Zenith did not always bear this name. The Zenith brand was officially adopted in 1911. Still, the inspiration came to Georges Favre-Jacot, the founder of the company, much earlier. After finishing a caliber, he thought that the highest point of the universe was the fitting name for such mechanical excellence.
The company manufactured precision pocket watches since 1865, and its first chronograph dated back to 1899. It later expanded its activities to high-grade chronometers table clocks and pendulum clocks. Its dedication to precise watchmaking was marked by its regular participation in the Neuchatel observatory contests.
Its fame grew, and the company expanded, selling watches all over the world. It opened branches in Moscow in 1908, in Paris in 1909, and London in 1914.
In 1911 the company became a stock company, and the company passed into the hands of James Favre. He expanded the international network of the company by opening a branch in New York in 1926. In this era, the company employed over 1,000 people.
The years after the war saw the diffusion of wrist watches. The company dedicated its efforts to the field, manufacturing precious movements incorporating complications such as chronograph and alarm functions. In 1929, the Kew observatory in England affirmed that a Zenith caliber set a world record for precision, with a daily deviation of only 0.6 seconds.
In the following years, Zenith cooperated with Mondia and Movado to create its best-known chronograph movement, the “El Primero.” It was a caliber so precise it could measure the tenth of a second mechanically and debuted in 1969 with tremendous success.
Unfortunately, the quartz crisis fell upon the mechanical watch world. An American electronics manufacturing group bought Zenith. The USA management ordered to dismiss every activity relating to mechanical watch production and destroy movements and machinery. But Charles Vermot, then head of the chronograph developing team, rebelled against the directive. With his fellow employees’ cooperation, he disassembled the machinery and hid documents, completed movements, and parts in the vast Zenith complex. In this way, he saved the El Primero and the mechanical watch production from oblivion.
At the end of 1978, luckily the company changed hands again. With the help of another watchmaker, Ebel, the production of mechanical watches resumed. The company entered into the LVMH luxury group in 1999 and continued to manufacture notable watches that follow the original aim of the watchmaker: striving for ultimate precision.
1 – Chronomaster/El Primero
The most popular watch of the company is not a real collection, but a caliber, the El Primero. The movement was – and is – so excellent that it was used for some years inside the Rolex Daytona models.
From its origins in 1969, the El Primero movement was interpreted in countless versions.
Its own line is called Chronomaster, and the caliber is also mounted in other collections of the company, from the most classical to the most modern and groundbreaking, like models featuring a twin escapement to measure the 1/100th of a second, a tourbillon, or a fusee chain transmission to ensure a constant driving force.
2 – Defy
The Defy is a line that hosts the boldest, rugged, and innovative timepieces of the Maison: so it is a sort of “specialization” into which might also fall watches belonging to other lines. The Defy is best characterized by the innovative ways how Zenith uses materials and incorporates new technologies, like the carbon nanotubes used in spirals, or the silicon balance that is mounted inside the Defy Lab limited edition.
3 – Elite
The Elite, instead, is a traditional dress watch and expresses the continuity of the tradition of the watchmaker in providing an elegant timepiece that is suited to every formal occasion. Some of the models are ultra-thin and offer a wide range of calibers incorporating advanced features such as power reserve indicator and GMT.
4 – Pilot
The Pilot watches by Zenith are also extremely sought-after. They are made respecting the tradition of old “fliegers,” so you will find some beautiful timepieces with that rétro military look that will win you over.
The “grenier” or attic has become a sort of important feature in Zenith’s history. The attic of Zenith has offered yet another treasure. Inside an unassuming and unlabelled box, it was discovered a different version of the dial used in the original A386 Chronomaster El Primero dial.
The company has decided to offer this dial, along with the original case, as a manufacture edition to mark in 2019 the El Primero’s 50th anniversary. Initially, it was reserved solely for purchase by the visitors of the Zenith factory.
However, as today it is impossible to visit the Zenith premises due to the COVID issues, the company has decided to make the watch available for e-commerce shopping. The watch comes in special packaging, mimicking a book that can be displayed on a bookshelf and bearing a blueprint of the Zenith manufacture on its cover. It includes a comic book about Charles Vermot by renowned Swiss cartoonist Cosey and a reproduction of the vintage dial found in the attic.
As a brand, Zenith has always kept a low-profile image, more interested in performance and accuracy than glam, and one of its only public debuts testimonies it.
Zenith was the technical partner for the Red Bull Stratos mission in 2012. Felix Baumgartner launched himself into the stratosphere from a space capsule supported by a helium-powered balloon. During the free fall, with a Zenith watch at his wrist, Felix Baumgartner reached a record speed of 1342 km per hour, establishing several world records.
A sort of hidden gem that the volcanic Jean Claude Biver, one of the legends of watchmaking, was trying to uncover for the big public in 2017, to repeat the magic he had practiced with TAG Heuer and Hublot.
Unfortunately for Zenith, Biver in 2018 announced his decision to step back from active duty for health issues: so it remains the hidden beauty worn by watch connoisseurs.
Current Most Popular
Zenith has always been a manufacture, making its in-house calibers. While not as appreciated by the general public as much as other famous companies, Zenith’s movements are indeed of excellent quality and precision. The tradition of Zenith chronometric achievements continues to be upheld by the company.
This means that in general, Zenith timepieces are somewhat undervalued, especially when compared with their contents, making them some great buys for the discerning collector.
The current all-around champ in Zenith is the El Primero, in its most diverse iterations. As good as it is, it is a column-wheel chronograph that is surprisingly affordable.
The Defy has recently raised ripples because of its innovations. The skeletonized Defy models are handsome, with their contemporary design and urban-industrial look.
The Elite represents the current dress watch offering by the company. It is the logical follower of the tradition of the old “Stellina” (little star), a very popular model among vintage watch enthusiasts
The Pilot line is instead devoted to following the footsteps of the first Zenith fliegers, the watches that air pilots wore during the World Wars, and the company was famous for. The most renowned Pilot watch from Zenith was worn by Louis Bleriot when he first flew over the English Channel in 1909.
Current Approximate Price List By Line/Model
We should note that Zenith’s current lineup is somewhat confusing, as watches are spread along lines based on function/movement rather than design/collection. For example, you might find watches in the Defy line mounting the El Primero movement, rendering a coherent organization of collections impossible.
The Chronomaster/El Primero line
The El Primero chronograph is one of the most iconic watch models around. Every watch aficionado should think about having one in his collection. This watch was the first automatic chronograph model launched in history, and its hi-beat caliber allows for the mechanical measurement of 1/10ths of a second.
type: luxury sports watch
material: stainless steel, gold-plated, gold, titanium
functions: date, power reserve, moon phase, chronograph, tourbillon.
The El Primero has been manufactured for 50 years in countless models. This means that you can find a vast array of prices, depending on the model and the rarity. The company has also issued several heritage models, re-proposing old designs (which come at a different price than the vintage references).
The original El Primero models were the A384 and A386, the first with a Panda dial, and the latter with the distinctive dial with three overlapping, colored subdials – a much rarer model with only 2,500 pieces manufactured.
An original reference for these models starts from around $15,000 to the $5,000 of the so-called Anniversary modern re-edition.
The same evaluation is shared by the Zenith Espada (which also offers a date/time version with no chronograph, which is less expensiv
The most affordable versions of the El Primero are the ones made in the 1990s, which you might find as a second-wrist starting from $1,800, upwards. While the design is not modern, they are very affordable.
The most expensive El Primeros are equipped with a tourbillon. They are the Chronomaster and Grande Chronomaster XXT, available in standard and skeletonized versions, which start from around $12,000. Also available is the El Primero 21, mounting a higher-beat version of the movement which can reach a precision of 1/100th of a second. This line starts at around $6,000.
The Defy line
The Defy is a collection going on for a long time. It houses the sportiest and most avant-garde timepieces made by the company (and the name says it all). Inside the Defy line, you are going to find time-only watches and very modern, conceptual models featuring highly innovative technologies, such as the breakthrough silicon oscillator introduced in the Zenith Defy Inventor. You’ll also find chronographs (some using the El Primero movement) and diver versions, both in man’s and ladies’ models.
type: luxury sports watch
material: stainless steel, titanium, ceramic, gold
functions: date/day, chronographer, tourbillon
The Defy collection debuted in the Seventies, so it comprises vintage quartz-based references as well, which are very affordable, starting around $350. In comparison, the mechanical-based counterparts begin at about $600.
One of the most famous models is the “Time Safe,” with its chunky octagonal case, and the “Spaceman,” with its fluid lines and elliptical glass reminding an astronaut’s helmet. Expect to pay from $900 upwards to buy one.
The modern Defy for men is the Defy Classic and the Defy Skeleton, starting from around $3,500 and $4,000. The chronograph and diver version prices have the same street prices.
The ladies’ models, known as Midnight, are adorned with diamonds as indices and start from around $6,500.
If you like a gem-studded watch displaying a rainbow effect on the bezel, the Defy Classic Rainbow does precisely that. Expect to pay from $15,000 upwards. The Defy Inventor, with its unique silicon vibrating regulator, can be bought for around the same sum.
On top of the Defy line, we find the skeletonized tourbillons and double tourbillons. Some models use a constant force fusee or a gyroscopically-controlled regulator system (that is, like a tourbillon on steroids). Expect to start at the $50,000 mark and rise upwards to over $100.000.
The Elite line
The Elite collection groups the company’s dressy references and offers timepieces of varying complexity, from the simplest two and three handers to the most complicated models featuring a tourbillon. There is also a sizable choice of ladies’ models.
The Stellina vintage models should fall into this category, too.
type: dress watch
material: stainless steel, gold, platinum
functions: date, power reserve, GMT, moon phase, chronograph, tourbillon.
The vintage Stellina models are very affordable: you can find them around $350 upwards.
The Elite timepieces’ base versions are available around $1,000, rising upwards as you add complications.
Around $2,500, you may find models equipped with a power reserve indicator or a moon phase display.
On the top end, you find models in gold and platinum featuring chronographs (from $9,000), gems (from $11,000), and tourbillon (from $15,000).
The Pilot line
The Pilot line represents one of the company’s most classic collections, hailing back to its origins as a maker of precision instruments devoted to air pilots. Along with the typical pilot’s watches, you may find chronographers.
type: luxury sports watch
material: stainless steel, bronze, gold
functions: date/day, calendar, GMT, chronographer, tourbillon.
The Pilot line goes from the Sixties and groups also old references which look like typical dress watches. They start from around $600, upwards.
The first real Pilots are the vintage models, starting from around $2,500. The modern re-edition of these timepieces, instead start from about $3,000. The chronograph models begin from $4,000.
On the top end, we find the gold-cased models from $10,500, the gem-studded Ladies’ models from $15,000, up to the tourbillons starting around 21,000.
Fast and Curious – Q & A (Quora, general questions, amazon / ebay questions, etc…)
How good are Zenith watches?
How do Zenith watches compare to other brands?
I’m torn between the Zenith El Primero and the Omega Speedmaster. Most iconic chronograph movement vs. most iconic chronograph. Which would you choose?
Who makes the best watch movements, JLC, Patek, VC, A. Lang, Zenith, or Rolex?
What are the real Zenith watch prices?
Is Zenith Defy equivalent to Hublot?