Poljot is a brand associated with space missions and quality vintage chronographs. You definitely have seen some interesting chronos powered by the famous caliber 3133. But there’s more to Poljot than that. Dress timepieces such as Poljot De Luxe featuring an ultra-slim movement 2209. Watches with the alarm function (Budilnik) or self-winding timepieces with contemporary designs in stainless steel cases, that are still very much wearable today. Or, looking back to the very beginning of the Soviet watch industry, you can find some very collectible timepieces such as pocket watches Type-1 K-43 or stylish Kirovskie. Alas, Poljot as a watch factory has been dismantled and there’s very little chance we’ll ever see true Russian watches produced under this brand again.
History of the First Moscow Watch Factory
Need for domestically-produced quality watches
The first state watch factory was founded in 1930 upon the orders of Joseph Stalin and it was the first large scale Soviet watch and mechanical movement manufacturer. Originally the watch industry of the Soviet Union comprised small workshops and manufactories united by State Trust of Precision Mechanics (Gostrest Tochmekh or Гострест Точмех). The watches were assembled with whatever parts could be sourced abroad and/or produced domestically. But the ever-growing government need for modern and high quality watches made on Russian soil brought forth the decision to create the first watch factory in Moscow.
Creating the factory was not an easy task and a lot had to be done from scratch. There was no proper equipment, just a few trained technicians and the political situation made it difficult to trade with other countries. The solution came from a very interesting and unexpected source, the United States.
Bankrupt American watch factory relocated to Moscow
In 1930 the Dueber-Hampden Watch Factory in Canton, Ohio was purchased by the Russian government after going bankrupt. The deal included the factory’s patents, equipment, and remaining watch parts. Furthermore, 23 Dueber-Hampden factory workers traveled to the Soviet Union in order to oversee both the installation of the equipment but most importantly to educate Russian watch technicians. An interesting fact is that the Americans that moved and spent a year in Moscow helping to set up the First State Watch Factory (1GCHZ or 1ГЧЗ) spoke no word of Russian and the Russian technicians no word of English but both parties knew German as the state of Ohio was primarily populated with German immigrants at that time.
The first watches ever produced by 1GCHZ were pocket watches and their success and popularity were instant, a symbol of Russian autonomy and self-reliance. From 1930 to 1940 the factory produced 2.4 million pocket watches. The movements of earlier products were still stamped “Dueber-Hampden, Canton, Ohio USA”. The initial pocket watch was called the Type-1 K-43 (“K” as Карманные – pocket watch – 43 being the size in mm), inspired not surprisingly by Dueber-Hampden’s movement Size-16.
If you are interested in the history behind the creation of the first Soviet watch factory, I highly suggest the ebook written by Alan F. Garratt called The Birth of Soviet Watchmaking.
Evacuation and rebirth
In 1935 the factory was officially named after the murdered Soviet Official Sergei Kirov, but the name did not last. At the beginning of World War II, the factory was evacuated to Zlatoust and only when the Germans retreated in 1942-1943 did the factory return to Moscow. In the years that followed the return, the factory changed names again and became known as First Moscow Watch Factory (1MCHZ or 1МЧЗ). Machinery has been renewed – instead of outdated tools brought from the US in 1930, the FMWF was now using equipment supplied by the French watch company called LIP.
The famous watch brand called Pobeda (Победа), meaning Victory, was produced on several watch factories that existed in the Soviet Union after the war. The watch was powered by a movement based on the LIP R26 caliber. 1MCHZ was one of the factories involved in the production of this watch and released millions of those.
Poljot: ready for take-off
One factory and many names
During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the FMWF went on producing millions of watches under different brands such as Kirovskie, Kosmos, Mayak, Moskva, Pobeda, Poljot, Rodina, Signal, Sportivnie, Sputnik, Stolichnie, Sturmanskie and Vimpel. Some of them are highly sought after by collectors.
Sputnik was released to commemorate the launch of the very first Earth satellite in 1957 and features a very original design, quite surprising for that time.
Sturmanskie is even more famous. Produced exclusively for the Soviet air force, this watch had a 36 mm diameter and it was quite small by today’s standards. It is thought that Yuri Gagarin had a Sturmanskie on his wrist during the first manned space flight. The watch performed flawlessly in space and it is currently on display at the Moscow Museum of Cosmonauts.
A unique brand
In 1964, it was decided to use a unique brand for all watches produced by the First Moscow Watch Factory. As Soviet Union was particularly proud of its achievements during the space race, the brand Poljot (Полёт, translated as Flight) seemed the most appropriate. This was the beginning of Poljot’s golden era that spans through the 60’s until the end of the 70’s.
During these decades, a lot of interesting watches were designed in Moscow. It’s impossible to mention all of them, so I’ll limit this just to three movements. First of all, the 2209 that equipped classic dress watches. These were luxurious timepieces, some of them cased in solid gold.
Worth mentioning is also the 2612 with the alarm function. This is probably the cheapest mechanical alarm watch that you can buy these days, and there are still plenty of specimens in good condition available for less than $100.
Last but not least, the self-winding 2616 caliber that equipped one of my favorite designs known as Aeroflot. These watches came in stainless steel cases unlike most other Soviet watches back in the day (which were chrome-plated).
This selection is just a drop in the ocean of Poljot watches from the golden era. If you’re interested to have a more complete picture, I highly suggest going through mroatman’s extensive collection that is available on his website.
The story of a Soviet chronograph
In the end of 1950’s, the First Moscow Watch Factory has been producing watches for the Russian people and the Russian military for about 30 years, but the FMWF was still way behind the other foreign watch factories which had many years of experience in manufacturing one very specific piece of equipment that acted as an invaluable technical precision device, the Chronograph.
The first Russian chronograph ever produced was one of the greatest achievements of the FMWF and for the world of Russian watches, but the story behind it is somewhat complicated. Most sources will say that the first official chronograph movement produced in the Soviet Union was the 3017 initially offered under the Strela (Стрела: arrow) brand… But in fact it wasn’t the first one.
Generalskie chronograph & Tutima Type-59
There were at least two chronographs known before the 3017. The first one is the one-button Generalskie chronograph (Генеральский хронограф), seemingly based on the Swiss Valjoux 61 movement (but not identical – we can assume that the Soviet Union managed to import the corresponding machinery from Switzerland at some point). Quite rare, this chronograph was produced between 1938 and 1941.
And then there’s another one, even more interesting. It’s called Type-59 and was born in Germany. In 1941, in the German town of Glashütte, began the production of a special fly-back chronograph for the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). This was the legendary Tutima Flieger-Chronograph powered by Caliber 59 developed by UROFA. Here’s a couple of these in great cosmetic condition:
At the end of the war, Glashütte ended up in Soviet occupation zone (East Germany) and consequently all equipment and machinery as well as the existing stock were seized and moved to the FMWF in Moscow. Shortly after, the factory issued Type-59 chronographs with 1MCHZ branding, first using existing parts then with parts produced in-house with German equipment.
3017: Swiss with a Soviet touch
The production of Type-59 chronographs was halted in the beginning of the 1950’s. Now back to the 3017. Allegedly it was in 1959 that the first Strela 3017 was produced. Just like with the creation of the FMWF, the patents and equipment for this column-wheel chronograph (based on Venus 150/152) were purchased from the Swiss in the mid-fifties.
The Strela is as closely linked with space as the Sturmanskie: it was worn by Alexei Leonov during the first open space walk, when he was on the dramatic mission Voskhod 2.
There are loads of dial variations when it comes to the watches powered by the 3017 movement. Initially produced under the Strela brand, they were also available as Poljot or Sekonda. In my view these are among the most elegant and iconic vintage chronographs. Unfortunately, the movement is quite fragile and the cases were chrome-plated, so these are not really suitable for everyday wear.
3133: next generation chronograph
Circa 1975, it was time to renew the 3017 chronograph movement which was growing old. As usual, foreign machinery was purchased by the First Moscow Watch Factory – this time, the seller was Valjoux that was phasing out its 7733/7734 range as it introduced the famous 7750 caliber. Soviet engineers added a few improvements to the movement and it was introduced as caliber 3133.
This movement powered some of the most iconic watches such as Okean (Океан: ocean) that was an exclusive line of watches for the Navy. It’s quite hard to find an all-original Okean today as there were several dial variations (and franken-masters do not sleep: beware of aftermarket dials).
The Soviet Air Forces also had a right to an exclusive range of timepieces under the brand you’re already familiar with – Sturmanskie (some of these were equipped with a slightly improved movement 31659 that had a hacking second). Then these chronographs were finally released to the general public under the Poljot brand.
More affordable, more robust and more mass-produced than 3017, chronographs powered by 3133 are very common in watch aficionados’ collections around the world.
The fall of the First Moscow Watch Factory
The fall of the Soviet Union had a lasting effect on many watch factories in Russia most of which had to close down and the FMWF faced the same problems. The decline didn’t happen overnight though, in 1990 production of watches and clocks reached 5 million pieces, and in 1991 the FMWF was awarded and the international award, the “Golden Trophy for Quality”.
A galaxy of mini-firms
In 1992 the factory was transformed into a joint-stock company and at the turn of the 21st century, the First Moscow Watch Factory began reproducing many of their most famous models as limited edition commemorative pieces.
Despite the success of these collectible pieces that the factory produced, it still struggled to compete with the global market and in the beginning of the century the factory was dismantled. Multiple smaller firms – such as Volmax, Maktime, Poljot-Chronos or Trading House Poljot – took over the equipment and remaining parts. It’s hard to know for sure who took what: and does it really matter? All those companies had a similar business model: they were using remaining Poljot movements and assembling them with cases and dials sourced from elsewhere (most probably China). This resulted in some of the ugliest watches I’ve ever seen.
In conclusion: all hope seems lost
Most of these firms have now disappeared. There are almost no movements left, and the equipment is lost. Firms that survived are no longer using left-over movements and are sourcing everything abroad. Apparently, they can no longer use the Poljot brand, I assume there must be a trademark issue. As I said in the beginning of this article, I highly doubt that we’ll see a Russian Poljot watch anytime soon.