Founded in 1865 by 22-year-old Georges Favre-Jacot, Zenith makes watches at the very pinnacle of quality and precision. As well as being the creator of the first integrated automatic chronograph movement, the El Primero, Zenith led the way in bringing together all watchmaking professions under the convenience of one roof. Read moreView All
Although it is now one of the most prestigious and internationally acclaimed watch brands in the world, Zenith was not officially given its current name until 1911, 46 years after its founding. The company had originally been set up in 1865, in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Le Locle, where it still makes watches today. It was founded by watchmaker Georges Favre-Jacot at the extraordinary age of just 22.
Despite his masterful horological skills (focused on precision pocket watches until the 20th century), Georges’ most important contribution to watch history was the establishment of the Zenith manufacture, which was an entirely new concept. Previously, artisan watchmakers worked independently from their homes, but Georges brought them together in a single workshop for the first time, hugely facilitating the company’s ability to increase efficiency and quality control.
Georges won numerous awards for his creations during his lifetime, including the gold medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1900, and he retired in 1911 after endowing the company to his descendants, along with the name Zenith. The story goes that after creating a particularly magnificent movement, Georges was struck by the poetic similarity between a well-functioning watch and the motion of the heavenly bodies: zenith worked as both an astronomical term and as an homage to the giddy heights of perfection to which watchmakers could aspire.
By 1925, the company employed 1,000 workers and was making a range of highly sought after timepieces, clocks and instruments, as well as watches. In 1948, it unveiled the Calibre 135, a universally praised chronometer with a small seconds function. But perhaps the most distinguished moment in the history of the brand came in early 1969, when it was one of three competing brands in the race to complete the first ever automatic chronograph movement. All three finished almost simultaneously, but despite ongoing debate about the true first, the manufacture dubbed its creation El Primero, and continues to maintain that it was the winner. (Interesting fact: El Primero is not in fact Spanish, as many people assume, but rather means first in Esperanto.)
Regardless of its relative position, El Primero was undeniably a brilliant invention, oscillating at an extraordinary 36,000 vibrations per hour (the others were only 28,000), and able to measure time to the nearest tenth of a second. Although the creation of El Primero also coincided with the start of the quartz crisis, during which Zenith was forced to shut down all operations on mechanical movements, it also proved to be the brand’s saviour in the aftermath, when it was able to sell the extremely desirable movement to other brands in the 1980s and beyond. Amazingly, the vital plans, parts and tools to make El Primero had to be hidden by an employee at the height of the crisis to save them from destruction—imagine the company’s gratitude when he returned them after the danger had passed!
Once back on its feet, the manufacture quickly re-found its dominant position in the luxury watch industry, and the brand joined the LVMH group in 2000. Zenith watches have been worn in the most diverse circumstances, from extreme conditions (Roald Amundsen wore one when he became the first man to reach the South Pole, as did Felix Baumgartner on his 2012 record- and sound-breaking skydive) to austere ones (Mahatma Gandhi kept his for his whole life, even after giving up most other worldly possessions). With its 150th anniversary in 2015, the innovation and technical prowess that has characterised the company’s history shows no sign of slowing.