A brand like Zenith is one of the best gauges for how well a person may know his or her timepieces.
Its long storied past and several contributions to the watch world mark a timeline that’s been undervalued for far too long and often time, forgotten and eclipsed by other brands who have utilised Zenith’s movements themselves. Take its earnest beginnings for example. Zenith’s founder, Georges Favre-Jacot, was one of the first minds in the industry to bring together the different watchmaking professions under a single roof in 1865, “inventing the very concept of a Manufacture” as Zenith states.
In the modern world however, Zenith’s claim to fame has been two-fold.
Its first hallmark was the fact that it is the only watch brand that can use the term “pilot” on the dial of its watches. This harks back to the early 20th century when Zenith built on-board instruments for airplanes during the World Wars. These instruments then slowly evolved into larger watches that were strapped to pilots’ thighs before making it onto the modern day consumers’ wrist. The Zenith Pilot range is an icon and much like other brands at the time who contributed to war efforts, the heritage that came from that era can’t be shaken off.
While the Pilot range may be steeped in history, Zenith has found ways to make it more appealing to not just the history buff and vintage watch collector, but also to a younger audience that need not see its vintage-inspired pieces as faithful as others. This has allowed Zenith to play with different colours, materials (even with straps) to lend a vibrant touch to its watches.
Later on in its history, Zenith would make headlines with the El Primero, the world’s first automatic chronograph movement in 1969. To set the stage, it’s important to know that the automatic chronograph was like space travel for the watchmaking industry at that time. Several different brands were working hard at being the first. Breitling was working alongside Heuer-Leonidas (guess its modern name), Hamilton/Büren and Dubois Dépraz (a calibre manufacturer) to create their own. Over in Japan, Seiko was hard at work on the cal. 6139 (that eventually came out in May 1969).
Zenith however, had announced its El Primero publicly earlier that year in January and showed a working prototype, granting it the title of first. That wasn’t all. The El Primero’s power reserve exceeded 48 hours, which was somewhat unheard of at that time and its balance ticked at 36,000 semi-oscillations per hour or 5 Hz, allowing the chronograph to measure elapsed intervals to the nearest 1/10 of a second.
Brands like Movado, Panerai, TAG Heuer and Bulgari are just some of the brands that at some point, have used the El Primero movement. Most famously of course, is Rolex who used the El Primero in the second batch of Daytonas (a rarity in auction houses now).
Last year, the El Primero came back in the new Defy range and it just goes to show that Zenith is far, far, far from being done with innovating. The new case shape takes inspiration from a much older piece in Zenith’s wide previous collections but inside, the El Primero still beats. We covered the watch in an AUGUSTMAN Tried & Tested video last year (watch it at the end) and we were sold from the get-go. This year, the brand introduced a three-hand version of the Defy as well.
We’ve only covered two points of Zenith but there’s a host of stories to tell. We could easily talk about how the brand was one of the first to do open heart watches. We could talk about its insane gyroscopic tourbillons. We could talk about how it put tobacco leaves on dials. But somehow, we feel that the past is just the past with Zenith. It’s always kept its eyes in front, hungry to be the future. We’re confident that it will.