It’s now been more than 150 years since 22-year-old Mr Georges Favre-Jacot founded Zenith in the quaint village of Le Locle, in the heart of the Swiss Jura’s Watch Valley. Despite his youth, he was a revolutionary. In the 1860s, his was the only factory fitted with electric lighting and the only one in the area to bring all of watchmaking’s key skills beneath one roof, rather than rely on the cottage industry of suppliers dotting the surrounding hills, a prestige state of autonomy now known as “manufacture”. Yet after 300 patents, 600 movement variations and 2,333 prizes in the field of chronometry (not to mention kitting out early aviators), the company continues to find itself rooted in 1969’s major breakthrough: the high-frequency El Primero chronograph, which is capable of measuring intervals down to a tenth of a second.
Focusing on a distinguished aesthetic with a nostalgic twist, Zenith has chronograph nous courtesy of the El Primero, and in recent years has added plenty of 21st-century horological experimentation.
Zenith Defy El Primero 21
Zenith shows its muscular, sporty side with the Defy family of watches, an avant-garde alternative to the more distinguished Chronomaster collection. The jewel in the crown is the Defy El Primero 21, a chronograph capable of measuring time to the nearest hundredth of a second, thanks to a secondary escapement beating away at a frenetic 360,000 vibrations per hour.
El Primero Chronomaster
Strictly speaking, El Primero is Zenith’s internal chronograph movement, powering models across the brand portfolio. So what exactly is an El Primero watch? The answer is the Chronomaster, which is based around purist revivals of archive classics.
Zenith may be known for its chronographs, but it’s no slouch when it comes to the dress watch department, either. Incorporating the brand’s slimmest in-house calibres, the Elite range combines vintage stylings with a sophisticated, ultra-clean aesthetic that feels not just smart, but thoroughly contemporary.
Pilot Type 20
For decades, Zenith retained exclusive rights to the word “Pilot” on a watch dial, and its heritage in the clouds goes all the way back to the birth of flight itself. Today’s outsized Pilots pays tribute to the 50mm-plus military-grade Zeniths that early navigators would strap to their thighs.
The Modern Marvel
It’s not all about El Primero chez Zenith. The in-house movement that powers its slimmer, time-only timepieces (occasionally with a moonphase) is the pristine Elite automatic. Conceived in the 1990s, it was the first movement in Switzerland to be engineered using computer-aided design technology.
The Merciful Mutiny
In 1975, the order came from Zenith management to cease all production of mechanical watches and make way quartz technology. This meant scrapping the relatively young El Primero chronograph’s tooling. The foreman of Workshop 4, Mr Charles Vermot, had other ideas. Refusing to see a decade of his life tossed on the scrap heap, he furtively stored everything – tools, presses, cutters, cams, plans, the lot – in a dusty attic, for later retrieval. And thank goodness he did.
The Prize-Winning Flight
In 1909, the Daily Mail offered a £1,000 prize to the first man to fly the English Channel in a heavier-than-air, powered aircraft. That man was French inventor Mr Louis Blériot, who flew from France in his own Type XI monoplane. On landing atop the White Cliffs of Dover after struggling through early-morning fog, his Zenith watch, “which I use regularly, and cannot recommend it highly enough”, told him the flight had taken 36 minutes and 30 seconds. Zenith’s pilot credentials were cemented, with the current collection’s Pilot Type 20 designed in Mr Blériot’s honour.
The Gyroscopic Mount
New to 2018’s Defy collection (coming soon to MR PORTER) is the Zero G, which suspends the ticking escapement assembly in a gyroscopic mount. No matter what the orientation of your wrist, the balance wheel stays perfectly horizontal, meaning better timekeeping (and a dazzling display of micro-mechanics).
The Escapement Of The Future
The extraordinary, still conceptual, Defy Lab manages to pare back the traditional escapement’s 30-part assortment of levers, jewels and springs to a single stencilled wafer of silicon. This twitches at 15Hz, bringing the whole, open-worked dial display to life. In theory, this will result in unrivalled accuracy.
The Top-Flight Carbon
Both of the Defy El Primero 21’s hair’s-breadth balance springs are made from pure carbon nanotube, a cylindrical form of pure carbon pioneered by British academics and deemed to be the future of material science, from medicine to space flight. They’re anti-magnetic, durable and precisely manufactured – everything a watchmaker wants in its hairsprings.
We visit the renowned Swiss watch brand to discover a different kind of “smart” technology