RECOMMENDED READING: The New York Times pulls back the iron curtain on RaketaZach Blass
When it comes to watches, we too often think of the Swiss – with the German and Japanese manufacturers no longer trailing far behind. But watchmaking is truly a global enterprise. In Russia, many collectors will immediately think of Konstantin Chaykin’s maverick creations. But there is also a larger manufacturer, with a surprising amount of in-house know-how and original design. Raketa is a Russian watch brand with incredibly rich and, sadly, lesser-known heritage. They offer some stellar creations at more approachable price points. There is serious value at play here, as it is rare to find vertically manufactured pieces that are very affordable considering what they offer. Fortunately, the New York Times investigated the Raketa Manufacture, showcasing why watch wearers should pay attention to their timepieces.
Raketa was born in 1945, but under the Russian name Pobeda, which translates to victory. The manufacturer was government-owned, producing watches in service of the Soviet Republic. It was not until 1961 that the name switched from Pobeda to Raketa, which translates to rocket. Why rocket, you ask? Because the brand wanted to commemorate the incredible achievement of Yuri Gagarin – the first cosmonaut to orbit the earth.
Producing 5000 watches per year, Raketa is incrementally working today to restore itself to its ’70s glory. Back then, they produced 5,000,000 watches per year with a workforce of 8000 employees. But its rejuvenation is not easy work, a sentiment expressed in journalist Penelope Colston’s conversation with David Henderson-Stewart, Raketa’s managing director. With the devastating pandemic worldwide and the recent extinction of physical trade fairs such as Baselworld, many new obstacles have obstructed their path to growth.
Colston explains: “The revived business, however, has not yet turned a profit. While he had hoped that would change in the next couple of years, the coronavirus pandemic has increased the challenge.” Their resistance to raise prices, and even conform to the Swiss style of manufacturing, has only increased the ground they need to cover – but the extra work is all in service to the worldwide consumer and the maintenance of their true Russian heritage. When Swiss consultants arrived at their factory to help revive and reopen the manufacture, many advised they remove the traditional Russian machinery in favour of newer CNC and digital technologies.
To do so, however, would Frankenstein their production model and pure Russian roots. In their article, The New York Times aptly notes the manufacturing capabilities Raketa has. Colston explains, “The factory has a rare status in the watchmaking world: it produces all but a few of the 242 parts in the brand’s in-house movement, the Raketa-Avtomat, including the pallet fork and the even tinier hairspring.”
This is a lot of know-how to part with. Considering the price point of the catalogue ranges from 800 to 2000 euros, it is hard to deny the value at play here – especially if you want something different and an aesthetic departure from what you typically find from the Swiss conglomerates.
But preserving the vertical integration of their efforts is no easy feat. David Henderson-Stewart was faced with a devastating dilemma – with one such outcome being the abandonment of the factory, its machines, and rich heritage in favor of Swiss suppliers. But Henderson-Stewart was not comfortable with that prospect, as it would severely hinder their credibility as a true Russian manufacturer.
He explains, “That was the biggest decision we had to take at the beginning, whether to just shut down the factory and buy from China and Switzerland and assemble in Russia, and say we’re a Russian watch. But we soon understood the legitimacy of the brand was based on the factory.”
While Henderson-Stewart will be the first to say he is not a watch collector, his decision is certainly the more appreciated route by both collectors and the people of Russia.