Zenith Watches: A Brief History and Overview of the Modern Collection

Zenith Watches: A Brief History and Overview of the Modern Collection

Zenith SA, a Swiss watchmaker that traces its roots all the way back to 1865, is best known these days for its historic and hugely influential El Primero chronograph caliber, but the company can lay claim to many other horological milestones and accolades as well, some of which might be somewhat less than common knowledge. Did you know, for example, that Zenith has won more chronometry awards than any other watch brand? Or that it was once owned by an electronics company of the same name? Or that it is the only brand that’s allowed to put “Pilot” on a pilot’s watch dial? In this in-depth feature, I explore these and other aspects of Zenith’s fascinating history and also offer a primer on the manufacture’s modern watch collections.

Georges-Favre-Jacot and Historic Integration

Georges Favre-Jacot

Watchmaker Georges Favre-Jacot (above) was a mere 22 years of age when he founded the atelier that would become Zenith in Le Locle, Switzerland in 1865. Favre-Jacot, a contemporary of Swiss modern architecture pioneer Le Corbusier, embraced a similarly modern approach to making watches, taking his cues from the American firms Waltham and Elgin, which had found success by introducing mass production into the traditionally artisanal business. His company, originally called Georges Favre-Jacot & Co., was the first Swiss watch producer to bring the various disciplines of horology under one roof — as opposed to the more common établissage system that most watchmakers used at the time, which had different parts made in different small workshops before being delivered to another workshop for assembly into a finished watch. This type of vertical integration gave rise to what we today refer to as the “manufacture d’horlogerie,” or simply “manufacture,” a status that even today very few watch companies can claim. From the beginning, Favre-Jacot was determined to create timepieces of uncommon reliability and accuracy.

The Zenith Caliber and a History of Chronometry Awards

Zenith Observatory Award ad

This dedication to timekeeping excellence was recognized at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, when Georges Favre-Jacot & Co. won the Grand Prix chronometry award for the high-precision watch movement that it submitted for competition. The movement, launched in 1897, was called “Zenith” because it was designed to achieve the pinnacle of precision timekeeping at the time. The company was renamed in honor of the prize-winning caliber in 1911 and continued to innovate in the area of high-accuracy movements throughout the 20th Century. Another of the company’s groundbreaking inventions, Caliber 135, introduced in 1949, dominated the Neuchâtel Observatory’s chronometry awards for an unprecedented five years, from 1950 to 1954. In all, Zenith would go on to win 2,330 chronometry prizes over the years — a record that still stands — establishing the brand as a leader in the pursuit of timekeeping precision.

Turning Point: Enter El Primero

It was in that spirit that Zenith, on the occasion of its 100th anniversary in 1965, decided to tackle the biggest technical challenge that faced the watch industry to that point: the invention of a self-winding mechanical chronograph movement. The result would be Zenith’s most important technical contribution to watchmaking history, and the one that would forge its identity in the modern era.  

Zenith El Primero 1969Self-winding, or automatic, watch calibers had been around in some form since Abraham-Louis Perrelet invented the first one in 1770, but the technology had yet to be successfully applied to a chronograph caliber. Zenith missed its self-imposed deadline to complete the project in its centennial year, and other watch manufacturers — including Breitling, Heuer-Leonidas, and Seiko — began throwing their hats in the ring subsequently, all vying to lay claim to the first great horological invention of the 20th century. As I delve into in much greater detail here, Zenith’s El Primero was “the first” of the automatic chronograph movements that hit the market on the cusp of the 1970s. It was distinguished by Its unprecedented, lightning-quick balance frequency of 36,600 vph (5 Hz), which in practical terms meant that the built-in stopwatch function, driven by a classical column wheel, was capable of measuring elapsed times to 1/10th second. Despite the complexity endowed by its 278 parts, it measured just 6.5 mm in height, meaning watches that contained it could be similarly slim and wearable. The El Primero’s power reserve was nearly 50 hours, well above the standard at the time, thanks to its tungsten carbide rotor that maximized automatic winding. The first watches equipped with the El Primero calibers, the ancestors of the modern Chronomaster models (below), debuted in 1969, along with the first Defy models, equipped with the three-handed Caliber 2552PC, which also live on in a contemporary collection today.

Zenith Chronomaster Panda Dial

Charles Vermot and Surviving the Quartz Crisis

Like many heritage, family-owned Swiss watch brands, Zenith went through a series of ownership changes as consolidation began to take hold of the industry in the 20th Century. Zenith, which had a longtime market presence in Europe and Asia, had been unable to establish much of a foothold in the United States because it shared its name with the Zenith Radio Company, an American electronics brand with strong name recognition that sold televisions and radios throughout the country. Unable to sell its products due to litigation over naming rights, the Zenith watch company merged in 1968 with another Swiss watch brand, Movado, and used the latter’s extensive American distribution channels to sell its products in the U.S. In 1971, the Zenith Radio Company shifted gears from battling its Swiss counterpart and decided to purchase it instead, finally uniting the two companies with the same name. This was during the heart of the so-called Quartz Crisis, an era in which watches with inexpensive quartz movements, mostly made in Asia, threatened to wipe out the mechanical watchmaking to which most Swiss companies, including Zenith, still adhered. Not surprisingly, the new owners at the TV- and radio producer regarded this cutting-edge electronic timekeeping as the wave of the future, and the traditional techniques as obsolete relics to be consigned to the ash heap of history.

Charles Vermot

A corporate edict went out to Zenith’s team in Switzerland in 1975, not only to terminate mechanical watchmaking and gear up for an all-quartz future but also to destroy all the existing parts and blueprints for Zenith’s mechanical calibers — including the history-making El Primero,  just a few years after its debut. However, thanks to one employee’s quiet insubordination, Zenith managed to avert this  horological scorched-earth program. Charles Vermot (above), a senior engineer in Zenith’s movement-making department, having enlisted the aid of a handful of co-workers, secretly stashed all the El Primero blueprints and parts in a hidden attic at the factory (now preserved for posterity, see below) in the hopes of waiting out the turbulent quartz era and one day being able to resume production of the groundbreaking chronograph caliber.

Zenith factory - Charles Vermot attic

Vermont’s clandestine mission paid off in the 1980s, when first Ebel, then Rolex, began dabbling once again in mechanical chronograph watches: the El Primero emerged from hiding to become the engine at the heart of the latter’s mega-popular Daytona series. As the demand for mechanical luxury watches began ramping back up, Zenith — which had been acquired from Zenith Radio Company (today part of the South Korean firm LG Electronics) by Le Locle-based machine tools company Dixi in 1978 — followed suit with its own El Primero-equipped chronograph watches.

The Elite Caliber and the LVMH Era

Zenith Elite Caliber

In 1994, it had been a quarter of a century since Zenith had introduced El Primero, and the time was right for the maison to follow it up with another in-house caliber, one that would maintain the high standards of its chronograph predecessor in a simpler, three-handed format. The Elite Caliber 670 that debuted that year was notable for its thinness (under 4mm), its 55-hour power reserve, and its adaptability: like the ETA calibers that Zenith had been using prior to its creation, Elite movements (as above) are designed to support additional complications as needed, and offer visual versatility with either subsidiary or central displays for the running seconds. Elite Calibers with manual winding, and even thinner profiles, followed in 1997, along with a power-reserve display version. In the 2000s, dual-time and moon-phase functions followed. The Elite family of calibers animates a family of watches also named Elite, as well as several of Zenith’s Pilot models, and a skeletonized variant of the Elite powers many models in the modern Defy Classic series. 

Zenith’s evolution as an internationally known luxury brand came full circle in 1999, when Dixi sold the company to the French luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH (Louis Vuitton-Moët Hennesy), where it still resides alongside other major watch brands such as TAG Heuer and Hublot, both of whom have taken advantage of Zenith’s integrated watchmaking expertise and have incorporated El Primero calibers into several of their own chronograph models. Under its current corporate leadership, Zenith has both supercharged its perpetual pursuit of the highest levels of mechanical timekeeping and streamlined its collection for contemporary enthusiasts, arguably achieving a balance between vintage authenticity and avant-garde boldness that few brands can match. The results can be seen in the major pillars of Zenith’s collection, as spotlighted below.

Collection Highlights:

Chronomaster Original

Zenith Chronomaster Original

Price: $9,500 - $21,300, Case Size: 38mm, Case Height: 12.9mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 50 meters, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 3600

Zenith’s first wristwatches equipped with El Primero, launched in 1969 and the early 1970s, have been resurrected for a modern audience as the Chronomaster Original. The watch’s modest 38mm steel case mimics the dimensions of the increasingly collectible vintage model, Ref. A386, and the tricolor execution of the three subdials on the flagship models — blue, silver, and gray — has become a visual shorthand for a watch with an El Primero movement. Showcased behind a sapphire caseback, the movement beats at a brisk frequency of 36,600 vph, meaning its integrated stopwatch function, driven by a column wheel, can measure times to 1/10 second of accuracy, as evidenced by the central chronograph hand on the dial, which makes a complete sweep every 10 seconds rather than 60, tallying 60 seconds at 3 o’clock and 60 elapsed minutes at 9 o’clock while the running seconds occupy the subdial at 9 o’clock.

Chronomaster Sport

Zenith Chronomaster SportPrice: $10,500 - $38,200, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 13.8mm, Lug to Lug: 47mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 3600

In 2021, Zenith introduced the Chronomaster Sport, which is significantly the first regular-production Chronomaster model that wears its exceptional chronograph precision, courtesy of the high-frequency El Primero Caliber 3600, on its face as a badge of honor. The watch’s polished ceramic bezels are etched with a graduated 1/10-second scale that enables reading of the time to this fraction of a second. The watch’s central chronograph seconds hand makes a complete rotation around the dial in 10 seconds rather than the usual 60, enabling 1/10-second readings directly on the bezel when the hand is stopped. The 41mm stainless steel case hosts the vintage-style pump-style chronograph pushers of the early El Primero chronographs; the dial’s overlapping subdials are in the familiar color scheme of blue, anthracite, and light gray. The El Primero Caliber inside the case is on display behind a sapphire caseback, offering a view of the large blued column wheel, a lever-operated lateral clutch, and an openworked rotor with a Zenith star motif.

Chronomaster Open

Zenith Chronomaster OpenPrice: $9,500 - $21,300, Case Size: 39.5mm, Thickness: 13.1mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 3604

The most recent expansion of the Chronomaster series took place at Watches & Wonders Geneva 2022. In 2003, during what is today mostly regarded as an age of excess for the brand, Zenith introduced the first Chronomaster Open, a chronograph wristwatch with a partially open dial to display the regulating organ of the movement inside. After several years off the market as Zenith re-tooled its collection under new leadership, the Chronomaster Open returned to the lineup, now significantly streamlined from its early-aughts predecessor. The case, in steel or rose gold, measures a relatively modest 39.5 mm in diameter. The dial, in matte silver or matte black, features the now-familiar tricolor three-register layout, with one significant difference: the traditional 9 o’clock subdial, while still retaining its hand to track the running seconds, has been replaced with a hesalite crystal in a carved-out window that allows a view of the star-shaped silicon escape wheel of the movement, El Primero Caliber 3604.

Chronomaster Revival

Zenith Chronomaster Revival SafariPrice: $8,500 - $10,400, Case Size: 37mm, Thickness: 12.01mm, Water Resistance: 50m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 400

The El Primero movement marked its 50th anniversary in 2019, a year that saw Zenith release a modern, highly period-accurate reissue of the very first watch equipped with that movement, 1969’s Ref. A384. That very well-received timepiece spawned the Chronomaster Revival collection, which is defined by tonneau-shaped cases at a period-appropriate 37mm diameter, pump-style chronograph pushers, and tricompax dials, often bearing eye-catching gradient finishes. Notably, many Chronomaster Revival models feature distinctly modern materials and colorways that enhance their retro appeal, like the dark green dial of the Safari edition (pictured), with its black subdials and faux-patina indexes. The date window at 4:30, with its white numerals on a green background, is cleverly disguised to blend into the white-printed minute ring. The El Primero movement inside powers the 1/10-second chronograph function and stores a lengthy 50-hour power reserve. The sturdy fabric strap matches the main color of the dial, with tone-on-tone stitching and ecru-colored detailing that echo the dial’s faux-patina elements.

Defy 21

Zenith Defy 21 El Primero Ultrablue

Price: $14,500 - $19,100, Case Size: 44mm, Thickness: 14mm, Water Resistance: 100m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 9004

Zenith’s Defy collection traces its roots all the way to 1969, and Defy models have taken various forms over the decades, influenced by industry trends but always pushing the envelope in aesthetics, mechanics, or both. The most recent evolution of the Defy began in 2017 with the introduction of the Defy El Primero 21 Chronograph. The watch’s movement, Caliber 9004, took the original El Primero’s already brisk 36,000-vph frequency and multiplied it by a factor of 10, making the timepiece that contained it the first mechanical watch able to measure, and display, elapsed times to 1/100 second. The central chronograph hand makes a complete rotation around the dial once per second (even faster than the 10-second rotation of the Caliber 3600 in the Chronomaster) and points to an ultra-precise 1/100-second measurement on a graduated bezel. This is all in addition to the other displays on the dial, which include running seconds at 9 o’clock, 1/10-second display at 6 o’clock, a 30-minute totalizer at 3 o’clock, and an analog indicator of the chronograph’s power reserve at 12 o’clock. (El Primero Caliber 9004, which is both skeletonized and self-winding, contains two barrels for two separate power reserves: 50 hours for the watch, and 50 minutes for the running 1/100-second stopwatch function.) Further distinguishing this ultra-modern movement, which can also be found in models of the Defy Extreme series covered below, are its balance spring, made of a carbon-matrix nanotube material patented by Zenith, as well as its chronograph-reset control mechanism, also patented, that uses three heart pieces and a specially developed starter device that allows for quick resetting of the seconds, 1/10-seconds, and 1/100-seconds simultaneously.

Defy Extreme

Zenith Defy Extreme black ceramic

Price: $18,000 - $79,700, Case Size: 45mm, Thickness: 15.4mm, Water Resistance: 200m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 9004

In 2021, the same year that Zenith continued to swing for the fences in the field of ultra-accurate chronographs with the Chronomaster Sport, the manufacture also continued to grow its Defy family with the launch of the Defy Extreme collection. An aggressively sporty spinoff of the main Defy line, the Extreme models have larger cases (45mm diameter, 15.4mm thick), most of them in tough but lightweight titanium; robustly made integrated bracelets equipped with a quick-change mechanism, and inside, the skeletonized, dual-escapement El Primero Caliber 9004 that famously made its debut several years earlier in the El Primero 21 models. In 2023, Zenith expanded the Extreme collection with the Defy Extreme Tourbillon, which broke new barriers in ultra-advanced chronograph timekeeping with its two independent tourbillon mechanisms — one connected to the timekeeping, which rotates every 60 seconds, the other connected to the stopwatch, which makes a complete lightning-quick rotation every five seconds, the latter a watchmaking first.

Defy Skyline

Zenith Defy Skyline

Price: $8,400 - $12,000, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 11.7mm, Water Resistance: 100m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 3620

With the Defy Skyline, unveiled in early 2022, Zenith reimagines the El Primero’s legendary high-frequency timing performance for a subtler, non-chronograph style of timepiece, while once again paying homage to the company’s history. The octagonal 41mm case in stainless steel is derived from the avant-garde “bank vault” case of the first Defy wristwatch from 1969 (though not as faithfully as the Revival models; see below) and its overall geometric, architectural aesthetic is meant to evoke urban landscapes, hence the model’s name. The watch’s 12-sided faceted bezel aligns with the hour markers on the dial, which is enhanced with a repeating pattern of four-pointed stars that visually recall a vintage Zenith logo from the ‘60s. Also on the dial, and only subtly noticed at first glance, is a small seconds subdial at 9 o’clock, balancing the date window at 3 o’clock, whose constantly running seconds hand makes a complete revolution every 10 seconds rather than every 60 — a dynamic display courtesy of the 36,600-vph frequency of the re-engineered, sans-chronograph El Primero 3620 caliber. The Zenith star logo, incidentally, derives from founder Favre-Jacot's fascination with the night sky.

Defy Revival

Zenith Defy Revival Red

Price: $6,900 - $7,000, Case Size: 37mm, Thickness: 11.9mm, Water Resistance: 300m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic Elite Caliber 670

Following up the red-hot release of the Chronomaster El Primero Revival A384, a period-accurate re-creation of a rare 1969 model, and the vintage-inspired Revival sub-family that it ushered into the collection, the limited-edition Defy Revival A3642 debuted in 2022. Like the Chronomaster model, the forerunner of the new Defy Revival series reproduced the primary elements of its ancestor — nicknamed the “Coffre-Fort,” or “bank vault,” due to its unusually robust, octagonal case that resembled a bank vault or safe — in meticulous detail thanks to Zenith’s watchmakers using the original production plans from 1969. Its warm gray dial had a gradient effect that darkens toward the edges, a visual motif that the original model was among the first to introduce to the watch world. The dial sports the same applied square hour markers with horizontal grooves, wide sword-shaped hands (filled with a tritium-colored Super-LumiNova to evoke the vintage model), and paddle-shaped central seconds hand. In 2023, Zenith rolled out the first model of the Defy Revival to join the brand’s permanent collection. Based on a predecessor from 1971, it boasts a bright red dial with a similar gradient "vignette" effect as its predecessor and contains the same movement, the automatic Elite 670.

Pilot Automatic

Zenith Pilot Automatic CeramicPrice: $7,500 - $9,600, Case Size: 40mm, Thickness: 12.85mm, Water Resistance: 100m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero 3620

Perhaps the least well-known but most significant bit of historical trivia about Zenith is that it is the only watchmaker that can put “Pilot” on a watch dial, having registered the term, in several languages, back in 1888. Zenith’s modern Pilot collection, which underwent a major revamp in 2023, has its roots in the first decades of the 20th Century, when aviation was in its infancy and Zenith was a provider of not only wristwatches but dashboard timing instruments for early airplane cockpits. When the French aviation pioneer Louis Blériot made his historic flight over the English channel in 1909, he was wearing one of these Zenith Pilot watches. When Zenith resurrected its Pilot collection after many years in 2009, it turned to these “Type 20” models for inspiration; accordingly, the first generation of models were enormous in their period-appropriate case dimensions and defiantly retro with their bulbous onion crowns and vintage numeral fonts. The more streamlined versions are more aviation-styled dress watches than historically inspired tool watches for the cockpit, with the three-hand date Automatic versions coming in at a relatively modest 40mm diameter, with case options in either stainless steel or black ceramic (above).

Pilot Big Date Flyback

Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback

Price: $11,500, Case Size: 42.5mm, Water Resistance: 100m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero 3652

The Pilot Big Date Flyback Chronograph, which debuted alongside the Automatic at Watches and Wonders Geneva 2023, contains Caliber 3652, a revamped version of the storied El Primero Caliber 3600 and the first “new” El Primero chronograph caliber in several years. In addition to its high-frequency performance (36,600-vph, resulting in chronograph readings precise to 1/10-second) and the flyback functionality, the movement’s large date indicator, displayed prominently on the dial in twin windows, has a patented mechanism that advances and stabilizes both the date wheels in a fraction of second, allowing quick and easy advancing of the date numerals, much like the updating of flight times on an old-fashioned mechanical arrivals/departures board. The stainless steel version is nicknamed “Rainbow” for the alternating colors of its minutes scale and orange chronograph hands; the black ceramic model offers a monochromatic charm, with white markers and hands against a black corrugated dial.

Elite Moonphase

Zenith Elite MoonphasePrice: $7,000 - $17,000, Case Size: 40.5mm, Water Resistance: 50m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic Elite Caliber 692

The Elite collection is aimed at any enthusiast seeking a sleekly designed, understated timepiece with clean lines and elegant details. The top-of-the-line automatic movement inside is a bonus: the Elite caliber family has been described as an El Primero without the chronograph functions but executed at the same level of high-horology finishing and robust reliability, including a 50-hour power reserve. The Caliber 692 that animates the Elite Moonphase gents watch is enhanced with a module to power the moon-phase display but comes in at a svelte 9 mm thick, suitable for a stylish dress watch. The signature lunar display occupies a round aperture at 6 o’clock on the slate gray sunray-patterned dial, its phases adjustable via the crown on the side of the 40.5-mm stainless steel case. Joining the moon-phase and the rhodium-plated faceted hands and indexes is a subtle small seconds sundial at 9 o’clock.

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