New To Us: Zenith

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New To Us: Zenith

Words by Mr Dan Rookwood

21 October 2015

We visit the renowned Swiss watch brand – now available on MR PORTER – to discover a different kind of “smart” technology.

Like fashion houses or gentlemen’s clubs, each Swiss watchmaker has a unique personality. One may be closely associated with motor racing, another with deep-sea exploration. Zenith is known for its incredibly accurate timekeeping, elegant designs and a won’t-get-fooled-again mentality whenever a new bit of technology threatens to breach the Alps.

Zenith’s technological scepticism emerged during the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s. Back then, the arrival of battery-powered watches appeared to make mechanical timepieces redundant. At the time, Zenith was owned by US company Zenith Electronics, which made the disastrous decision to halt mechanical-movement production and ordered all the old machinery to be scrapped. Over in Switzerland, one of Zenith’s proud watchmakers, Mr Charles Vermot, made a brave and prescient personal stand and, defying orders from afar, secretly hid the machinery, tools and detailed watchmaking instructions in the company’s attic in the hope that mechanical movements would one day make a comeback. Which, of course, they did. “Charles Vermot saved the company,” says Mr Aldo Magada, Zenith’s 57-year-old CEO. “He saved the very soul of Zenith and a crucial part of watchmaking history.”

In particular, Mr Vermot’s foresight helped preserve Zenith’s iconic El Primero movement, for which the company is best known and which, to this day, 46 years after its introduction in 1969, is still the world's most accurate series-produced chronograph, capable of measuring time to the nearest tenth of a second.

This month, Zenith arrives on MR PORTER as our first Swiss fine-watch brand. “We have been making ‘smartwatches’ for 150 years,” says Mr Magada. “I’m talking about the movement, which is a mechanical computer, the world’s first computer. This is true, wearable technology.”

The Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969 (below) is arguably the brand’s hero watch, mentioned in the same breath as the Rolex Submariner, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and IWC Portugieser in any serious watch enthusiast’s wish list. And aficionados reckon a Zenith watch is well-priced compared with other brands, considering its engine. “The price is one thing, the value is another,” says Mr Magada. “At Zenith, the value is always higher than the price.”

Rather than cower in their canton when Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, reportedly claimed “the Swiss watch industry is #$%^&*” ahead of the release of the Apple Watch earlier this year, Zenith executives saw opportunity. According to Mr Magada, the Apple Watch has awakened Millennials to the possibility of wearing a watch. “It will help us to establish in the minds of young people that you can wear something on the wrist,” he says.

“It’s a bit like you have shoes and you also have sneakers. I don’t think Nike and Adidas are killing Edward Green and Berluti”

Mr Magada is quick to point out, though, that smartwatches and mechanical watches are two entirely different products. “I respect ‘connected watches’, but we are not attracting the same clientele,” he says. “It’s a bit like you have shoes and you also have sneakers. I don’t think Nike and Adidas are killing Edward Green and Berluti.”

The key advantage that a mechanical watch has over a connected watch such as Apple’s is longevity. Smartwatches will be superseded by an update within a couple of years, rendering today’s models obsolete. Mr Magada draws a parallel between owning a fine watch and owning a vintage car. “Classic cars are still valuable and still beautiful after 40, 50 years,” he says. “They hold their value, even increase their value over time. So it is with mechanical watches. They stir a similar emotion, a similar passion. They never date and, if well looked after, they will last a lifetime.”

Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969

There are few bigger icons in the world of horology than Zenith’s El Primero chronograph calibre, first launched in 1969. Its escapement – the heart of a mechanical watch – beats a dizzying 36,000 times an hour. The theatrical touch here is that you can see it whirring away through an opening in the dial.

Zenith Pilot Type 20 Extra Special

It’s a little-known fact that Zenith is the only Swiss watch brand licensed to use the word “pilot” on a watch dial. This oversized, vintage-inspired Type 20 pilot’s watch with its distinctive “onion” crown (for ease of access in the cockpit) has modern updates such as water resistance, and Super-LumiNova numerals so that you can tell the time in the dark.

Zenith Elite Ultra Thin

Dress watches don’t come much classier than Zenith’s 40mm steel-cased beauty. Under its velvety black sunray dial is the Swiss company’s super-slim Elite automatic calibre, one of watchmaking’s great movements. It’s so slender, the whole watch is only 8.3mm thick.

Zenith Elite Moonphase

With Zenith’s Elite Moonphase, you get two timeless indications – or functions – in one. The headline is the moonphase, a poetic indication that follows the 29-day cycle of the moon. The other is the large date at one o'clock, a two-disc indicator that showcases Zenith’s traditional watchmaking skills.

Zenith Elite 6150

The 6150 version of Zenith’s ultra-thin automatic has a turbo-charged, 100-hour power reserve – which is more than four days. Not that you’d know it, mind. With a pebble-shaped 42mm steel case, silver-toned dial and finessed detailing, it’s an object lesson in restraint.

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Film by Mr Jacopo Maria Cinti