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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
Hello friends,

Try this: Perform an eBay search for "braille watch" and scroll through the results. Depending on the day, generally 50% or more of the listings are for Soviet watches, mostly Raketas. You may find it surprising that the USSR worked so hard to ensure its physically-handicapped citizens had proper accommodations -- indeed, you don't often hear "totalitarian regime" and "support for the disabled" in the same breath. But perhaps such social service is not as far-fetched as we might imagine. As wisely pointed out by our very own moderator:

Even under Stalin during the Great Terror, the USSR took pride in the ability to provide services to the disabled as well as to the workers. There was even a hand-control-only micro-car designed and built exclusively for war veterans after WW2. [Braille watches] are a great illustration of that ethos.

It is worth bearing in mind that 'Stalinism' was in fact a form or fascism that ruled over the Socialist system and twisted it to its own advantage, but that system needed to be maintained (albeit often only as a facade) in order to sustain the ruling elite. And it is an indictment of Soviet Communism as established by Lenin that it was so inherently vulnerable to such abuse.
Soviet watches for the blind and visually impaired date back to at least 1938, according to this 1GChZ example found by Mark Gordon, and are still widely available today, both as new products and vintage items. I have always found a special interest in these braille dials, and I recently completed a sub-collection of those offered by Petrodvorets. (If there are other Petrodvorets dial configurations that you are aware of, please let me know.)

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For those unfamiliar with the way these watches operate, there is a small button on the case or crown which releases the spring-loaded bezel, lifting the entire crystal to expose the dial. The time can then be read with the fingers by feeling the hour and minute hand's position in relation to the braille.

There are a few unique attributes which made these watches well-suited for the blind. The movement utilized was the caliber 2601, which shares many similarities with the famed 2609, but was designed without a second hand and, therefore, a solid cannon pinion. Presumably, the utility of a second hand was not great enough to outweigh the risk of damage to the fragile second pinion when touched. Furthermore, a solid cannon pinion likely increased the structural integrity such than fumbling fingers were less prone to unintentional damage. The hands are also thick and robust to stand up against regular contact with the fingers.

The dials on these watches are unique due to the distinctive three-dimensional braille design and unusual printing method. Typically, Soviet dials were covered in a thin, clear lacquer before any text, graphics, or numerals were printed thereon. This lacquer provided better adhesion and greater clarity for subsequent printing, and also gave dials a reflective sheen and a highly polished appearance. However, this lacquer was extremely delicate and not well-suited for a dial intended to be regularly and repeatedly touched. Therefore, a different dial material and printing technique was developed which proved far more resistant to human touch. Notice these dials are completely matte and still have their printing, even after decades of regular contact with human fingers.

See below for an early Petrodvorets example with the crystal-release button at the 2 o'clock position:

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Later examples by Raketa relocated the button within the crown for a more streamlined design. Also notice the hands have become a bit thicker and less tapered:

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As you'll see from the following movement photos, and as seems to be the case with most Soviet movements, fit and finish steadily declines with the passage of time.

Early Petrodvorets 2601 mechanism, beautifully decorated with Geneva stripes (someone decided to take out their aggression on the balance cock, but it still runs fine):

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Early 2601, now Raketa-branded. The Geneva stripes are gone, and the brushing on the balance cock does not match that on the bridges, leading me to believe the balance assembly may have been replaced at some point:

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Later Raketa 2601.H movement with polished, beveled edges. No more studs on the balance:

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"SU" branded 2601.H movement (found in the Cornavin and Sekonda) without Geneva stripes, beveled edges, or any decoration at all, really. No studs on the balance, either. The most cookie-cutter, generic movement of them all:

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I also have a braille Molnija with similar design. The function is the same as a typical hunter case (pressing the crown opens the lid), but in this instance, there is no crystal protecting the dial once the case is opened.

Gauge


The movement inside this Molnija is a 3602, though I'm not certain about its authenticity. I know Molnija produced a caliber 3600 movement for many of their Ural watches, and the 3600 seems like a more logical choice for this watch due to the lack of a second hand. However, I also find it conceivable that the sub-second staff from the 3602 was simply removed to create the two-hand design. Does anyone know for sure?

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Of course, many other braille designs exist. The Vostok at the bottom left corner of my group photo is a modern watch from 2008, celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Ukranian Society for the Blind. Other common Soviet braille watches include a ladies Zaria and a Luch quartz, and there's another rare pocket watch in Mark Gordon's collection that you can read about here. If you know of others, I would love to hear about them -- and if you have braille watches of your own, show them!
 

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My only Raketa Braille has incorrect hands, which sit too flat to the dial to be effective unless bent slightly, and then are a bit on the sharp side for comfort.





Due to the mismatched parts and general condition, when it stopped running I didn't think it worth fixing. So it's in the parts box along with an incomplete white-dial 1st gen model.

When I was a small boy, if I was well behaved my grandmother would let me feel the time on her Braille watch. Here it is along with the Raketa and my grandfather's retirement watch which prior to a service about a decade ago had the hands painted white by him for my grandmother's use, until her eyesight declined to the point of needing a Braille watch:

 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Thank you both for sharing your stories!

Chascomm, I can only imagine how much of a treat it must have been for a young boy to experience the unusual, tactile sensation of a braille dial. And what a kind gesture by your grandfather to paint the hands white for your grandmother. (By the way, I have a spare set of mismatched Raketa/Petrodvorets braille hands if you ever want to 'restore' your Raketa. They're black, so against the black dial they wouldn't be very helpful for a sighted person such as yourself -- but they'd be just as functional as per the watch's original intended use ;-))

Possum, perhaps the lume was added for those who were visually impaired but not fully blind? It would certainly need to be very bright, powerful lume. It does seem strange.

I know plenty of braille watches fall into the hands of collectors with intact vision, but I really appreciate and think it's important to hear about individuals who actually used these day to day. Thank you both for sharing.
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
I'll update this thread with these three: one domestic, one export, one with the State Mark of Quality. For whatever reason, I failed to include them in my original post.

I don't know if there is any firm evidence to support this, but I feel quite confident that the Raketa "Big Zero" was originally intended for the visually impaired before it gained more recent popularity for its unconventional design.

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I'll update this thread with these three: one domestic, one export, one with the State Mark of Quality. For whatever reason, I failed to include them in my original post. I don't know if there is any firm evidence to support this, but I feel quite confident that the Raketa "Big Zero" was originally intended for the visually impaired before it gained more recent popularity for its unconventional design.
That is half official indeed.
 

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The Soviet watch industry was only producing what other national watch industries in Europe were already producing. Thiel and subsequently UMF Ruhla in East Germany had been producing watches and clocks for the blind or partially sighted for many years. There was a greater need following the First World War were chemical weapons and shell explosions left many soldiers blind and this may have been why Thiel (predecessor of Ruhla) began production. Following the war, Russian veterans may have purchased such a product from western European producers until the home grown Soviet watch production began from about 1930.

Thiel workers helped the fledgling Soviet watch industry establish itself, particularly the 2nd Moscow Watch Factory where links were maintained throughout the communist era and probably the reason why Slava produced a small alarm clock for the bind.

Here is a 1925 print of a Thiel pocket watch for the blind

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And in 1959 an UMF Ruhla catalogue listing for a clock, watch and pocket watch for the blind.

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And even today, Gardé Ruhla produces a watch for the blind.

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Discussion Starter · #15 · (Edited)
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