Cra­dle of Great Chrono­graphs

Chris An­dre wAlks down mem­ory lAne of where the el Primero move­ment by Zenith wAs first born

DA MAN - Caliber - - SPECIAL REPORT -

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

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