I think I can safely state that if there were any Soviet watch whose design had crossed frontiers and become recognizable throughout the world, it would be the Raketa “Big Zero”. But how did this model emerge? In what circumstances was it made? Is it still current? Let’s have a look at it…
Without doubt, the first thing that grabs your attention about this watch is the arrangement and design of its dial with its oversized numerals crowned with a large zero (hence its nickname). Together with its hour markings in the shape of a triangle rounded at the ends, this gives the watch a unique and timeless quality. Is this design accidental or deliberate?
The appointment of the reformist Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev as Secretary General of the Communist Party of the USSR in 1985 and the opening up of economic and social policy that he promoted, which later came to be known as Glasnost and Perestroika, engendered the legend of this watch. According to the story, during a diplomatic visit to Italy, Gorbachev wore this Raketa model. The press seized the opportunity with a headline that read: “Russia is starting from zero”.
This play on words was used to affirm, or infer, that the design of the “Big Zero” was created with this symbolic aim in mind. Yes, a new Russia was setting out on its journey into an age of liberal economic and social reform, but the design of the watch probably had a more prosaic and less symbolic character, such as to help those affected by long-sightedness by displaying the time clearly and precisely. All the same, Raketa itself, in 2003, spread this narrative about the “Big Zero”.
I have never seen any documentation that verifies this story, but it could be true, as at that time the Soviet Union exported many watches to Italy (as we will see later) and it is possible that the Soviet leader was wearing one for promotional purposes.
If we look at the catalogues, despite their containing scant information, the Raketa “Big Zero” seems to have emerged in the mid-1980s. The few images we have are from two catalogues, from around 1986 (the image on the left, or above if viewing on a mobile) and from 1992, respectively. We also have a catalogue image of a pocket watch that matches the “Big Zero”, dated 1986.
In these two catalogues we can also see cushion case models, in gold and chrome respectively; in the first example, there is a small variation on the dial which displays the USSR state seal of quality. For the enjoyment, or misfortune, of collectors, other variants exist including one in the form of a pocket watch that we can see below.
I’m not going to expand too much on how to differentiate between an authentic “Big Zero” and a fake, as there is already a good body of work on the subject. However, with respect to the watches from the first period, the differences between the models are clear. In the widely recognised model known as the “Little Zero”, the case is rounded and smaller (hence its nickname). Its hands are noticeably pointed, unlike the classic model with its rounded ends. The dials made with jade or other precious stones very possibly belong to the Soviet era (don’t forget that the Petrodvorets factory specialised in processing jewels and precious stones).
Apparently, the “Big Zero” was so successful that, as we state in the title of this piece, its design crossed frontiers. My good friend @timebehindtheironcurtain has already revealed, in his excellent article published in our section on Russian watches, the existence of a relationship between several Soviet watch manufacturers and the Italian market. Consequently, in Italy, the Mirabilia company was responsible for distributing the watch, to which was added a leather strap embossed with the abbreviation CCCP and a beautiful presentation case, something far removed from the norms of the Soviet era.
The model was also exported to, and subsequently manufactured in, France. I say manufactured because this was genuinely the case. The fact is, a Soviet company established in France, called Slava, was importing the movements and possibly the cases. The dials were made in France and assembled and sold throughout the country. The image below shows a watch that was called a French “Big Zero”.
We also have information that the watch was exported to the USA, with significant sales success.
In summary, the “Big Zero” is a watch that was created with the practical purpose of making it easier for long-sighted people to tell the time, but which was transformed into an icon of Soviet design from the final decade of the twentieth century. Is the design of the “Big Zero” still current? Perhaps these images will answer that question.
So yes, in truth, the design is still very much alive and, and it remains as current as ever. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Raketa took it upon itself to produce different editions of the same watch, in a social and economic environment that was very difficult for the brand. Nevertheless, from 2011, the company received the economic backing needed to update its production and create new models, without losing sight of its heritage. It also created an automatic movement to put into the new versions of the “Big Zero”. To my mind, the work that this company is doing to become a global brand is very good, including creating communication channels with clients and lovers of the brand.
If we take a look around the web, we will see that the main watch portals continue to mention this watch. In addition, we can refer to the interesting case of a graphic designer who has created faces of the “Big Zero” to download for use in Smart Watches. We can also cite the great photographer Ian Cox, based in New York, who has analysed and used the design of the watch in his work. All this is significant, to my mind, and demonstrates how intensely current this timeless design remains.