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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.
 

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.

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