Watches

The past, the future and desirability: Zenith Watches

How does a traditional luxury watch manufacturer tick that has produced as many chronographs in the past five decades as other brands launch watches on the market in a year? Wonderfully different. Which also describes the Zenith brand spirit pretty well. A lot of tradition, great visions and craftsmanship are also part of it.

  • Text & Fotos
    Marko Knab · ramp.pictures

Le Locle, near the shores of Lac de Neuchâtel. Sometime towards the end of the 19th century: a watchmaker steps out of the building after a long day in the workshop and gazes at the starry sky. Today, he has developed a calibre that beats all previous in-house developments. The starry sky appears to him like the play of the wheels and pivots of a clockwork. And he decides to name his new movement, as well as the manufactory he founded in 1860, after the highest point in the universe: Zenith. In keeping with the name, he chose the five-pointed star as the company logo.

Le Locle, in the year 2023: The somewhat inconspicuous white workshop building is still standing. Perhaps even better than ever before. It is the Maison of the Zenith watch brand. As before, it has to be said. The watch brand that has the best reputation among connoisseurs when it comes to the precision and quality of its movements. "You won't find a single robot here on the production line. That is also part of our unique position. Everything here is still made by hand," explains Sébastien Gobert, Creative Director, as we walk through the ground floor. He makes sure that the clocks here run a little differently than you would normally expect in this area. Together with Romain Marietta, who is also Head of Product Development and the Heritage department. Everything is a little smaller and more informal. And that is precisely why this proverbial manufactory also produces world-class calibres.

Marietta has been part of this family since 2006. He started out in product marketing and now helps to steer the fortunes of the brand and is involved in the design and development of all Zenith watches. The fact that the Heritage department is also part of his area of responsibility is ideal. In this way, he brings together the past and the future. In any case, distances are short here in Le Locle. Very short. "What we achieve here would never work in another, larger company," says Marietta, citing one of the advantages. Sébastien Gobert, who has been with Zenith since 2019, agrees: "Yes, it's a bit crazy. For example, when we propose a design for a new watch, we only have to convince our directors here on site and don't have to go through numerous layers." Zenith's membership of the LVHM Group means that it is anchored in a group. A group that stands for true luxury like few others. And that is exactly what Marietta and Gobert feel the opportunities they have here are: "We have the freedom here to do what we think is right and to develop our own vision of the art of watchmaking. In a way, that is also a luxury."

The paths at Zenith are indeed extremely short: if you want to present an idea, you only have to go a few offices further. The brand's CEO, Julien Tornare, also works daily on the premises that company founder Georges Favre-Jacot designed according to his own ideas. While other watch manufacturers have built new and glamorous headquarters in the Neuchâtel Jura for large sums of money, Zenith has opted for tradition here too. Just as the founder envisioned: not only was he the first to bring watch production, which had previously been scattered across various mountain huts, together under one roof - no, he planned the buildings so sustainably that his concept from 1870 still works today. Including its own industrial railway track.

The guiding principle under which Zenith still works today is: The Future of Swiss Watchmaking. It in turn forms the umbrella under which various brand values are carefully considered but passionately lived out in four watch lines: The DEFY takes an avant-garde approach ("The Future of Tradition"), while the Chronomaster line with Classic and Sport versions caters to heritage enthusiasts ("An Icon Worn on the Wrist"). The range is completed by the Pilot pilot's watch ("Heading for far Horizons"), which captures the pioneering spirit of early aviators, and the elegant Elite ("Timeless Elegance by Zenith").

"Our four collections all have their own language, they have their own aesthetic and they are complementary, which is very important," explains Marietta. "If you like sporty chronographs, go for the Chronomaster, if you want a more innovative design, choose the DEFY." Although the Pilot is a niche watch, it is also a classic like the Elite three-hand watch, both of which complement each other very well. "Neither watch takes market share away from the other. They are always highly developed mechanical movements, but the spirit of each collection is a little different. That's what makes the work so interesting, because you can express different characteristics of the brand with different collections. That's really cool."

This modern and multi-layered brand world had its initial spark in 1969, when Zenith astounded the watch world with the world's first automatic chronograph movement. The name: "El Primero", the very first. To this day, the name stands for particularly high quality. Ironically, it is the second movement at Zenith to be given a particularly distinctive name: An entire watch family was subsequently named after "El Primero", from which the Chronomaster later emerged. Before this could happen, however, the first automatic chronograph movement had to survive a moment of shock: In the 1970s, affordable and accurate quartz watches came onto the market and Zenith was bought up. By Zenith, an American radio manufacturer. The latter sensed big business with the traditional name, and "El Primero" was to make way for the new technology. 

The management went along in 1975, except for one watchmaker. Charles Vermot secretly preserves "El Primero" for future generations by bricking up all the technical plans and tools needed to manufacture the movement in the attic of the factory. Contrary to the instructions to destroy everything. When the demand for mechanical watches from Switzerland increased again in the 1980s, several watch brands sought out "El Primero" to use the calibre in their own watches. Soon afterwards, the wall behind which the plans and tools were hidden also fell. Zenith finally receives a major order from Rolex, which convinces the manufacturer to resume production of the unrivalled chronograph. The demand inspired Zenith to develop its own range of classic and sporty El Primero chronographs.

Together with the equally traditional, but avant-garde DEFY, a firm pillar of the brand is soon created once again. The key data of the "El Primero", which impressed then as it does today: 36,000 vibrations per hour, tenths of a second measurement and a power reserve of around 50 hours. The fact that the high-speed oscillator is also less sensitive to vibrations or gravity? Another advantage. And neither time itself nor competitors can harm the endurance runner from Le Locle: "El Primero" has been around for almost 55 years, but not even a million watches use this movement. How can this work for a brand that is primarily known among industry connoisseurs?

The magic word is desirability. And this cannot be measured in sales figures or an index, Marietta explains: "Of course we would like to be number one. But it's also good to stay a little under the radar. Because you are more exclusive when you own a Zenith. Customers know that nobody has exactly the same watch when they are at an event."

According to Marietta, another very important factor for customers is the long tradition that Zenith maintains. "This makes the difference between newcomers, young brands and historic brands. Zenith's rich tradition is tangible. You can feel the history, the savoir-faire and the expertise. This is exactly what people want to own. It's all about the experience," he explains. "So the real luxury here is desirability. What is more luxurious than owning something that is very, very hard to get? Most rich people have so much money that they can buy anything. They want to have what money can't actually buy. So it's almost a logical consequence that we're not the first choice for the masses."

Credit: Zenith Watches
Credit: Zenith Watches

Long product cycles could certainly be justified in this way - but the "masters of chronographs" from Le Locle are still consistently developing their flagship product. It would be better to say: precisely for this reason. Be it aesthetically or technically. In 2003, they revealed the heart of their classic in Le Locle: they presented the Chronomaster Open with a view of the movement through the dial. In 2021 and several masterfully developed revival editions later, the next evolutionary step was taken with the Chronomaster Sport: a particularly sporty but still classic chronograph. In 2023, the Chronomaster Sport editions with a stainless steel bezel and the special green edition in collaboration with American football star Aaron Rodgers. What will 2024 and the 55th anniversary of the "El Primero" bring for the brand and its customers? Find out very soon at the LMVH Watch Week. And in the upcoming rampstyle #31.

Read the full interview with Sébastien Gobert and Romain Marietta about desirability, the spirit of exclusivity and the Zenith brand in the upcoming ramp #64.

Marko Knab

Marko Knab

Journalist & Photographer
Life writes the best stories - and Marko Knab tells them in text and picture form. His focus: people & their very own stories and cars, motorsports and travel stories. He already worked for Motorsport-Total.com while completing his Bachelor's degree in German Language, followed by a brief stint at a local daily newspaper and a Master's degree in literature and cultural theory - and ramp.

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