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History of Timepieces 8 Things You Didn’t Know About Zenith

We all love a good game of name that random fact, and over the course of our editorial meetings, a clever concept came to light—why not compile some of these interesting and random facts about some of our favorite brands?

Interesting Facts About Zenith

Moving ahead with Zenith, we once again will avoid bogging you down with the usual rigamarole that you can get from the brand’s history page online. Instead we’ve found eight more obscure, interesting, and at times downright playful facts about this iconic brand. Enjoy!

Chronometer Caliber

Though Zenith is most well known for its impressive in-house El Primero chronograph calibers, the brand’s positioning as a master of accuracy predated the mighty El by a fair margin. In 1948, the brand’s Calibre 135 became a new industry benchmark of sorts, achieving chronometer specification and winning a string of over 200 awards.

Most notably, the hand-wound 19-jewel caliber was awarded 5 consecutive Neuchâtel Observatory chronometry prizes from 1950 to 1954—a winning streak previously unheard of in such a contested competition. Evolving over three iterations, the caliber remained in Zenith’s production line consistently through until 1962.

El Primero on a Plane

The high-beat El Primero chronograph caliber is a bit of a legend in the industry, and one of the three watches that all strongly contest the title of first automatic chronograph in existence. That part aside, the first El Primero faced a fascinating bit of torture testing in 1970, as Zenith strapped a watch fitted with this new caliber to the landing gear of a Boeing 707 for Air France flight AF015 before it crossed the Atlantic Ocean between Paris and New York.

Facing temperatures of -62 Celsius at an altitude of 10,000 feet, thewatch survived shockingly unscathed, and other than the time change that obviously couldn’t be accounted for, the chronograph maintained its accuracy within a second by the time it finished its journey.

Felix Baumgartner and The Edge of Space

Unlike our other points, you’re likely to have seen the news about Felix Baumgartner’s record-setting jump from the edge of space, where he broke the speed of sound as he fell from an astronomical altitude of 38,969.4 meters above the earth.

Not only was Zenith a primary sponsor of the event, but a Zenith Stratos Flyback Striking 10th was actually on the wrist for the jump. The watch officially became the fastest traveling watch in the world outside of those traveling in aircraft or spacecraft, and this real-world survival was quite possibly the fact that gave the piece the upper hand as it won the GPHG Sports Watch category prize later that year.

 First Watch “Manufacture”

Though it comes as a bit of a surprise, it seems Zenith actually lays claim to having opened the first watchmaking “manufacture”, all the way back in 1865. Georges Favre-Jacot decided that rather than sticking to the traditional method of watchmaking of the period—where movement makers would have their own atelier somewhere, dial makers, somewhere else, case makers somewhere else, and so on—he decided the most logical approach would be to house all of these specialized workers in a single facility.

The concept didn’t take off immediately, but it wasn’t long before the manufacture model became the new normal industry-wide.

Defy 21 And a New Level of Value

The Zenith Defy 21 that launched at Baselworld last year is an impressive piece of wristwear, without a doubt, however what many failed to pick up on is its impressive value given the inherent level of complexity of its caliber. Capable of measuring 1/100th of a second, Zenith opted for a double balance configuration with two separate regulating organs.

While its balance for standard timekeeping runs at the classic 36,000vph (or 5Hz), as is standard with all El Primero calibers, the additional balance for the chronograph beats a whopping 360,000vph (or 50Hz). As a talking point of value, the TAG Heuer Mikrograph chronograph initially priced out somewhere around $50,000, before a 2016 limited edition arrived for $21,000.

The entry-point of the Defy 21 on the other hand comes in at just over $10,000 for the closed panda-dial variant, which for this kind of technical complexity is hard to fathom.

Gandhi’s Zenith Pocket Watch

Every watch brand loves to hang their hat on some sort of celebrity connection, however the fact that Mahatma Gandhi carried a Zenith pocket watch is all kinds of cool. Gandhi carried and used the pocket watch (fitted with an alarm complication) for years, and though it was stolen from him in the late ‘40s, it returned to him not much later when the thief was surprisingly overcome with guilt.

Before passing away, Gandhi gifted the pocket watch to his granddaughter, and in 2009 the watch was sold via an Antiquorum auction to Indian billionaire Vijay Mallaya for a paltry sum of $1.8M USD.

The Rare and under-appreciated A. Cairelli Chronograph

With the vintage watch market still on fire, paired with the fact that Zenith launched a reissue of this vintage gem this past year with the Pilot Cronometro Tipo CP-2, it’s interesting to see that these original rare birds haven’t really spiked in value compared to the many other steel chronographs flooding the auction scene.

Zenith produced no more than 2,500 of these chronographs for the Italian Air Force supplied through A. Cairelli—a well-known retailer in Rome. Only a handful of the pieces actually saw service, and the balance found homes with civilian clients, but regardless of this the low production number when compared to the many Omega and other chronographs selling for big money at auction remains a bit surprising. Though you won’t be lucky enough to track one of these chronographs down in the sub-$10k range any more, most recent sales have remained in the $10-20K range.

Julien Tornare’s hidden skills

Julien Tornare has had an exceptional career thus far in the watch industry, growing from his early role at Raymond Weil as Manager of European Sales Operations before a lengthy stint with Vacheron Constantin where he took on roles as Swiss Market Director, President of North America, and as the brand’s Managing Director before moving on to Zenith in May of last year. Somewhere along the way he also excelled at a personal level, spending twelve years as a—wait for it—champion water-skiier. Though we don’t know if he still has his chops on the water these days, it’s a bit of an interesting visual to think of this button-downed figurehead of the watchmaking industry skimming along the water at high speed, no?

About Justin Mastine-Frost
Bold, adventurous, and well-executed. This is the calling card of timepieces Justin will always covet. From the deepest depths of the independents realm, to the latest and greatest limited-release novelties from our favorite big guns, Justin has gone hands-on with them — and more than likely has an opinion.

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  • Phillip Chouzenoux

    Excellent review and Cairelli is a gorgeous Timepiece

  • It is quite exquisite. Thanks for reading our article!