Zenith's El Primero Movement

Zenith’s El Primero movement

It really isn’t an understatement to say that Zenith would not exist today were it not for one man.

No, we’re not talking about Georges Favre-Jacot, who founded the brand in Neuchâtel in 1865 and, by uniting all watchmaking processes under one roof created what we now know as a modern manufacture. We’re actually talking about a man called Charles Vermot.

Zenith could well have ended in 1975, when Zenith Radio Corporation, the US company who owned the brand at the time, decided that quartz was the way forward and made the irrevocable decision to cease production of all mechanical watches, with the machinery and production processes to be sold to the highest bidder.

At the time, Vermot, who was the “chef de fabrication des ebauches” – meaning he was in charge of baseplate manufacturing – was shocked by this decision and wrote to the management asking permission to preserve the tools used to make Zenith’s legendary El Primero movement. His request was denied, but, so attached was Vermot to his beloved El Primero that, unbeknownst to Zenith’s top brass, he began sequestering away essential tools and components as well as labeling, listing and protecting all the cams, cutting tools, presses and machines. He also recorded the production process in a notebook.

Vermot told a few of his colleagues, all of whom thought he was mad, but his secret was kept until 1984, when Zenith was put under new management (it was bought by the Swiss Dixi Group in 1978 and started making mechanical watches thanks to the help of Ebel); one which wanted to bring the El Primero back into production.

Thanks to Vermot’s brave act and his painstakingly meticulous storage, almost overnight Zenith was allowed to resume production of the El Primero.

Zenith's Heritage Ultra Thin watch

The Heritage Ultra Thin, which contains an Elite movement

The El Primero, which was originally created in 1969 and was the first-ever integrated automatic chronograph movement, is still at the heart of Zenith’s watchmaking, though it was joined in 1994 by the equally revolutionary Elite. This was the first movement to be designed using Computer Assisted Design (CAD) and is often cited as being one of the movements that reinvigorated the mechanical watch market.

In 2000 Zenith joined LVMH’s luxury watch and jewellery stable and, a year later, Thierry Nataf took over as CEO. Nataf’s tenure was controversial for many Zenith lovers, under which the watches became more flamboyant and the focus shifted to the watch rather than the movement.

Zenith Port Royal Watch

The Port Royal, which was launched in 2008, under Nataf’s CEO-ship

He lasted eight years before Jean-Frederique Dufour claimed the reins in 2009, taking the brand back to a more classical aesthetic.

In 2014, in an interesting round of watch-boardroom musical chairs, Dufour left Zenith for Rolex in April last year, while Aldo Magada vacated his seat at Breitling and moved over to Zenith.

While it is too early to tell what Magada’s influence will be on the brand, it seems he is continuing Dufour’s reversal of the Nataf years and concentrating on the beating heart of Zenith – its movements – while trying to attract a new younger audience to the brand. Though how creating a watch for the Rolling Stones fits into that strategy, a band whose combined age adds up to 254 year at the time of writing, we cannot fathom.

Zenith watch

The Ultra Thin Ladies Moonphase in grape for the first time this year

Thanks to one man’s ingenuity and another’s quick thinking, Zenith is, this year, celebrating its 150th anniversary.

Whatever people want to do to the appearance of the watch, it seems as though Vermot was right – the one thing about Zenith that will endure, and is worth preserving, is its movements. It will be interesting to see what the next 150 years has in store for them.

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