The first thing that captured my attention upon arrival at the Zenith Manufacture in April was the inimitable presence that it enjoys in Le Locle. The multi-building site, established in 1865, with its familiar and recently refurbished monogram of founder Georges Favre-Jacot, is something to behold, figuratively rising Oz-like from the bucolic countryside surrounding the city. The brand’s 150th anniversary banner was still flying outside, adding to the festive atmosphere, as were several national flags in honor of the countries represented by visitors at the manufacture that day.
Le Locle is the third smallest city in Switzerland at just over 10,000 people, but it is a place that has been critical to watchmaking since the seventeenth century. The vestiges of this cottage industry are still evident in the patchwork of residences and workshops in the region, which also housed an aptitude for lacemaking in addition to horology. Interestingly, it was Georges Favre-Jacot who invited the various local artisans to work under one roof, thereby—and perhaps initially unwittingly—creating a true watch manufacture.
Influenced by the budding U.S. auto industry, Favrot-Jacot employed the then-radical system of vertical manufacturing whereby a foundry, rolling mills, stamping presses, case and dial production and more were all achieved within the manufacture for reasons of both efficiency and independence. In addition, the company’s thoughtful proximity to the Le Locle train station—a literal stone’s throw from the Zenith property—opened a commercial door to the world.
Favrot-Jacot also had the ingenious idea of varying the artisans’ tasks to avoid monotony by moving them from one workstation to another throughout the workday. So thanks to seating fixed on rails—somewhat like today’s rolling office chairs—workers could change location without getting up and also maintain their relative position to the workbench in the process.
As another example of Favrot-Jacot’s prescience, the buildings that made up the manufactory in its early years were the first in the town to be equipped with electricity, and they were connected by passages so workers could move about without being exposed to the harsh Swiss winters. The spacious workshops were designed to capture natural light—a true benefit when working with small timepiece parts. Incidentally, the passageways are still evident, giving the visitor a sense of a marvelous history that is still being written.
The manufactory recently underwent a renovation, completed last year in honor of the 150th anniversary, and while there’s a distinct freshness evident throughout the space, much of the original personality of the structures (now 19 buildings strong) has been preserved. Incidentally, the aforementioned monogrammed exterior bricks, now painted in red and white, were produced at a nearby company residing next to a quarry owned by the entrepreneurial Favrot-Jacot. As part of its UNESCO stature, Le Locle is charged with preserving this historic and remarkable façade.
Zenith is today the antithesis of the Le Locle cottage industry that once was, with its state-of-the-art machinery and 250 employees. But the hands-on spirit of those early roots remains despite the technology that has interceded.
Eighty different production specialties take place here, from the artistic to the technical: research and development, tool-making, prototype-making, movement ébauches, stamping, decoration, assembling and casing, polishing and much more. Not surprisingly, such things as springs, hands and dials, among a few other components, are outsourced. To put it in perspective, producing a single watch in the El Primero collection entails an average of nine months during which over 2,500 operations are performed by 300 pairs of highly trained hands.
And in case you’re wondering about the famed attic, where loyal Zenith employee Charles Vermot purportedly “saved the company” by hiding the original tooling, parts and notes for the El Primero during the quartz revolution, I didn’t visit it this time but have fond memories from a past experience. As the story goes, Vermot moved equipment and documents to the small space, against specific company directives, to preserve the history and culture of the firm he so loved. In the 1980s, when mechanical movement manufacturing resumed, the documentation and equipment were unearthed and Vermot received the acclaim he earned. The attic has been preserved as a reminder of the company’s storied past.
Our visit concluded with a display of watches in Zenith’s current production—an extremely impressive sight en masse. And since my visit was concurrent with the Paris to Cannes Tour Auto Optic 2000 race, this year’s Chronomaster 1969 Tour Auto edition was on full and beautiful display.