Antique Watches (pre-1930)
Throughout Imperial-era Russia, the watchmaking industry consisted only of several small workshops and enterprises, usually assembling watches using parts made abroad. Due to a lack of technology and equipment, it was cheaper and more efficient to import unfinished Swiss and German ebauchés, then compete the assembly in local Russian workshops. This assembly was undertaken by specialized independent watchmakers appointed by the Imperial Court, such as Pavel Buhre, Heinrich Moser, and Henry Kahn. The watches produced for the Court featured beautifully-crafted porcelain and enamel dials, and cases made from nickel, brass, silver, or gold.
In 1918, a year after the Bolshevik Revolution, the entire Soviet industrial infrastructure was nationalized. All independent watchmaking workshops were confiscated by the State, and the original owners were eventually forced to withdraw from the market. (Paul Buhre temporarily relocated to Riga in an attempt to continue producing signed timepieces for the State, but ultimately could not maintain independence in the socio-political climate of the era.)
By 1922, the entire watchmaking industry had become part of the State Trust of Precision Mechanics, also known as Gostrest Tochmeh (Гострест Точмех). This Trust was tasked with overseeing the production of precision timepieces for the State. Such timepieces were critical in numerous applications, from forming a complex national railway system, to coordinating military activities. Seemingly overnight, Gostrest Tochmeh was the sole State apparatus operating the former independent workshops.
Upon Lenin’s death in January of 1924, Stalin replaced Lenin’s New Economic Policy with this highly-centralized Command Economy, causing the Soviet Union to move quickly from a predominantly-agrarian society to an industrial power. But it didn’t take long for the warehouses to be depleted of imported watchmaking stock, and by 1926, materials were becoming scarce. But while the supply of watch parts had run out, demand for the watches by the army, navy, railways, and laypeople was only increasing. To meet the demand, the USSR began importing whatever components they could acquire on the international market and paying in gold. Swiss ebauches were often imported from Cyma and Unitas during this time. These watches were assembled in Russia and finished with a domestically-manufactured dial signed Гострест Точмех.
To further correct the shortage, and to contribute to overall industrial growth as part of the first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), the Soviet government made a decision to establish and develop an indigenous, State-owned watch industry. On December 21st, 1927, the Council of Labor and Defense passed a resolution entitled “About How to Organize Watch Production in the USSR”. At the same time, an offer to buy an ailing American watch company, Dueber-Hampden, was received from the United States.
Gostrest Tochmeh continued producing watches until the beginning of the second Five-Year Plan in 1933, three years after the First and Second Watch Factories had been established. At this point, the Trust was dissolved.