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.

Vintage Soviet Watches from the 1980s

Rivista orologi da polso marzo aprile 1989 n9 anno 3 pagina 1

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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