Cradle of Great Chronographs
Chris Andre wAlks down memory lAne of where the el Primero movement by Zenith wAs first born
The history of Zenith’s manufacture is a bit like a fairytale. Comprising 18 blocks in total, the site feels like a big mansion where warmth and smiles are the order of the day rather than cold, hard steel. The fact that Le Locle, where the manufacture resides, is one of the quietest towns in Switzerland also gives the facility that the charming vibes of a small, sleepy town. And it is also funny to notice how many watch brands become neighbors in that stretch of the Jura mountains.
The Zenith manufacture itself has been around for more than a century—it was established back in 1910—and is also certified as a UNESCO heritage site. As I walk up to the main entrance, the facade of some the buildings bear vivid red bricks forming the initials “G.F.J” and the brand name “Zenith” below the rows of windows. The former stands for “George Favre-Jacot,” the original founder who, although he broke away under his own name in 1865, eventually took on his most successful movement called “Zenith” as his company’s trademark (starting from 1911). In a world where most watch brands derive from a person’s surname, Zenith dared to be different.
That attitude has also kept the company going even after some of the worst crises. The manufacture stores all the proof of how dedicated Zenith is in creating the best movement throughout many past decades. Watch fanatics may already be familiar with the El Primero chronograph movement, but there’s so much more to discover as one delves deeper into the incredible maze of this manufacture.
The hisToric DecaDes
It took around four decades for Zenith’s founder, FavreJacot, to assemble all of the 18 blocks. Each serves a different purpose, but all uniformly face the south in order to get the best sunlight during the day—since there was no electricity back then. The launch of the El Primero back in 1959 heralded the golden days of the manufacture as other reputable brands began to employ the movement for their own chronographs. The reason for it is simple: It was the first movement to have an integrated chronograph that ran at a frequency of 36,000 VPH (for a greater precision) and also runs with a column wheel (instead of the more common cam system—again for better precision and functionality).
Such a mechanical innovation in horology, nonetheless, found its biggest threat in the rise of another Swiss creation for modern watches in 1970s: quartz movements. The Japanese, in particular, took the cue and mass-produced it, which revolutionized the global watch industry and shook many Swiss giants, including Zenith.
Zenith Radio Corporation, an American company with a similar trademark, acquired the Le Locle brand in 1971 in order to solely produce quartz movements. The U.S.-based management went further by asking to destroy all the stamping tools that were vital in the production of mechanical components. Such a decision would have terminated Zenith, the brand that we all know today, if not for Charles Vermot, one of the senior engineers at the manufacturer, who decided to go against the rules. Instead of chucking them out, he hid