Baselworld 2014 will be a turning point for Zenith – its last year before reaching its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. Although it hasn’t explicitly said as much, the firm is unveiling three new models that symbolise three key stages in its history... and its future.
CEO Jean-Frédéric Dufour himself delivers the manufacture’s key messages: “This year at Baselworld we are promoting three new watches that embody Zenith’s knowhow. The first is the El Primero Synopsis, an elegant, classical watch bearing all the hallmarks of Zenith’s legendary models. The second is the more exclusive El Primero Lightweight, combining technological innovation and creative daring. And last but not least, a really exclusive watch: the Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu, blending a heritage deeply rooted in the history of aviation and all the expertise of Neuchatel craftsmanship.”
Having achieved tenth-of-a-second jumps, Zenith is now looking to pare tenths of grams! That’s the avowed aim of the El Primero Lightweight. To do this, the brand with the star has created a timepiece in which all the components have been re-engineered with ultimate lightness in mind.
First of all, there’s the movement itself. The legendary El Primero, which this year celebrates 45 years, has had a high-tech makeover. Based on its latest research into new materials, Zenith has chosen to machine the movement’s plate and bridges from titanium: light, strong and frequently used in aeronautics. The decision to craft these parts from titanium makes quite a difference: the plate and the watch’s five bridges – for the barrel, balance, anchor, anchor wheel and chronograph – are the heaviest components if they are made from brass. Using titanium for these components alone has achieved a final weight saving of 25%.
The manufacture has used silicon, too. The anchor and escapement wheel are made out of this non-magnetic material, harder than steel and guaranteeing excellent performance, particularly in terms of friction, although detractors lament the fact that it cannot be repaired.
As to the case, carbon and aluminium have been chosen, along with titanium for the buttons and crown. These two materials also have the advantage of being light – and give the watch a sportier look.
The dial is a skeleton model, so just about every superfluous part has been dispensed with, leaving only the bare necessities: counter, flange and hour markers. Even the date disc display system uses skeletonised figures!
A historic Primero
The dictionary defines a synopsis as “a piece of writing giving an overview of a work or science.” This could just be the vocation of Zenith’s latest “El Primero Synopsis” line – providing a perfect synopsis of the legendary movement. That might come as a surprising choice; the watch is not a chronograph, but simply displays hours and minutes with a small seconds hand! Contrarian? Far from it – because to be appreciated, precision does not need to be measured. The El Primero caliber beating within the three new models will guarantee perfect regularity for its owners – and after all, the basic time function is the one people use by far the most on an everyday basis.
Complete with a 40 mm case, the piece is timeless. It’s round and easy to use, fully in line with the tenets of fine watchmaking, from its lugs right down to its applique hour markers and facets, including its SuperLumiNova finish. The watch’s only unusual feature is that it can be admired through its sapphire back – or through the dial thanks to an opening between 9 o’clock and 1 o’clock. This Open concept, unveiled by Zenith in 2003, has since (un)clothed a number of the brand’s models.
Here, the El Primero escapement is revealed, its mauve parts hinting at the use of silicon for the anchor and escapement wheel. In this opening, the seconds hand is particularly attractive – literally embedded at 9 o’clock in its ruby, it practically appears to levitate.
First class flight
The manufacture’s Type 20 took everyone by surprise. Even as the watchmaking world was steadily moving away from oversize timepieces, the 60 mm watch was bigger than any previously conceived diameter. And at a point where most brands were playing at watchmaking on steroids, Zenith simply dipped into its historical heritage to create a sober, elegant timepiece reminiscent of the 1920s.
Today, the firm has gone a step further, fitting its historic new edition with a period movement featuring an all-new grand feu enamel finish dial. The 5011K caliber in question won first prize for chronometry from the Neuchâtel Observatory back in 1967. So this type of caliber is not ‘oversize’; rather, it’s a period piece and designed as such, dating from the time of pocket rather than wrist watches. In a nutshell, the Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu is not a re-issue, but a genuine enhanced period watch.
The entire back of the movement, and the whole of each side, have been fully hand-cut and engraved by outstanding craftsmen. And these facets – along with the golden handles, case bezel, crown and tang buckle – are all decorated with curls and festoons in the spirit of traditional fine watchmaking. The only drawback is that there won’t be enough of these timepieces to go round: only ten are being made.