Today I would like to show you some watches which, generally speaking, are not appreciated much by collectors, but which form an important part of Soviet watchmaking history. We are talking about Zvezda watches. Let us try to get to know a little of their history, in general terms.
As we have seen in previous instalments along our journey through the history of Soviet watchmaking, the incipient watch industry of the country was starting to develop thanks to the buying of patents, machinery and North American parts, specifically from the Hampden Watch Co. This period has been studied and explained at length by my colleague, Alan F. Garratt in his fantastic publication.
In 1935, a government order directed the manufacture of women’s watches. It might seem an unimportant act, but this decree sowed the seeds for the entire future organisation and modernisation of the Soviet watchmaking industry. It is, in my opinion, the cornerstone of all developments following the Second World War.
On this occasion, the Soviet Union, instead of asking for help from the United States, turned its gaze towards France and the LIP watch factory. We have often asked why the Soviets did not buy patents from Switzerland, which already had an extensive watch industry. There is a significant fact that could help to explain, or at least shed a little light on, the strained relations between the two nations. At the time of the Revolution, the majority of Russian watch companies fled the country for Switzerland. Companies such as Pavel Buhre or Henry Mosser had already set up their factories in the alpine country, in addition to having been suppliers of watches to the Russian Imperial family. The assassination of the Soviet Consul Vatslav Vatslavovich Vorovsky in Lausanne, in the spring of 1923, was the final nail in the coffin. Even so, as can be seen in the second paragraph of the above document, the “Vesenja”, which is the acronym of the “Supreme Council of the National Economy of the Soviet Union”, had been thinking of working with Swiss manufacturers, but the latter had flatly refused as they were not willing to encourage any competition that might threaten their economy.
In 1935, an innovative, state-of-the-art company, the French LIP, led by Fred Lippman, developed a new caliber: the T-18. With this caliber an “Art Deco” style of watch was born, which became very popular in the era, to the point that the French Commissioner gave a gold version to Winston Churchill as a present in gratitude for the help given by the United Kingdom during the Second World War. In its current catalogue, LIP offers a re-edition of this model.
And it is from this point that speculation and hypothesis begin. How did the Soviets get in touch with Fred Lippman? What trade agreements did the Soviets reach with LIP? For now, no-one has documented in depth this period of Soviet watchmaking history and it would be good if someone were to undertake the task, because through this agreement, along with the ministerial order previously cited, the modern watchmaking industry in the USSR was launched, and within a decade was capable of manufacturing millions of watches.
Indeed, if we trust the most widely accepted source of information, Fred Lippman (seen in the image above) sold or granted the T-18 patents to the Soviets and acted as intermediary with Swiss manufacturers to obtain the machinery necessary for watch production. Engineers from the French company took charge of training and organising the Soviet engineers and workers in all necessary areas in order to start production. There has been widespread speculation about the reasons for this association, from supporting the expansion of his own company to shoring up its balance sheet; whatever the reason, it brought about the creation of the third state watch factory Penza, built on the site of a bicycle factory. The result of this union was that Penza began to manufacture ZIF watches, an acronym of “Завод имени Фрунзе” and named in honour of Mikhail Frunze.
The manufacture of ZIF watches continued until 1940 and was not just limited to women’s watches, but also to men’s watches. In certain instances, we have been able to find watch movements marked with LIP, as in the example below, which belongs to our friend Lars Ivansen.
It appears that, in the same year, ZIF watches adopted the name “Zvezda”, which translates as “Star”.
I would like to make a small, but important, point. At Penza, the Soviet Union adopted, firmly and for the first time, the serial production of watches, although this phenomenon was soon cut short by the German invasion of the USSR. Like many other factories, it had to adapt to producing equipment for the war, without taking into account that the majority were evacuated to the east. We already covered this event in this article.
At the end of the war, production of the Zvezda resumed on an industrial scale, manufacturing various men’s and women’s models with the 1802 caliber that had as its base the already-renamed LIP T-18.
It was during this post-war period that the Soviet factories began to produce the first “Pobeda” watches, so named in honour of the victory over fascism. The Pobedas were equipped with a modified LIP R-26 caliber. It is possible that the first watches were manufactured in the Penza factory, but we will talk about this another time. In 1949, the Penza factory was “freed” from manufacturing the new Pobedas, and thus focused on the production of Zvezda watches. Later on, smaller calibers with central second hands were developed and Penza dedicated itself exclusively to these, for the production of watches for women marketed through brands such as “Vesna” or “Zaria”. In the image below, we can see the changes to the caliber from the first versions produced until 1960.
But let us return to the Zvezda line. As I have previously stated, various and varied models of this watch were manufactured, both for men and women, a good selection of which can be seen in the catalogues of the era (from 1953).
Here we can see the men’s versions.
Or this one from 1960, almost at the end of its manufacture.
The Zvezda was not exactly a cheap watch, costing approximately 350 roubles in 1954, when the monthly salary of an average worker was around 300 roubles. Several of these watches were made in different precious metals such as gold and silver, although these were significant pieces only within the grasp of a few people. Below, we can see an image from a Soviet magazine from 1954 in which the man is undoubtedly wearing a Zvezda.
One thing has always caught my attention and that is that in many of the Zvezda watches we find the name of other factories on the dial, such as the TTK1 in Petrodvorets, the Leningrad, the second watch factory in Moscow and even Serdobsk, but I have never been able to ascertain if they really were made in these factories or only certain parts and then were assembled in Penza. Below we can see a good example of this.
I would like to finish this article by stressing that the order passed in 1935 gave rise to the relationship between Fred Lippman and the Soviet state. This relationship resulted in the development of an entire watchmaking industry that in little more than a decade was already able to manufacture millions of watches that supplied the internal and export markets. The ZIF/Zvezda watches represent the first stages of this industry and their historical importance is without comparison. We still have a lot learn, investigate and document regarding this important period but luckily, we have the opportunity to carry on using these magnificent watches.