I’ve always had a soft spot for vintage Zenith ever since buying a 1950s dress watch from a woman in Rome. Nervous that I was about to wire over my cash to a total stranger in a foreign country, I attempted to strike up a connection. If I was going to be swindled, I figured, then at least she’d feel mildly guilty if we’d built up some form of rapport. Over the back and forth of email, we slid into an easy correspondence. Paola explained the Zenith had originally belonged to her late grandfather, a former general in the Italian army. She even shared an old photo of him – a straight-backed man in military uniform saluting the camera while riding a white stallion.
If this fine, upstanding soldier knew that his beloved watch would one day fall into the clutches of a slovenly journalist like me, then he’d surely now be turning in his grave. I, on the other hand, was thrilled by the watch’s sepia-grained voyage onto my wrist. Every now and then, while wedged in a throng of commuters on the train, I’d glance at my Zenith and imagine its former existence on the arm of the galloping general. (At this point, I would normally include a photo of the watch, except that it’s currently missing in action after my two-year-old ransacked my watch drawer. And yes, I’m grimly aware that such carelessness would further horrify its former owner.)
On a personal level, this watch-buying experience only highlighted the fact that Zenith possesses the sort of rich history that you’d expect from a brand founded in 1865. Mahatma Gandhi was a fan of the brand and the proud owner of a silver Zenith pocket watch. Meanwhile the aeronautical pioneer Louis Blériot famously wore a Zenith when he became the first man to fly across the English Channel in 1909.
Illustrious patrons notwithstanding, Zenith also has a strong record when it comes to technical innovation. In 1969 they launched a ground-breaking caliber known as the El Primero that was to become the first automatic chronograph movement. To deliver greater accuracy, it beat at a frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour – most watches were between 18,000 and 22,00 vph – and boasted a 50-hour power reserve. This proved sufficiently impressive for Rolex use a modified version of this movement for many years in its Daytona range.
This long-winded preamble is merely to reinforce that Zenith enjoys a long and storied past. Which makes their recent decision to give their most sought-after vintage references a second life very welcome indeed.
The brand has created Zenith Icons – a new concept offering the possibility of acquiring a hand-picked selection of vintage Zenith watches that have been sourced, restored and certified by the Manufacture in Le Locle.
“We are bridging the past with the future by celebrating Zenith’s rich history and the references that have become true icons of watchmaking,” said CEO Julien Tornare. “We are acquiring historical timepieces from sources who have cherished them for a very long time and allowing others the opportunity to enjoy them. These rare pieces can now embark on a second life using existing resources at the Manufacture, and I’m really excited to share these pieces of history with our customers. This is just the beginning!”
Essentially, Zenith will track down the finest, most well-preserved examples of its most famous references. Each watch will then be dispatched to Zenith’s Heritage Department for a deep dive under the bonnet to ensure all the parts are genuine. Thanks to a sprawling archive, Zenith will be able to identify and authenticate even the smallest component of any watch it has made.
Once the Heritage Department has given a watch the thumbs-up, it enters the restoration phase. The goal here is to preserve its condition and retain as much of the original parts and materials as possible. If certain components are no longer usable, Zenith will replace them with historical parts.
Finally, the watch will be issued with a passport to ensures its traceability for the rest of its new life. Anything bought from the Icons collection will get a three-year warranty, covering the movement and the wear-and-tear of components.
The Icons concept has already been rolled out in the Zenith boutique in the Ginza district of Tokyo with Shanghai slated as the next destination and more to follow around the world. It’s a laudable initiative that’s sure to excite any fan of the brand. In fact, the only thing missing from the offer would be the inclusion of a black and white photo of each watch’s original owner. Preferably on horseback, of course.
Made in partnership with Zenith. However, the opinions expressed in this article are our own in accordance with our Editorial Policy.