing piece explores the history and influence of vintage Soviet watches from the 1980s and their connections with European countries, including Italy. Below, I present a detailed overview of the article, providing insights into the state of the watch industry during that era, enriched with additional context and information for a comprehensive understanding.

The Soviet Watchmaking Phenomenon

The article begins by highlighting a significant historical context: the Soviet Congress of 1925 aimed for economic self-sufficiency, transitioning from an importer to a producer nation. It was unimaginable a few years prior that vintage Soviet watches from the 1980s would become fashionable, almost a cultural phenomenon.

Russian horology boasts an illustrious history. The Kremlin’s tower clocks, constructed in the early 15th century by Lazar Serbin, and the carillons of the Saviour Tower, restored in the 19th century by the Butenop brothers, are notable examples. Under Tsar Peter the Great, famous French artisans were invited, fostering a watchmaking school in Russia, despite French artisans enjoying greater privileges.

Notable Russian Watchmakers and Collections

The article further mentions Ivan Kulihin, a renowned watchmaker from the 18th century, whose exquisite pieces are housed in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and various museums in Moscow. An exhibition in Florence showcased magnificent pieces from the Romanoff collections, revealing the craftsmanship of the Bronnikov family, known for their wooden clocks, and the contributions of watchmakers like Tolstoy and Nosov to mechanical advancements.

The Soviet Watch Industry’s Evolution

Before the October Revolution, parts and mechanisms were imported from Switzerland for assembly in Russia. In the late 19th century, France invested in Tsarist domains, and after World War I, Italy acquired Russian pocket watches, which were later issued to railway personnel.

The Soviet watch industry’s roots date back to the 1930s, evolving significantly by the 1940s, with factories converting to military production during World War II and later returning to civilian manufacturing. The principal Moscow factory, established in 1942, eventually became Vostok, one of the most prominent Soviet watch manufacturers.

Soviet Watches in the 1980s

By the 1980s, over fifteen factories in the USSR specialised in various watch productions, including well-known brands like Chaika, Poljot, Zaria, Paketa, Slava, and Penza. The 1950s marked the beginning of exportation, primarily to Warsaw Pact nations. The article discusses the romantic history of the Mark watch, resembling the Poljot, and its connection to an Italian family.

Italian-Soviet Collaborations and Market Impact

The first significant import of Soviet watches to Italy occurred in the late 1980s, spearheaded by Orazio Occhipinti of Mirabilia di Milano, who distributed Paketa watches. These vintage Soviet watches from the 1980s, known as “raketa” in Russian, saw a surge in popularity, influenced by Gorbachev’s policies and an increasing openness towards Soviet products.

At the Vicenza fair, Mirabilia also presented Poljot watches, featuring mechanical movements and shock-resistant cases. The Vostok brand offered models tailored for different military branches, with manual winding, water resistance up to 10 atmospheres, and luminous hands and indices.

Additionally, Italian-designed watches with Russian mechanisms emerged, like the Soviet, combining Russian quartz movements with Italian aesthetics. The Elmitex company introduced the Perestroika collection, a blend of quartz and mechanical chronographs, at both the Vicenza and Moscow fairs.

Conclusion

This 1989 issue of “Orologi da Polso” provides a fascinating snapshot of Soviet watchmaking during a transformative period. It reflects the blend of historical craftsmanship and modern industrial capabilities, highlighting the Soviet Union’s impact on the global watch market. The Italian perspective, with insights from key figures like Jacopo Marchi and collaborations with Soviet manufacturers, underscores the cross-cultural influences that shaped the horological landscape of the late 20th century.

For further reading, I encourage exploring the complete article and the magazine scans, offering a deeper dive into this captivating era of watchmaking history.

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Discovering the Charm of Soviet and Russian Watch Collections

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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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