Twenty square metres
We’re a long way from the expanses of retail space traditionally occupied by luxury watch brands, but this is all part of Raketa’s philosophy. “As soon as we have ten euros to spare, we prefer to invest them in a machine rather than spend them on marketing. We don’t have the means to rent 200 square metres, but these 20 square metres on Tverskaya are ideally located,” says Jacques von Polier, joint shareholder in Raketa and head of propaganda for the brand, as he likes to call himself.
Until now, Raketa retailed its watches through multibrand stores – a winning strategy as sales have increased by an average of 70% a year since 2010, but not an entirely satisfactory one. “We didn’t feel at home,” von Polier confesses. He’s delighted he can now apply his favourite themes to the new store. “For the opening, we’re showcasing a Russian Ballet theme. There’ll be a new one every two or three months. We want to make ourselves part of the brand’s history.”
From stone-cutting to watchmaking
This is a prestigious history, as the different components for Raketa watches are still made at the Petrodvorets factory in Saint Petersburg. Founded by Peter the Great in 1721, it is Russia’s oldest factory. It started out as a lapidary works, carving precious stones. Under the Soviet Union, it became the foremost supplier of precision-cut stones for the watch industry and the military. After 1946, Pobeda watches celebrating victory over Nazi Germany (“pobeda” means “victory” in Russian) were assembled there. The first watches to be actually manufactured on the site followed in 1949. The first to bear the Raketa name (Russian for “rocket”) were produced there in 1961 in honour of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Production, which was intended for the Soviet population, grew to include versions for soldiers in the Red Army; polar explorers and submarine fleets were even issued with a 24-hour model. And then the Soviet Union collapsed, causing a similar collapse in production throughout the 1990s. The factory whose reliable, robust timepieces had once been the pride of a nation was on the brink of bankruptcy when it was taken over in 2009 by Jacques von Polier and his business partner David Henderson-Stewart. Raketa sealed the deal as one of the few watch firms producing its movements from A to Z, balance springs and escapements included.
“Under the Soviet Union, there was no real international recognition of the brand, despite the fact it equipped fighter pilots and submariners,” von Polier recalls. However, rather than embark on ruinous marketing campaigns to build an image, Raketa is concentrating on its fundamentals: Russia and what made the glory of the Soviet Union. The brand’s many and varied design team includes supermodel Natalia Vodianova, Sergei Krikalev – the spaceflight veteran who has totalled 803 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes in space –, Bolshoi principal dancer Artem Ovcharenko, and Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica who contributed to a design, released earlier this year, to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the Russian avant-garde.
Russian economy returns to growth
These past couple of years, Raketa’s sales have also been buoyed by commissioned pieces. Aircraft companies Sukhoi and Tupolev, for example, have ordered watches for certain employees – designs that were also made available to the public, whereas those produced for various Russian and Western state bodies were never on the open market. And on the subject of markets, the Russian economy is showing signs of improvement after a run of dismal years. In May, industrial production recorded a 5.6% year-on-year increase; the biggest since 2012. Also in May, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) revised its GDP growth forecast for Russia from 1.1% to 1.4%.
These figures, it would appear, are reflected in the luxury market (Raketa’s most expensive watch retails at around CHF 13,000). In rubles, sales of luxury goods climbed 8% in 2016 while this year the increase is expected to be closer to 11%. “A lot of people feel they need to show they are doing well both in business and in their personal life. This is driving conspicuous consumption and making lifestyle more important,” notes Daria Iadernaia, managing director of fashion consultancy Y Consulting. No doubt watchmaking will benefit from this upturn. And, with enough customers, Jacques von Polier calculates that Raketa should break even within eighteen months.