Nota del editor: esta es una traducción de un artículo originalmente publicado en castellano.
As a rule, most watch aficionados tend to picture Soviet watches as crude, rough and effective. Although this last label is justly deserved, the first two are the result of many years of prejudice stirred up during the Cold War, which continues to be embedded in our collective consciousness.
The aim of this article is to dispel some of these myths, which in many cases prevent us from seeing and appreciating the nuances and fascinating examples that can be found within the extensive world of Soviet watchmaking. For this reason, I will show a worthy example (coming out of the Soviet factories) that displays all the characteristics needed to disprove the adjectives listed at the beginning of this article. I am talking about an elegant watch with a no less curious name: Vympel.
The year 1960 marks the start of this adventure. The world has been divided into two Superpowers and the ever-present threat of a nuclear war hangs over both sides. At the same time, a new sense of vitality is spreading, as people in all corners of the world are beginning to recover from the pernicious effects of the Second World War. Prosperity and this renewed feeling of ‘living life’ exert a hedonistic desire for change and for enjoying things on this entire generation. These winds of change will affect all aspects of human culture, from art to the so called “sexual revolution” and, however incredible it may seem, will also affect the Soviet Union (we already discussed this phenomenon in the article dedicated to the “Sportivnie“).
Another important factor that transformed this decade into one of the most iconic and representative of our recent history was, without doubt, the “Space Race“. Perhaps it was originally motivated by geopolitical forces but, in turn, this scramble to conquer space gave rise to a true technological revolution. It spurred on thousands of men and women to train and gain knowledge that would not only serve to help master new technologies and working methods that were being created in all fields (from watchmaking to medicine) but also to establish the basis of a new way of thinking, which gave birth to a new “modernity”.
In the realm of watchmaking, miniaturisation has always been a constant in the race to develop new calibers, but it was in this decade that the foundations and milestones were laid to enable the production of wearable extra-flat watches. In 1957, Piaget presented at the Basel fair its hand-wound caliber 9P, which was just 2 mm thick, bringing to life its iconic “Altiplano” model. Only a few years later, in 1960, Piaget took matters a little further developing the 12P automatic caliber based on the new micro-rotor concept that Universal Genève had used in its movements. The 12P caliber was incredible thin, at just 2.3 mm. The 4 mm “Altiplano” became the thinnest watch to date and it took almost a decade for Jean Lassalle to develop an even thinner caliber (the 1200) which was a mere 1.2 mm thick.
There were other brands that followed in the wake of Piaget, such as Patek Philippe with its 5 mm-thick Calatrava ref. 3498 or Jaeger-LeCoultre with its caliber 838 that would help launch its successful “Ultra-Thin” line. Soon, this type of ultra-flat watch became a model of elegance and a classic reference of a “dress watch”, a feature that has endured to this day.
Meanwhile, in 1959, the Soviet Union dazzled the world with the launch of the “Luna 2“, the first spacecraft to reach the Moon and the first to reach a celestial body in space. The Luna 2 transported two segmented steel spheres to the lunar surface bearing the coats of arms of the USSR. These detonated when the spacecraft touched the lunar surface, expanding pennants (Vympel) in all directions, as a symbolic demonstration of the interest that the Soviet space programme had to conquer our very own satellite. The next day, after the success of the lunar mission, Nikita Khrushchev flew to the United States to visit. During his visit to the White House, Khrushchev presented President Eisenhower with a commemorative gift – an exact copy of the Soviet pennant that had been carried by the Luna 2, made expressly in honour of this remarkable event.
Next to the pennant read a message: “… The original of the pennant is on the Moon. I ask you to consider this gift as a symbol of the desire of our people to develop peaceful and friendly relations with your people, with your great country, the United States of America.”
The small size and elegance of this new type of watch must have also dazzled the Soviet authorities. In 1961, the Ministry of Mechanical Engineering and Instruments of the USSR drew up an order according to which it was instructed to develop a caliber that did not exceed 3 mm in thickness. Apparently, the order fell on the First Moscow Watch Factory and shortly after (at the end of 1961) our protagonist appeared equipped with the new caliber 2209, just 2.9 mm thick. Compared to the ultra-thin calibers mentioned above, it presented the novelty of having a central seconds complication.
Before we delve deeper into the subject, let us take a quick look at the general state of the Soviet watch industry at the time. In the 1960s, it was growing rapidly. Its factories were operating at full capacity, manufacturing millions of watches to supply its own expanding market fuelled by the economic growth that the country was experiencing. It had been almost a decade since the modernisation process of its industry had begun, as we discussed in articles dedicated to Pobeda or Zvezda. Dozens of brands and models left the factories and many of them became ideal to showcase to the world the achievements of the Soviet space programme, adopting names that made reference to it, such as: Saturn, Sputnik, Kosmos, Orbita, etc. In 1964, the factories were reorganized again, with production consolidated. These new entities renamed the models that they manufactured, but without relinquishing the space “connection”, adopting names such as: Raketa, Poljot, Vostok… This reorganization led to increased production in general and undoubtedly facilitated the export of Soviet-made watches. It was, in my opinion, the “golden age” of Soviet horology.
As we saw above, the “Vympel” emerged because of the decree that prompted the First Moscow Watch Factory to develop an elegant watch with an extra-thin caliber, initially called “60-ChN”, although a few years later it would be renamed “2209”. The main characteristic of this piece was its extreme thinness (about 6 mm in total, including the glass) with the rather incredible peculiarity of adding a central second hand (something that made its limited thickness more commendable).
Another peculiarity of the Vympel is its name, which can be translated as “pennant” or even “emblem”. As we indicated above, watch brands were often chosen to praise the successes of the Soviet space programme, so it is not surprising that our protagonist was named after the “вымпел” spheres that carried the pennants that were scattered on the Moon during the Luna 2 mission. If we look closely at the beautiful logo, we can see that it is represents the trajectory that the spacecraft made from Earth to the Moon. The Vympel aptly symbolised the incipient conquest of space and the modernisation of the Soviet watch industry.
To house the caliber, an extra-flat case, plated with 20 microns of gold, was designed. It was catalogued as “CHN-961K”. Some models were also presented in solid gold cases. Its diameter of 35 mm, together with its lug-to-lug length of 42 mm, make the Vympel a perfect complement to wear on special occasions, even today.
To really appreciate the significance and importance that these watches had back then, examining a passport (the documentation of the period) can provide us with invaluable information about the intention and effort that the Soviets put into creating this quality product.
Indeed, in the heading we can read that it is a “Class 1” watch, meaning that it was manufactured under the highest quality and precision standards that the Soviet industry of the moment could demand, governed by the GOST 6519-58 standards, which we already wrote about here. The Vympel was certified at launch, something quite uncommon in the world of Soviet watchmaking. Its presentation was also exquisite for the time.
During its short production run, spanning 1961-1965, the Vympel was presented with three dial variants, although the type of hands used never changed. The seconds hand was especially short due to the thickness of the glass and its flat configuration. Had it not been so, it would have rubbed against it, preventing the proper functioning of the watch.
As might have been expected, the watch was resoundingly successful. It is said that it won the gold medal at the Leipzig Fair in 1963, although I have only found a rather tangential reference to this feat. Even so, there are German press reports that cite the Vympel in the 1963 and 1964 editions of the Moscow Fair, which I extract and translate from this excellent document.
Berliner Zeitung, March 16, 1963
Volume 19 / Issue 223 / Page 4
USSR Trade Fair
“… Vlasov highlighted the excellent quality of the” Vympel”, “Wostok” and “Cosmos” men’s wristwatches, as well as some women’s wristwatches, which are exhibited in Leipzig and have hardly any competitors in terms of precision and price, being highly requested.”
Neues Deutschland, Di. 15. September 1964
Jahrgang 19 / Ausgabe 255 / Seite 7
“… Mention is made of the powerful Moscow Watch Factory, and its model “Wympel” which is by far the most elegant and slimmest mass-produced men’s wristwatch in the world with a price of 50 roubles.”
This second quote is really interesting as it seems to clarify that the aim of the Soviet authorities was to provide an “affordable” watch for the Soviet population, with technical and aesthetic characteristics comparable to those of Western watches that we discussed earlier in this post.
I think it is high time to take a deeper look at the caliber that made the Vympel possible. As we have already mentioned, the First Moscow Watch Factory was entrusted with starting its production at the end of 1961. This manual-wind caliber, initially called “60-ChN”, had a thickness of 2.9 mm. It had a central second hand, 23 jewels, an anti-shock system on balance wheel and offered a power reserve of 41 hours.
Around the same time as the factories were reorganized (circa 1964), the caliber was renamed “2209“. This novel numerical classification system tells us that the caliber had a diameter of 22 mm (22) while the code “09” indicated that it was a manual-wind movement, with a central second hand and that it was equipped with an anti-shock system on the balance wheel. To achieve this meagre thickness, Soviet engineers came up with several rather ingenious technical solutions such as the three-gear transmission for the ratchet wheel as can be seen with the naked eye in the image above. In the following image we can see the entire assembly alongside the barrel which is housed under the bridge.
Another solution provided was an ingenious transmission system with an intermediate wheel (A) between the central pinion (B) and a separate false minute wheel (C). This system, alongside an indirect sweep seconds hand, made it unnecessary to have a seconds wheel at the centre. Therefore, neither wheel overlaps the balance wheel, nor the main spring barrel and the full height (under the bridges) is available for these two elements. The result is a caliber with a low profile, albeit without sacrificing any robustness or precision.
The wheel (C) is not actually a minute wheel; the transmission ratio between its pinion (with 8 teeth) and the central minute B wheel (with 12 teeth) was optimized. The result is that wheel C turned fully every 40 minutes.
In the following image we can see the indirect seconds system and the polished steel escape wheel.
Incredible as it may seem, part of the production of caliber 2209 was outsourced in 1962 from the 1MWF to the Minsk watch plant in Belarus, dedicated at that time to manufacturing ladies’ wristwatches under the name Zaria and Luch (caliber 1300). We can affirm almost without ambiguity that the bulk of the production of this caliber took place in Minsk and here I return to the previous 1964 journalistic reference that asserted “… the most elegant and slimmest mass-produced men’s wristwatch in the world”. This, in my opinion, would not have been possible without the involvement of the Minsk factory. In the following image we can see one of the first examples to come out of the Minsk factory, already bearing the name Luch.
In 1965, with the factories already reorganised and renamed, the “Vympel” brand disappeared into limbo like other wonderful Soviet brands that collectors cherish so much and that never cease to amaze us. However, the production of this fantastic caliber, far from disappearing, seems to have increased at a dizzying rate and new brands (both for the domestic and export markets) continued to use it.
But before discussing this, I want to make a small diversion to show you the thinnest caliber manufactured in the USSR: the Poljot 2200. While it only held this accolade fleetingly, I believe it is important.
This movement represents “one more twist” in the development of extra-flat calibers in the USSR. With a thickness of just 1.85 mm, the 2200 began to be manufactured in 1965 (already under the name Poljot). However, what seemed to be the natural successor to the Vympel failed due to some technical design flaws with the caliber and only a limited number of units were ever manufactured, always housed in gold cases. It is quite possible that had the Soviet engineers been determined to solve the problems inherent in the 2200, the watch would have ended being mass produced. However, it was perhaps of greater interest for them to focus on the what would be the worthy successor of the Vympel: the Poljot 2209 and the “Poljot de Luxe” collection for the export markets.
As we can see, Poljot continued to use the same aesthetics and initially employed the same dials that were used for the Vympel. Later, it introduced aesthetic innovations to these new watches, including new dials and cases for models that were to become benchmarks of Soviet watchmaking in the world stage. At a somewhat later stage, Poljot made automatic versions of the “Poljot de Luxe” equipped with caliber 2415. Even so, Poljot continued production of the caliber 2209 until about 1975.
Luch continued to make watches equipped with caliber 2209 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. As a Soviet watch enthusiast, one thing that caught my eye and in part also created quite a bit of confusion. As we have seen repeatedly throughout this story, the Vympel watch brand was the first and in some way the “genuine” one to equip caliber 2209. However, in the realm of Soviet watchmaking, the caliber 2209 continued to be referred to as “Vympel”. Let us see some examples of this:
The above text, extracted from a (circa) 1964 “Mashprinborintorg” catalogue of Soviet watches that were made for export, seems extremely interesting to me since it cojoins “Poljot” and “Vympel”. It also cites the gold medal obtained at the Leipzig fair in 1963. I would also highlight the allusion to the Raketa caliber 2209, which was only 2.7 mm thick, although I will write about this in another post.
Another example can be seen in a later catalogue (from 1967) relating to a watch fair held in Moscow, where it also a price of 8 rubles and 89 dollars is indicated for the watch.
From the next exhibit I would like to highlight the fact that a (first generation) Vympel model was presented in a stainless-steel case with a look quite far removed from the usual aesthetics of the line and which was branded as Poljot. This model is a “Rara Avis”, not only for the brand, but for the Soviet watch industry overall as most watches manufactured in the USSR at that time were housed in chromed brass cases.
Or in the Russian Wikipedia entry about Luch, from where I extract verbatim:
“The Ministry of Industry, together with the factory, made a decision on the production of especially flat men’s watches “Vympel”, produced by the 1st Moscow Watch Factory, which transferred the technical documentation to them. This watch received the trademark “Luch-2209″.”
“The ChN-961 design was in demand both in the domestic market and abroad. Different types of dial coatings – silver, gold, black nickel, different digitization methods – printing, diamond milling, etc. made possible the diversification of the Vympel models.”
Even today many watch sellers continue to name Poljot and Luch watches equipped with the caliber 2209 as “Vympels”, although we must always bear in mind that as a brand it ceased being produced in 1965.
We have already pointed out above the export of watches equipped with caliber 2209. Poljot created a flagship “Poljot de Luxe” sub-brand, with the intention of creating a benchmark export collection. This fact should not surprise us since a watch inscribed with Latin characters would have a greater chance of conquering foreign markets. The epithet “deluxe” became quite common in the early 1970s and was used by a wide variety of brands in the global market. Luch did the same, albeit to a lesser extent and it is quite possible that the bulk of its production was destined for the domestic market.
Returning to the aforementioned press release mentioned in this research, and already in 1972:
Berliner Zeitung, July 2, 1972
Volume 28 / Issue 181 / Page 3
In the realm of light and silence. Minsk million rays
“Minsk watches have only been manufactured for 15 years and are already well known in the world. They are sought after in more than 17 countries, such as England, Sweden, and Egypt, but above all, they serve to appease the wishes of the buyer in the USSR. The watch has now become, as Alexei Kasanzev assured us, a fashion item, a jewel.”
The following image shows us a Luch manufactured for the export market.
Caliber 2209 watches were also exported to the rest of the world under “satellite” brands, in the sense that part of their equity belonged to the Soviet Union or they operated under some type of contractual collaboration, mainly in the United Kingdom and Germany. Thanks to these brands (such as Sekonda, Cornavin or Corsar, to name a few), this Soviet achievement became better known.
Having covered almost all the points necessary to understand the importance of the appearance of caliber 2209, I would like to stress that the “Vympel” brand marked an important milestone and a way forward for the Soviet industry. I believe there is still much to research and write about this exciting “golden age” of Soviet watchmaking, sometimes so reviled today.
P.S. I would like to thank my friend Dashiell Stanford for allowing me to use images of his fantastic watch collection, as well as for the 2017 research presented by him and other Watchuseek forum colleagues. It has helped me incredibly as a basis and guide to produce this article.
P.S. I would also like to thank my dear friend @timebehindtheironcurtain, a regular contributor to the “TheRussianWatchCorner“. His patience, guidance and advice have been invaluable. Without them, I would have become stranded on many ocassions during the arduous task of documenting this article.