If it wasn’t for Charles Vermot, an unassuming-looking watchmaker, Zenith’s amazing inventions, such as the El Primero – the world’s first automatic chronograph – might no longer exist.
When the radio and television company (also called Zenith) that bought the brand in 1972 decided three years later that there was no longer any money in mechanical watches, it ordered production to stop and for all the blueprints and machines to be destroyed. Vermot defied his employers, hiding the blueprints, parts and tools safely away in an attic until mechanical came back into vogue in 1984 and the movement that changed watch history on its 1969 launch was ready and waiting to be put back into production.
ZENITH WATCH ADVERT, 1950 I GETTY IMAGES
The El Primero wasn’t Zenith’s first success story – back in 1948, it launched the Calibre 135. At a time when brands were clamouring to make their wristwatches even more accurate, one Zenith watchmaker, Ephrem Jobin, had a hunch that scaling up certain elements of the movement would improve timekeeping. He was right, and from 1950-1954 it won numerous timing prizes at the prestigious Neuchâtel Observatory.
This quest for accuracy and desire to find new ways to innovate exist in everything Zenith does. The El Primero remains the most precise series-made calibre; a feat achieved thanks to its high-frequency balance, which oscillates at 36,000vph (most balances are at 28,800vph).
In 1994, Zenith introduced the Elite movement – the first to be created using computer animated design (CAD). But then, Zenith had always been at the forefront of invention. Its founder Georges Favre-Jacot revolutionised watch production in 1865 by placing everything under one roof. (Prior to that suppliers tended to either work for themselves or in small industry-specific groups.)
Historically, Zenith’s aesthetic – the later years of Thierry Nataf’s tenure, during which things went a little off-piste, aside – has veered towards the classic. Its Type 20 pilot watches look like the kind of piece worn by someone straight out of a Boy’s Own adventure; its women’s watches tend to the refined and discreet.
The Defy El Primero 21, launched in 2017, changed all that. Much more than a reboot of a collection that had been retired in the 1990s, it introduced Zenith latest step in its quest for precision. This chronograph runs at a ridiculous 360,000vph. Accurate to 1/100th of a second, the mind-blowing El Primero for the 21st century has a central-mounted seconds hand that runs around the dial once a second; revolutions that are then counted by the 60-second register at six o’clock. Watching it go is like witnessing a cartoon hamster going nuts on a wheel.
The same year saw the launch of Zenith’s concept watch, the Defy Lab. Featuring an oscillator made from a single piece of monocrystalline silicon, this phenomenal piece of engineering made it into commercial production in the Defy Inventor in 2019. Invention made (almost) democratic; Georges Favre-Jacot would approve.
The Elite Moonphase watches are lovely, if you’re after something understated but with the kudos of a name not everyone knows. However, the white, futuristic fabulousness of the Defy in white ceramic with its mesmeric openworked dial is just too delicious to ignore.