1917 - 1930
This narrative does not investigate the Imperial Russian period.
When the Soviet Union came into existence after 1917 it did not inherit a watchmaking industry.
Up to then almost all watches and clocks were imported.
After the upheaval of the revolution and civil war, the remains of the Kahn, Buhre and Moser watch businesses together with the remnants of other watch enterprises and workshops, came under the umbrella of various bodies. Importantly, it eventually became the responsibility of the “State Trust of Precision Mechanics” Гострест Точмех (English; Gostrest Tochmekh). Gostrest Tochmekh was the consortium that dealt with precise mechanics and the name is a shortened version of Gosudarstvennyy Trest Tochnoy Mekhaniki. According to the Russian State Archive of the Economy, RGAE, it was established in 1920, during the civil war period, as Glavtochmekh (Chief Administration) and became Gostrest Tochmekh in 1922 after the civil war under the direction of Andrei Mikhaylovich Bodrov (see bio Page 2).
Slava history records that at the start of Stalins 1st Five Year Plan, in 1928, Tochmekh absorbed the troubled Moscow Electro Mechanical Plant (MÈMZ) which was housed in a renovated stone building at Tverskoy Zastavy, Moscow. Initially the factory employed around 125 production workers, who were mainly engaged in the custom manufacture of telegraphic equipment, radios, projectors, as well as repairing the electromechanical timers used to control Moscow’s trams. In November 1930 it became the 2nd State Watch Factory 2ГЧЗ or in English 2GCHZ (later 2nd Moscow Watch Factory, 2MCHZ - then Slava - Cлава meaning Glory), to distinguish it from the newly created 1st State Watch Factory 1ГЧЗ or in English 1GCHZ. Gostrest Tochmekh would eventually be dissolved at the beginning of the 2nd Five Year Plan in 1933, three years after 1 and 2GCHZ were established.
Tsentrochasy 1923: The first attempt to set up watch making.
As early as March 1923 the Soviet trade mission in Berlin, reported that the People’s Commissar of Foreign Trade, Leonid Krasin, had been made, by representatives of five minor Swiss watch companies, a proposal to form a mixed company “for import into Russia of pocket watches and wristwatches”. However, the Supreme Economic Council “cut the project in the bud”. It said that all those firms were producers of low-quality watches and, since the war, had accumulated large reserves of watches of “worthless quality” which they intend to sell in Russia because of the lack of demand for them in other countries. At the same time Soviet representatives in Berlin were in talks with major Swiss watchmakers, including Moser, Nardin, Doxa, Tissot, Omega, Longines and Zenith. Moscow even sanctioned the formation of joint stock company ‘Tsentrochasy’ with these companies. Under the terms of the preliminary agreement, the Soviet Union received 49% of the shares, whilst the remaining were divided proportionately between the Swiss firms. It was assumed that in exchange for the right to import watches (up to 400 thousand units per year). These firms would help establish Soviet production of alarms, high quality clocks, wall and desktop clocks. A factory was to be built and equipped, the workers would be trained for three years and by the fourth year production would reach full capacity.
Then in Lausanne Switzerland, in May 1923 a Russian exile assassinated the Soviet ambassador to Italy. A Swiss court acquitted the assassin causing relations between the countries to become hopelessly corrupted. In June the Central Executive Committee and the People’s Commissars issued a joint resolution to boycott Swiss companies. The Soviet representatives in Berlin specifically asked Moscow whether the boycott applied to the Tsentrochasah negotiations. They responded that further negotiations should be conducted only with German watch companies. But nothing came of the these latter negotiations.
The Stalin era begins
Lenin died of a stroke on January 21, 1924. His participation in, and influence on, these events are negligible. Upon his death, Joseph Stalin was officially hailed as his successor as the leader of the ruling Communist Party and of the Soviet Union itself. By April of the same year he replaced Lenin’s ‘New Economic Policy’ with his highly centralised ‘Command Economy’ which heralded in both industrialisation and collectivisation resulting in the Soviet Union moving quickly from a predominantly agrarian society into an industrial power. In horological terms this was opportune as within two years the warehouses had been depleted of all the imported watchmaking stock. Tochmekh relied upon this stock to feed the ever increasing demand for timepieces, of all sorts. To supply their network of co-operative workshops (Artels Aрте́ль), Tochmekh had had to import whatever components they could acquire on the international market, finishing the timepieces with internally manufactured parts and “Гострест Точмех” signed dials. This chaotic, unsystematic production continued into the early 1930’s and was supplemented throughout the 1920’s by timepieces imported, in some quantities, from Switzerland and Germany. The country’s ndustrialisation, development of transport, raising of the cultural level within the population, together with the needs of the Red Army and Navy all increased the demand for watches.
In 1926, Heinrich Kann, the prominent pre-revolutionary specialist watchmaker, wrote in his book, A Brief History of Watchmaking. “It’s time to shake things up and we understand that and we can get in the way of serious competition from abroad in watchmaking. However, we must not ignore the fact that at present time the production equipment abroad stands at a height that would have required significant efforts in order to catch up in this respect abroad. We are late in the industry and strong late, but it is not hopeless, because on our side the advantage, as the vastness of the internal market. The current consumption of our watches and all kinds of movements is negligible compared to the immediate future, since we only embark on a path of intensive development of our material culture. Our people can not be denied in the innate abilities and talents needed for
planning and development of such a fine production, like clockwork. Our craftsmen are not enough good watchmakers, it should only support them in terms of providing them with modern means of production and the necessary materials. State Trust Precision Mechanics should be, first and foremost, serve the watchmakers and meet their immediate needs, supplying them watch supplies, without which it is impossible repair hours. Currently, it is the most essential task.“
So on the 30th of December 1927 the Labor and Defence Council published a decree that charged the Supreme Council of the Peoples Economy to establish watch and clock factories from scratch. The factories were to be in line with those in Switzerland and the USA and with this in mind Bodrov planned to send engineers abroad to report on foreign production. In March 1928 the then Chief Engineer of the Moscow Electromechanical Plant (MÈMZ) Mikhail Fedorovich Izmalkov was sent into Germany to study the production of wall and alarm clocks. After returning from the trip, Izmalkov proposed a plan for accelerating Soviet watch manufacture by acquiring turn-key plants; machines, patterns and tools. But on March 20, 1928 the Trust of Precision Mechanics receives the outline of an alternative proposal from watchmaker V. O. "Wolf" Pruss (see bio Page 2). Unlike Izmalkova, Pruss proposes to deploy the construction of Soviet based assembly workshops, followed by the gradual purchase of state-of-the-art Swiss and German watchmaking equipment, together with the commissioning of factory shops and departments. All to be financed from the profit from the sale of watches, assembled from imported components. Pruss noted that “in 2 to 3 years plant and equipment would require several years to complete, whilst the timepiece hungry country we will be in full swing with complete production of watches”. He proposed to “properly organise” the school of watchmaking for Tochmekh, as he believed the existing school was completely inadequate for the preparation of skilled watchmakers. He went on “if we immediately get down to business, by August of the same year, our products will be ready for the consumer”. Pruss also presented workshops scheme to build 500 watches per day using 98 workers. Pruss did in fact establish and for a short period run the MONO (Moscow Department of Education) training facility, which trained teenagers in the watchmaking arts. A high proportion of the students were destitute street children many of whom were female.
In September 1929 the People’s Commissariat transferred the MONO organisation to Tochmekh and Pruss was reduced to the role of “General Consultant”. By 1937 he was working at the 4th office of Ministry of Defence Industry.
No doubt there was a need to make preparations in time for the start of Stalin’s First Five Year Plan. In April 1928 the management of Tochmekh adopted Izmalkov’s approach and by October 1928 had set up an 11 man commission to look into purchasing the necessary equipment from Europe or America. Bodrov and Sarkine from the Trust, together with Professor Zavadsky, Wolf Pruss, Alexander Breytburt (see bio Page 2), Percy Dreyer, Chief Mechanic of MEMZ I.V. Surin and four others made up the commission. The commission planned to visit Germany, Austria, France, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland. The Swiss refused to let the commission enter the country, which may have been the result of a breakdown in earlier negotiations after the Tsentrochasy episode. However, at this time none of the European watch companies would agree to collaborate with the USSR. The Soviets believed this was because the Europeans, especially Germany, had large stocks of unsold watches and wanted to have unrestricted access to the Soviet market. Overall this failure was not such a great disappointment because such collaboration did not sit well ideologically, it did not fulfil the Soviet ideal of a selfsufficient industry.
The commission was then sent into America where they visited around 21 precision engineering plants, including 8 watch factories. At the beginning of 1929 at a meeting with the Amtorg Trading Corp., which had located the factories and planned the US visit, Andrey Bodrov reported that “the manufacture of watches in America was at a considerably higher level than Europe. In contrast to the half-amateur European method of production, America was almost fully automated”. Bodrov proposed to purchase America equipment for the production of watches. He recognised the equipment was old and is recorded as saying, “Staff are inexperienced, and could do a lot of damage, with new machines. They will learn better on old, ones and they will need to be gradually replaced by new ones. It is better to have something, than to have nothing. We are not rich enough to immediately go to new expensive suits while hiking and threadbare”. However, he was concerned in case Moscow would say they had “purchased junk”. Certainly if compared with the latest Swiss, German, or French, equipment it was outdated. Wolf Pruss, again, argued strongly that the new enterprise should be started using only the most modern equipment. He himself had worked in the best Swiss factories and was probably the most advanced native Soviet watchmaker at that time. Pruss was not a Bolshevik, simply a man with a social conscience who wanted to help his countrymen learn to make fine watches.
The old MÈMZ plant.
Paul Buhre's pre-revolution shop.
Gostrest Tochmekh's post-revolution shop.
1927 Council of Labour and Defence directive. English courtesy Alexey Kobtsev).
1928 Tochmekh Commission of 11 (English courtesy Yandex).