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Architecture & Design

An In-Depth Look at the Zenith Manufacture, Now Open to the World

Once upon a time, there was an authentic attic where one of the most unbelievable stories in watchmaking was told: that of a certain character whose disobedience helped to save Swiss mechanical watchmaking.

By Joël A. Grandjean

In Switzerland, it's well known that strong characters are commonplace. The rigours of winter, the harshness of the climate and the isolation of life in the mountains impose pressures on human beings that make them more solid, more resistant and therefore certainly more inclined to camp on their certainties.

The visionary and the legendary calibre

Georges Favre-Jacot had to be a visionary, even a little crazy, to dare to set up his first workshop in 1865, destined to become, under his vision as a pioneer of industrialisation, a true Manufacture entirely dedicated to the perfection of a calibre called Zenith. A caliber, a watch, a brand at last. A brand with a rich history that has won over 2300 precision prices, with the launch and exploitation of a mythical high-frequency calibre, the El Primero. A calibre which is about to celebrate a jubilee date and which, in the second breath of its industrial existence, helped to save the company as well as three of its neighbours, the Ebel, Cartier and Rolex brands. All in all, four industrial routes, though violently heckled by the most violent crises in the sector, which saved their lives.

In fact, it was only a matter of time before these current jewels of watchmaking excellence, which carried an enormous dose of Swissness, collapsed and disappeared forever. Because, in the rubbish bins crowded with a crisis that decimated the branch, amputated two-thirds of its jobs - that is to say about 60,000 unemployed people - there were tons of identity grabs, sacrificed tools, supplies and components destroyed. The factor responsible was this ultra-precise quartz from Japan, which momentarily eclipsed the love of the world consumer for Swiss watches. A quartz that fascinated the managers of the time. For a large part of them, it is in this direction that it was now necessary to go. The management of Zenith at the time, freshly passed into American hands, was of this opinion. The time had come to turn one's back completely on what had always been done until now, namely mechanical watchmaking. Quartz, all-quartz, was now the future.

Civic watchmaking, Charly's disobedience

At that time, in the mid-1970s, a workshop manager named Charles Vermot was unable to resign himself. He was ordered to dump everything, refused and tried to convince his superiors. "You are wrong" he wrote to them in a touching, determined letter. "Wrong not to believe in the mechanical chronograph" he persisted. He didn't care if he was right, he just wanted to convince, protect priceless treasures from the managerial vision of the "enlightened of the time".

There, in this attic no longer sprinkled with dust but with magic powder, one can watch the interview of this Charly, found by the French-speaking Swiss television. It is one of the highlights of the "Star World of Zenith" (the star world of Zenith), this very first visit of the Manufacture opened for the general public by the official organization of Neuchâtel Tourism. This man had nothing of a strong head, he was moving, humble. On the screen, he appears almost embarrassed to have disobeyed. He, the insignificant worker of the Ponts de Martel, he whom one could never have imagined daring to resist, found himself in the posture of the obstinate, the recalcitrant. Concretely, he thus undertook to hide in this concealed attic, the small machines, the stamps, the plans as well as all that could have had an importance and an interest in the manufacture of this mythical calibre, this DNA on which the brand does not finish building and developing.

A visit of the Manufacture open to the public

From now on, the general public, tourists from the surrounding area as well as those from far away, will be able to cross this high watchmaking site. Baptized "The Starry World of Zenith", the visit will be possible every Friday, alone or in group and for a modest fee of CHF 40.00. Its layout lies in the heart of this immense complex of buildings, grouped on hillsides, a few metres from a railway station, and above all, in the heart of watchmaking soil protected by the inclusion in 2009 of the towns of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle on UNESCO's World Heritage List. An initiatory pilgrimage conceived by a team composed of watchmakers, historians and scenographers.

Until then, despite their efforts in Watch Valley or to put into perspective all the surrounding museums, politicians and ambassadors of the Canton of Neuchâtel had never managed to "get to the heart of the matter", i.e. to cross the psychological and technical armour of the major manufacturers. It is a bit as if, in the middle of a visit to Burgundy or Champagne, tourists and wine enthusiasts are systematically forbidden access to a model cellar, to a tasting followed by an incentive to purchase. Then came the meeting that unblocked the situation: the managers of Neuchâtel Tourism and Economic Promotion met Jean-Claude Biver, boss of the Watches Division of the LVMH group, owner of Zenith. Man is also known for his strong temperament and determination to move mountains.

In Le Locle, at the radiant end of April 2018, there was talk of an iconic calibre, the rich history of a brand... and of a man who disobeyed. His disobedience even appeals to Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith, who remembers being, at school age, marked by the sentence of one of his teachers: "Never trust the expert". In other words, stop buying what you're told, stop reading this article. Make up your own mind, treat yourself to this two-hour tour in the heart of one of the legendary Manufactures of Swiss watchmaking, a magical territory that until now was only reserved for a privileged few.

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