Vintage & Auctions

Zenith Unites with Kari Voutilainen & Phillips to Revive The Brand’s Prestigious Calibre 135-O Movement

What do you get when you combine a legendary chronometer calibre from Zenith, the know-how of master watchmaker Kari Voutilainen, and a crazy idea from Phillips frontmen Aurel Bacs and Alexandre Ghotbi? An unprecedented cross-collaboration and a 10-piece limited edition that sold out immediately.

By Ash Longet
Communication & Project Manager

Earlier in June, Zenith turned the spotlight to its history and watchmaking’s most award-winning observatory chronometer movement ever. Yes, I am talking about Zenith’s never-sold (nor encased in any type of watch) Calibre 135-O, which was produced between 1950 and 1954 for observatory competitions and absolutely dominated its competition.

Interestingly, with the launch of the Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition at the beginning of June, Zenith has not only found a unique way to resurrect ten original Calibre 135-O movements, but also sparked new conversations about Zenith’s mechanical prowess that go beyond the El Primero.
 

Iconic Calibre 135

When talking about the Calibre 135, the first thing you need to know is that it is truly an icon because its qualities are unequaled.

Developed by Swiss watchmaker Ephrem Jobin in 1945, the Calibre 135 was designed with a rather large 14mm balance wheel to enhance precision and rate stability that was powered by a massive barrel which consistently maintained the regulator. Once it went into production, from 1949 to 1962, two versions of the calibre were ultimately made. The first, which lacked the “O” designation, was a commercial version that went into approximately 11,000 watches.
 

However, beyond the commercial version, there existed another variant of this movement, the Calibre 135-O, made solely for taking part in chronometry competitions at the Observatories of Neuchâtel, Geneva, Kew Teddington, and Besançon. And it was this calibre (where “O” stands for “Observatoire”) that won more observatory chronometer awards than any other movement in the history of watchmaking – including a five-year winning streak – and bolstering Zenith’s reputation as an undisputed leader in precision chronometry.
 

Speaking about the brand’s history, Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith, said, “Yes, those calibres are part of the heritage, and we will keep some of them in our museum. But together, with Phillips, we challenged each other, wondering how we could give a better tribute to the founders, the people who made this movement, and the people who were regulating this famous calibre.”
 

That was how the idea of a special series built around the Calibre 135-O was born, and ten movements from 1950 to 1954 (the height of Zenith’s competition-winning period) were carefully selected and cased for this remarkable collaboration.

But after Zenith and Phillips somehow found a vehicle for giving the chosen calibres new life, Alexandre Ghotbi, Head of Watches at Phillips for Continental Europe & the Middle East, couldn’t help but wonder: “These calibres were made for competitions. They were not made to be worn or to be aesthetically pleasing. So, if we’re going to make a wristwatch out of this legendary calibre, who should we ask to take it to the next level?”
 

Immediately, the name of Kari Voutilainen was put on the short list. And, frankly speaking, no one else was seriously considered.

Kari Voutilainen’s Master Touch

Thanks to Kari Voutilainen, for the first time in the history of the Calibre 135-O, the observatory chronometer movement has impeccable decoration and finishing. But it was very difficult work because, when doing this type of restoration, you have to do everything in one go.
 

While restoring and decorating the movements, Kari Voutilainen was careful to preserve the original regulation and fine-tuning of the calibres by celebrated Zenith chronométriers Charles Fleck and René Gygax, explaining: “The persons working on these movements were the best watchmakers at the time. They had the know-how to make things precise. That precision doesn’t disappear after 70 years. Our duty was not to touch that performance.”
 

The Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition

“Designing the first-ever case for this movement, we had to think about the collectors: Would he or she want a black or a white dial? Engine turning in the center or outside? And many other questions. We pushed it to the limits and turned each other mad,” commented Aurel Bacs, Senior Consultant for Phillips.
 

The Zenith x Kari Voutilainen x Phillips Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition draws inspiration from several 1950s references by combining the most emblematic details from those vintage models with contemporary aspirations. The 38mm round platinum case features tapered lugs that seamlessly fit under the bezel and an oversized notched crown emblazoned with the modern Zenith star logo.
 

Beneath the sapphire glass box, the slightly domed dial done in sterling silver with matte black finishing by Kari Voutilainen’s Comblémine atelier features guilloché engraving in a fish-scale motif. Moreover, triangular hour markers and polished applied dot markers are in rhodium-plated German silver, while solid gold hands complete the picture of juxtaposed vintage opulence with contemporary elegance. Finally, on the front, the oversized second counter at 6 o’clock is inscribed with the movement’s serial number, denoting the unique nature of each watch.
 

Last but certainly not least, the Calibre 135-O is visible through a sapphire display caseback. Cleaned and finished by the master watchmaker, the historical movement has been refined. There are hand-chamfered and hand-polished edges on the gold-colored bridges, beveled and polished screw-heads, circular graining on the mainplate, snailed brushing on the ratchet and crown wheels, and much more.
 

Pricing & Availability

Sold exclusively by Phillips, the ten Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition watches were priced at CHF 132,900 each. Yet, despite the price, we were unsurprised that they sold out immediately.

However, we do have some good news: Phillips, in collaboration with Zenith and Kari Voutilainen, is preparing a one-of-a-kind eleventh Calibre 135 Observatoire that will be auctioned during the autumn 2022 auction season. Stay tuned, folks!

(Images © Zenith)

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