Stop what you’re doing (reading this, I assume), run over to ebay and search Raketa… Back? Chances are you just got lost in a weird alternate universe of Russian mechanical watches from the 60’s to the 90’s. 24-hour dials, strange graphics, Cyrillic bezels and, of course, remarkable prices are some of what you’ll find on that search. In fact, I run that search quite often as you never know what weird and interesting designs you’ll find. Not only are they often unique, they are quite inspiring from a graphic standpoint. For a brief history of the brand, I recommend watching this video: History of Russian Watch Factory part 1 & part 2
One watch that I found that I just couldn’t get out of my head was the Big Zero (check out our Pairs Well With too), which according to Raketa’s website, this or a similar watch was known to be worn my Mikhail Gorbachev during the 80’s. Sure, there are stranger and more unique Raketas out there, such as the Copernicus, but something about this watch just appealed to my design sensibilities. So after weeks of debating and searching for one in condition that pleased me, I lucked out and got an NOS model with original packaging, papers and strap…for $65.
Dating likely from the early to mid 80’s, the Raketa Big Zero is a bold watch that does a lot with very little. Featuring a 38.5 x 40 x 11mm barrel shaped polished steel case and box crystal, the Big Zero is small by today’s standards. Yet, the stark black and white dial is striking, giving it the presence of watch much larger. The dial itself measures about 34mm and is clean white. Clearly, what sets this watch apart is the dramatic index design. Massive numerals for 3, 6, 9 and 0 dominate the dial. Between each numeral are two long narrow triangles, giving the watch a toothed appearance.
The strange thing about it is that it works. The huge numbers, though clearly oversized, are in harmony with the dial and case. The end result is bold, almost brutal, but fun. Part of what makes it work is that despite the size of the markings, they aren’t very sharp or harsh. A close look and you’ll see that there is something irregular about them, the lines are slightly wavy, the rounded corners are a little lop-sided and the strokes of the numerals vary in thickness. Basically, it looks hand painted. That’s not to say the printing isn’t crisp or is poorly done; rather you can see the hand, literally, of the graphic designer in the marks. It’s entirely possible that the design was a photo-emulsion screen print that started with a drawing.
The NOS 18mm strap that came with the watch is about as plasticky as leather can be, but has one very cool element, CCCP debossed into the buckle side, just by the lug. Wearing the watch on this strap isn’t terribly comfortable, but it does enhance the graphic qualities of the design. Since there is something inherently military looking about the watch as well, likely do to some shared elements with aviator watches, I normally wear the watch on a green Crown&Buckle 18mm Phalanx. This canvas strap is vastly more comfortable, and though less graphic compliments the dial design nicely.
Inside of the Big Zero is the Raketa 2609.HA, a 17 or 19 jewel hand-wound movement with a frequency of 18,000bph. Popping the case back, you can see the no nonsense design. This is a cheap movement, though despite its age seems to run well. I do experience occasional losses of time with it…like, a few minutes here and there, but I assume that is something that servicing would fix. Given the $65 price of the watch to begin with, I can live with the inaccuracy for now.
The original packaging of the watch is pretty awesome. The box is a typical long and narrow cardboard box, but it’s solid red with gold foil print. Inside on the bottom half, a polishing cloth has been glued down to protect the watch. Inside were also two documents. One is entirely in Cyrllic and I can only assume are general instructions. The other is a dealer warranty, which is in English. Oddly enough, the watch had originally been sold by a store in NYC, Time Exchange, which imported Russian brands.
The Raketa Big Zero isn’t for everyone, but for a cheap watch with unique looks, it’s quite a great find. Interestingly, Raketa currently makes watches under the name Petrodvorets Classic, Petrodvorets being the Raketa factory, which have a similar design. The large numerals have been updated to a fat-geometric font that is considerably more aggressive than that of the original design. That being said, it’s appealing looking, though a bit more novel.
Be sure to check out the gallery!
By Zach Weiss