With its distinctive dial sporting the large numbers, “0, 3, 6, 9,” the Raketa Big Zero is a watch that will instantly stand out in any collection of Soviet watches. Nonetheless, obtaining your own authentic Big Zero can be a surprising challenge for multiple reasons.
In this guide, we’ll go in-depth into the history, features, and design of the Raketa Big Zero. We’ll let you know some of the obstacles that you might encounter in finding one for your collection, and we’ll give you some tips to help you identify a real Big Zero.
The History of the Raketa Big Zero
Raketa is a brand which the Petrodvorets Watch Factory in St. Petersburg introduced in 1962 to honor Yuri Gagarin. The name, which may also be spelled Ракета (Cyrillic), means “Rocket.” The brand was huge in the 70s and 80s, so many of the styles you see—including that of the eye-catching Big Zero—reflect those time periods.
The Raketa Big Zero was allegedly intended for visually impaired people but quickly gained mainstream popularity thanks to its remarkable design. According to an urban legend (mentioned in the 2003 video about the Petrodvorets Watch Factory), in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, was seen in Italy wearing this watch. The Italian press noticed this and the next day’s front pages featured a Big Zero and a headline “Russians are starting from zero!”.
I couldn’t find any evidence for this story, but this may very well be true: as a watch enthusiast, Gorbachev could wear a Raketa to promote the Russian watch industry. And he could probably say something like “We’re starting from zero!”. While I didn’t find any Italian newspapers featuring this watch, the March 1985 issue of Annandale Advocate puts the Big Zero in the spotlight:
Raketa Big Zero Design Elements
This part may get complicated real quick because the Big Zero exists in various case types and with different dials. Let’s dive in?
Cushion Case with Short, Curved Lugs (Case # 51)
Raketa Big Zero is most commonly seen in the case # 51. This is also, clearly, my favorite case. The shape of it makes a gentle, even curve toward the lugs without any bends along the way. The lugs are kind of close together, which can limit strap options. As for the contour of the case, if you look at it from the side, you will notice it curves upward a bit in the center. There also should be a bevel around the crystal. Case size is: 39 mm (width without crown) x 40.5 mm (lug-to-lug) x 11 mm (thickness).
This case can be either chrome-plated or gold-plated, as seen in the following Raketa catalogs:
Raketa manufactured plenty of watches using this case, which means that if you find a Big Zero with a battered case but a clean dial, you can easily find a replacement case in good condition.
Round Cases with Prominent Lugs (Cases # 43 & 46)
Albeit less common, this smaller case variant is not a franken. It can be found with either a white or a black dial, and the case design is slightly different depending on the dial. You may notice that the white dial version (case # 46) has longer and angular lugs, whereas the black dial version (case #43) has shorter and “rounded” lugs.
Pocket Watch Case (Case #83)
Want a pocket watch with a Big Zero dial? Raketa had this in stock too. This version appears in one of Raketa catalogs:
We saw that this watch came in different cases. We could have assumed that the dial would be identical across all variants, right? Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. Let’s have a more thorough look at these dials, starting with the cushion case version.
Looking at a Big Zero, you can easily get the illusion that the watch is larger than its 39 mm because of the design of the dial.
The only two colors on the dial are black and white, providing a bold contrast. Since only 0, 3, 6, and 9 are printed with triangles in between for the other hours, a large typeface could be used. The hands, like the numbers and triangles, are black. The stark minimalism instantly demands attention, calling for a closer look.
That is where the Big Zero’s face can really surprise you. There is something unusual about the way the numbers are printed. I am not a typographer, so I cannot describe these details in technical terms, but chances are good that you are not one either. Here are my observations in plain terms:
- There is a “square-ish” look to the digits. For example, look at the “0.” It is not a perfect oval. It is a little flattened on the top, bottom, and sides. You can also observe this with the top and bottom of the “3.” You can see it with the loops in both the “6” and the “9” as well.
- The thickness of the digits varies in an unusual way. As an example, look closely at the “9” on the watch. Do you see where the loop ends and the tail of the “9” begins? There looks to be a tad more thickness to the start of the tail than there was for the loop.
Noting these distinctive details may be helpful in avoiding fakes.
Some additional comments:
- The triangles/wedges which stand in for the hours that are not printed out as digits have curved corners when you look closely. They should not come to sharp points.
- The name “Raketa” can be spelled either “RAKETA” or “РАКЕТА” (Cyrillic). Both are entirely valid as this watch was sold both in Russia and for export. You should familiarize yourself with the typeface as well as the thickness of it. You also should note that both letter A’s which are present in “RAKETA” or “РАКЕТА” should be italicized, while the other letters should not be.
- There should be a country designation. “Сделано в CCCP” for Cyrillic versions and “Made in USSR” for export models. More recent models may bear “Сделано в России” or “Made in Russia”. Obviously, it is not expected to see a mixture of English and Russian text.
- The dial may sport the USSR State Mark of Quality (as seen on the picture above).
Now, the interesting question is: were black dials installed in cushion cases? This version is not available in catalogs and I haven’t seen a single NOS example with box and papers. However, I’ve seen some collectors sharing photos of their watches. They look like this:
The printing quality seems inferior to the white dial version. However, the rest looks good, and so there’s a debate about the authenticity of this watch.
Dials installed in round cases are slightly different:
First of all, you immediately notice that the hour triangles are sharp (and not rounded like in the cushion case). The second difference is more subtle: the edges of the numbers 3, 6 and 9 are flat, whereas they are rounded in the cushion case.
Both the hour and minute hands are thick in appearance; in fact, we could call the hour hand rather “stubby.” They are somewhat curved at the tips. As for the second hand, it is quite thin, but it flares at the back end a little bit. If all three hands are skinny, they are from another watch.
The movement is a reliable 19-jewels Raketa 2609.НА stamped “SU” as Soviet Union. Beating at 18,000 bph, this is a true workhorse from Raketa that equipped many different watches. Manual wind, up to 42 hours of power reserve. Easy to service, repair or replace.
Crystal & Winding Crown
The crystal bears some discussion as well. If you want a watch with the original crystal, you’ll be looking for an acrylic one. If you look at the watch from the side, the crystal should be flat on top, not curved (for the cushion case; the crystal is different for round cases).
As you can see, the winding crown is plain and slightly convex, almost flat.
The snap-on caseback bears a 3-digit or 6-digit serial number. The serial number is mostly used to make sure the documents that came with the watch are correct. Unfortunately, it won’t help you determine when the watch has been produced.
How to buy an authentic Raketa Big Zero?
The Raketa Big Zero is a compelling watch to collect both for style reasons and because it is frequently available at a reasonable price. This can make it attractive to novice collectors who are just getting into Soviet-era watches.
But whether you are a newbie or you are an experienced watch collector, you may have a challenging time figuring out whether the Big Zero you are contemplating purchasing is a real one for a couple of reasons.
Beware of Fake Big Zero watches
First of all, there are a lot of outright fake Raketa Big Zeroes on the market. And I mean a lot of them. Some of them are actually pretty close to the original, so it can be tough to know what you are getting without looking very closely at the details. Most of the time, the faked part will be the dial.
Having read about the design of the parts, you should be better positioned now to spot fakes.
On top of outright fakes, there are also a lot of authentic Big Zero watches on the market which have non-original parts. You may encounter Big Zeroes with non-original watch hands, cases, and other parts: these are called “frankens”.
In some cases, these replacements can completely transform the appearance of the watch! The case, for example, has a pretty characteristic shape. When it is replaced with a different case with different curvature leading to the lugs, the whole watch looks different.
The more you study the Raketa Big Zero, the easier it will be for you to spot fake from authentic elements and distinguish the telltale signs that something is off.
Buying an authentic Raketa Big Zero: the checklist
So, what can you do to try and get a Raketa Big Zero for your collection which is both authentic and reasonably intact? Here are some recommendations for what to be on the lookout for.
- Case: assuming you’re looking for a Big Zero in the cushion case, make sure it has the correct shape. Aim for the best possible cosmetic condition – gold-plated and chrome-plated cases lose their plating quite easily.
- Dial: look carefully at the printing quality, typography, and presence or absence of different elements. The dial section above and the pictures presented in this article should help you.
- Hands: fat hands is the trademark of this model. Replacements are easily recognizable.
- Movement: must be marked 2609.HA, “SU” (refer to the movement picture above). if the markings on the movement are different, there’s a high chance the watch has been tinkered with.
- Crystal: there’s no doubt that the watch looks better with its original flat crystal.
- Caseback: plain snap-on caseback with just a serial number.
- Crown: does it look correct? Did the crown lose its plating?
- Strap: this watch looks good on literally all kinds of straps. Black leather (with white stitching for example) is the obvious choice, but you can also try more colorful natos. Lug width is 18mm.
Because of the way the Raketa Big Zero was manufactured, the market is flooded with fakes, frankens, and sometimes authentic watches which may have a part or two replaced.
So, searching for an authentic Big Zero which is in excellent condition with all of its original parts can be a big challenge.
But if you are able to find one, you often will discover that it is reasonably priced, making it a suitable addition to your collection even if you cannot afford to pay a high price for a vintage watch.
And once it is in your collection, you’ll get to enjoy its bold, eye-catching design day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute.
I hope you found this article helpful. As usual, this is a work-in-progress and I don’t pretend to be an expert, so if you notice any discrepancies or want to add some information, please get in touch or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to show your own Big Zero in the comments area!
Raketa Big Zero Made in France
This may sound crazy, but some of these Soviet/Russian watches were actually produced in… France. Starting from the 1960s, there was a watch factory in Besançon that produced watches using Soviet-made calibers under different brand names (mostly Slava, but Raketa was also used in the 1980s: link to a more detailed forum thread in French). The Big Zeroes produced in Besançon can be recognized by the marking “Механизм СССР” (“Mechanism USSR”) on the dial. The case shape and the crown are also slightly different.
This dial version is called “proletarian” and it’s not featured in any of Raketa catalogs (so it’s impossible to be 100% sure that it’s legit). All the elements are smaller in this dial, probably to accommodate the Soviet emblem in the middle, with the famous communist slogan “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”.
Peterhof / Glasnost
Peterhof was a small firm working with the Petrodvorets Watch Factory to produce watches for tourists. This particular dial features a hammer and a sickle (USSR emblem) together with markings “CCCP” and “Glasnost” (an ambigious concept used during the perestroika period, meaning openness and transparency).
Pictures of NOS Raketa Big Zero watches
For your viewing pleasure, you will find below galleries of Raketa Big Zero in NOS (New Old Stock) condition with box & papers. Enjoy.
Got a Big Zero in NOS condition and would like to showcase it? Please contact us!
Cushion Case, White Dial
Round Case, White Dial
Further reading : learn more about Raketa and Soviet watch industry
- Raketa: Brand Overview
- Raketa World Time “Goroda” Reference Guide
- 7 Reasons to Buy a Soviet Vintage Watch