A watch factory or a Russian diary?

A watch factory or a Russian diary?

For almost 300 years, the Petrodvorets Watch Factory has been creating mechanical wonders and chronicling the history of the Russian people

By Keith Perena

Published: Fri 16 Aug 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 23 Aug 2019, 11:19 AM

The sun shone behind the spire of the main building of the Petrodvorets Watch Factory in St. Petersburg's Peterhof district. Before I stepped inside to inquire about the location of the museum in my tourist Russian, I took in the scale of the building - being magnified by a 2pm sun. Ducks could be heard in the pond adjacent to the factory. Suffice to say, Peter the Great knew a thing or two about locations when he chose this spot to erect a place where watchmakers could work in peace.
The Peterhof district is an hour-long bus tour from St. Petersburg. The area is named after the massive palace grounds that carry the same name. According to the locals, Peter the Great had the palace commissioned as a direct response to the Versailles in France. His gamble paid off and now the Peterhof Palace is also called the "Russian Versailles". A short walk from the palace is another structure commissioned by the Russian ruler.
Built in 1721, the Petrodvorets Watch Factory first began life as a lapidary - creating luxury goods using amber and other precious materials. The factory, which was called the Imperial Peterhof Factory back in the day, also helped build Peter I's vision for a capital city - St. Petersburg. In 1871, the factory produced marble for St. Isaac's Cathedral as well as the palatial fountains nearby. Their work was renowned outside of the city as the factory also took part in building the stars atop the Moscow Kremlin in 1934.
"The factory began creating watches in 1938 when we produced rubies to be used for movements," Ekaterina, the factory's guide said. Nowadays, they host free tours around its facilities to those who express interest in horology. I don't claim to be a watch expert but seeing how the complexities of a mechanical watch is made is highly satisfying to me. In the main hall is the factory's entire history - from 1721 all the way to now. What is interesting to note is how the Petrodvorets remained ever-present in almost every major event in Russia's long history.
During the war, Ekaterina narrates how some of the workers were sent to the front to combat the Nazi threat. The factory was moved elsewhere and helped in the war effort. It was also during this time that the factory gained another skill - building precision instruments for the armed forces' machinery.
This newfound skill was put to the test when the factory was tasked with creating the Pobeda brand of watches. Pobeda, which means 'victory', was ordered by the Kremlin as a way for every Russian citizen to have a timepiece. "The brand was extremely popular in the erstwhile Soviet Union; everyone had a Pobeda," notes Ekaterina. But the factory's greatest work was yet to come.
As I write this, I remember the thousands of online articles and YouTube videos I've watched about watches. One thing I've learned is that every watch (and brand) has a story. For example, an Omega was the first watch on the Moon; a Rolex was the first watch to conquer Mt. Everest and Raketa was created to celebrate a very special day in history - when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to venture into space.
Created in 1961, these watches use in-house movements that the factory has been creating for hundreds of years. The Raketa movement, which was shown as part of the tour, contains over 1,000 moving parts that the factory makes. This includes two vital components - the balance and the hairspring, which is the heart of a mechanical watch. It regulates the watch's timekeeping and also produces that ticking sound we often hear.
"We show the blueprints as part of the tour because we are confident that nobody can replicate the movement. It takes an extremely skilled watchmaker to make it," mentions Ekaterina, as she takes our group inside the factory's machine shop where blueprints are strewn about. She even urged our group to take photos.
Apart from spaceflight, the factory has also built watches that highlight multiple aspects of Russian culture, such as polar exploration, sports, ballet, and even high fashion when supermodel Natalia Vodianova designed her line of Raketas for women. In 2017, the factory went back to its roots and released a watch designed by Sergei Krikalev, one of the three astronauts who has recorded the most time in space. His record? 803 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes.
The machine shop had a utilitarian look. It didn't pretend to be anything other than that. Machines dating back to the 1960s stood alongside their modern, computerised counterparts. On either side of the wall were posters showing the factory in its heyday - young men and women learning the fine art of creating a watch. Beyond the machine shop is a quieter part of the factory. Behind a window sat a group of watchmakers. They made no noise as they dove their heads into their desks and assembled watches by hand. According to our guide, we can only view them from the window because their job involves absolute concentration and any kind of disturbance could spell doom for a watch's movement. I felt a kind of peace knowing that there was a human face behind the device that helps me keep track of time.
The assembly room was the final stop before we headed back to the main hall. It was here that Ekaterina mentioned one last fact about the factory. She brought our attention to the portraits on the right wall. These were the people who kept the factory going when they were having a rough patch during the war, she said. "Some of their great grandkids still work with us and continue the art of watchmaking," she added. I looked at the portraits. They'd all received commendations for their hard work and it made me smile knowing that the latest generation in their families is keeping the passion alive. As I glanced at my Pobeda, I again looked back towards the portraits and became proud of my Dh600 watch. Every time I wear it, I feel like I am part of a 300-year diary.

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