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    

Zenith 18k Rose Gold Chronomaster El Primero Moonphase Chronograph 17.0240.410Zenith Class Elite Reserve De Marche Mens WatchStainless Steel Zenith Sub-sea Chronograph - El Primero 3019 Phc - Sold As Is Zenith 18k Rose Gold & Diamonds Heritage Star Open Chronograp​h Ladies Watch *barely Used* Zenith El Primero Retrotimer Black Pvd 42mm Carbon Fiber 36,000vphZenith El Primero Chronomaster Xxt Open Rare Silver Dial *no Reserve Auction*!Zenith Captain Dual Time Elite Ref: 03.2130.682 - Unique Dark Brown Dial- NrPre Owned Men Zenith El Primero Carbon Range Rover. Limited EditionVintage Zenith Gold Star Vintage Automatic Watch For Men Cal. 2522 P Men's Zenith Automatic Vintage Solid 18k Yellow Gold Swiss Made BeautifulVintage Zenith Solid 18k Gold Mens Mechanical Watch. Runs. 33mm W/ CrownZenith Af/p Vintage Mechanical Automatic Men's Watch Zenith 405 Cal. 36,000 BphZenith Big Size Caliber 126 Manual Top Condition Vintage Swiss Watch For Men1960's Beautiful Zenith Wristwatch, Mechanical Movement Caliber 2542Zenith Beautiful Military Style Wrist Watch Swiss Aged Branded Movement Cal.15j Zenith Emerald Watch Exceptional Cal.126 Men's Manual Winding Vintage 37mmZenith Gold Star Caliber 126 Big Size Manual Vintage Swiss Made Watch For MenZenith Big Size Caliber 40t Manual Art Deco Vintage Swiss Made Watch For MenZenith Rare Caliber 106 P 50 Manual Top Zustand Vintage Swiss Made Watch For MenZenith Pilot Vintage Automatic Watch Cal 2572Zenith Classic Oversize Vintage WatchVintage Zenith Sporto - 1960'sZenith Sporto From Early '60s In Great Condition. 40t Movement. Serviced.Vintage Zenith '5975' Gents Gold Tone Cal. 2541 Hand-wind Wristwatch, WorkingVtg 1964 Zenith Military Gold Plated 20 Microns Mens Watch Cal. 2532 Rare Big Antique Zenith Swiss Wristwatch In Gilt CaseVintage Zenith Automatic Watch Zenith Gold Star Caliber 2511 Manual Top Big Size Vintage Swiss Made Watch MenZenith Drivers Antique Wwi Era Officers Large WristwatchZenith El Primero Watch Box, Wooden Box With Outer Cardboard BoxVintage Zenith Champion Watch Jewelry Cleaning Machine Screen Holding BasketsGood Vintage Gents Zenith Automatic 25 Jewels Wristwatch Movement - Working1970's Vintage Zenith Gents Wrist Watch For PartsZenith Ladies Vintage Watch Gwo Gold Plated Zenith Cal. 62.6 Port Royal Swiss Gents Watch Movement And Dial - Running Good Vintage Gents Zenith 17 Jewels Wristwatch MovementVintage Zenith Automatic Swiss WatchZenith Port Royal V Quartz Black Face Exploding Numbers 29mm X 42mm WatchVintage Mondia By Zenith Automatic Top Second WristwatchJob Lot Vintage Breitling & Zenith Stopwatches As Retailed By Camerer Cass & Co.Vintage C1918 Wrist Watch Movement & Dial By Zenith Running WellGood Vintage Zenith 18 Jewels Wristwatch MovementZenith Stainless Steel Watch Band Buckle 18 Mm./n/rZenith Stainless Steel 16 Mm. Watch Band Buckle /nrVintage 1970s Mondia / Zenith Hi-beat 36000 Bpm Gents Watch For Spares / RepairWrist Watch Zenith Sporto Stainless Steel For Parts Or RepairZenith Emerald Art Deco Watch Cal.126 Men's Manual Winding Vintage 37mm