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Check out the back story of Vostok-Europe watches

Posted by Craig Hester on

The year is 1992 and a young Lithuanian physicist named Igor Zubovskij toils away at the Vilnius Radio-Measurement Equipment’s Research Institute with three colleagues. While most of the world look on from the outside in as the Soviet Union rapidly collapses, Zubovskij and his team live the increasing turmoil from the inside day after day. Working under classified Soviet directives, the team feels the sense of urgency as their current project approaches completion.

It’s a microwave transceiver being built together with for the Vostok Factory of Chisptopal Russia, and it’s a critical piece of a Soviet government contract. While more publically known for the production of affordable watches and watch movements, Vostok was actually a labyrinth of departments during the Soviet era, many of which are engaged in activities for the electronic equipment needs for Soviet Military Aviation and Space Programs.

As the conclusion of that fateful year arrives, the transceiver is just becoming whole as the Soviet Union falls apart. Lithuania and all of the former republics quickly fall into chaos. One of the lesser remembered impacts of this seismic change in the makeup of the Eastern world is the severing of all banking ties between the former republics and its recent motherland. It’s an untenable situation for both Vostok and the institute in Vilnius. The transceiver is completed. The institute has months of work and money tied up in the project. They need to deliver it and they need to get paid. At the same time, Vostok still has a contract to fulfill with the remaining government in Moscow, union or no union.

“Things were becoming like chaos,” Zubovskij said. “We needed to get paid and to pay the salaries of the people in the institutute. We really were unsure what we were going to be able to do.” With no way to transfer funds, Vostok puts a member of their team on a train to Vilnius. Carrying rubles is out of the question, even if official currency exchange were possible in the disarray.

So, a suitcase full of Komandirskie watches is smuggled through four borders headed for a barter transaction that would change the course of Zubovskij’s live and the lives of his colleagues forever. Given the conditions at the time and Zubovskij and his colleagues needed some way to pay a salary to the team and the institute. They had little choice but to accept the suitcase of Komandirskie watches as compensation for the emitter. The trade proceeded.

At the time, street markets had sprung up all over, as everyone was looking for a way to make some money in the economic upheaval surrounding them. Zubovskij headed to the market with his suitcase of watches in tow. Within two days, he sold all the watches and was able to pay the salary of all 15 members of the institutes team. Zubovskij realized that his skills as a physicist and engineer of radiometric equipment would not have any practical value in the current situation on the ground in Eastern Europe.

“I came back and spoke to the people I worked with at the institute and told there there may just be a future in watches,” Zubovskij says with a grin. After the successful sale of the watches, Zubovskij and his three partners agreed that watches could be a way to weather the economic situation they found themselves facing.

Within a few weeks, they set themselves up as the distributors of Poljot (the largest watch brand in Russia at the time) and Vostok for the new west they were becoming part of. They operated in this fashion for some time, but came to realize the watches built in Russia did not suit the taste or demands of the customers in the west they were servicing.

The team then approached Poljot about the possibility of actually building new, different models in Lithuania under the Poljot name that would be exclusively for their market. Watches with styling, features, and components better suited to the West. A deal was struck and the young company, made up of the same four partners from the institute became not just watch distributors but watch manufacturers.

“The watches Pojlot built worked perfectly okay in Russia,” Zubovskij said. “But for our western customers they needed different styles and features than we could get from the Russian domestic pieces. We decided it was better to design and build them ourselves.” Sadly, not long after, the Poljot company folded due to the economic pressures in Russia. Zubovskij and his partners then approaced the Vostok company with a similar plan, but with one significant departure from what they conducted with Poljot.

This time, not only would they create watches specifically suited for the western market – they would create an entirely new brand. Zubovskij’s vision was to harness the massive movement making operation of Vostok and surround those movements with carefully designed, affordable watches that would set this new brand apart. And Vostok-Europe was born.

In the early days, Zubovskij knew he needed someone with real word experience in the watch business to ensure proper business direction. He brought in Valentina Rinkevichene, who had worked in the watch world since her university days, and she played a critical roll in the launch and success of Vostok-Europe Today she is the chief financial officer of the company.

In the beginning, every Vostok-Europe housed a Vostok movement.Actually, they were and are proprietary movements, meaning they are exclusive to VE, with special complications Zubovskj had commissioned, such as day-night indicators and dual time functions. As VE has evolved they have expanded to other movements from Japan and Switzerland and created a diverse line up of timepieces. More than a decade in, the experiment with Vostok continues to thrive. What all started with a suitcase full of watches from deep inside Russia at the end of the cold war has become one the most interesting and creative brands on the market today.


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