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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

National Watch and Clock Museum

National Watch and Clock Museum

This virtual museum, created by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, lets you stroll through tim… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

20mm Nsa Watch Bracelet For Vintage Heuer, Omega, Zenith, Jeager EtcZenith Chronograph Mens Wristwatch Steel Case 37 Mm. In Diameter Cal. 146dpMen's Zenith Time Command Vintage Wristwatch, With Box & PapersVintage Zenith 28800 Watch Oversize 37mmVintage Wartchmaker. Tools And Parts For Spares Zenith Dials Corum Tools Eta BoxVintage Zenith Sterling Silver Trench Watch No ReserveRolex Cosmograph Daytona 18k Gold/stainless Steel White 16523 Zenith El PrimeroVintage Zenith Sporto Calibre 12-4-p-6 Military Model Handwound Wristwatch 1940Vintage Zenith El Primero Cal 3019 Automatic Chronograph Watch From 1970Zenith Caliber 126 Vintage Big Size Case Manual Wristwatch Top Men ArmbanduhrVitange Zenith Af/p Respirator X,silver Dial Automatic Day&date Men's Rare 70'sZenith Top Handaufzug Calibre 40 Manual Winding Vintage Zenith 02.0500.420/04.m501 Class El Primero "hw", Stainless, Mint!Zenith Handaufzug Calibre 2522 C Manual Winding Vintage Vintage Zenith Lady Classic 1970 New Old Stock NosGenuine Vintage Zenith 3x Signed 17j 2572 Mens Manual Running WatchRare Vintage Zenith Sporto Wrist Watch W/sub-seconds (no Reserve)Vintage Watchmakers Tool Quality Zenith Bench Micrometer Tavannes Watch CoZenith Top Condition Caliber 126 6 Big Size Manual Vintage Swiss Watch For Men Magnificent Museum Watch Movado Zenith Solid 14k Gold Sapphire Crystal & CrownVintage Zenith Sporto Calibre 126-6 Double Back Steel Handwound Wristwatch Scarce- Zenith 18j Rectangular Wrist Watch Ca. 1960's- No ReserveVintage Zenith Calibre 2542c Big Steel Case Copper Color Handwound Wristwatch Vintage Zenith Mens Wristwatch In Need Of RepairVintage Zenith Xl-tronic 51.5 Men's Watch Movement Working ConditionVintage Zenith 2541 Calibre Big Steel Case Black Dial Handwound Wristwatch Vintage Zenith Sporto Calibre 120 Turkish T.c.d.d Railroad Handwound Wristwatch Vintage Zenith Movado Museum Calibre 2572c Black Dial Top Date Wristwatch Vintage Zenith Sporto Calibre 126-5-6 Military Model T.c.d.d Railroad WristwatchVintage Movado Zenith 50.0,accutron 2193.10 & Ladies 2302 + Sheffield 17 JewelVintage Zenith Calibre 2542c Big Gold Plated Corner Date Handwound WristwatchZenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Chronograph Wristwatch With Box & PapersVintage Zenith 16mm Stainless Steel Pin Buckle For Strap WatchVintage Zenith Calibre 2532 Stainless Steel Case Handwound Wristwatch Vintage 1945 Zenith Military Men's Watch. No Reserve!!!Vintage Movado Zenith Calibre 2542 Rare Unusual Blue - Black Dial Wristwatch Vintage Zenith Calibre 120 Handwound 40 Micron Rose Gold Plated Wristwatch Vintage Zenith Movado Museum Wrist Watch (original Box)Zenith Sporto Caliber 126 Vintage Manual Wind + Extra StrapRare Gold Plated Women's Vintage Zenith Hand Wind Dress Watch RepairsZenith Heritage Ultra Thin Stainless Steel Mens Manual Watch 03-2010-650-38-c493Authentic Zenith Defy Quartz 19.2000.430 Men'sVintage Zenith 3019 Phc Calibre El Primero Chronograph Movement PartsMovado Zenith Ladies 14k And Diamond Wristwatch Full 14k Band Ca.1960/70'sVintage Movado Zenith Calibre 2552c Big Chrom Case Blue Dial Date Wristwatch Zenith Chronograph Ss Back Cover OnlyVİntage Antİque Art Deco Zenİth Bİg Movement+dİal Parts Lot No:4Vintage Movado Zenith Calibre 2542 Big Rose Gold Filled Case Wristwatch / Nr.1 Vintage 2562c Zenith Dial With Date At 5pm, For Parts Or Repair. Good BalanceLot Of 4 Movements + Crystals From Gold Watches Hamilton Bulova Accutron ZenithVintage Movado Zenith Calibre 2552c Chrom Plated Case Date Dial Wristwatch Vintage Zenith Lady Classic 1970 New Old Stock NosZenith Defy Black Rubber Strap 21 Mm W/ Buckle And 18mm KeeperVİntage Antİque Zenİth Bİg Movement+datedİsc Cal.2542 C Works And StopsVintage Zenith Defy Wristwatch Steel Case 37,5 Mm. In Diameter Automatic DateVİntage Antİque Zenİth Bİg Movement+dİal+crown Cal.2522 C For Repaİr Or PartsVİntage Antİque Zenİth Bİg Movement+screw Caseback Cal.2542c For Repaİr Or PartsVintage Movado Zenith Calibre 2542 Big Rose Gold Filled Case Wristwatch / Nr.2 Vintage Movado Zenith Calibre 2542 Chrom Plated Case Light Gray Wristwatch Vintage Movado Zenith Calibre 2542 Big Chrom Plated Cream Dial Wristwatch