Watchonista One-On-One: Talking Timelines with Zenith’s Romain Marietta
During the “Masters of Chronographs” exhibition hosted by Phillips in New York, we sat down with Zenith’s Vice President of Product Development & Heritage, Romain Marietta, to discuss the impact of the El Primero on watchmaking today.
If you were in New York a few weeks ago, you would certainly be aware of the “Masters of Chronographs” immersive exhibition created by Zenith and hosted by Phillips. For one thing, the highly-anticipated event was widely promoted across the city on billboards and bus stops, piquing the interest of enthusiasts and newbies alike.
The pop-up offered an unparalleled collection of vintage Zenith timepieces. But more than that, the exhibition helped put the history and influence of the El Primero movement into the context of our world today. Moreover, the general public had the chance to attend watchmaking clinics and take a tour of the timepieces with Zenith’s VP of Product Development & Heritage, Romain Marietta.
Watchonista took the opportunity to sit down with Marietta to gain better understanding of Zenith’s historic timepieces and learn how preserving watchmaking know-how is crucial to the brand’s future strategy.
Even if you thought you knew everything about Zenith’s history – from its birth in Le Locle in 1865 to its present-day collaborations with independent brands such as Kari Voutilainen and Bamford Watch Department – the exhibition still managed to educate.
However, why the pop-up was so informative was because it not only reflected on Zenith’s iconic 1969 El Primero movement – a mechanism so advanced that it’s still state-of-the-art today – but also the importance of lesser-known chronographs and how they were used in daily life.
“We tend to associate chronographs with space exploration and auto racing. But the complication doesn’t need to be that complicated,” said Marietta. “Society has evolved, but the chronograph has remained timeless.”
Sitting in Phillips’ roomy, sunlit exhibition space in Midtown Manhattan, Marietta gave the example of Mahatma Gandhi’s sterling silver Zenith alarm pocket watch, which the famous civil rights activist used to time his meditations.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are timepieces used to measure the productivity of postal workers.
“And after the last two years, our relationship to time is completely different,” Marietta added. “Yes, everything is linked to time. And yes, we are ruled by time. But we can still wear a classic chronograph just for the sake of it.”
However, it’s important to remember that a watch is more than just a tool. “Watches are meant to tell you the time but also your stories, and that’s what is so interesting about them,” said Marietta. “A great watch helps you check in with daily life.”
Marietta’s words hit home, and I thought of something Winston Churchill once wrote: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And according to Marietta, Zenith’s past mistakes are also an important part of planning for the future. The most notable example of Zenith learning from its past is the story of how the El Primero was almost lost forever.
In the 1970s, during the quartz crisis, Zenith’s then-parent company decided not only to cease production of the chronograph but to scrap all the machines and plans used in its production. Hearing about this, Charles Vermot, a watchmaker who had worked on the original production of the El Primero, gathered all the technical plans and tools necessary to produce every component of the El Primero movement and hid them in a walled-off section of the manufacture’s attic.
“It was an act of bravery to go against the direction of your employer and put yourself at great risk of losing your job,” said Marietta of Vermot’s rebellion.
While Vermot’s 1970s-era bosses were quick to erase history, Zenith’s current CEO, Julian Tornare, is determined to educate watchmakers and enthusiasts about the skills involved in mechanical watchmaking to grow it in the future.
“One of the lessons learned from the near erasure of the El Primero was that technology tends to come back, and our contribution now is to nourish watchmaking,” Marietta continued. “We stand on the shoulders of the people that came before us, so incremental or even larger leaps of technology are possible.”
Zenith has no desire to treat its timepieces like museum pieces, either. For example, the El Primero was the first automatic chronograph, so the most respectful way to honor watchmakers like Vermot is to continue their spirit of innovation. And as a result of this ethos, Zenith has led the way in collaborating with not only independent watchmakers like Bamford and Voutilainen.
The brand has also worked with artists such as Felipe Pantone, who helped design the exhibition space’s window coverings, which filter light through colorful filters. Moreover, Pantone believes that colors operate on certain frequencies, just like the precision movement of a watch. “These collaborations provide another perspective, another angle of seeing things,” added Marietta. “But to continue the story, we need to be able to look at ourselves and say, ‘Yes, we have done this but need to keep changing to achieve some other interesting stuff in the coming years.’ ”
It’s an exciting time to be a watch fan.
One of the biggest ways Zenith is changing, is how it communicates with enthusiasts. And the “Masters of Chronographs” exhibit is an excellent example of community outreach. “In the old days, we’d introduce all the novelties at Baselworld and then embargo them for the rest of the year. But sometimes, writers would forget what happened in March by the time September rolled around. So this [immersive exhibit] is a new way of listening to our audience and reaching a new audience,” explained Marietta.
New York is the first stop of the “Masters of Chronographs,” which will be touring the world over the next 12 months. “It’s not just about the physical object of the watch,” continued Marietta. “The history and the background have value for people, but it’s also important for us to meet with people to develop ways to improve in the future. And just when you think everything has already been done, a new record is set, or another material is introduced. Watchmakers will always find a way to express themselves differently. And that’s what makes it so exciting!”
What’s next? Marietta isn’t spilling the beans, except to tell us that there will be more unexpected drops like the Zenith x Kari Voutilainen x Phillips Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition.
And while Marietta does hold the title of Director of Heritage at Zenith, he is still very passionate about the future of watchmaking: “Brands used to be very proprietary – things had to be done in a very specific way. Today there is still competition, but we get inspired by our friends to do cool things. And we all benefit when we all succeed.”