Time to Fly: Zenith
By Nick Foulkes
Jean-Frédéric Dufour is a tourbillon of a man - not that he is a means of compensating for the effects of gravity in the vertical position, but in the more literal sense of being a human whirlwind who has ripped through the Le Locle HQ of Zenith.
For anyone who has been in a coma for the past three years the Zenith story thus far is that following a decade in which the company was run along rockstar lines by the flamboyant Thierry Nataf and profits languished, Mr Arnaud rang Jean-Claude Biver and asked him if he knew of anyone who could help rev up the bottom line (I am not sure that he put it quite like that but you get the drift). Biver identified a young executive, then at Chopard, that he felt could be trusted to do a proper job and proceeded to offer a stunned Jean Frédéric Dufour the opportunity, in characteristically idiosyncratic terms. "He said 'you have to answer me now, if you think about it you'll never want to do it'." recalls Dufour of his unorthodox 'job interview'.
Clearly the reverse psychology worked and, like so many things in Biver's long career, what seemed like a gamble on a young unknown has paid off more than handsomely. For his part, Dufour has carefully watched Biver and has clearly been making copious notes - from time to time it is possible to get glimpses of the legendary Hublot boss's ebullience and enthusiasm in his young acolyte.
The combination of high-energy management and a highly public return to traditional watchmaking values seems to have worked. From what I understand, for the first time since LVMH acquired the historic brand it is actually making a profit and critically, too, it seems that the brand is on the right path as was evinced earlier this year when Zenith gave a preview of the 2012 collection.
Celebrating the role of Zenith as one of the first watch brands involved in early-20th-century avioation, the magnificent Pilot's Aeronef Type 20 is due to be unveiled formally at Baselworld 2012.
Drop the Pilot
In particular one watch stood out for me; a 58mm monster that sits on the wrist much like a clay pigeon or medium-sized ashtray. Given the conventional 'slim 'n' sleek' wisdom now shaping watch design this is a watch that seems to fly in the face of prevailing tastes. But then flying is what it should do rather well as it is called simply Pilot and boasts all the usual architecture that one associates with mid-century, oversized aviation timepieces.
Of course the pilot look is far from new; at this year's SIHH, the IWC stand was turned into a set from Top Gun complete with half a fighter jet, but Dufour claims that his Pilot is the true one because Zenith has the rights to the name 'Pilot'. The whole copyright/trademark thing is way above my pay grade, so unfortunately I cannot pass comment on the nicer points of this claim and exactly where this leaves such watches as IWC's Big Pilot.
When it comes to legitimacy in the air he exultantly points to Louis Blériot, Belle Époque aviator and channel crosser. "Not only was he wearing a Zenith watch, I went to the museum at Le Bourget and saw his plane, which had Zenith instrumentation then I made the connection with the archive, where we found the letters from Blériot and we have just found an altimeter similar to the one in Blériot's plane. It was then that I started to understand the roots of the company at the dawn of aviation."
Certainly Zenith must be a member of a very small club of brands that can claim to have been involved in the first few years of 20th-century powered flight. There is the Vacheron that was strapped to the leg of one of the Wright brothers, the Cartier wristwatch worn by Santos Dumont and now the Blériot Zenith.
The Espada is Zenith's entry level, no frills timepiece - the brand's answer to the Rolex Oyster.
Still it is a good thing for Blériot that he was not wearing the new Zenith Pilot when he made his heroic hop over La Manche in 1909 as it would have added significantly to the weight of his aircraft; it is a giant, even at the peak of the big watch boom of the Noughties this would have been a noticeably large watch. But, though it may be the antithesis of fashion it works, and why it works becomes apparent when you turn it over and examine the back - it has a monumental movement, more substantial than the machinery in the 1950s clock on my bedside table. The balance wheel alone brought a smile to my face; it reminded me of the diameter of one of the old ultra slim Master watches from Jaeger-LeCoultre, an observation that pleased Dufour no end as he took great delight in the fact that, as he put it, "you can put a Jaeger inside a Zenith".
Happily my good opinion of this watch was confirmed by two of the leading horological authorities: according to Dufour that legendary double act of the German speaking world, Gisbert Brunner and Alexander Linz loved it. The Germans are a serious bunch when it comes to what goes on under the dial. Where such Anglo-amateurs as myself might be sidetracked by the aesthetics these men are unequivocal and uncompromising when it comes to clockwork.
"I did not want to make just one more pilot's watch," says Dufour in defence of the Pilot's size. And actually it is the 5011 calibre that dictated the dimensions: a 22 ligne movement that is 1cm thick this is a heavy duty piece of kit. "Initially it was made for pocket watches but this calibre has been one of the most, if not the most, precise calibre ever made at the manufacture. It was used in instruments like the marine chronometer and with this calibre we won 277 awards."
It also shows us another face of Zenith, while both Dufour and his predecessor have been at pains to proselytise Zenith's expertise in high frequency movements (who among us can forget Thierry Nataf's assertion that his heart beat at 36,000 vph?) the 5011 is a laid back 18,000 with a power reserve that just scrapes two days, its award winning accuracy counted for in great part by its behemoth of a balance wheel. One of the other good things about this movement is that you won't be seeing it everywhere: there were only around 350 new old stock 5011s, 250 of which will be cased in titanium and a further 75 in pink gold after which production will cease.
The award-winning, 1cm thick 5011 calibre originally designed for pocket watches is one of the most precise chronometer movements ever made by Zenith.
Any way Dufour is pretty pleased with his new creation: "It's the first time in watch industry history that a calibre has been used in pocket watches, dashboard instruments and marine chronometers in the same brand." When I asked him if he were sure, he said he had had this confirmed by some French bloke on the internet. Personally, I would feel happier if this had been confirmed by the Germans, but given that it is a record that to my knowledge very few brands have set out to break, I am inclined to believe him.
However, before we get too carried away with the Pilot, it is worth surveying the rest of the collection. If the Pilot is the talking point, then the Espada is the selling point, this is a simple bracelet watch, a straight forward no frills timepiece that Dufour clearly sees as his answer to the Oyster. That is what he calls the 'first floor' of the house of Zenith. On the second storey are the petites complications such as the annual calendar developed in conjunction with Ludwig Oechslin and the 'Double Matic' world time with alarm that rings for 35 seconds. And in the penthouse resides the remarkable, gravity taming Christophe Colomb another watch that brings out the bullishness in Dufour when he says, "with this gravity control system we have found the grail that 100 per cent neutralises the effect of gravity on the balance".
To take Dufour's metaphor of a building a little further, if these watches are tenants on various floors, the owner of the entire building is the El Primero, the watch that was rescued from oblivion by an employee who saved the tooling. It is this piece that has been the leitmotif and motor behind the relaunch of the brand in the 21st century.
The El Primero is no youngster, and since he took over the company Dufour has tinkered with it, increasing the size of the baseplate and improving precision with the use of some silicon components, but he is faced with the reality of needing to put a new movement into production. "For the time being we will keep it like it is, but we will have a new chronograph next year that will be for the Pilot Line." He is non-committal about his plans for the El Primero: "Either we update or completely redo it but then it won't be an El Primero. Whatever I do I will probably upset someone," he shrugs, adding teasingly, "you will have to wait for the 150th anniversary of Zenith in 2015." And given what he has achieved in his first three years at Zenith, there is no telling where the brand will be in three years time.
Further information: www.zenith-watches.com