Zenith Watches: Timepieces for Visionaries by Visionaries

Jun 02, 2020
Zenith Watches: Timepieces for Visionaries by Visionaries

More often than not, people compare Zenith with other Swiss watch companies. For example, we see it often aligned with Rolex. While both produce top-of-the-line watches, they also have varying specialities, so to speak. To emphasise, Rolex offers more expensive, high-quality mechanical watches. Meanwhile, Zenith watches stand out in the chronograph category.

As its founder’s mission, Zenith aims to provide accurate timepieces to visionaries. Today, Zenith watches remain on top of the game as one of the longest standing Swiss watchmakers that still produce their movements in-house. With a great track record, the brand certainly has proven itself in the industry. But what exactly makes their watches good? The answer: significantly compelling moments in history and dedication to innovation and accuracy.

Great Beginnings of Zenith Watches

Vintage Zenith Watch
Photo from Zenith Watches

In his youth, Georges Favre-Jacot was an apprentice within the watchmaking industry. At a young age of 22, Favre-Jacot founded a company of his own in 1865. With the help of architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, the founder built a house in Le Locle in the Canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. This later became the home where the crafting and assembly of the timepieces took place. Under this house, Favre-Jacot put together all the phases in the production process. He and the rest of the professionals under that very roof embraced the concept of manufacture.

Strictly speaking, manufacture produces most or all of a watch’s components in-house from raw materials. Through this process, the brand successfully crafted its first pocket chronograph in 1899. Many years after, in 1911, the company adopted the name Zenith. It embraced not only its vision but also its mission to reach infinite heights and feats through brand excellence and product performance. Moreover, this name came from the Zenith calibre. This calibre won the Grand Prix at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1900.

Zenith Watches History Grand Prix Paris 1900
Photo from Zenith Watches

Surviving Crises and Uncertainties

However, Zenith, too, has experienced highs and lows as part of the Swiss watchmaking industry. There are many great factors that affected their production. For instance, the First World War from 1914 to 1918. There was also an internal regional conflict in Switzerland at the time between German-speaking Swiss and French-speaking Swiss. Not to mention, the World Economic Crisis in the early 1900s greatly affected just about everyone. The brand also existed to see the Second World War and suffered its aftermath. However, one of the toughest moments Zenith had to endure was during the Quartz crisis in the ’70s. It specifically hurt the watch industry as new quartz watches decimated the rest of the industry. In fact, Zenith, during the whole ordeal, was under the Zenith Radio Corporation of America.

But in between all these, Zenith remained positive and continued to produce innovative timepieces. For instance, in 1960, Zenith launched Calibre 5011K. This movement not only powered pocket watches and table clocks but also marine chronometers. In addition, it powered the limited-edition Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20. But one of the most prominent creations of Zenith at the time was the El Primero Calibre.

The El Primero Calibre

Zenith El Primero Calibre
Photo from Zenith Watches

El Primero, or “the first” in Spanish, chiefly put Zenith’s name in the books. Introduced in 1969, the El Primero calibre was the first automatic chronograph calibre in the world. It has a frequency of 36,000 A/h (5 Hz) that’s unusually high for a calibre at the time. Moreover, with such frequency, the El Primero allows the measurement of 1/10th of a second. This is generally rare for such watches. In addition, if fully wound, the watch runs for 50 hours despite its frequency.

This calibre is, indeed, ahead of its time. However, in 1978, when Zenith returned to Swiss ownership, the company halted the production of Zenith El Primero. This was to help the company recuperate from the crisis it faced. The company continued its watch production, but they focused primarily on manufacturing quartz watches instead. This halted the production of mechanical watches for them. However, in 1982, Rolex approached Zenith for a self-winding chronograph movement for the Daytona. Six years later in 1988, Rolex launched the Reference 16520, the first self-winding Daytona. This watch used a version of the El Primero with 28,800 vibrations per hour.

Thus began a 10-year partnership between Zenith and Rolex. Furthermore, this allowed Zenith to produce mechanical watches yet again. All these, of course, happened with the help of one man: Charles Vermot. Vermot hid the plans and tools for the El Primero which he helped develop so that the company would have it as a reference later. Zenith upholds Vermot as the “saviour of the seminal automatic high-frequency chronograph movement”.

5 of the Best Zenith Watches

Today, Zenith has four main collections under its name namely the Chronomaster, Defy, Elite, and Pilot. Each collection caters to a specific target market that chiefly represents various walks of life. Depending on what you do and who you aim to be, Zenith has the perfect watch just for you. So we breakdown five of the best Zenith watches to see which best suits you.

1. Zenith Pilot Type 20 Ton-Up

Zenith Pilot Type 20 Ton-Up, Zenith Watches
Photo from Zenith Watches

Introduced in 2016, Zenith upgraded their Pilot watch collection. The Pilot is, as the name suggests, a collection of aviation watches. Made specifically for flying, these watches uphold vintage design and top-of-the-line accuracy. Regarding its aesthetics, the Pilot doesn’t fall short on appeal. From its round case and wire lugs down to the material of the straps, the Pilot completely masters the “vintage” vibe. Not to mention, it allows easier time-reading through its stylised luminescent Arabic numerals and “cathedral” hands. However, one of its stand-out features has to be the oversized crown. Designed especially for aviators, this crown allows for time to be adjusted even while wearing gloves. It is also onion-shaped and nods directly at the aeronautical legacy of the brand.

All these are features we can find in any Zenith Pilot watch. However, the Pilot Type 20 Ton-Up has more than just legacy and inspiration to bring. The Pilot Type 20 Ton-Up has various iterations available in the market today, but our favourite is the black chronograph iteration introduced in Baselworld 2018. The upgraded version leans more on legibility than its predecessor. First of all, it should be learned that the Ton-Up is a tribute to the Café Racers, motorcycles that are lightweight and powerful optimised for speed and handling, and its community known as the ‘Ton-Up Boys’. These machines basically fly past their opponents without having to disappear in the crowd. They stand out not only for their reputation but also for their design. This has to be the principle that Zenith applied to the Type 20 Ton-Up.

Zenith Pilot Type 20 Ton Up Model and Caseback
Photo from Zenith Watches
Best Features

Adding a touch of motocross to an aviation watch may be somewhat confusing to you. However as you discover its features, it starts to make sense. It’s black, but not PVC-coated. Instead, it has a surface layer of patina that enhances the watch’s elegance without sacrificing its strong aesthetics. Moreover, it has white Super-LumiNova instead of the usual off-white faux-patina. It also has gold-plated hands replacing the steel hands. These features further the legibility that the Pilot stands out for. This watch is also powered by the El Primero calibre, so questions regarding accuracy are out of the table.

From its looks alone, the watch exudes biker energy that is perfect for the adventurer. However, the caseback is closed which can be a little disappointing to fans of the movement. Yet, the fact remains that it has a powerful calibre underneath that holds a 50-hour power reserve.

2. Zenith Defy Double Tourbillon

Zenith Defy Double Tourbillon, Zenith Watches
Photo from Zenith Watches

The Defy easily became one of Zenith’s flagship models as it caters not only to a high-end market but also to the lower end. The collection has various models under its name. It has 1/100th of a second chronograph as well as double tourbillons. The collection takes its name seriously with a gravity-defying gyroscopic mechanism. These watches prove to be the future of Swiss watchmaking. During the 1900s, Zenith housed a collection of the same name and as a nod to its predecessor, the new Defy collection has a retro-futuristic aesthetics. The tonneau-shaped case houses its complications and ensures sturdiness and stability. And to further its geometric look, the bracelet of each watch is integrated on its case. These bracelets come in either steel, titanium, gold or ceramic.

One of the higher-end models from the collection is the Double Tourbillon and a model we’d like to dive deeper into. This model has, as the name goes, 1/100th of a second Double Tourbillon Chronograph movement. More than its aesthetics, it also offers accuracy at its finest.

Zenith Defy Double Tourbillon, Zenith Watches
Photo from Zenith Watches
Best Features

Firstly, it has a Tourbillon escapement for the watch running at 36,000 VpH or 5 Hz. Secondly, it has a Tourbillon escapement for the Chronograph running at 360,000 VpH or 50Hz. Moreover, its Chrono hand has an exclusive dynamic signature of one rotation per second. The skeleton movement may also be observed through its open dial in a Platinum case at 46mm in diameter.

3. Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Grande Date Full Open

Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Grande Date Full Open, Zenith Watches
Photo from Zenith Watches

The Zenith Chronomaster collection roots back to the very first El Primero watch ever made in 1969. It features a colourway that has seen since been a trademark of the brand. Since its launch, the tri-colour chronograph has been a signature Zenith wristwatch. To this day, the coveted calibre remains a legend in the history of the watch industry. It also remains true to its purpose with the classic Zenith Chronomaster, the brand’s most famous collection. However, among all the iterations of the classic, the Grande Date Full Open stands out the most. It’s a true collector’s must-have and a striking take on a legend.

Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Grande Date Full Open, Zenith Watches
Photo from Zenith Watches
Best Features

The skeleton architecture allows for a majestic view of the El Primero calibre. It strikes as a bold feature, especially for a chronograph watch. But until you’ve witnessed the complications first hand, you’ll never know how appealing the design is. The watch comes in either a stainless steel case or a two-tone case of stainless steel and pink gold. The date window is transparent with a red backdrop creating even more depth than the watch already has. It also has a moon phase with a 59-day double-lunar cycle at 6 o’clock adding more colours in the traditional design. The steel model is available with a steel bracelet or black leather strap. Meanwhile, you may cap the pink gold model with either a brown chestnut leather strap or a black leather strap.

4. Zenith Elite Classic

Zenith Elite Classic 40.5mm, Zenith Watches
Zenith Elite Classic 40.5mm | Photo from Zenith Watches

Another classic on the list, the Zenith Elite Classic is an understated take on timepieces. By now we already know that Zenith doesn’t shy away from bold and striking designs. However, with the Elite collection, the Swiss watchmaker decided to take it down quite a few notches for those who love the minimal look. It is sophisticated but also ergonomic. The collection exudes elegance in all its glory that is available in various sizes sure to fit every single person’s wrists. You may avail the watches in this collection in either 40.5mm or 36mm cases. Each watch is marked with a play on shadow, lines, and curves that make it a sight to behold. However understated its design is, the complications underneath remain accurate and top of the line as in other collections. Among these designs, the Classic remains superior.

Zenith Elite Classic 40.5mm 36mm, Zenith Watches
Zenith Elite Classic (L) 40.5mm and (R) 36mm | Photo from Zenith Watches
Best Features

A lot of people may think that the Zenith Elite Classic is just another watch with a date window. However, the precision it holds proves to be on par with other collections. It may not be a watch you’ll take on the race tracks or something you’ll wear for a ride in the sky, but it’s an everyday companion for the minimalist. As in the Moonphase iteration of the Elite, the Classic is also available in a 40.5mm case and a 36mm case for delicate wrists. Moreover, the Elite Calibre beats at 28,800 VpH and has a 50-hour power reserve. This calibre’s thin proportions with only 144 components allow for the watch to sit comfortably on your wrist. In addition, the 36mm version has a diamond-set bezel for added elegance.

5. Zenith Defy Inventor

Zenith Defy Inventor
Photo from Zenith Watches

As aforementioned, Defy carries a line of watches that break the barriers of modern horology. One of their most iconic designs would have to be the Defy Inventor. Besides the common features found in any Defy watch, the Inventor also carries a novel invention that furthers Zenith’s creations. If you think you’ve seen enough from the company’s research team, the Inventor asks you to think twice. Aside from the Calibre 9100, the Inventor also has the Zenith Oscillator, a patented technology developed by the company itself.

Zenith Defy Inventor, Zenith Watches
Photo from Zenith Watches
Best Features

You would definitely take a double look at this watch as it takes you on a slightly different path for its face. The dial, though open, does not display the full skeletal movement. However, it still shows the many parts that make the Defy Inventor different from its cousins under the same collection. The Zenith Defy Lab further improves Christiaan Huygens’ oscillator made in 1675. This greatly improves the stability of the watch and therefore maintaining accuracy through pressure and gravity changes. This new Silicon-made monolithic oscillator stabilises the Defy Inventor.

Housed underneath the 44mm titanium case and Aeronith bezel is the Calibre 9100. To further impress us all is this ultrathin calibre that stands at only 0.5mm tall. Its creation eliminates the 30 or so parts of a standard regulating organ. With the new oscillator, it has increased stability and no contact, friction, wear and deformation.

Heroes of Zenith

As all great stories go, Zenith watches have contributions to history that we may not know of. There are certain names that have proudly worn and carried a Zenith watch on their journeys that ultimately changes the way we see the past.

Felix Baumgartner

Zenith Watches Felix Baumgartner

One of those is daredevil Felix Baumgartner. In 2012, Baumgartner dared the impossible Red Bull Stratos mission. Basically, the daredevil had to dive into the stratosphere from a space capsule lifted by a helium balloon. During the freefall, not only did Baumgartner recorded a 1,342 kph but also set various records in history. He was able to take the first jump to break the speed of sound in freefall, get the highest occupied flight in a balloon, and the highest freefall in all of history. Among the things that amaze people is the fact that his Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th still perfectly worked upon arrival. However great the pressure, temperature, altitude, and acceleration differences are, it remained unperturbed. Not to mention, the watch he wore was made with standard production!

Louis Blériot

Zenith Watches Louis Bleriot

Speaking of flying, we’ve mentioned that Zenith has an affinity with aviation. Louis Blériot proved this affiliation further as we trace back his history. Blériot was a man of dedication and loved to take on challenges. While the whole world attempted to fly through small distances, Blériot wanted to cross the English Channel. The aviator did this by flying from Calais in France to Dover in the United Kingdom in just 37 short minutes. Accompanied by Zenith, Blériot became the father of aviation.


Zenith Pocket Watch Mahatma Gandhi

Who doesn’t know the Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist, and political ethicist, Mahatma Gandhi? A hero to his people and an inspiration to many, Gandhi took on nonviolent resistance to campaign for India’s independence from British Rule. Gandhi is known to carry a pocket-watch that served as one of his very few material possessions. The watch, made by Zenith, was a gift from Indira Nehru who later became the Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977. The watch became a companion of Gandhi, signalling times of prayer with its alarm function. Much to his regret, Gandhi lost the watch once in Kanpur on a train journey. However, the thief returned the watch to Gandhi with guilt then begged for his forgiveness. This is a story personally told by Gandhi in his journal. The pocket-watch later became part of an auction lot together with a bowl, his sandals, and his round spectacles. The lot was sold for $1.8 million.

For Visionaries, by Visionaries

Zenith’s history proved that envisioning a great future isn’t as far as people make it seem to be. In fact, with determination and grit, Zenith watches became one of today’s pillars in the industry. As a company created with one vision in mind, it remains true to its origins all while embracing the changes that come with it.


Want to see more of Zenith’s best? Check out these iconic Zenith watches that will blow your minds.

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