Soviet Retro-Cool: A French Aristocrat’s Crusade to Save Russian Fashion

Beware of expensive imitations

In the six years von Polier has worked as Raketa’s creative director, the price of a Raketa watch has increased a hundredfold. Today, the average price of his wristwatches is an eyewatering 80,000 rubles ($1400). Twenty five years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union, you could pick up a Raketa for a few dollars on the streets of Moscow.

Although the company’s factory was founded outside St Petersburg in 1721 by decree of Peter the Great, the brand Raketa was only launched in 1961 to commemorate Yury Gagarin’s first flight into space.

At its height, the Soviet watch industry was considered to be one of the world’s best. Apart from Raketa there were a dozen other factories producing mechanical watches nationwide. In the 1980s, production had reached the millions.

“Brands like Poljot, Raketa and Vostok advertised Soviet technical prowess,” says Bob MacGregor, a collector of Russian watches. “They produced state-of-the-art mechanical watches, which were crucial for military officers, pilots and cosmonauts.”

Abroad, Soviet watches earned a reputation for being cheap and reliable military watches. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the factories also went out of business. Many of the defunct brands like Poljot have since become cherished collectors’ items. Only Raketa and Vostok—a brand known for making watches for military divers—actually survived in their entirety.

Raketa has also struggled through perpetual crises, passing from one private owner to another for 20 years. It was on the verge of collapse when von Polier intervened in 2009. Since then, economic difficulties have never been far away. The Frenchman declined to elaborate on the company’s revenue streams, but said sales had “grown 80% since 2009” and the company “hopes to break even in two years.”

The Frenchman, whose business card lists positions of both Chairman of the Board and Head of Design and Propaganda, admits that the decision to buy Raketa was driven by “romantic” reasons. He thought of it as more of a hobby than a full-time job. “Very quickly we realized this was going to take a lot of work, and were faced with a choice: go all-in, or close the factory.”

Vostok has fared only a little better financially. According to the latest available figures, the company claims to produce 15,000 watches per month. But the profit margins are tiny. In an interview given to a regional publication last year, company directors, Ivan Grachev revealed turnover of 63 million rubles ($1.1 million) and margins of 5 percent.

One Vostok watch, the Amphibia, however, has become something of a cult icon internationally, and appeared prominently in a Wes Anderson film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In the film, Bill Murray’s character wears a black Amphibia. Raketa’s own credits include the recent spy film The Man From UNCLE. A Russian spy “kills a lot of people for his Raketa,” von Polier is keen to point out.

Overall, however, Russian watch collectors tend to prefer Vostok watches, says MacGregor. They are “more authentic,” he says—and, priced at 6,000 rubles [U.S. $105], a lot cheaper too.

“Raketa is the Porsche of modern Russian watches,” MacGregor says. “Vostoks on the other hand are workhorses with a storied heritage—unchanged for decades, and priced for the modern proletariat.”