58 Mak­ing A Man­u­fac­ture

Over 150 years af­ter its found­ing, Zenith con­tin­ues to pre­serve the prin­ci­ples laid out by its founder when he set out to cre­ate a ver­ti­cally-in­te­grated man­u­fac­ture

World of Watches (Singapore) - - Contents - WORDS JAMIE TAN

Over 150 years af­ter its found­ing, Zenith con­tin­ues to pre­serve the prin­ci­ples laid out by its founder when he set out to cre­ate a ver­ti­cally-in­te­grated man­u­fac­ture

In­te­grated mass pro­duc­tion is prob­a­bly most closely as­so­ci­ated with Henry Ford. Ford’s Model T rev­o­lu­tionised the au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try; each car spent just 93 min­utes on the as­sem­bly line, and the in­te­grated man­u­fac­tur­ing process drove down costs to make it the first af­ford­able car for the masses. In much the same way, watch­mak­ing had a sim­i­lar gi­ant in Ge­orges Favre-ja­cot, who cre­ated one of the in­dus­try’s first ver­ti­cally in­te­grated man­u­fac­tures – long be­fore the con­cept was for­mally de­fined, much less ap­pre­ci­ated for its ad­van­tages in costs and qual­ity con­trol.

Favre-ja­cot’s ap­proach was star­tlingly holis­tic, and went against the zeit­geist. At the age of 22, he be­gan build­ing the man­u­fac­ture in Le Lo­cle, a lit­tle city nes­tled in the Jura Moun­tains, and grew it over the years into a group of 18 build­ings, all si­t­u­ated on a sin­gle plot of land. To­gether, these fa­cil­i­ties were ca­pa­ble of all man­u­fac­tur­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, be­gin­ning with case pro­duc­tion in the foundry and mills, to move­ment pro­duc­tion and as­sem­bly, to spe­cialised crafts such as dial mak­ing. This was un­usual to say the least; the com­mon prac­tice at the time was to source for the best com­po­nents one could get from ex­ter­nal sup­pli­ers, and con­fine some pro­duc­tion and as­sem­bly in-house. Favre­ja­cot didn’t just in­ter­nalise his pro­duc­tion – he even built ac­com­mo­da­tions in two parts of Le Lo­cle to cater to his em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing a board­ing house for sin­gle work­ers, and saw to their wel­fare with health in­surance and even a pen­sion fund.

As part of the LVMH Group, Zenith’s ac­tiv­i­ties have cer­tainly changed with

the times, with ad­di­tional busi­ness in­ter­ests in­clud­ing the sup­ply of move­ments to its sis­ter brands within the group. Its founder’s novel ap­proach to watch­mak­ing, how­ever, re­mains in­te­gral to how the man­u­fac­ture is run to­day. Con­sider the em­pha­sis on ef­fi­ciency in the man­u­fac­ture, for in­stance. One of Favre-ja­cot’s rea­sons for ver­ti­cally in­te­grated pro­duc­tion was the ef­fi­ciency such a sys­tem pro­vides, since co­or­di­na­tion is all in­ter­nally man­aged. The lat­est over­haul in Zenith’s pro­duc­tion “line” in 2011 took this a step fur­ther by re­ar­rang­ing var­i­ous de­part­ments’ po­si­tions rel­a­tive to each other to im­prove lo­gis­ti­cal flow. The end re­sult was a re­duc­tion in the dis­tance trav­elled by a com­po­nent from 4.2km to just 1.1km.

new and im­proved move­ments

Any brand that pro­duces its own in-house cal­i­bres will, by ex­ten­sion, re­quire a move­ment de­vel­op­ment depart­ment. Zenith is no dif­fer­ent; from the sim­ple three-hand Elite 6150 cal­i­bre, to the high-beat El Primero chronograph move­ment, to high com­pli­ca­tions such as the Acad­emy Christophe Colomb, all new move­ments must un­dergo de­vel­op­ment and test­ing be­fore mak­ing their way to series pro­duc­tion.

To that end, the man­u­fac­ture has a team of seven watch­mak­ers and me­chan­i­cal engi­neers in charge of move­ment R&D. Ground-up de­vel­op­ments, typ­i­cally con­sid­ered the most “ex­cit­ing” ac­tiv­ity, fall within its purview, of course, but so do other projects such as the it­er­a­tive changes made to ex­ist­ing move­ments. The use of sil­i­con com­po­nents in the El Primero and the ad­di­tion of a se­cond bar­rel to the orig­i­nal Elite are just two such ex­am­ples. This isn’t ground­break­ing work, but such de­vel­op­ments have been es­sen­tial for main­tain­ing Zenith’s two move­ment fam­i­lies’ rel­e­vance over the years.

Nat­u­rally, the devil’s in the de­tails when it comes to pro­to­typ­ing and test­ing new cal­i­bres. To ef­fec­tively model and cap­ture all the phys­i­cal as­pects of a move­ment, the depart­ment has the usual tools such as com­puter aided de­sign soft­ware – plus some tricks up its sleeve. There is the high-speed cam­era that films events at up to 36,000 frames per se­cond, for in­stance. By cap­tur­ing an ac­tion with this cam­era and slow­ing it down ap­pro­pri­ately, engi­neers are able to study de­tails that were pre­vi­ously lost to the naked eye. What might look like a pre­cise jump for an in­stan­ta­neous date change could well be an overly vi­o­lent switch with ex­ces­sive jerk­ing when viewed in slow mo­tion, for ex­am­ple. To rec­tify this, the depart­ment may need to ad­just the date fin­ger’s spring ten­sion, or even re­turn to the draw­ing board and re-ex­am­ine the date disc’s mass to re­duce in­er­tia. Re­set­ting a chronograph’s hands, es­pe­cially the sec­onds hand, is eval­u­ated in the same way to en­sure that there is no back­lash or flut­ter when the hands snap back to zero.

Bal­anc­ing man and ma­chine

Coun­ter­in­tu­itive as it seems, the lat­est and great­est tech­nolo­gies aren’t nec­es­sar­ily the most ap­pro­pri­ate for a job when it comes to watch­mak­ing. With an es­ti­mated out­put of 50,000 move­ments a year, Zenith uses a va­ri­ety of tools, tech­niques, and au­to­ma­tion lev­els for dif­fer­ent parts of its pro­duc­tion process in­stead. Metal stamp­ing, for ex­am­ple, uses a hy­draulic press to punch out ba­sic shapes (such as move­ment bridges) from brass strips of var­i­ous thick­nesses. The process re­quires con­stant su­per­vi­sion by a tech­ni­cian, whether to en­sure that the parts are prop­erly aligned or to clean the cut­ter pe­ri­od­i­cally, but it’s sim­ple, cost ef­fec­tive, and re­acts quickly to ad­di­tional de­mand. Spark ero­sion, on the other hand, is able to cut com­plex shapes like wheels down to mi­crons’ ac­cu­racy with a high volt­age wire, and is largely au­to­mated, but comes at a higher cost that

can only be off­set with ad­e­quate pro­duc­tion vol­ume. CNC ma­chin­ing is yet an­other op­tion, and can pro­duce three-di­men­sional shapes, al­beit much more slowly. Depend­ing on the ex­act parts needed and pro­duc­tion sched­ule, the man­u­fac­ture switches be­tween any com­bi­na­tions of these meth­ods to cre­ate its move­ment parts.

The same choices must be made for as­sem­bly as well. In the pre-as­sem­bly stage, where com­po­nents are first com­bined into sub­groups be­fore com­ing to­gether into a com­plete move­ment, Zenith uses a ma­chine to fit jew­els into the move­ment “blank” au­to­mat­i­cally. Be­sides avoid­ing the te­dium as­so­ci­ated with such a step, this also en­sures con­sis­tency, since the pres­sure used to drive each jewel into its cor­re­spond­ing hole is ma­chine cal­i­brated to an ex­act­ing level. In con­trast, the process of curv­ing watch hands – to bet­ter fol­low the con­tours on some mod­els’ domed di­als – is strictly done by hand given the del­i­cate na­ture of the op­er­a­tion.

Of course, for all the con­ve­niences af­forded by au­to­ma­tion, some as­pects of R&D and pro­duc­tion/as­sem­bly will al­ways re­main the ex­clu­sive do­main of hu­man hands. The tool-mak­ing work­shop is one such ex­am­ple. The four-man team here isn’t just re­spon­si­ble for the ma­chines’ re­place­ment parts, like cut­ters for metal stamp­ing, but are also in charge of tools such as move­ment hold­ers. The de­vel­op­ment of com­pli­ca­tions also in­volves them; when cus­tomised tools were needed to pro­duce the Acad­emy Christophe Colomb’s cone-shaped wheel, it was the tool-mak­ing work­shop that de­vel­oped and pro­duced them.


As one of the first, and still the only high-beat chronograph move­ment in series pro­duc­tion, the El Primero is Zenith’s calling card. Its sta­tus and very ex­is­tence to­day, how­ever, was al­most not to be. The cal­i­bre was un­veiled in 1969, on the eve of the Quartz Cri­sis, and nearly be­came an­other ca­su­alty of the Swiss watch­mak­ing in­dus­try’s up­heavals in the 1970s. In 1975, Zenith’s then-owner, Zenith Ra­dio Cor­po­ra­tion, or­dered its tools to be sold off as scrap metal in 1975, as part of plans to con­cen­trate on quartz move­ments. Charles Ver­mot, a watch­maker at Zenith, was con­vinced that the pro­duc­tion of the El Primero would never re­sume should this hap­pen – at an es­ti­mated CHF15,000 each, the presses nec­es­sary for cut­ting its move­ment com­po­nents would never be re­placed given their costs. When his ap­peals to pre­serve these tools were re­jected, Ver­mot took it upon him­self to squir­rel them, as well as var­i­ous other tech­ni­cal plans and tools, into a ne­glected at­tic within the man­u­fac­ture in­stead. As luck would have it, Ver­mot was vin­di­cated nine years later when its new own­ers wanted to re-launch the El Primero’s pro­duc­tion – the nec­es­sary tools were all avail­able, and wait­ing.

Zenith’s fa­cil­i­ties re­flect the brand’s phi­los­o­phy and out­look – rich in his­tory, but al­ways with a keen eye on the fu­ture’s de­vel­op­ments

De­spite its leg­endary sta­tus and un­com­monly high-beat fre­quency, the El Primero is no diva that de­mands spe­cial at­ten­tion in pro­duc­tion, as­sem­bly, or reg­u­la­tion, which fur­ther ex­plains its longevity and pop­u­lar­ity. Case in point: an El Primero from 1969, and one pro­duced to­day, still share in­ter­change­able parts such as wheels. In the man­u­fac­ture to­day, the El Primero and Elite move­ments are as­sem­bled and reg­u­lated within the same fa­cil­ity in two par­al­lel “sec­tions”; the El Primero re­quires ex­tra steps only be­cause it must be reg­u­lated twice, the se­cond time with its chronograph mech­a­nism run­ning.

Sur­pris­ingly, the El Primero’s high fre­quency does not pre­clude it from us­ing ex­ist­ing lu­bri­cants that are avail­able on the mar­ket. Al­though the se­lec­tion of lu­bri­cat­ing oils is done care­fully by the R&D depart­ment much fur­ther up­stream in the pro­duc­tion process, and up to five dif­fer­ent types are used for var­i­ous parts of the move­ment, the El Primero does not ac­tu­ally re­quire any spe­cial for­mu­la­tion for com­po­nents such as the es­cape wheel.


Le Lo­cle to­day is a UNESCO World Her­itage Site due to its her­itage as an im­por­tant cen­tre of Swiss watch­mak­ing. Be­cause of this, sev­eral parts of Zenith’s man­u­fac­ture are pro­tected as­sets and have been pre­served ac­cord­ingly, in­clud­ing an ar­chaic chim­ney that was part of the man­u­fac­ture’s power plant. Within the build­ings, how­ever, mod­ern ameni­ties abound, from a high-tech class­room com­plete with adap­tive light­ing that’s used for train­ing watch­mak­ers, to a cen­tre that cat­a­logues and dis­patches thou­sands of re­place­ment parts around the world for ser­vic­ing. The di­chotomy is rather fit­ting for a craft that’s rooted in tra­di­tion, yet con­stantly push­ing the en­ve­lope for tech­ni­cal ad­vance­ments. In much the same way, Zenith’s fa­cil­i­ties re­flect the brand’s phi­los­o­phy and out­look – rich in his­tory, but al­ways with a keen eye on the fu­ture’s de­vel­op­ments.

As one of the first, and still the only high-beat chronograph move­ment in series pro­duc­tion, the El Primero is Zenith’s calling card

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