April 12,1961. What a day! One of the most important days for the human race, the day when the first man reached the stars! And what an important day for the watch lovers! Hey, that man wore a WATCH on his wrist!
We all know who the man was, Jurij (Yuri) Gagarin of course. Even though we know almost everything about his flight, and we have a lot of pictures about him wearing a spacesuit, yet still we can only guess about the watch he was wearing during the flight to space.
For sure it was one of the Sturmanskie (which means Navigator in Russian) watches made in 1MCHZ (Pervij Moskovskij časovoj zavod - First Moscow watch company), later renamed to Poljot. But the problem remains, which version of this watch was it? Namely, there are two obvious possible candidates, and between watch collectors, there are a lot of pros and cons for both of them. It's not my intention to start this debate again, but nevertheless, for the readers who are not so familiar with these two watches, let us first spend a few lines and pictures about them.
First candidate is Sturmanskie with Pobeda base movement, but with central second instead of small second and with stop second complication. Movement has 15j. This watch is known as Sturmanskie Type 1 watch.
Type 1 has a very distinctive cone shaped crown, back plate is simple push/snap type, hands are straight with just a small pointer part at the end. Diameter of the watch is 33 mm, so it is a very small watch by today's standards.
The second one is later edition of the Sturmanskie watch, known as Type II, where the movement was upgraded to 17j. There are some obvious differences between Type 1 and Type 2, which are easily noticeable. Hands are more pointed and ends with the needle, crown is standard, backplate is screwed in, stamps on the movement are different. The size of the watch is the same - 33mm.
However, from the pictures of Gagarin with his watch on the wrist, these differences cannot be clearly detected. Since those watches were given as a reward to the pilots graduating pilot school and since Gagarin graduated when Type II was already in place, many think that Type II is THE ONE. But in the museum of technical achievements in Moscow, Type I was presented as THE ONE.
And now, let me reveal to you a less known fun fact. None of those two candidates are the right ones! The first watch in space was worn by the doll or by the little dog called Chernushka, on the last test flight, two months before Gagarin's flight. The doll was thrown out of the landing capsule and made a safe parachute landing while the dog stayed in the capsule and survived the landing inside of it. And so did the watch. Most probably the watch stated was just a simple Pobeda watch, probably made by 1MCHZ, but that is pure speculation (Pobeda watches were made by all major watch companies). So something similar to this watch here.
To conclude, Sturmanskie is just the first watch worn by the man in space and not the first watch in space in general.
The Soviet watch industry celebrated Gagarin and his flight intensively. His picture or pictures of different flight details were on numerous models of watches, 1MCHZ renamed it's name to Poljot (flight), PCHZ changed its name to Raketa (Rocket), CHCHZ renamed its name to Vostok (the name of the ship), so the entire nation was very proud on Gagarin's and the soviet space programs achievement. And yet, little or no attention was given to the watch itself. If you just think of Omega Moonwatch, all the marketing around it, different versions etc., Sturmanskie was on the other hand almost unknown and forgotten for a long time. Even worse! The Sturmanskie name was instead used for the series of Pilot's military 3133 chronographs, which are all well known to the USSR watch collectors. As far as I know, the first reissuing attempt of the Sturmanskie was done by Poljot only at the beginning of nineties. I call this watch the 30th anniversary watch, even though I have no proof that it was actually issued on that occasion. Since there were no Pobeda movements in production anymore, Poljot used 2609 hand winding movement, which of course has no stop-second complication. Diameter of this watch is 38mm. What is interesting, is that it is quite obviously that Type I watch was reissued!
But as you can see from the pictures, there is nothing specific on the watch that would imply this is the reissue of a Gagarin Sturmanskie. So this watch was not a big success at all. Ten years later Poljot approached the reissue differently. This time Poljot used Type II as a model for the reissue version (see hands shape, crown shape and the backplate is screwed in), the watch was again reduced to just 33mm, and on backplate there was clearly stated what this watch was all about: "Jurij Gagarin, First man in Space, 1961-2001" and "Poehali" (Let's go, famous Gagarin call when the launch started). And it was even set on a pilot type leather strap!
At the same time Poljot also issued a commemorative chronograph Sturmanskie Gagarin with 31681, but it is not important for our story of Gagarin watches.
As far as I know this reissue was not a huge success, the chronograph was much better accepted by the market. I guess that 33mm was simply a mistake for the year 2001 - that was already too small for normal wearing at that time. And there was another problem. Those two watches (chronograph and reissue) were practically the last watches launched by Poljot before the company got into bankruptcy. So there was no push in selling these watches. Poljot had other, much bigger problems at the time.
One of the successful successors of Poljot was a company Volmax, which took over the rights for the three Poljot watch lines - Buran, Aviator and Sturmanskie. At first, those names were really just three brand lines, but step by step those three lines developed into three separate watch companies of which Buran was the first which moved to Swiss, later same happened to Aviator, and nowadays, only Sturmanskie is still a Russian company. But in 2011, when the 50th anniversary was celebrated, Sturmanskie was still Volmax brand. And by 2011 another important thing happened - Ebay opened to the ex. eastern block of countries. The result was that Ebay was suddenly flooded by Ukrainian, Russian sellers, which offered tons of ex. USSR watches to the world. Sadly, most of them were "franken" watches. The Gagarin watch was one of the best targets for making a franken watch out of it! Interesting story for a good price, no reference to how the "real" watch should look like and tons of cheap materials and spare parts to make all kind of franken Gagarin watches. What helped Volmax is that all this Ebay hype around Gagarin watch raised a demand for reissue watches as well. So in 2011, Volmax issued 50th anniversary watch in three versions of the dial, three versions of Sturmanskie Gagarin chronograph, and Poljot International issued two different chronographs as well. All were sold out quickly.
Vomax edition of 2011 Gagarin watch is this watch:
It seems that they could not quite decide which watch should be the base for the reissue model. Hands are more Type II shaped while the crown is Type I shaped and backplate is again simple snap type. The design and text itself on the backplate is a direct copy from the Poljot's ten years ealier model.
The movement stayed the same, so Poljot 2609. The dimension was extended to 38mm, which made this watch very interesting for every day's use.
As said, dial was done in three colors. I bought the white one which is historically the closest to the original. Sorry, I don't own the other two versions, so I can't show them here.
However, Volmax did not stop here. Shortly after a quartz version was also issued, but it was not a "true" commemorative watch.
Please notice that "1MCHZ Kirova" is missing on the dial, replaced just by "Gagarin", the backplate does not refer to the 50th anniversary, but just refers to Gagrarin. The dimension goes to 40mm, and as you can see a simple Miyota quartz movement was used. The final decision to copy Type I is here clearly visible. Hands are now Type I as well, so does the crown have a slight cone shape. This watch was in fact the beginning of the "Gagarin Heritage" line of watches, which followed the 50th anniversary reissue watch. Soon after 2011 Volmax changed Sturmanskie to be a company and not just a brand. The "new" company decided to ride on success of Gagarin watch and in the last decade, a whole bunch of different Gagarin heritage watches were issued, with more or less historical correctness. I simply did not follow all combinations of dials, designs, backplates, movements, materials. We can find white, black, brown dials, steel, titanium, bronze cases, hand winding 2609 movement, quartz and even automatic watches with Vostok!! movement. And all kinds of combinations of this stated dials, cases, movements. Just for the feeling, this is my only "Heritage", which is a fabulous great looking watch, but hart breaking franken for purist - Sturmanskie with Vostok automatic movement:
As you can see, Type I is again the base model for this watch and in fact for the whole Heritage collection. Backplate is not just snapped in but screwed with four little screws. I would like to point out that the text on the backplate is changed significantly, now it is written "Pervie časi v kosmose", so "First watch in space"! As said in the beginning, this is historically incorrect. The Gagarin Heritage collection is therefore really a tribute to the Gagarin watch.
And here we are, 60 years have passed now. After all those celebration watches, after having the whole collection of all kind of heritage watches, I was very curios if Sturmanskie will issue a 60th anniversary watch at all and if yes, what can be different from what has been already seen.
And the answer is, YES, they issued special 60th anniversary watch. To be quite precise, they issued two watches - a titanium case version and a bronze case version, both with the best materials for the case that Sturmanskie has and uses also in the higher end of the standard Heritage line. So, nothing new here. The movement is again Poljot 2609, so nothing new here either. But, the 60th anniversary edition watches are VERY limited editions. Both versions of the watches are issued in just 60 pieces, so 120 watches all together. I think that it is quite obvious why the number is limited to 60 pieces, right? I bought the bronze version watch:
Disappointed? Nothing special? First impression is for sure exactly like that. Well, be patient.
Let us start with the dial which is not just any dial, it is made of pure 925 sterling silver. If you check carefully, the serial number is printed on the dial and not just on the backplate. You must admit that an individually numbered silver dial is something special, right?
As you can see, the backplate is different, Gagarin picture is PVD plated, as is the pin buckle on the original strap. Sign on the backplate says again "First WATCH in space, 1961-2021, 60 years of the Vostok-1 flight". So the sign is dedicated to 60 years and is not just standard. But at least that is something that could be expected.
Hands and dial are Type 1 shaped, there is some fluorescent luminova on it which is quite poor, hardly worth mentioning. Forgot to mention - 50th anniversary has a great luminova, so does the quartz version, while the automatic is in this respect the same as this one.
Movement is again hand winding Poljot 2609 movement, so no excitements here either. What really is exceptional here is the huge box (27x22x16 cm without handle bars), better say suitcase, with several additions.
You receive an additional leather strap with a steel buckle. I really can't understand, if the company puts so much effort into packaging and exclusivity, why can't it just take care of tiny details such as matching pin buckles. Is it so hard to add a bronze buckle on both straps as well? Or at least adequate color of gilded ones? The steel buckle just doesn't feel right here.
You also receive a tool for changing straps (lugs are standard ones, so standard lug remover..). Instead of that I would rather suggest lugs which can be removed with the nail. If you expect your buyer will change straps often, than that is far better option. With this lug remover, just a small carelessness can cause scratches on the case. But, OK. No big deal here.
The most attractive and different thing is the Vostok 1 model. An interesting, yet, to be quite honest, unpractical gift, I have no idea what to do with it. But it fits nice into the entire package and to the the story of this watch. And that is what we are buying here, right? The story.
Watch with its 40mm fits on the wrist very nicely. What I like is the big dial due to no bezel construction and that it gives a bigger look of the watch on the wrist. The strap is extremely soft, excellent. As said on the original one there is a gilded pin buckle. But as pointed out before, all this has been seen already in the latest models of Heritage line, so no excitements here for someone who is familiar with the Heritage collection. Saying that, that is not a negative critic to this watch, it is a compliment to the entire collection!
Since the entire Heritage line is based on Type 1, so is this watch. I am sorry that Sturmanskie did not put some additional effort to the design of this commemorative version by adding some more recognizable Type 1 (or Type 2) features. For example, more distinctive cone shaped crown would be a great touch.
I can't say cone is not present, it is just not as dominant as it should be. Then, putting some stop second movement would be prestigious. Hacking the second hand is one of the most recognizable things on the Gagarin watch. Putting refurbished original pobeda movement with stop second complication would be priceless! Am I asking too much? I know that those movements are not in production for a long time, but I am quite confident it is not hard to find 120 old watches with this movement on the market (it is hard to find Sturmanske watches, but the same movement was used by the civil version watch called Sportivnie and those watches are easy to get), refurbish those movements and put them into the watch. Ask Ukrainian franken masters! They do that on a daily basis for a living!
What about the price? Titanium version costs around 1000 EUR, bronze 1200 EUR. This is the price range which is less than twice as high as the price of an adequate versions of the standard Heritage line watches (bronze watch with 2609 goes up to 800 EUR, standard titan to 500 EUR). Well, in my opinion that is a reasonable difference. All exclusivity in dial, box, packaging, limited edition, etc. deserves this. Of course the big question is if the standard Heritage line is not too expensive, and the market gives a quite straight answer - NO. Gagarin Heritage is a very successful line.
So, to conclude. All in all, this is a very interesting, well designed watch with attractive package and a reasonable price. The best Gagarin anniversary watch for sure!
And just to get the full impression, here are all watches presented in this article together: