If you read at least one article about vintage Soviet watches, you’re definitely familiar with Raketa. One of the most popular brands, produced in millions of pieces for decades, Raketa has a long history and a reputation of well-designed, elegant yet durable watches.
History of Raketa watches
According to the official website of the Petrodvorets Watch Factory “Raketa”, it was founded back in 1721 by Peter the Great in Peterhof, a Saint-Petersburg’s suburb (called Petrodvorets between 1944 and 1997). Very impressive, especially when compared with brands like Patek Philippe (1839) or Audemars Piguet (1875). What is not specified though is that first watches were only produced in 1949.
Between 1721 and World War II, the “factory” (first of its kind in the whole Russian empire!) was a simple lapidary workshop, making items from precious stones. It became known as the Imperial Lapidary Factory in 1816 and at that time was supplying various decor elements for palaces, cathedrals and fountains.
Still no sign of watches in the beginning of the Soviet era – in 1927 the factory was specialized in stone works and produced facing slabs for Lenin’s mausoleum. During World War II and the Siege of Leningrad, the factory building was located in the no-man’s land between the two front lines and was practically destroyed.
By 1949, thanks to the incredible efforts of the workers, the factory was almost completely restored and was progressively converted to a watch plant.
In honor of the end of the war, the Pobeda (Победа: victory) watches were created. Pobeda were hugely popular and the most mass-produced model in the world until the 60’s. They were manufactured in several Soviet watch plants, including the one in Petrodvorets.
The factory was officially renamed Petrodvorets Watch Factory in 1954. First watches under the brand name Raketa (Ракета: rocket, missile) were produced in 1961, after the first manned flight into space by the famous cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (who, by the way, had a Sturmanskie on his wrist). Massive production began. In 1965, Raketa received a gold medal at the International Leipzig Fair. The movement 2609, which was used in most models of Raketa watches, was recognized as one of the most reliable and durable in the world. Watches from the Petrodvorets factory were exported to 38 countries around the world.
Besides Raketa, multiple other brand names were used: Zvezda (Звезда: star), Mayak (Маяк: lighthouse), Seconda, Neva, Svet (Свет: light), Leningrad, Cornavin, etc.
In the 70’s and 80’s the factory expanded, creating about 5 million watches per year. The Petrodvorets Watch Factory became one of the most successful and cutting edge in the world, giving work to 8,000 people. But everything changed when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990’s. The Petrodvorets factory was unprepared for the market economy and the import of cheap, plastic watches with quartz movements.
In the 1990’s, most of the factory buildings were rented out and a lot of equipment sold or disassembled.
Iconic Raketa watches
With hundreds (if not thousands) of different models, it’s hard to make a list of iconic ones. Nevertheless, here is a selection of our favorite Raketa vintage watches.
Raketa 24 Hours
Raketa is one of the rare watch factories that used to produce a 24-hours movement, 2623.H. There are quite a few dial variations in the family of 24-hours, the one above (sometimes called Arctic or Polar) being one of the most popular.
The Worldtimer, or Goroda (Города: cities) in Russian has an amazing design and a great wrist presence. Powered by the 2628.H reliable movement, this watch exists in different colors: blue, green, bordeaux and brown (check out the full collector’s guide here). The case is either chromed or gold-plated. The weak point of this model is its dial, difficult to find in perfect condition.
Raketa Big Zero
One of the most recognizable Raketa watches, the Big Zero has a strikingly legible dial with a huge “0” at 12 o’clock. According to an urban legend, Mikhail Gorbatchev was seen wearing this watch. We wrote a full reference guide on the Raketa Big Zero, check it out if you’re interested in adding one to your collection.
Raketa Perpetual Calendar
Well, to be honest, this perpetual calendar is not exactly perpetual but the watch definitely looks good. It is powered by the 2628.H and exists in a variety of colors. These were also produced after the fall of the USSR.
These hands are simply amazing. This design by Raketa, dubbed Copernicus, is one of the all-time favorites among collectors. Inside the small case (~35mm), you will find the classic and reliable 2609.HA movement. The Copernicus was manufactured in several color schemes, including a white dial model in a chrome-plated case (above), and a model with a black dial in a black-chrome case (below).
Raketa Amphibian is a rare and mysterious watch. Whereas the creation of the Vostok Amphibian, generally considered as the very first Soviet diver watch, is well-documented, we know much less about the Raketa’s take on watches that could sustain ocean pressure. According to some sources, the very first editions of these watches, characterized by a very large case (45mm) and a metallic bezel can be dated back to as far as 1966, which would be earlier than the Vostok Amphibian (created in 1967).
Raketa Factory Today
After the fall of the USSR and until 2009 the Petrodvorets manufactory existed partly thanks to orders from its loyal customers: the government departments and military structures of Russia. Despite the debts of the factory, its employees, fortunately, managed to preserve some of the equipment.
In 2009, David Henderson-Stewart invited Jacques von Polier, a French count with Russian roots who moved to Russia in the 1990’s, to join him in the purchase of the Petrodvorets Watch Factory. Prior to this, David had been studying the Russian watch industry for several years. With most of the fine manufactories closed and Petrodvorets being among the rare ones remaining, David invited Jacques to work together to save Raketa. The French count was attracted by the rich history of the factory and agreed to this risky endeavor despite his lack of previous experience in the field of watches.
The new owners of the factory created an investment fund, which included Russian and foreign investors. Under the leadership of Jacques von Polier and David Henderson-Stewart, the first new collection from the factory was released in early 2011 and it participated in the international exhibition Baselworld.
Today there are two remaining workshops at the Petrodvorets Manufactory. In the first workshop which is called the “unclean” area, parts and small details are cut out for the mechanisms and in the second workshop, called the “clean” area, the watches are assembled. Each component passes long, complex and multi-level checks before the manual assembly of the entire watch mechanism. The factory’s staff is not young, and a lot of the work is still being done on Soviet equipment. You can check out this blog post for a detailed and illustrated excursion to the factory (use an automatic translator as it’s in Russian).
The factory and its management are particularly proud of the fact that Raketa is able to produce the balance spring, the thin spiral spring attached to the balance wheel in mechanical timepieces. The factory stores large stocks of alloy, from which the spring is manufactured. In Switzerland there are only a few producers who have access to the technology used to create balance springs, from whom the rest of the brands on the market purchase from. The Russian factory claims that some of the Swiss brands buy a significant amount of balance springs from them. Hard to say whether this is true though.
Nowadays, the Petrodvorets Watch Factory “Raketa” produces 40,000 watches per year with a modern design or repeating the Soviet-style watches. Movements are made locally, whereas, according to some reports, dials and cases are ordered from China. The factory also cooperates with famous and influential people like top model Natalya Vodianova, who developed a female-focused line of watches which are sold under the name “Star”.
Although some of the designs look interesting, we can only wonder how many of Raketa watches are actually being sold at the current price levels – the average price seems to be around 1,000 EUR. We definitely prefer a vintage authentic piece sold 10 times cheaper. What about you?