Zenith, the company that invented the automatic chronograph

September 23, 2022By Bonetto Cinturini

Its establishment and its first successes

The story of Zenith began in Switzerland, more specifically in Le Locle, in the Canton of Neuchâtel, when it was established in 1865 by a young man of name Georges Favre-Jacot.
The company name was not always Zenith, however. The watchmaker originally gave the company his own name, using his initials GFJ, which today are often impressed on the walls of the Le Locle factory as a decoration.

The name Zenith came to light during the universal exposition of 1900, when the watch that was presented, the exceptional Zenith calibre, won the Grand Prix. And so Zenith, a term used to indicate the highest point reached by a celestial being along the line perpendicular to the horizon, an expression of something that it at the top of its power, became the name of the parent company, probably trustful of this premonition of greatness. Georges Favre-Jacot dreamt of making the most precise watch in the world, and understood that he would have to rethink the whole watch production chain to do it.

He created Zenith with a precise idea in mind: giving life to a vertical organisation where the various components could be manufactured in-house.
The headquarters are not overpowering, tending to integrate with the surrounding environment rather than prevailing over it. Attention was placed on natural ventilation and the best lighting, bricks made locally at Le Locle were used, of a size that would give the correct lighting inside the atelier.
The fact that the original headquarters still hold Zenith Production in spite of numerous restructuring interventions is a demonstration of its historical-cultural value as an example of industrial architecture.

In 1880 the Zenith brand experienced an enormous international growth, exporting its impeccable sophistication from Switzerland to the rest of the world. Zenith ended up establishing itself in Russia, Europe, and even the Americas.
Only at the start of the new century did the Asiatic countries welcome Zenith, which took a position in the key markets, also thanks to the more visible retailers who helped sell the brand during its ascent.

But it did not end there. The founder, Georges Favre-Jacot was an incredible visionary, and an undeniable pioneer. So in 1888 he registered the “PILOTe” brand – which later became “PILOT” – and did the same with the names of other innovations which, in his opinion, seemed promising. It is because of this long-sightedness that Zenith today can boast being the only watch brand authorised to have “pilot” appear on the dial.

In 1890 the hunger to reach perfection and the spasmodic search for extreme precision through vertical application reached its peak and the Zenith calibre appeared just seven years later. At this point, the right road for reaching the biggest objective had been taken: the invention of a reliable mechanism from standardised production. The Zenith calibre was, under many aspects, the company’s fortune and one of its longest-lasting watches, so much so that the company did not abandon it for almost half a century. This mechanism and its different versions have passed through history and taken part in many timed competitions.

With the advent of the twentieth century, a lucky era began: the brand obtained its first recognitions and awards for its manufacture and its chronographs.
1900 was a monumental year for Zenith, when it won the Grand Prix at the Universal Exposition, definitively and irrevocably becoming a protagonist in the history of the watchmaking industry.

The mechanism is one of the most technologically advanced in the world, and its production won a gold medal for technical novelties and incomparable aesthetics.

They were particularly prolific years for Zenith, punctuated by unique collaborations and important orders, perfectly incarnating the avant-garde spirit, rising to become a guarantee of quality and extreme precision for those who search for them in the most diverse sectors.

Zenith manufacturing, the precursor of the Art Nouveau artistic current, had some fruitful dialogues with some of its most illustrious collaborators, among which Mucha and Lalique, giving life to a range of pocket watches and small pendulum clocks where art, combined with expertise, generated a multitude of innovative creative expressions.
George Favre-Jacot, with his characteristic prophetic instinct, commissioned Le Corbusier, who became the future of modern architecture, to design his villa in Le Locle, located near the original building. More than a century later, the villa has become a historical monument of inestimable importance, remaining the flagship of the city and admirable proof of Le Corbusier’s work.

In 1909, in an advertising manoeuvre worthy of the greatest marketing geniuses, the brand once again showed its uncommon – but above all rip-roaring considering the period – sixth sense with the aviator Louis Blériot as protagonist.

Zenith, aware of the visibility that it could gain because of the progress made in the aviation field in recent years, gifted a watch to Louis Blériot, the person who made the first airplane flight over the English Channel; during the flight Blériot wore a Type 20 wrist watch that became very famous as a result. This is how the pilot’s watch collection came about.

In 1913 Blériot himself paid homage to the reliability of Zenith in terms of precision, using appreciative words that were noted in the company’s visitor register: “I am extremely satisfied with my ZENITH watch. I use it regularly and I feel I must recommend it to anyone who is searching for precision.”

In the 1930s, Zenith confirmed its international approval as the first producer of chronometers and measuring instruments in multiple sectors. This is how it became an exemplary model during the first half of the 20th century, not just for its precision watches but also for its measuring instruments in general.

It was the public institutions that validated Zenith, choosing it as the elected supplier for State services, among which the Swiss postal service for example.
Obviously without neglecting the astronomy observatories, banks, insurance companies and even the military corps that sought his collaboration.

It is fitting to remember another important owner, in addition to the already mentioned aviator Louis Blériot. We are referring to none other than Mahatma Gandhi, another of the most important and influential personalities of the twentieth century, who had the honour of wearing a Zenith calibre as he followed his career. The story in question is quite curious in itself: Gandhi was given a Zenith pocket watch by his friend Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister at the time, who had been in office from 1947 to 1964. That prototype, made of silver, can boast the record of being one of the savoured material objects owned by Mahatma. The watch was part of his daily life, in particular it marked the time for praying thanks to its alarm. In his diary, Gandhi tells the story of when the watch was stolen from him, and thankfully returned once the thief realised its inestimable value.

1950 was the year of time trials, characterised by a high standard of competitiveness, when the Zenith company and its chronometry laboratory stood out with the mechanism that upended the competition: the famous Calibre 135.

The different unique functions guaranteed it five chronometry awards from the Neuchâtel Observatory, from 1950 until 1954: it is a record that still has not been beaten. Certainly they were not the first and will not be the last ones, if you consider that Zenith watches can boast more than 2,330 chronographic awards.

In 1960 Zenith touched the highest point of its technological progress, becoming the undisputed king of the chronometry world, a front runner for chronographic mechanisms.
The 5011K earned the title of undisputed champion of chronometry. Used initially for marine chronometers and pocket watches, the 5011K was subsequently introduced in wrist watches. It is still one of the most loved chronographs today.

Even though there are debates about what brand first completed the much-publicised automatic chronometer, Zenith holds the record for being the first company to create the prototype of an automatic chronometer, establishing a category world record that still has not been beaten. We are talking about EL PRIMERO, an icon in the chronograph world. Indeed, while quartz watches gained their own space in traditional watchmaking abroad, in 1969 the brand innovated the mechanical chronograph field and presented El Primero.

El Primero, as the name seems to suggest, was bound to excel, and will be remembered in the future as the first high frequency automatic and integrated chronograph: the result of strenuous Research and Experimentation by the manufacturer at the factory, which started modern mechanism production using cutting-edge tools and designers who could give voice to modernity with cutting edge designs. El Primero, with its 36000 oscillations, can measure tenths of a second.

The advent of modernity: Zenith between two eras

With the arrival of the 70s, the watchmaking world was given a good shake: they were years of unexpected technological development influenced by futuristic movements and a new interest in science fiction. An imminent transition was ready to make an appearance. Zenith, dazed by the fervid atmosphere that surrounded it and animated by the need to experiment, developed audacious and optimistic projects. The company was absorbed by an American company with the same business name in the radio world.

The new management announced that the production of El Primero would be interrupted, and at this point Charles Vermont entered the history of this brand.

The watchmaker Vermont single-handedly decided to secretly preserve the legacy of El Primero. After managing to obtain the technical projects and the things needed to produce the calibre, he hid what had been collected in a loft in the factory that was quickly walled up. It was a heroic gesture that marked the fate of this company, decisive for the survival of the Zenith heritage.

In 1980 EL PRIMERO made a comeback and production was started again.
Swiss mechanical watches became important as never before in those years, and many watch brands, like Ebel, turned to Zenith for the EL PRIMERO project. The unexpected growth of the request led to the production of two new El Primero chronograph lines at the factory: the classic version and the sports version.

In 1990 the approach of the second millennium made manufacturing fashionable again and ZENITH produced a new movement that would become its most cult collection. The “ZENITH ELITE II” was transformed, like its predecessor El Primero, into a banner of the brand for the following years. The ELITE calibre, acclaimed by the press as “movement of the year”, stood out for its versatility and practicality.

During those same years the “CHRONOMASTER” collection made its debut, a series of high profile mechanical chronographs, a manifestation of the unreachable mastery in the creation of complications. The collection became the factory’s flagship, as well as the showcase for the El Primero movement.

Recent years and joining the LVMH group

In 1999 Zenith became part of the LVMH group and a new phase started for the brand.
Zenith was one of the first watch brands to become part of the group, enriching it with an indescribable supply of experience (given its vertical organisation system) and obtaining in exchange an important space for research and experimentation. ZENITH presented its “CHRONOMASTER Open” in the 2000s, a model that disclosed the high frequency “pulsing heart” of the El Primero movement, leaving it open to the eyes of past (and also current) wearers. 

It was the first chronograph to be characterised by an open dial, whose only objective was to display the escapement and the regulator.

2004 was the year of the Tourbillon El Primero, a clear demonstration of the great mastery of the factory and its virtuosity, able to integrate additional functions (alarm, double time zone, minute and world time repetition, perpetual and yearly calendar, double chronograph, foudroyante). Beating gravity has always been a mirage for watchmakers. In 2008, however, ZENITH patented “zero G”, with the regulator installed in a gyroscopic frame that was inspired by the suspension concept of marine chronometers, so that the balance wheel would always remain horizontal.

Between 2012 and 2015, UNESCO recognised the historical buildings of ZENITH together with the whole city of Le Locle as a World Heritage Centre.

A declaration of historical recognition for ZENITH, which contributed greatly to developing Le Locle as a Swiss watchmaking centre.