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05/24/2022 | Updated on: 07/14/2023
 5 minutes

Zenith: The Inventor of the Automatic Chronograph

By Donato Emilio Andrioli
Zenith-Chronomaster-Sport-2-1

Zenith is one of the most renowned luxury watch manufacturers in the industry, and enjoys a rich history that began in a small workshop in Le Locle, Switzerland. Today, I’m taking you on a journey through Zenith’s lively past, making stops along the way to share some of the brand’s greatest achievements and most popular watches.

Zenith ist der Erfinder des automatischen Chronographen
Zenith: The Inventor of the Automatic Chronograph

Zenith’s Amazing Backstory

When 22-year-old Swiss watchmaker Georges Favre-Jacot began making watches in his modest workshop in Le Locle in 1865, he soon realized that he wanted more from his career. Inspired by mass production methods used by American brands, Favre-Jacot invested in expanding his business and quickly hit some early milestones. At the Paris Exposition in 1900, the fledgling brand received an award for its exceptional Zenith caliber, and from that point on, Zenith became the company’s name. Thanks to their reliable, precise timepieces, Zenith began winning awards just three years later. Their greatest achievement, however, was the El Primero movement, the world’s first automatic chronograph caliber. In 1969, at the beginning of the quartz crisis, master watchmaker Charles Vermot was ordered by his superiors to stop production on the soon-to-be legendary El Primero movement and concentrate his efforts on making quartz calibers. Vermot secretly defied the order, carefully preserving some 150 pieces, as well as his blueprints and other documents. The rest is history: Chronographs with the El Primero caliber are not only Zenith’s top seller, the movement has been a legend in the industry for decades – all thanks to one disobedient employee.

Das El Primero Chronographen-Kaliber ist Zeniths größter Erfolg
The El Primero chronograph caliber is Zenith’s greatest accomplishment.

Is Zenith owned by Rolex?

The persistent belief that Zenith belongs to Rolex is well-founded: In the early 1980s, Rolex began using the renowned El Primero in the equally renowned Rolex Daytona, thereby initiating a partnership between the two luxury watch brands that would endure until the late 1990s. Known as Zenith Daytonas, these watches are highly-coveted by collectors and a great source of fascination for watch lovers in general. Yet despite this important and historic cooperation, Zenith never belonged to Rolex. Zenith continued to manufacture their own watches and operate as an autonomous company until 1999, when they became part of the luxury group LVMH. After this acquisition, the Swiss watch brand returned to its roots, creating reliable, high-precision timepieces. Zenith watches are among the very best the industry has to offer, and can hold their own against Rolex, Omega, and Breitling.

Read more about the partnership between Rolex and Zenith here.

Die Partnerschaft zwischen Zenith und Rolex ist legendär und machte Zenith weltberühmt.
The legendary partnership between Zenith and Rolex made Zenith famous.

Zenith Chronomaster Sport

It’s obvious at a glance that Zenith relied heavily on the Rolex Daytona for the design of the Chronomaster Sport. The overall look of the watch is so reminiscent of the legendary Rolex chronograph that you might even mistake one for the other. (Since you’ve gotten this far in the article, you already know why this is.) Released in 2021, the Chronomaster Sport is a kind of tribute to past El Primero chronographs. The attentive watch enthusiast will recognize a lot of loving details in this watch – reference points to the pieces that inspired it. Needless to say, the Zenith Chronomaster Sport is powered by the legendary El Primero, one of the world’s top calibers. The column-wheel chronograph comes with automatic winding and measures 1/10ths of a second, and the beautifully decorated movement can be seen through the watch’s sapphire crystal case back. The Zenith Chronomaster Sport has a modern design, and is probably the best alternative to the Rolex Daytona available right now, thanks to its similar look and lower price. Prices for the Zenith Chronomaster Sport range from $8,500 to $11,000, depending on the dial and bracelet. For a Rolex Daytona, you’ll need to invest more than double that on the open market.

The Zenith Chronomaster Sport combines the best bits of all the El Primero chronographs.
Zenith 真力時 Chronomaster Sport
03.3100.3600/21.M3100 ()
錶殼物料
錶盤
黑色

The Zenith Chronomaster Revival El Primero A384

The Chronomaster El Primero Revival A384 is a faithful reproduction of the very first Zenith watch to feature the automatic El Primero movement. Thanks to the original product plans from 1969, all the features of the original have been brought back to life. The tonneau-shaped case shines with renewed splendor, as do the panda dial with its black subdials and the famous “ladder bracelet,” the design of which gives off an early 70s vibe. The true-to-the-original size of 37 mm also made it into the modern era, making the new timepiece not a tribute to the original but a time-capsule, a 1:1 reincarnation of the legendary 1969 model. The technology, however, is anything but old-fashioned: the revival model features a brand-new El Primero movement with a 50-hour power reserve, visible through the case back. This new feature compensates somewhat for the watch’s low water resistance of just 50 m (5 bar, 164 ft). The Zenith Chronomaster Revival El Primero A384 is a consummate achievement, sure to make the heart of many a vintage watch or Zenith fan beat a little faster. What’s more: You can call the A384 your own for less than $8,000.

Zenith El Primero A384 Revival
The Zenith Chronomaster Revival El Primero is a nearly identical remake of the original watch from 1969.

Zenith Defy Skyline

Instead of traveling back in time again, let’s sneak a peek into the future, because the Swiss luxury watch manufacturer has a watch up its sleeve that could hardly be more futuristic: the Zenith Defy Skyline. The watch’s octagonal, 41-mm case and bracelet are strikingly reminiscent of the legendary Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. But Zenith went one step further with this watch and designed a truly unique sunburst dial engraved with four-point stars. The ultramodern El Primero 3620 movement that can be marvelled at via the sapphire crystal back is so impressive that the date function, 60-hour power reserve, and water resistance to 100 m (10 bar, 328 ft) are almost a minor matter. Nevertheless, there’s one feature we absolutely have to talk about: the small subdial at 9 o’clock. This is a 1/10th of a second hand that completes one rotation every ten seconds. Why? Because the Zenith Defy Skyline can do that, and luxury watches are fun! I especially like the fact that the strap can be switched out quickly and easily, without tools or a watchmaker. In the traditional watch world, that’s not only futuristic, it’s also extremely user-friendly and a feature I’d like to see from every luxury watch manufacturer. The inclusion of an extra strap for is a commendable addition that pampers the purchaser and an uncommon asset in the world of contemporary luxury watches. If you like the Zenith Defy Skyline, you can add it to your collection for less than $8,000.

Zenith Defy Skyline
The Zenith Defy Skyline boasts a thoroughly futuristic design.

Zenith: Amazing Backstory, Rosy Future

Zenith can look back on a history rich in tradition. The El Primero automatic movement in particular made the brand itself a legend in the watch world. The past notwithstanding, the Swiss luxury watch manufacturer is continually reinventing itself and making headlines with its latest timepieces. The Chronomaster Sport is surely one of the best chronographs in the industry, and while the Chronomaster Revival manages to manifest the best of bygone days, the brand’s Defy line looks forward to a rosy future. Watch lovers everywhere can rest assured that the future of Zenith is promising, and something to look forward to.

Read next: Patek Philippe, Zenith, and Tudor: Welcome to the Discontinued Club


About the Author

Donato Emilio Andrioli

With the purchase of my Tudor Black Bay 41, I discovered a passion for mechanical watches. I am particularly drawn to iconic watches with long and exciting histories.

Read more

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