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Romanian Watches 1978-2018: A Singular History


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The inspiration for this topic came from a new watch brand led by two Romanian entrepreneurs, Andrei Morariu and Bogdan Costea, whose first watch model, the Farazece, was launched last year.The name of the watch derives from “fara zece,” meaning “without ten” and relates to the manner in which Romanians tell the time; for example at “5.50” the English say, “ten to six” but Romanians use the term, “6 without ten. The company is recent but the company name, Optimef, refers back to the prior history of the Romanian watch industry, as we shall see. With regard to the new Farazece wristwatch, Moriaru and Costea, “took the functionality of 60s modernism and combined it with the playfulness of the 70s and 80s,” … aiming “to create designs that inspire a melange of clean minimalism and Memphis Group-like quirkiness.” The resulting design thus uses graphic simplicity and primary colours to good effect. Optimef currently uses the tried and trusted formula of designing in their home country while outsourcing manufacture to China; however, the firm is hoping eventually to revive actual watch manufacture in Romania.



Optimef Farazece quartz watch with gold plated 40mm stainless steel case, hardened mineral glass crystal, 30 metres WR. and silicon strap. Powered by a Miyota movement, and 145 € from Optimef (pic from optimef.com):



Two different versions of the Farazece, with leather strap (pic from steemit-production-imageproxy-upload.s3.amazonaws.com):





Having spotted and looked at the new Romanian firm, Optimef, I sought out relevant material to flesh out an introductory history of the Romanian watch industry over the last forty odd years, going back to the original incarnation of Optimef. In one way, this task was to prove rather less complex than I had imagined, because we are essentially dealing with only one watch concern during the period 1978-2018; nevertheless, I was unable to escape from two enormous difficulties in tackling this subject – the language barrier and serious contradictions These difficulties left me with bits and pieces of information, some of it contradictory, variously written in English English, in Romanian, and the rest in a version of English born of poor translation. I nearly decided not to ahead with this topic, based on the language problem and a paucity of solid information, but finally optimism and a piqued fascination won out, and I present my (tentative) researches here. Before I start attempting to compile my source material into some sort of cohesive text for the Forum, I must state that I have been unable to reproduce certain accent marks found in Romanian-language text, and have found that my source material overall has an inconsistent usage of such marks; I have therefore decided to adopt the non-purist practice here of no accent marks.

The first thing we need to establish in an introduction to Romanian wristwatches is that, for the period we are considering here at least, the only Romanian wristwatch manufacturer was Mecanica Fina Bucuresti. I am not sure exactly when this company was established, but it is evident that in the mid or later 1970s impetus was given to wristwatch production by domestic Romanian politics, and it does seem that Mecanica Fina Bucuresti was actually formalised in 1978, with some encouragement from Nicolae Ceausescu. Discussions were held within and outside the new company, and these included where the watches would be made and which outside partners would be incorporated, in to lend technical expertise to the project. It was decided that production would be at the Victoria factory in Arad, and whilst Sandoz, Lanco and Ruhla were each considered as potential partners, the final external agreement was made with Sea Gull, a reputable Chinese watch company. In this topic, I have shortened the company name to Mecanica Fina but no further although it is sometimes known under initials, “MECE.”

Apparently, at the time Mecanica Fina was being geared up, Romania was somewhat distanced from its communist bloc parent, the Soviet Union, and a certain degree of “looseness” in terms of business freedom was permitted. As for Nicolae Ceausescu, it is not known how interested he was in Romanian watch manufacture per se, although he apparently visited the Mecanica Fina works in 1978, ostensibly to discuss production of military watches, and he was surely motivated by a desire to move Romania forwards and diminish its reliance on the Soviet Bloc, while at the same time being ultra cautious about allowing any form of unbridled capitalism.



A nice group of Orex watches from Mecanica Fina Bucuresti - quartz and mechanical and covering the years of the factory's production; see text for more information (pic from ceasuripentruromania.ro):




Three pictures from svetsatova.com. Firstly, a rather pretty Sea Gull caliber ST-5 movement in an Orex watch probably from the first period of Orex production, c. early 1980s; secondly, an early Orex mechanical watch from the first period of production; and thirdly, an Orex 17J gold plated wristwatch with design characteristics seen on a number of second period Orex watches from about the late 1980s into the early 90s







As implied in the last paragraph, the early period of Mecanica Fina mechanical watch production consisted of watches that had various components manufactured in Romania and movements sourced from Sea Gull. From about 1978-1985, the first period for Mecanica Fina watches, the mechanical watches produced by Mecanica Fina were powered by Sea Gull 19J (calibers ST-5 and ST-6) movements using Chinese components assembled in Romania, and they included gents and ladies' wristwatches. The production of mechanical wristwatches in Romania during the late 1970s and early 1980s was probably very small, and it is not clear when Mecanica Fina introduced the brand name, Orex, for its mechanical and analogue quartz watches. What is clear, however, is that Mecanica Fina was not only gearing up for mass production of mechanical watches in its early days, but also collaborated with another company, Optica Romana, to found a brand of digital quartz watches branded, Optimef. The movements for these watches were probably sourced from the US at this time, and although I have references to LCD models, I am not sure if the first Optimef watches used LED displays. The name, Optimef, is derived from joining together elements from the two participating company names – thus, Opti and mef. It seems that Optimef digital quartz watches were relatively well-made although the features provided were relatively basic, just timekeeping and calendar functions. They were not cheap watches, however, and were to prove no match for the oncoming hoards of cheap quartz watches from elsewhere.



Two digital quartz Optimef watches, c.1978-1985 (pics from Time Club Romania: i64.tinypic.com and i66.tinypic.com):






Taking account of contradictory versions of events in the available literature, we can certainly say that there was a shake-up at Mecanica Fina towards the end of 1984, with a visit to the factory by Ceausescu in November of that year. He was now calling for an end to what he saw as “dangerous liasons” by the company, no doubt including the use of quartz digital movements sourced in the West, and demanding a renewed focus on the production of mechanical watches. By this time, Romania was beginning to experience the flood of competing watches not only from the Soviet Union but also from the Far East, including quartz analogue models, and the shake-up led Mecanica Fina to produce new mechanical models on a larger scale, as well as developing and then producing analogue quartz watches, all under the Orex brand name – a name deriving from “Ora Exacta,” or in English, “exact hour.” In connection with the analogue quartz watches, there was also a short-lived intermediate analogue quartz brand by Mecanica Fina – Cromef – launched in1985 and comprising a number (7?) of variants in case shape and design, all with date windows and featuring movements from Ruhle. Digital watch production, in the form of Optimef watches, seems to have ended about 1985, after the Ceaucescu visit in late 1984.



Two Mecanica Fina Cromef quartz watches from 1985 - see text for more information - (pic from 4.bp.blogspot.com):




A gold-plated Orex hand-wind gents wristwatch powered by a Shanghai Zuanshi SZ-1 movement and dating to about the late 1980s (pics from ceasuridemana.ro and ceasuridecolectie.ro):







During this second period of Mecanica Fina production, 1985-1990, output of watches from Mecanica Fina was quite substantial. In December 1985, 50.000 Orex watches were delivered,and for the following year, the intended output was 200,000 pieces, rising to no less than 1 million watches in 1990. I am not sure if these seemingly optimistic figures were actually achieved, and there was to be a sudden downturn from 1990.

It could be said that 1985-1990 represents the golden period for Mecanica Fina. At this time, necessary investment was made in the company, and there was more emphasis in manufacturing. A team was set up to take watch design from conception to execution, involving technological development and industrial horology. Important figures at the company were engineers Stefan Blaier and Radu Nedelcu, as well as designer Mitu Draganescu who was a graduate of the Plastic Arts Institute speciality section.

While the non- movement components of Mecanica Fina watches were increasingly being made and/or assembled by the company in Romania during this middle phase of the company, the movements themselves were still externally sourced. Indeed, in the 1980s Sea Gull movements gave way to a more standardized 17J caliber ( the SB-1) produced by another Chinese manufacturer, Shanghai Zuanshi (Diamond) Watch Factory. As for the new analogue quartz watches now being produced at Mecanica Fina from the mid-1980s, the movements for these were sourced in collaboration with Slava and Poljot from the URSS.

The second period of Mecanica Fina ended with a sharp downturn in the company's fortunes, no doubt partly driven by the Revolution in Romainia at the end of 1989 and the attendant fall from power and death of Nicolae Ceausescu. Mention has already been made of the growing and increasingly relentless competition from Russian and cheap Far Eastern watches, particularly the quartz examples, and as first recourse to action, Mecanica Fina attempted to manufacture a new 21J wristwatch, mainly if not solely for the export market. There was also a subsequent 26J model, with the movement supplier being the Second Moscow Watch Factory (Slava) – URSS. As a side note, there are some watches from this period that bear markings indicating that they were made for Romanian border guards. Finally, a more sensible riposte to the quartz invasion was enacted when Mecanica Fina did finally get round to producing quartz analogue watches powered by Miyota-Citizen movements, but the die was cast, and the company was in no position to survive the demise of Ceaucescu's brand of communism in favour of capitalism emanating from Europe including Russia, the USA, and parts of the Far East. Production of watches at Mecanica Fina Bucuresti finally came to an end in 2000, in which year the company became privately owned, the main shareholder being an Italian businessman, Sergio Mollo.

Strangely perhaps, or perhaps not given the politics of Romania at the time, Mecanica Fina Bucuresti did not just disappear, even after a 2004 glimmer of hope that watch production might resume. The firm continued to manufacture measuring equipment until 2009, and then concentrated on the real estate business by renting out the premises that it owned. At the beginning of 2015, Mecanica Fina Bucuresti decided to enter the Bucharest Stock exchange (BVB) Main Market, and in July of that year the company's shareholders approved a move to participate (to at least a 50% stake) in a new company relaunching the Orex brand of watches. In fact, as has been indicated here above, Sergio Mollo then owned 99.98 of Mol Invest Bucuresti which, in turn, owned 91% of Mecanica Fina shares. As to that proposed relaunch of Orex watches, it seems to have gone nowhere.

The Romanian watch industry between 1978 and 2018 is interesting not only from the point of view of the collector but also because it falls into a tumultuous period of Romanian (and indeed, European) history. Clearly, there was political involvement in the watch industry throughout this earlier part of this period, made all the more quirky by the paranoid and self-aggrandising nature of Nicolae Ceaucescu, and rapid economic changes both nationally and internationally which were also major factors affecting the fortunes of Mecanica Fina, finally resulting in its downfall.



Fascinating that when I sought the origin of this photo, I was directed to a thread on our very own Watch Forum UK, with the topic heading of "Who Makes Watches?" posted by Langtoftlad on 11 April 2007. There was some discussion about Orex watches, which I hope that I have now clarified in this topic. The watch illustrated here below represents the last mechanical gasp of Mecanica Fina as its fortunes began to wane (see my text for more information on the late watches) (pic from netgrafik.ch):



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  • 2 months later...

This is the one I have with the Sea Gull caliber ST-5 , bought on ebay from a seller in Croatia:


I had another one when I was a child (I am Romanian) but it was running fast and unfortunately I tried to adjust it with a Swiss Army knife.

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