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    

Ltd Edt 40mm Titanium Chrono Luminor Panerai Pam 074 Zenith El Primero MovementZenith El Primero Chronograph 18k Gold With Stick - Nos !!Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Ref 03.1260.4021 Power Reserve Display WristwatchZenith Defy Automatic Vintage Late 60'sZenith 1970s Autosport Vintage Automatic Large 35mm Case Mens WatchZenith El Primero Rainbow Flyback 405 Military Pilot Chronograph WatchZenith Vintage Autosport Automatic WristwatchZenith 18k Solid Pink Gold Chronometer - Cal 133.8 !!Mens Masonic Style 1910's Intact - Zenith Factory Vintage Skeleton Watch Swiss3x Signed Vintage 1970s Zenith Af/p Hi-beat 36000 Automatic Watch - Cal. 408*jcr_m* Zenith Vintage Watch Manual Winding 35mm *excellent*Zenith Emerald Caliber 126 Top Big Size Manual Vintage Swiss Made Watch For MenVintage Rare Vostok Zenith 22 Jewels Very Good Con.precision Soviet Watch UssrVintage Zenith El Primero Chronograph Espada Diver S. Steel Bracelet / 22mm Gent's Vintage 375 9ct Gold Zenith Wind Up Wrist Watch 17 Jewels Swiss Made WorkVintage Zenith Nsa Chronograph Diver S 58 Respirator S. Steel Bracelet / 20mm Very Rare Triple Chronograph Zenith Cal.143-6 Mens Wrist Watch Zenith Gold Star Caliber 2542 Manual Top Big Size Vintage Swiss Made Watch MenVintage Zenith Automatic Men's Watch Cal: 2572 PcZenith Nonrunning Mens Wrist Watch Stainless Original BandVintage Zenith WatchMens 1970's Zenith Xl-tronic Tuning Fork Watch In Running Condition. No Reserve Zenith Gold Plated Cal 106-50-6 Vintage Men's Zenith WatchZenith Star Logo Classic Oversize Vintage WatchVery Rare Zenith Land And Water Silver Cased Watch 1916 99p No Reserve Zenith Antique 1915 Large Deco WristwatchZenith Enamel Watch Vintage Swiss Antique Very Rare 1910 - 1914 Stainless Steel ** Mint ** Fantastic Zenith Surf Vintage Cal 2572 Pc. ** Mint ** Fantastic Mens Zenith Surf Vintage Watch *jcr_m* Zenith Cosmopolitan 27.0070.298 27mm Quartz *excellent*Zenith Sporto Vintage Swiss - All Stainless Steel - 34mm Without CrownVintage Zenith Ladies '6'date Date Bi Colour Quartz Watch-serviced.Doxa, Zenith & Paul Breguette Men’s & Ladies Wristwatch Mvts. 128cA Zenith Vintage Swiss Made Movement, Dial & Crown For A Wristwatch Dated 1938 Zenith WatchVintage Zenith Hand-winding Movement Only For Parts