An American Collector of Soviet Watches With a Chance to Help Ukraine
Eight years ago, Dashiell Oatman-Stanford became captivated by Soviet watches. At $10 to $20 each, he said, he didn’t hesitate to pop them open, tinker with the parts and get some hands-on practice dissecting the mechanical movements that he had come to love as a budding watch hobbyist.
But eventually he discovered that these mass-produced timepieces, manufactured in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1922 to 1991, held far greater value than their prices reflected.
“Soviet watches tell the fascinating story of a culture that’s been lost,” Mr. Oatman-Stanford, 34, said by phone from his home in Tallinn, Estonia, where he works as a content director for a tech start-up. Even when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February set off a crisis of conscience about his purchases, he concluded that the watches are “a piece of history that has gone and that we can, of course, learn a lot from.”
In 2014 Mr. Oatman-Stanford was in Austin, Texas, his hometown, when he bought his first Soviet watch, a Pobeda, for $10 on eBay. Now, he estimates he has more than 3,000 watches, and he displays a selection of them on his website, Watches of the U.S.S.R., along with detailed descriptions.
“My collection just scratches the surface,” he said. “Based on my reading and the old Soviet-era catalogs, I would estimate there were over 20,000 unique Soviet watch configurations.”
Given the output of the Soviet industry — a watchmaking history of the late 1950s and ’60s said it was the second most prolific maker in the world, following Switzerland — Mr. Oatman-Stanford has had to resist the impulse to acquire one example of everything. “I think it runs in the family,” he said. “My dad is one of, I think, only four people in the world who have the entire Classics Illustrated comic books.”
Instead, he said, he has focused on watches that both appeal to him aesthetically and reflect trends in Soviet-era history and culture.
For Mr. Oatman-Stanford, the quintessential Soviet watch isn’t the kitsch design with hammer-and-sickle motifs (most of these, he said, are for tourists and may not have even been made in the Soviet Union). A better example, he said, would be the 1950s Pobeda, a brand that figures prominently in his collection. It was a dress watch developed with movements, parts and technology from the French manufacturer LIP and introduced in 1945. (Pobeda means “victory” in Russian, and Mr. Oatman-Stanford said he has found sources indicating the name was chosen by Joseph Stalin as a nod to the end of World War II).
The Pobeda is “relatively boring, right?” Mr. Oatman-Stanford said. “It’s a bunch of numbers on a dial, very simple, very functional. It does not have rich colors or the fancy graphics that people fantasize about when they think of a Soviet watch. It’s just dead simple. A watch for Everyman.”
He also owns a series of Braille watches produced at the Petrodvorets factory in the 1950s, which, he explained, embody the socialist ethos of accessibility as well as the kind of innovative technology that animated mid-20th-century Soviet watchmaking.
To make the watch’s Braille dial more durable, for example, the factory invented a special dial material and a printing technique that made the Braille markers especially resistant to touch. “Even today they retain their printing after decades of regular contact with human fingers,” he said.
“They were making watches for everyone from the very youngest to the disabled to the highest military commanders and everyone in between,” he added. “It was truly a democratic, accessible ethos, which probably clashes with most people’s concept of the U.S.S.R.”
Some watches that caught his attention for aesthetic reasons, Mr. Oatman-Stanford said, have turned out to have links to lesser-known moments in Soviet social history.
For example, his collection includes a Kirovskie 16-jewel caliber 2408 “Crab” model, which has a turquoise-rimmed dial accentuated with clawlike triangular stainless-steel hour markers. (“It’s so flamboyant, so out there.”) In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Kirovskie, which came in several colorways, became the signature accessory of a group known as the Stilyagi, or the Stylish. “It was a youth counterculture movement known for donning colorful clothes and accessories,” he said, “as a protest to the unification of style and culture underway in the Soviet Union at the time.”
Mr. Oatman-Stanford said he spent hours cleaning, polishing and repairing his purchases. “Basically I buy them in terrible condition, at very low prices — my most expensive purchase ever was $850 and most were around $50,” he said. “I try to completely reinvent them while keeping everything original and authentic.”
In his view, the payoff is that his keystone pieces — like a 1960s Sputnik, an exuberant design that celebrated the Soviet Union’s space race achievements — have retained unusual levels of detail. (For example, the end of the second hand on his Sputnik still has its tiny red dot, representing a satellite, a piece that he said the model is often missing.)
Mr. Oatman-Stanford said that he originally used eBay as his main source for purchases, but that he now found Eastern European trading websites — “the local equivalent of Craigslist” — to have better selections.
He estimated that about 60 percent of his purchases in the last few years had come through traders in Ukraine, which, he said, has a large market specializing in secondhand Soviet timepieces.
What has worried him most since Russia’s invasion, Mr. Oatman-Stanford said, is the safety of those traders, many of whom have become his WhatsApp pals over the years. As a result, he helped to organize a fund-raiser among Soviet-watch collectors in Europe that on April 14 sent money to a trader to help get his diabetic father from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine to relative safety in Kyiv.
One of his primary connections in Ukraine has joined its army, and Mr. Oatman-Stanford said that he learned through WhatsApp that the man had been under fire: “He recently asked me if I had found any watches in Ukraine lately that he could help me purchase. I told him that my hobby took a back seat to his safety, and that I would not ask anything of him until I felt sure he was OK and in a stable place. It made me feel terrible to even think about buying watches when so many of his countrymen were suffering.”
He said his friend responded immediately, urging him to buy more Soviet watches in Ukraine because the country’s economy needed financial support from abroad.
“I’ve since resumed my collecting,” Mr. Oatman-Stanford said.