(Est. 1865 – ) In 2015, Zenith SA observed it 150th anniversary continuing its historical legacy of cutting-edge advancements in horology, science, and technology. Established in 1865 by 22 year-old clockmaker, Georges Favre-Jacot (1843 – 1917) in Le Locle, Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Zenith is recognized worldwide for the quality and precision of their watches. It remains one of few remaining Swiss watch manufacturers to produce their own movements in-house.
During the golden age of Swiss watch making, i.e., the years between World War I and the late 1960s, most major houses, including Rolex, built their movements around ebauches (the Swiss term for a movement in its most basic, completely raw, form, without gears, pinions or other components) purchased from one of the large scale companies that specialized in the field. These were then re-worked as required and marked with the correct signature before being cased ready for sale.
Zenith created its movements from the ground up, designing, prototyping, building and regulating from scratch, without reliance on any third party. The company’s official website says, “Georges Favre-Jacot’s ambition was to create the most accurate and reliable watches ever made. This mastery of all stages of production under a single roof represented a giant leap forward in creating high-quality watches able to meet the strong demand from customers around the world looking for watches capable of displaying the correct time.
“The approach was all the more successful in that Georges Favre-Jacot continued developing new machines and production technologies intended to constantly improve the quality and precision of his timepieces. To back up the hand-crafted care devoted to the design and finishing of each timepiece, the founder-watchmaker once again demonstrated his impressive entrepreneurial spirit by elaborating the principles of interchangeable components and automated production.”
By 1875, Zenith employed almost a third of Le Locle’s population to manufacture its pocket watches. Acclaim, recognition, and sales came fairly quickly. The company received a gold medal at the 1896 Swiss National Exhibition followed by a first prize for chronometers at a Neuchâtel Observatory competition in 1903. By the 1920s, Zenith had introduced its first wristwatches cased in gold and reflected the Art Deco movement popular during that decade and thereafter.
Despite the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II, production increased until the 1950s when Zenith was indisputably one of the leaders in Swiss watchmaking. During that decade, it won prizes from the Neuchâtel Observatory for five years running.
While an outstanding watchmaker and entrepreneur, Favre-Jacot also displayed an artistic sensibility including working closely with a leading architect of the era, Alphonse Laverrière. Their cooperation followed the international “Werkbund” movement whose aim was to create industrial products with aesthetic and artistic dimensions.
By marketing both its products and stores as unique works of art, Zenith paved the way for the current importance of watch industry branding. The watchmaker and architect shared a vision based on the belief that all visual aspects of a company and its production must be in complete harmony with the product itself.
The two men quickly established themselves as leaders of this reform in the visual arts of in French-speaking Switzerland. With Alphonse Laverrière’s input, Zenith developed, conceived and produced all decorative elements in its shops and invented what is now known as the flagship store concept. As hundreds of projects for clocks, table clocks and wristwatches emerged, layouts for presenting the collections were developed that included specially designed packaging paper, presentation boxes, and display stands that were the watch industry’s first point-of-sales advertising.
In 1911, George Favre-Jacot retired and left the flourishing business, now definitively named Zenith, to his descendants. This coincided with completion of construction work that lent Zenith’s headquarters its unique character of industrial architecture which is now a listed as a UNESCO world heritage site along with the towns of Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds.
Experts currently regard Zenith as a vintage watch aficionado’s choice similar to collector interest to that of Rolex and Omega. However, the Zenith purchaser seems, more often than not, someone who values what goes on inside the watch and wants an outstanding mechanism rather than simply a good one.
In the early 20th century, Zenith was one of the largest international watch manufacturers to begin exporting its timepieces – from 1914 on – to locations as far away as India. Indira Nehru, who served as Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977, gave a Zenith watch to her friend Mahatma Gandhi. This silver pocket-watch became one of his rare material goods and he carried it every day using its alarm function to signal his prayer times.
To Gandhi’s regret, the watch was stolen during a train journey, but the thief, overcome by guilt, returned it to him six months later begging forgiveness. Shortly before his death, Gandhi passed the watch to his granddaughter and assistant, Abha.
It subsequently came into the hands of private collectors in 2009 and came up for auction as part of a lot of Gandhi’s belongings including his famous round spectacles, a bowl and dish, as well as a pair of leather sandals. These were sold for a record sum of $1.8 million to an Indian billionaire and returned to India.
Early vintage Zenith watches, i.e., those from World War I and manufactured until the 1930s, are similar to those made by IWC during the same era. Both typically have frosted gilt movements that look quite different from Rolex equivalents of the same period. After World War II, Zenith produced some models equivalent in quality with those from Jaeger LeCoultre, Omega, and Rolex. When found in gold cases, these can be pricey, in steel they remain affordable. Even now, original 1940s and ‘50s vintage Zenith Sporto and Pilot models in immaculate condition can be acquired for around (US) $1500 which is significantly less than equals for other major brands.
A typical vintage Zenith dress wristwatch from 1955 had an 18k rose gold case, a silver dial, and a hand-stitched black patent alligator strap. Inside was a 135 caliber, manual-movement chronometer, which at the time was state of the art.
Sports models including the Pilot that was designed to compete with the Rolex Explorer appeared in the 1960s. However, Zenith’s most important creation in that decade was the 1969 launch of its El Primero chronograph movement. Watches from this era with this movement inside are among the most collectible vintage Zenith wristwatches available.
The manufacture of this watch (150 individual stamps were required to assemble all its tiny parts) began in 1962. Despite later technological advances, El Primero remains the only integrated chronograph caliber with automatic winding in both directions, and the only mechanical movement to vibrate at a rate of 36,000 beats per hour, making it accurate to within a tenth of a second.
In 2012, Zenith honored the El Primero with the release of the El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th, limited to 1969 pieces (to recognize the original 1969 release date.) It housed the same 36,000 vph movement and a sub-dial measuring tenths of a second and making a complete rotation every ten seconds.
The mechanisms devised by Zenith are often so complex and innovative they entail the development of unprecedented tools to make the necessary parts.
In one of its 21st Century breakthroughs, Zenith released the “Gravity Control” gyroscopic module that keeps accurate time no matter the movement of the wearer. For the gyroscopic carriage of the “Gravity Control” module alone, Zenith artisans crafted 60 new instruments.
Since its founding in 1865, Zenith has developed and produced over 600 movement variations. Even as techniques evolve, certain stages have remained in place. Watchmakers, movement constructors, engineers, materials researchers and designers work in close cooperation from conception and no element is left to chance.
In 1969, Zenith became a member of the Mondia Zenith Movado holding company. In 1971, the American Zenith Radio Corp., took a majority stake in the Mondia Zenith Movado group. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when the Zenith Radio Corp. of America purchased its watchmaking namesake, the parent company ordered all the equipment used to make the El Primero movements destroyed because Zenith Radio believed the watchmaker’s future was with quartz movements.
Fortunately, a Zenith Radio employee named Charles Vermot thought otherwise. Defying direct orders from America, Vermot packed away the machinery, tools and stamps required to make the El Primero movements until the corporation gave the order further consideration. By 1975, Zenith Radio abandoned its detour into watchmaking, and the hidden tools were put back into use.
In 1978, Zenith returned to the hands of Swiss investors, with DIXI, the financial and mechanical construction group, as major shareholder. Zenith was purchased by LVMH in November 1999 becoming one of several brands in their watch and jewelry division. The CEO of the company is Aldo Magada, who replaced Jean-Frédéric Dufour in 2014.
In 2012, Felix Baumgartner wore the El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th watch when he broke the sound barrier on the edge of space. For the first time in history, a man broke the speed of sound in freefall. Zenith was the exclusive timekeeper and sponsor of this mission. With a Zenith firmly attached to his wrist, Baumgartner launched himself into the stratosphere from a space capsule suspended from a helium-filled balloon. He did so at the altitude of 39,045 meters (24 ¼ miles) – four times higher than airliners fly.
When he threw himself into the stratosphere, Baumgartner reached a record speed of nearly 834 miles per hours (1342 kph) before being slowed down by the atmosphere and experienced a freefall that lasted four minutes and twenty seconds.
When Baumgartner opened his parachute and landed unharmed in the New Mexico desert, the jump lasted nine minutes and three seconds, and set three new records: the first jump in history to break the speed of sound in freefall, the highest occupied flight in a balloon, and the highest freefall. The Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th that accompanied the feat was still worked perfectly upon landing despite being subjected to massive differences in pressure, temperature, altitude, and acceleration.
At the Baselworld 2015 exhibition, Zenith introduced the El Primero Chronograph Classic. The 42 mm watch features a brand new case that Zenith never used in any of its watches. Its thin design uses extended lugs that hug the wrist in an elegant way. The entire watch is slightly over 11 mm thick, and employs a version of Zenith’s El Primero movement with only two registers and no date.
The dial is bright silver and features running seconds and a 30-minute counter. The crystal on the Chronograph Classic is slightly domed, with an anti-glare treatment on both sides. The hands in this case are rhodium treated and needle thin to give the dial prominence.
When the watch is turned over one can see the El Primero movement through the sapphire case back. The bezel of the El Primero Chronograph Classic is polished, as are the pushers, while the lugs are brushed. The Zenith El Primero Chronograph Classic retails for $8,400 in stainless steel and $21,500 in rose gold.
Oddly enough, for all its advances and technological achievements and breakthroughs, Zenith, for the most part, still flies just under the radar of public perception and is usually not included among the luxury brands consumers and collectors consider most desirable. Most suggest Rolex followed by Omega and some less well-known brands. Except for hardcore collectors and enthusiasts, most people are not familiar, or have even heard of, Zenith. However, the standard to which Zenith’s vintage watches were built is nothing short of superb in every way.
A well preserved period Zenith will often be the choice of the buyer who wants something a little less ostentatious than a vintage Rolex, without sacrificing anything in movement quality or finish. Zenith remains, like IWC in its heyday, a well-kept secret among collectors.
Like IWC that, in recent years, has become much better known and seen its vintage creations rise dramatically in value, it seems likely that Zenith will go in the same direction, That could make early Zeniths one of the best prospects for potential investment in the vintage watch world.