Modern mechanical wristwatches are something of an oddity. Nobody really needs them, yet people buy them at exorbitant prices, which sometimes make them by far the most expensive thing a man (or sometimes even a woman) wears on a daily basis. Granted, this is often the case with jewelry and luxury accessories made of precious materials. However, many of these curious mechanical contraptions with hefty price tags come cased in humble steel, with most of the value allegedly stemming from their superb functional characteristics—the very same that, ironically, are pretty much obsolete in this day and age.
To somehow alleviate, if not resolve, this cognitive dissonance, watchmakers and collectors prefer to think of their ticking treasures as links with important and fascinating events of the past, as well as the present. And the history of space exploration is an ideal domain for supplying the watchmaking narrative with vivid imagery and a heightened sense of relevance. After all, isn’t it tempting to have on your wrist something closely related to a rocket man’s tool?
The history of wristwatches in space, as opposed to other timekeeping devices that may have been used on earlier unmanned missions, has to begin with the historic flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who, on April 12, 1961, became the first human to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and orbit our planet. While on board the Vostok 1, Gagarin was wearing a mechanical watch (cheaper and much more accurate quartz watches did not become ubiquitous until the 1970s). Most experts agree that gracing his wrist was a Shturmanskie timepiece manufactured by the First Moscow Watch Factory, which was later renamed Poljot (“Flight”). The watch, a special model intended exclusively for pilots and not available to the general public, was based on a movement design by the French watchmaker Lip.
This settles the question of the first extraterrestrial wristwatch—or does it? The St. Petersburg-based Petrodvorets Watch Factory, perhaps the only watchmaking company in Russia that still manufactures timepieces with Russian movements on a large scale, has recently begun marketing its line of Pobeda watches, first released to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany, under the tagline “The First Watch in Space.” It’s not that they claim Gagarin was wearing one of their products; rather, they refer to a curious incident with a somewhat legendary status.
Gagarin may have been the first human in space, but he was certainly not the first animate being. A multitude of spacecraft with dogs and other animals on board had been launched prior to Gagarin’s flight. A mongrel named Chernushka orbited the Earth and successfully came back on March 9, 1961. According to a couple of sources, the dog had a Pobeda watch strapped to its paw by Abram Genin, an employee of the Institute of Aviation and Space Medicine. He told the story of this watch in a 1989 interview conducted by the Smithsonian Institution, which is cited by Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs, the authors of the book titled Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle.
The late 1950s and the early 1960s must have been a thrilling time for Soviet rocket scientists, who were racing against time to beat the Americans to space. Who knows what was going through their heads and how likely they really were to equip cosmonaut dogs with their personal timepieces. If the story is true, you can easily afford a direct descendant of the first watch in space legitimately manufactured by the very same factory. The Shturmanskie’s fate was much less fortunate because the Poljot basically disintegrated with much of the Soviet watchmaking industry, and the Shturmanskie brand currently belongs to a different entity.