Tips from a Russian Watch Expert: Interview with Mark Gordon
Updated 10 June 2009 by Editor, RussianWatchGuide.com
Few people love Russian watches as much as Mark Gordon does. In fact, Mark is perhaps the foremost authority on Russian watches with a personal collection of more than 1,200 Russian timepieces, each meticulously photographed, catalogued and displayed at has website, USSR Time.
Most of the watches in Mark's incredible collection are vintage watches manufactured during the Soviet era, though he also owns a number of contemporary Russian timepieces.
Russian Watch Guide asked Mark to share some of his knowledge with our readers and he kindly obliged. You can read the interview below.
Mark, it's obvious you have a great passion for vintage Soviet watches. But do you own any new, post-Soviet-era Russian watches?
Yes, I own and enjoy wearing about a dozen post-Soviet watches.
I wear four of these primarily in formal situations, like business meetings. One is an imposing Poljot International 1940-2000 with a 31670 movement (No. 0230 on my site). The second is a 31679 Buran chronograph with a sapphire crystal, a lunar complication and a very formal looking regulator-like dial (No. 0229 on my site). The third is a very stately sterling silver Poljot Elite Silver Century chronograph, also with a lunar complication (No. 0231 on my site). And, the fourth is a gold-plated 31681 Poljot Journey chronograph that has a 24-hour complication, an almost sparse Portuguese-style dial and a matching gold-plated bracelet (No. 0324 on my site).
For more casual situations, I wear a stainless steel 3133 Poljot Aviator-1 chronograph (No. 0220 on my website) and a black version of the same watch (No. 0218), both with matching metal bracelets. I also sometimes wear a Poljot 31682 Gagarin Sturmanski chronograph (No. 0224) and a Poljot Traveller chronograph (No. 0223), both with a 24-hour complications.
When I am just out having fun with friends I like to wear my titanium 3133 SS-18 Sturmanskie chronograph (No. 0419 on my website) to which I have added a matching titanium bracelet. This is a great-looking watch that is a real attention getter. I also like wearing a 3133 Volmax Sturmanskie (No. 0420 on my website) that has a refreshingly uncomplicated and easy-to-read two-register dial.
I understand that all the watches in your collection are in working order. Do you do your own watch repairs?
I can do very routine repairs, like changing hands and stems. But, I am really very clumsy. After breaking several lovely pieces, I no longer attempt repairs much more complicated than this.
For more serious repairs and adjustments, I rely on my friend Chin Ah Soh, who has a shop in Singapore at Thomson Plaza (Ang Mo Kio Watch and Clock Repair). Mr. Chin is a real master, a veteran of Jaeger and Seiko, who has a deep appreciation for the watchmaker's art. When I first met him and showed him some of my Soviet-era watches almost 10 years ago, he was really fascinated. Over the years, he has become a real supporter who has helped me to repair and restore some very esoteric Soviet watch and clock calibers, improvising when parts weren't available. At this point, he is probably the most knowledgeable watchmaker in Asia about Russian watches, including post-Soviet pieces.
What's your favorite watch in your collection?
That is a difficult question. It depends on my mood.
I love my Type-59 chronographs; the ones made by the First Moscow Watch Factory right after the Second World War on production equipment confiscated from Glashutte in Germany. I have several, in very good condition, and I occasionally wear them to watch events (Nos. 0199, 0222, 0303, 0307, 0437, 0455, 0825 on my website).
I also really like the one-button chronograph that was made by the First Moscow Watch Factory in cooperation with Valjoux in the late 1930s (Nos. 0009, 0010, 0011, 0012, 0016 on my website). This is a very elegant (and complicated!) watch. I also occasionally wear one of these when I am mixing with watch aficionados.
Another watch that I love, for the beauty of the case and dial, is a rare double-crown Vostok diver produced in the 1980s (No. 0345 on my website). I really am impressed by the dial design and the quality of the case. It is so rare, however, and I am so clumsy, that I never wear it.
What movement do you think is the best or most reliable?
This is a tricky question.
From the very first Russian watch production in the 1930s right through to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Soviet watch designers concentrated on producing movements that were practical, reliable, and easy to repair – in short, Russian watchmakers tried to make timepieces that conformed to the socialist ideal. Almost every movement they produced met these criteria, at least on paper. Those movements that did not were quickly taken out of production or never produced at all (like the 1960s 1.85 mm thick Poljot 2200, one of the world's thinnest mechanical watch movements, that was judged to be too prone to breakdown, so it was discontinued after a very limited test run – No. 0628 on my website).
So, the question of reliability doesn't hinge so much on the design of the movement as on the quality of manufacturing… and, Russian manufacturing quality has varied wildly over the years.
Actually, the manufacturing quality of both movements and cases was superb in the 1950s and 1960s. I have many 40 and 50 year-old watches that have never been serviced, which start right up when I wind them.
In the 1970s, some factories were able to maintain high standards, while the quality at others began to slip. Quality at the First Moscow Watch Factory and the Petrodworzowy factory was world-class in those days.
In the 1980s, when things really began to fall part in the Soviet Union, the quality at even the most respected factories became iffy at best. Workers sometimes weren't paid for months at a time and when they did get paid the value of the money in their pay envelope was insufficient for food and rent. At the same time, the factories experienced delays and shortages of parts, which were sometimes produced from substandard materials. You can imagine how manufacturing quality and reliability suffered.
In the Post-Soviet period, some companies like Vostok Europe, Poljot International and Volmax have painstakingly regained control of their manufacturing quality, while the manufacturing quality of some of the other producers, including some who manufacture movements for the others, is still not up to international standards.
The Russian watch industry experienced an upheaval following the collapse of the Soviet Union. How would you characterize the current state of the Russian watch industry? Has quality improved or deteriorated?
The Russian watch industry, which in the 1970s was the second largest producer in the world after Switzerland, was hit by a triple whammy at the end of the 20th century.
First came the rapid technological shift to quartz in the 1970s and 80s. Then came the breakdown of the Soviet empire in the 1980s that resulted in the loss of traditional domestic and foreign markets. Third, was the complete lack of vision and investment in the years following the post-Soviet shift to capitalism that was necessary for the industry to remain competitive in international markets.
In the last decade, Russia has needlessly lost some very important watch manufacturers. The First Moscow Watch Factory, which produced Poljot. The Petrodworzowy Factory, which produced Raketa. The Second Moscow Watch Factory, which produced Slava. And, most recently, the Tscheljabinsky Factory, which produced Molnija.
The Russian watch industry, which once produced millions of mechanical watches every year, now produces only a few thousand per year and a great pool of horological talent has disappeared and probably can never be reassembled.
Russian producers today are struggling to find their place in the world market. Faced with dwindling and unreliable Russian suppliers, they are turning to Switzerland, China and Japan for parts. Faced with a world market driven by fast-moving trends and fickle buyers, they are abandoning hallmark Soviet design principles for watches with a flashier more 'international' look.
I can understand why Russian producers are doing these things, but I'm not sure this is a sustainable model for them. Eliminate the Russian movement and the Russian design and these watches become a commodity. If there is no longer any difference between Russian watches and the watches produced in Shenzhen, Tokyo and Le Locle, then customers will choose solely on the basis of price. This is not good because Russia is not a low-cost manufacturing centre.
Having said that, I am optimistic that at least the 'Big 3' – Poljot International, Volmax and Vostok Europe -- will find their footing and survive. I can only hope that in the process they don't lose the core Soviet-era values of utility, reliability and ease of repair that differentiate the look and feel of Russian watches from those produced elsewhere.
How do you think new Russian watches (Volmax, Vostok-Europe, etc) compare to vintage models? For example, is the quality of modern Raketa watches as good as Soviet-era Raketas?
The quality of the watches produced by Volmax, Vostok Europe and Poljot International is generally superior to the quality of similar watches produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Not only the movements, but the cases, too. And, the quality continues to get better all the time.
Unfortunately, I can't say this about all newly made Russian watches. There are still big quality problems with Russian watches like the 'domestic' Vostoks produced at the Tschistopolsky factory and the endless stream of brand new 'vintage' Raketas being produced who-knows-where. Even worse, are the today's Slavas, which are slap-dash designs that contain inexpensive Chinese movements, and the exploitively branded Soyuz watches, which are Russian in name only.
What tips or advice would you offer to anyone who is thinking about buying their very first Russian watch?
First, if you intend to wear it, don't buy a vintage piece. Like any vintage mechanical timepiece, old Russian watches require a lot of TLC.
Second, if you are going to buy a new Russian watch, buy one from an established bricks-and-mortar or on-line seller who is respected by knowledgeable buyers. Choose a reputable seller who has a record of good service and who stands behind the watches he or she sells.
Third, do your homework. Learn about the different calibers and models before you make a choice. Find one that best suites your needs. If you are going to wear the watch when you play football, choose one with a robust movement that is housed in a rugged case. If you are going to frequently use it to measure short time intervals in a kitchen or recording studio, choose a chronograph that has easy-to-use buttons and an easy-to-read scale. Visit the manufacturers' websites, read specialist blogs and visit Russian watch forums to find out which movements and models perform best for their owners.
Fourth, don't just shop for the lowest price. A cheap price suddenly becomes very expensive if the watch needs servicing and the seller won't provide it. A reputable seller checks and adjusts each watch before it is sold or shipped, and provides a warrantee against defects and damage in transit. This kind of service comes with a price and it is a price well worth paying.
Where are the best places to buy Russian watches online?
It's not my place to recommend sellers, but there are several reputable sellers out there in Europe, Asia and North America. Many have websites.
Any tips for people who will be buying watches on eBay?
In short, if you are new to Russian watches, my advice is don't buy Russian watches on eBay unless you know the seller or the seller is recommended by someone who is experienced and knowledgeable about Russian watches.
Sadly, there are lots of shady sellers operating from the former Soviet zone, and even German and American sellers sometimes offer 'bad' merchandise. Cheap vintage watches are sometimes re-cased and redialed to make them more desirable and more expensive. Some sellers offer mules or out-right fakes. Also, there are sellers who try to pass off Chinese copies of vintage and contemporary Russian watches as the real thing.
Even if you know your Russian watches, you aren't safe. Some dishonest sellers will ship a watch that is different from the one pictured in the on-line description. Some take the buyer's money and don't ship at all!. And then there is the problem of service. Will the seller remember who you are if your watch needs repair?
eBay is definitely a 'buyer beware' environment.
I understand you have been working on a book about Russian watches. Can you tell us about it and when it might be available for purchase?
Yes, I am working on a book, “Revolutionary Time - The Untold Story of Watches and Clocks in the Soviet Union”, that I hope will be out sometime in the first half of 2010.
This is going to be a lavishly illustrated, 350-page hardcover book that will have two sections.
The first part will offer an easy-to-read introduction to the Soviet State and its people, as seen through the prism of one of the 20th century's most amazing industrial accomplishments -- The Soviet horological industry. In addition to lots of full-color photos of actual timepieces, this section will also contain lots of historical photos (many taken from Soviet-era books in my own library).
The second part will contain a comprehensive collectors guide. Hundreds of movements and timepieces from all the Soviet factories will be clearly illustrated and described, using examples from my own encyclopedic collection of more than 1300 Soviet-era Russian watches and clocks.
What watch are you wearing right now?
My beautiful post-Soviet Volmax Sturmanskie (No. 0420 on my website).
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