n 2010, I took a plane to St. Petersburg. It was the first time I’d ever visited a watch factory. There were about twenty little old men there, the windows were broken, it was freezing cold… I picked up the watches. They were going tick-tock. And I said to myself that with new designs, it would work,” recounts David Henderson-Stewart. Before adding: “If I’d been a specialist, I would never have got involved. It was all much more complicated than I’d imagined”.
Founded in 1961 in honour of the space exploits of Yuri Gargarin (Raketa means “space rocket” in Russian), the large watchmaking factory from the period of Soviet centralisation, which produced millions of timepieces a year and employed thousands of workers, had shrunk to a tiny brand producing $100 souvenir watches for Western tourists in search of Soviet “memorabilia”. But in actual fact, its history dates back much further than the Soviet era. It is the heir to the former Imperial Peterhof Factory, founded in 1721 by the Czar Peter the Great.
- In 1967, Europa Star visited the Soviet watchmaking stand at Expo 67 in Montréal. This was the first time Raketa was mentioned in Europe Star, just a few years after the creation of the brand.
Creating the first Russian luxury brand
David Henderson-Stewart, a young Franco-British entrepreneur (with Russian origins) living in Moscow, knew nothing about watchmaking, but was convinced his project – to relaunch an important, truly Russian luxury brand for a market that buys mainly foreign high-end goods – was valid. It was rather by chance that he chose Raketa to realise his idea of a Russian luxury brand: browsing watch blogs, he noticed that Soviet watches had an international audience of enthusiasts. It seemed like a good starting point.
At that period, the great names in Soviet watchmaking, such as the Moscow factories of Poljot and Slava, had disappeared. As for Vostok, it had refocused on Europe under the name of Vostok Europe. Only Raketa, the St. Petersburg-based company, had really survived – or, rather, was just scraping out an existence … After the fall of the Soviet regime, this public infrastructure had been privatised, like most of what was left of Soviet Russia. Not for its watchmaking heritage, which was quickly abandoned, but for its vast real-estate legacy, ideally situated on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.
- An analysis of the Russian watch market was published in Europa Star in 1992, and the outlook was bleak. Most Soviet factories did not survive the fall of the regime. Raketa is one of the rare exceptions.
Out of some fifty production lines for Raketa (including that for hairsprings), just one had been saved by a small, determined core of ageing employees. It was these that David Henderson-Stewart encountered in 2010. With a small group of investors, including the Russian-born French designer Jacques von Polier, he bought up the brand and the infrastructure. Fortunately, in addition to the employees’ know-how and the handful of remaining machines, all the archives and all the designs – all Raketa’s “grey matter” – had been conserved. It was on this basis that the company was able to be rebuilt.
Russian to the hilt
Rebuilding took place around one key idea: unlike numerous contemporary watchmakers who were trying to pass themselves off as more Swiss than the Swiss despite being thousands of kilometres from the Jura region, Raketa set out to be Russian to the hilt. The designs, exotic, no doubt, when judged according to traditional watchmaking canons, were taken directly from the vast catalogue dating from the brand’s golden age. The in-house movements were retained and modernised. The name Raketa, like the original appellation, is written in Cyrillic on the dial. There is no mistaking it! What’s more, a descendent of the Romanov dynasty sits on its board of directors (as does the French adventurer and writer, Sylvain Tesson). A “niche” position perhaps, but a strategy it fully embraces and proclaims.
- David Henderson-Stewart, managing director of Raketa
As fans of Swiss watches, the Russian customers were without a doubt the hardest to persuade as to the merits of this strategy: “During the first six months after our new products went on sale, in 2011, no shop in Russia would take them, even on consignment,” recounts David Henderson-Stewart.
But the greatest challenge was building a new, younger team to ensure that the know-how of the original Raketa employees was passed on. The watchmaking profession is not held in particular esteem in the country. Some new employees, after four years of training, finally decided to leave the company to become taxi drivers, which was better paid… To make up for this shortage of labour, Raketa decided to create its own watchmaking school.
- With the designer Jacques von Polier, David Henderson-Stewart and a group of investors took over Raketa in 2010. We interviewed Jacques von Polier in this 2012 edition of Europa Star, just after the takeover.
By sheer determination, the brand nevertheless succeeded in making a place for itself in a growing number of sales outlets in the country. Today, it has three proprietary boutiques and around one hundred employees are busy putting the factory in St. Petersburg back on its feet. In certain outlets in Russia, Raketa models are now displayed side by side with Omega, Breitling and Girard-Perregaux –a source of pride for David Henderson-Stewart: “Since Fabergé, this has to be the first time a Russian brand is sitting alongside these luxury companies”.
When the entrepreneur announced to his friends in Switzerland that he’d taken over an entire factory, many found it hard to believe. Every new product from Raketa, the average price of which is currently around €1,200, is based on a Soviet model, the designs of which have been saved. No doubt the best-known feature of Soviet watchmaking is the “Big Zero” that replaces the conventional 12 at noon. It can be found on all Raketa models.
- The Avant-Garde model from Raketa, with its characteristic triangular hand.
With Raketa, you enter a different watchmaking world, which grew up independently without reproducing western canons. And it holds numerous surprises. For example, the Russian Code model, equipped with a complication allowing the hands to turn “backwards” (to follow the natural movement of the planets in the solar system); or the round hands of the Copernic model – or again, the triangular hands of the Avant-Garde line.
David Henderson-Stewart: “If we had adopted the same codes as all the foreign brands, we would have lost. We have to be proud of our uniqueness”. The latest model launched by Raketa, a re-edition of the Polar watch from the Soviet era, is equipped with the first Russian 24h movement specifically created for a Polar expedition to the Antarctic. “A highly sought-after watch online, but so far very rare, because only a few watches were made,” says David Henderson-Stewart. “We’re relaunching 200 copies.”
- The Russian Code model from Raketa. Spot the peculiarity.
The work to win over Russian customers goes on, in the face of the still-prevailing attractiveness of foreign brands. But precisely: will Raketa come out on top at this time of forced reliance on our own resources, which will no doubt boost domestic purchases?
David Henderson-Stewart does not want to enclose the brand in a purely “national” rationale. Just the opposite. Raketa now intends to further internationalise its sales. Eighteen months ago, it set up a subsidiary in the European Union. France is the number one foreign market for Raketa, albeit still a modest one, with three sales outlets. First and foremost, the company intends to capitalise on the online community of Soviet watch enthusiasts to galvanise its e-commerce site. Today, Raketa’s largest online customer bases are located in France, Switzerland, the UK and North America.
- The Polar model, a re-edition of a model used during a Soviet expedition to Antarctica.
“They’re customers who know about watches and understand the value of a watch with an in-house movement and a unique history,” underscores the entrepreneur. First a mass-produced watch, then a souvenir watch, then modernised, Raketa now intends to carve out its own, assumed, unique place in the new, digital, global watchmaking community.
Europa Star intended to go to St. Petersburg in early March to visit Raketa. The pandemic made that impossible. We hope to be able to go there soon.