On Calibre Online, our CEO Brian Duffy sits down with Julien Tornare, who is the CEO of Zenith to discuss the history of the brand, his role as the CEO and the industry leading El Primero celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Julien started out 22 years ago working for a family brand when he then joined renowned watch brand Vacheron Constantin. It was only in 2017, after 17 years with Vacheron he received a call from legendary Jean-Claude Biver who talked to Julien about the Zenith brand. The call was so impactful that Julien decided to move back to Switzerland to become the CEO of Zenith.
The history of Zenith
154 years ago, an inspirational young man known as Georges Favre-Jacot set up the brand at the age of 22. He had the vision of bringing together the watchmakers and craftsman to enable manufacturing to be more efficient, encompassing the production of movements. Today, the Zenith manufacturer remains in Switzerland, and the general public are invited to come and view the history of Zenith’s watchmaking.
Georges Favre-Jacot is an innovative individual who was inspiring, creative and ambitious. His mission was to create a unique brand that could move forward with the times through innovation.
Zenith are known for their chronographs and in 1969, the iconic El Primero was born. The automatic chronograph is a huge achievement for the brand and this year celebrates the El Primero 50th anniversary. Zenith’s chronographs are associated with the El Primero, as well as having an association to aviation and pilot watches. In 1970, an El Primero was strapped to the landing gear of a Boeing 707 on the AF015 from Paris to New York, which proves that the El Primero can defy the speed of an aircraft.
Many famous owners have worn a Zenith watch including Prince Albert of Monaco, Mahatma Gandhi, and more recently in 2012, Felix Baumgartner became the first man in history to break the speed of sound in a freefall wearing an El Primero. He launched himself into the stratosphere from space at a temperature of -62 degrees. The El Primero was able to resist to extreme condition.
“The El Primero is forever and we don’t want the story to ever end“
The Quartz Crisis
Between 1970-1980, the watch industry experienced a quartz crises. In 1975, Zenith Radio Corporation, the American brand that owned Zenith between 1971 and 1978, decided to limit its production to quartz watches only, as they believed that it was the end of mechanical Swiss watchmaking and that quartz is the future.
Charles Vermot, a specialist in chronograph movement construction who followed the development of El Primero and spent his entire career within the manufacture, decided to safeguard the components that are essential for the production of the El Primero Caliber. Every evening he would secretly hide all the components, plans and tools in the attic of the company that you can still visit today.
In 1978, Zenith changed hands and the new owners believed in the renaissance of mechanical watchmaking. Zenith was the only manufacturer who was capable of producing a chronograph as precise and reliable as the El Primero. The bravery of Charles Vermot saved the El Primero and the brand with the relaunch of the production taking place in 1984.
The El Primero 50th Anniversary
2019 celebrates the 50th anniversary of the El Primero. To honour this milestone, Zenith introduced a boxed set of three special remake watches for watch aficionado collectors. Each boxed set includes three watches, as well an empty space – ready for the next Zenith El Primero high frequency movement.
The anniversary box set is created in a limited edition of just 50 pieces and Zenith are offering 50 years warranty. Every single owner of this special edition piece will be invited to an event on January 10th 2069 to celebrate 100 years of the El Primero. The El Primero is forever and we don’t want the story to ever end.
Next year will see a new design with a new way for stopping and starting a chronograph. This is a new invention that Zenith are working on and Julien predicts it will surprise many people.
The Skeleton movements have always been quite traditional in the past, therefore the brand are working on making the movement more contemporary to keep up with the time.
The Elite line will also be presented in a new elegant way with thinner lugs. Watch this space!
Visit your nearest showroom to view the Zenith timepieces.
Discover more Zenith stories on Calibre Online.