Georges Favre-Jacot apprenticed in watchmaking from a tender age and started Zenith under the name “Georges Favre-Jacot & Cie.” when he was only 22 years old.
At the time, watches were typically made by combining parts manufactured in small workshops or by independent artisans from various, sometimes remote, locations throughout a region, a process which often proved inefficient and also put a limit on the timekeeping precision that could be achieved.
By manufacturing all essential watch components within the same facility and producing standardized parts that could be used interchangeably to build a variety of different movements—in essence, creating one of the very first industrial watchmaking operations—Favre-Jacot was instrumental in ushering watchmaking into the modern age.
At first, Zenith focused solely on manufacturing precision pocket-watches. But by the early 1900’s, the company was also branching out into a number of related products, including table clocks and pendulum clocks. Later on, it would delve into marine and flight chronometers, and, of course, wristwatches.
Emergence of the Zenith Brand
In searching for a name for a newly-developed movement in 1911, Favre-Jacot took inspiration from gazing at the dazzling array of stars in the night sky, which reminded him of the many interlocking parts in a watch movement.
Since his latest movement was a definite improvement over all of his previous designs, he decided it would be named Zenith – a term denoting the highest point reached in the celestial sphere. Later, the company alluded to its founder’s astronomical inspiration by adding a five-pointed star into its corporate logo.
Company Milestones And Innovations In Watchmaking
Though Zenith has always been well-known for its high precision manufacturing, the company has gone through many changes throughout its long history. Here are some of Zenith’s milestone years:
1903. Zenith wins first place in a precision competition run by the prestigious Neuchâtel observatory. From that year on, the company participated regularly in Neuchâtel as well as many other precision competitions, often taking first place.
1911. Georges Favre-Jacot retires and passes the company reins to his nephew and son-in-law, James Favre, who had began helping to expand Zenith internationally even before taking over, touring globally in order to market watches to buyers throughout Russia, the Americas, India, China, and Japan. Soon, Zenith began establishing additional company branches in Moscow, Paris, Vienna, London, and New York.
1915. Zenith starts producing what is now its most well-known offering—wristwatches—and plays a highly influential role in the industry with chronographs, alarms, and the introduction of the seconds complication, which is now a standard feature in all watches. You can read more about complications in our Watch Parts Guide.
1969. Zenith merges with fellow watchmakers Mondia and Movado to release El Primero, the first automatic chronograph movement, which had been in development since 1967. El Primero is still widely-used and held in high esteem to this day due to its 5 Hz operating frequency that yields a high-beat time resolution of 1/10 second, allowing for greater positional accuracy than the standard 4 Hz frequency. In this year, Zenith also started releasing watches from a line titled simply “El Primero” (all containing their namesake movement), which remains one of Zenith’s most popular collections.
1971. Zenith becomes largely controlled by the Zenith Radio Corporation, a company based in Chicago that was, at the time, the leading radio and electronics component manufacturer in the USA. Zenith Radio Corporation aimed to eventually use Zenith to market quartz movements exclusively, as mechanical movements were quickly losing popularity among Americans during that period.
1978. Zenith had been ordered to halt production of mechanical movements completely and to destroy all materials and machinery associated with developing mechanical movements. Luckily, Charles Vermot, the head of Zenith’s chronograph department who had spent his entire career working for Zenith, rebelled against the order and had been secretly concealing all the design blueprints and as many tools and machines as he could in the manufacturer’s attic. If Vermot had not done so, the El Primero movement would have lost to future generations. At the end of the year, the Swiss company Dixi acquired Zenith and worked with watch manufacturer Ebel to resume production of El Primero.
1984. Zenith begins releasing watches again.
1999. Zenith adopts a new focus by entering the realm of luxury watches, joining several other top watch brands under the multinational luxury goods conglomerate LMVH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE).
2015. Zenith celebrates the 150th anniversary of its founding.
Zenith has gone through many changes in leadership and direction, yet has always managed to survive and even thrive due to a commitment to excellence. Today, the company is headed by CEO Julian Tornare, who works closely with Jean-Claude Biver (the chairman of Zenith’s Board of Directors and also the president of LMVH’s Watches Division) to keep the brand moving towards innovation and continued success.
This collection of automatic chronographs, characterized by the legendary El Primero movement, is one of Zenith’s most famous, with designs that range from clean and classic to bold and avant-garde.
Pictured below is the iconic El Primero 36,000 VPH, which is essentially an updated version of Zenith’s original 1969 El Primero watch, with the same tri-color dial. Currently, it’s offered in 38mm and 42mm diameters and 6 color/style variations.
The El Primero / Chronomaster line also contains many skeletonized models which showcase Zenith’s signature movement beautifully. Below is the 45mm El Primero Grande Date Full Open, one of the more complex offerings, with the inclusion of large date, moon, and sunphase complications. It comes in 2 color variations.
Zenith’s Elite watches are known for sleek, dressy styles that are typically designed thinner than watches from the company’s other collections. Most of the watches in this collection contain the Elite caliber, a standard-beat automatic movement. Shown below is the 39mm Elite Classic, featuring an elegant, understated dial in an ultra-thin case. It comes in 6 color variations.
Those who love chronographs but seek a more refined look than the Chronomaster line offers might be interested in the Elite Classic Chronograph, which combines an El Primero caliber with subtle sub-dial designs, offered in 4 color variations.
Pilot / Heritage
Even before developing its famed chronograph watches, Zenith was already known far and wide as a favorite in the aviation industry, both for its on-board instruments as well as its pilot watches. The Pilot collection showcases homages to the company’s classic aviation styles, with bright, bold, easy-to-read displays; cases made of gold, bronze, or aged steel; and large vintage-inspired onion crowns.
Below is the 40mm Type 20 Extra Special, which is heavily inspired by an on-board clock Zenith designed for French airplanes in 1939. One can easily see how the large cathedral hands and striking luminescent display would have been extremely useful for early pilots, but these design elements also make for a handsome vintage watch any collector would be proud to own.
It’s not surprising that Zenith watches, treasured by countless watch connoisseurs the world over, have also been noted as favorites of a number of prominent figures throughout history, such as:
Mahatma Gandhi. While leading India’s nonviolent movement for independence, Gandhi lived an austere life centered on prayer and meditation, owning very little in the way of personal possessions. But among his few prized belongings was a silver Zenith pocket-watch, which he received as a gift from his friend Indira Nehru, who would become India’s first (and so far, only) female Prime Minister. For years, the pocket-watch was a mainstay in Gandhi’s day-to-day life—in particular, he appreciated the alarm function, which he used to remind him of his daily prayer schedule.
Louis Blériot. On July 25, 1909, Blériot, a French aviator, inventor and engineer, became the first person to fly across the English Channel. During his historic 37-minute, 40 km flight that began in Calais, France, and ended in Dover, England, Blériot wore a Zenith watch. He was later quoted as a “regular” customer of Zenith, proclaiming that he couldn’t “recommend [the brand] highly enough to people in search of precision.”
Felix Baumgartner. On October 14, 2012, when the Austrian skydiver Baumgartner jumped from a helium balloon to perform a 4 minute 20 second freefall from the stratosphere to Earth, he was wearing Zenith’s El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th. That day, he broke 3 world records: 1) First person to break the speed of sound in freefall; 2) Highest occupied balloon flight; and 3) Highest freefall. Despite the tremendous shifts in pressure and temperature experienced during the fall due to the acceleration and altitude changes, Baumgartner’s trusty Zenith watch was still in perfect working order by the time he parachute-landed safely in New Mexico.
We hope you enjoyed learning about the history of the Zenith brand and viewing some of its most iconic product models. You can can click these links to learn more about their history and current models.
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