Aizhan Kazak
With more than 850000 search queries on Google and e-commerce sites, a growing number of collectors from around the world are trying to get their hands on wristwatches from the USSR. A Moscow-based watch expert tells RBTH about his "watch disease" and gives tips on finding true gems in a pile of knock-offs.
'Watch Manufacture' is located in a corner of a mall that is full of shops mainly selling electronic items. The simple office door opens to a small reception area with two huge armchairs that welcome visitors. The ceiling is low and a TV on a wall shows a recorded telecast of a football match. The adjacent room is full of tools and machines, and serves as a workshop. It has white high-ceilinged windows.
The workshop has just about every kind of tool required to fix or restore a watch
German (pronounced like [gɛrmən], a Slavic form of Herman) stands in front of the windows. He has big deer-like eyes and an unpretentious smile. He enthusiastically shows his collection and work space, trying not to disturb his colleague, who is working in the corner.

"This is where we work. We chose this place because it's located both near the city center and is close to the Third Ring," he says as if apologizing for the "kitschiness" of the mall where hipster sneaker shops jostle for space with outlets selling Chinese electronics and cheap IPhone chargers.
The workshop has just about every kind of tool required to fix or restore a watch
He brings an old briefcase that probably belonged to his father from the times when men used to carry them to work. This is where he stores a small part of his collection: watches from the USSR. "The rest of the collection is back at home, since it was too big to carry with me," German says.
Raketa watch with a 24-hour clock face and a briefcase containing German’s watch collection
He now has more than a thousand watches and would need a small car, if not a van, to bring all the watches to work.

German mostly specializes in French watches that were made in the beginning of the 19th century. But everything started with his father's watches from the Soviet era. "I remember the day my father bought them, they had an odd 24-hour clock face," he says, showing the blue Raketa watch that he is wearing.

As an atmosphere of soft and calm tick-tack is filling the room, he talks about his love of mechanical watches. "My father once bought a quartz watch, but it broke in two months and that is how I will always remember them," he laughs.

He believes that mechanical watches were created by the best minds of 18th and 19th centuries. "Many modern watchmakers admit that we will never match them," he adds showing a 100-year old body that he put in a new bright case. With the quiet ticking of the watch comes a gentle chime, when German presses the stem.
Watches: 1 - nautical marine chronometer; 2 - from left to right: Wostok Amphibia, Raketa, and special-edition ZIM, which was dedicated to the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games; 3 - vintage watch movement in case; 4 - watch with a speed skating theme; 5 - antique pocket watch with an enlarging lens.
"With watches like this one we usually find only the internal mechanical parts, since most of them are relatively intact," he says with a sad look. "Cases, for example, were sold to the pawnbrokers."

German started collecting watches in 2005 when he was employed as an IT specialist. His hobby eventually grew into a job. He tells us about the day he found his father's old watch and managed to repair it.
When I opened the back case, I saw that a small screw fell from its nest and blocked the tooth wheel, which stopped the mechanism from running. I got a pair of tweezers and put the screw back to its place and immediately the watch started running again.
After seeing only "virtual and intangible results" while working as an IT consultant, the beauty and precision of the mechanism of a watch almost infected him, German says.

He started reading and collecting tools and books on watch repair. Eventually his collection grew and skills improved. Then he started a website entirely dedicated to watches and it eventually became a community of people like him: People who are thrilled and enchanted by the beauty of old and antique mechanisms.

Soviet watches, German says, are a key to starting a collection. They can be found in any Russian household, left behind by parents and grandparents that never managed to throw them away. It's easy to find the second pair in a thrift store or buy it from neighbors since they are cheap and no one really needs them.

"They whet an appetite and I have seen many people who started their collections like that," German says. One of them, he recalls, brought him a pair that German quickly fixed, and then he brought him another one and so it went.

"Now he has the most prominent collections of rare Soviet watches in a price range from $5000 to $10,000," he smiles.

Many people come to German, trying to sell watches that were owned by family members. He jokingly calls them "babushka watches" and adds that these are the most interesting and rewarding samples. "It is also possible to find rare models in junk shops and thrift stores across small Russian towns," he adds.
Left: pocket watches from Tsarist-era. Middle: watches from the transition period. Right: watches of the Soviet era.
His latest catch is a 6000 rubles silver pocket watch from Pavel Bure (not to be confused with the ice hockey player), the son of a German-born watchmaker who in 1899 became the first and official supplier for the Imperial Court.

Bure watches became a symbol of the era and were mentioned many times in Anton Chekhov's novels. Even after the 1917 Revolution, the company managed to persevere and its watches were even worn by people working in Vladimir Lenin's Kremlin office.

German proudly shows several pocket watches and explains how their design changed throughout history. Early Soviet watches were made from, as he calls them, expropriated Swiss parts, but soon Soviet craftsmen learned how to make their own.

"They never competed with elite Swiss watchmakers, but successfully produced watches just like the remaining 95 percent of manufacturers and sometimes even surpassed them in quality," German says while looking in the microscope and cleaning an old part scattered around the table.
Besides, he adds, people in the Soviet Union never needed that upscale segment.

G.P.: Watches just had to work properly, so that when they wear off, they could be sent to an atelier, where specialists repaired the internal mechanical parts and added a new case, hands and straps.

RBTH: Why not use the new parts instead?

G.P.: They were expensive to produce and factories were not always good at it. That's why they mass produced the so called 'clearance kits' that consisted of a new case, leather straps, the hands of a watch and a clock winder.

RBTH: So you could just find an atelier, give a master your old watch and get one that looked like new, but with the same used and repaired parts inside?

G.P.: You also had to pay a little bit, but compared to the price of a new watch, it was chicken feed.
German cites his forum and website as a source of memories like that. Many people who lived in the Soviet Union remember the boxes that they used to store unrepaired watches in.

Back in the USSR the factory quality was poor and crooked watches were usually sent to the ateliers. Specialists would try and repair them, but those they couldn't patch up would end up in boxes in someone's cupboard.

Their children or even grandchildren find these boxes and give them away for free. German and his colleagues try their best to fix them.
Raketa watch with a Soyuz rocket on the display.
One could find peculiar design samples in boxes like that. German shows one of his watches with a display of a Soyuz rocket. German pulled it out from a pile on the table.

Soviet design is highly recognizable, he says. In general, Soviet watches have strict, simple and sleek design as if someone crafted them not to sidetrack attention from their basic functions. "What people call Soviet design watches are actually theme-based watches made specifically for a certain occasion," German says showing a watch with a symbol from the 1980 Olympic Games that took place in Moscow.

Peculiar for foreigners and predictable for Russians, Soviet people loved samples that were made specifically for export. Instead of the usual Cyrillic characters, watchmakers used Latin letters and branded them as "Made in USSR."
Slava table calendar with Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Valery Bykovsky and ZIM watch with the Olympic symbol, dedicated to the 1980 Moscow Games
"They are limited edition, of course, which is why they are often forged on eBay and other e-commerce websites," he adds.

Etsy, eBay and Amazon are among the top sites that sell forged watches. "It is cheap and easy to order a range of clock faces with the red USSR star, then put it together with other details that can be found in any junk shop and sell them as "legendary Soviet watches," warns German.

He, as a watchmaker, doesn't approve of that. "I am very particular when selling watches on the internet". His atelier, apart from repairing both old and modern watches makes new ones almost from scratch. German takes a watch from the briefcase that looks just like new, with Russian old-fashioned alphabets instead of numbers.

"Parts are the only thing that I can repair and I always mention it," he says holding the watch in one hand.

A tip for foreigners, German says, is to be careful with space-, Soviet- and other very-USSR themed watches. "Shturmanskie watches are extremely popular with both foreign and Russian collectors because Yuri Gagarin was wearing them when he went to space."
All things Soviet are so popular right now with the foreigners. I think for Russians it's different. Watch -collecting, I mean. We don't collect them just because they are rare or to impress friends. It's as if there is more love in it for us.
I remember a man who wanted to buy one specific watch model that his late uncle used to have. He had a clear picture in mind of them driving together in an old truck during summer vacations. There was a blue Raketa watch on his wrist. 30 years later he found exactly the same model.

As a goodbye present German shows us the most unique watches from his collection
Text by Aizhan Kazak
Edited by Ajay Kamalakaran, Gleb Fedorov
Images credits: Mark Boyarsky
Design and layout by Anastasiya Karagodina
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