Zenith was founded in 1865 in Le Locle, Switzerland by a 22-year-old clockmaker named Georges Favre-Jacot. Unlike competitors at the time, Zenith made its own movements. By 1875, Zenith employed almost a third of the town’s population to manufacture its pocket watches.
Acclaim for the company's products came fairly quickly. There was a gold medal at the Swiss National Exhibition in 1896, followed by a first prize for chronometers at a Neuchâtel Observatory competition in 1903. By the 1920s, Zenith had introduced its first wristwatches, which were cased in gold and reflected the Art Deco sensibility of the day.
Despite significant global disturbances such as the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II, production increased until the 1950s, when Zenith was one of the unquestioned leaders in Swiss watchmaking (in that decade, its calibers won prizes from the Neuchâtel Observatory five years in a row).
A typical vintage Zenith dress wristwatch from 1955 had an 18k rose gold case, a silver dial, and a hand-stitched black patent alligator strap. Inside was a 135 caliber, manual-movement chronometer, which at the time was state of the art.
Sports models such as the Pilot, designed to compete with the Rolex Explorer, appeared in the 1960s, but the biggest news of that decade was the 1969 launch of Zenith’s El Primero chronograph movement. Watches from this era with this movement inside are among the most collectible vintage Zenith wristwatches available.
Work on this marvel of watchmaking (150 individual stamps were required to manufacture all its tiny parts) had begun in 1962. Despite subsequent advances in technology, El Primero remains the only integrated chronograph caliber with automatic winding in both directions, and the only mechanical movement to vibrate at a rate of 36,000 beats per hour, making it accurate to within a tenth of a second.
In a curious footnote, the Zenith Radio Corp. of America purchased its watchmaking namesake in 1971, but instead of building upon the Swiss firm’s history, the parent company ordered all of the equipment used to make El Primero movements destroyed. Zenith Radio believed the watchmaker’s future rested on quartz movements...
Fortunately, a Zenith Radio employee named Charles Vermot thought otherwise. Defying direct orders from the U.S., Vermot packed away the machinery, tools, and stamps required to make El Primero movements until cooler heads could prevail. By 1975, Zenith Radio had abandoned its detour into watchmaking, and the hidden tools were put back into use.