The replacement of one charismatic CEO of Zenith with another, after Jean-Frédéric Dufour’s surprise departure to Rolex earlier this year, is one of the smoother transitions in the chequered history of the brand that calls Le Locle its home.
In today’s era of consolidation and vertical integration in the watchmaking industry, it is astonishing to recall that Zenith was snapped up by the US Zenith Radio Corporation essentially just for the name. After acquiring the company in 1971, the Zenith Radio Corporation ordered a halt to mechanical movement production at the company in 1975. At the end of the same year, Zenith was sold on to Switzerland’s Dixi Group.
Lest we forget, it was only thanks to the heroic efforts of watchmaker Charles Vermot, who managed to hide away the plans, presses and components for the brand’s mechanical movements (including the legendary El Primero calibre), that Zenith was able to restart production of its mechanical calibres in the 1980s.
Since the brand was taken over by LVMH at the turn of the millennium, its development has been marked by the exuberance of Thierry Nataf, followed by the pragmatism of Jean-Frédéric Dufour. Industry veteran Aldo Magada now aims to make his own impression on Zenith as he leads the company towards its 150th birthday in 2015.
Building on the legendary El Primero
The former International Director of Sales and Business Development at Breitling sees his first challenge as finding a “face” for the brand. “People spontaneously cite the El Primero when you ask them about Zenith,” he says, “but that is like asking someone what Ferrari means to them and getting the answer ‘8 cylinders’. After all, you don’t buy a car based solely on the engine. You don’t say first that you want a V6 and then decide what you are going to put around it.”
Nevertheless, the El Primero remains a cornerstone of the brand, as does the Elite 692 calibre manufacture movement for ladies’ watches (“not many brands have their own movement for 32mm cases,” says Mr Magada), which is available in the collection from an unbeatable 4,900 Swiss francs.
Like many other newly anointed CEOs in the watch business, Aldo Magada is keen to sort the watchmaking wheat from the chaff. Or, using his own terminology, to trim the hedge. “To trim a hedge, you first have to let it grow,” he explains. “Jean-Frédéric Dufour accomplished this and we can now start to trim it.”
Finding the right frequency
But rather than just amounting to a cull in the number of references, as is often the case, this trimming may well be more about the brand’s communication. “We need to clarify, concentrate and simplify the message,” he says, going on ironically to draw a parallel with radio: “Watchmaking is like radio. There are lots of interesting programmes but people don’t necessarily know the right frequencies.”
It is, however, at a very specific frequency that Zenith seems to have one very important ace up its sleeve. That legendary El Primero calibre that was saved from a wholesale sell-off of the brand’s mechanical movement-making capacities runs at a frequency of 5Hz. “Five Hertz is relevant to the customer,” explains Mr Magada, “because it represents precision to one tenth of a second.” Furthermore, because the El Primero also forms the basis for the brand’s tourbillon movements, Zenith is the only brand other than De Bethune to use such a high frequency in a tourbillon.
So what is next? Possibly the fruit of one of Aldo Magada’s blunt reflections: “We need a genuine sports watch.” In any case, we will not need to wait long for a hint of what is to come in the Magada era at Zenith. The brand’s 150th anniversary celebrations are set to start as early as October this year with the launch of a new model. “But the anniversary will not just be about celebrating the past 150 years, but also saying what we are going to do in the next 150 years,” concludes the new CEO with a wry smile.