SINGAPORE (Mar 20): For a mechanical movement that powers a wristwatch, Zenith’s El Primero calibre boasts quite a compelling history. In 1962, the idea of an automatic chronograph movement took root and in 1966, Zenith’s management decided to create the first ultra-thin, high-frequency integrated automatic chronograph calibre, beating at 36,000 vibrations per hour and able to measure one-tenths of a second. On  Jan 10, 1969, at its manufacture in Le Locle, Switzerland, the watchmaker unveiled the El Primero — meaning the first, in Spanish — and went down in watchmaking history as the first brand to publicly launch its own automatic chronograph.

Two years later, the maison was sold to Chicago-based Zenith Radio Corporation. Its American administrators had more faith in quartz movements and, in the midst of the watchmaking crisis, ceased production of mechanical movements and disposed of tooling and machinery required to manufacture them.

A Star Through Time utilised the resources of the Neuchâtel Tourism Office so visitors could experience the serene setting of Le Locle

Against management orders, foreman Charles Vermot decided to safeguard the tools necessary for the manufacture of El Primero. In all, he managed to save about 150 presses along with many small tools and cams, which were hidden in Zenith’s attic and then walled up so that no one would discover its secret. When the company saw a change in ownership and mechanical calibres were in demand once more, Vermot brought out the large wooden crates that contained proof of his insubordination over nine years. In keeping a secret that almost destroyed his marriage, this ordinary hero enabled Zenith to relaunch production of its legendary chronograph in 1984.

This was among the many fascinating nuggets of information on the El Primero I picked up at an expansive exhibition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this iconic movement. A Star Through Time granted members of the public an unprecedented opportunity to engage with the brand and embark on an unforgettable sensory voyage through time. Organised together with the Neuchâtel Tourism Office, the exhibition welcomed over 3,000 guests during its run — an occasion grand enough to warrant a visit from Zenith CEO Julien Tornare.

My favourite section of the exhibition was a reproduction of Vermot’s secret attic and a video recorded in the years prior to his death in 2005. His emotional description of why he hid the machinery, the toll that took on him and what it meant to have and use those tools again so many years later moved him to tears and had the same effect on me. Few people in the world can say they are part of watchmaking history, and Vermot’s account of this fact was remarkably touching.

More than a mere retrospective, A Star Through Time was notably forward-looking — this was in part the influence of Tornare, who assumed leadership of the 154-year-old maison in 2017. Of Italian ancestry but Swiss upbringing, he is a blend of charisma and calm energy, of passion and practicality — he answered my questions with a beguiling honesty that I imagine must constantly send his PR team into a tailspin. It is endearing, though, and makes him — and the brand — feel very real and personal.

The exhibition exuded that same spirit of sincerity, from the small selection of historic pieces on display to a detailed history of the El Primero. In a subtle way, it also sought to unpack some of the mystery surrounding this LVMH stalwart, laying bare the many details that give Zenith its vibrant personality.

Tornare was waiting for me at the end of the exhibition, which concluded with an open-concept watch bar. I took a liking to the Defy Inventor, which features an open-worked dial, an aeronith bezel and the everyday functions of hours, minutes and seconds. He approved — I found out why later — and with a wave of his hand, organised some champagne. A consummate host and wonderful conversationalist, Tornare was as curious about me as I was about him, and his eager line of questioning quickly put me at ease.

This must be why he and watchmaking legend Jean-Claude Biver are such good friends. Biver, the former head of LVMH’s watchmaking division, who hand-picked Tornare for his current role, is famously friendly to a fault, engaging with journalists, retailers and buyers alike with equal comfort. Having met Biver before, I certainly saw the similarities. Tornare was pleased with the comparison, and throughout our hour-long conversation, did his old friend and mentor proud.

Tornare began his 22-year career in watchmaking with the family-run Raymond Weil, and later joined the Richemont Group for a post with Vacheron Constantin — a role that gave him global sales experience with postings in New York, Hong Kong and Switzerland. Incidentally, he was in Singapore when Biver contacted him and floated the idea of joining Zenith. Tornare flew to Switzerland immediately and during a 24-hour whirlwind trip, made the decision to join Zenith. This story certainly made its rounds when the news broke — only a few people in the industry are personally hired by Biver himself.

“We were a wonderful fit — we are from different generations, with different experiences, but in terms of spirit, values, vision and energy, we are very similar. So, we worked very well together. Many people have told me that Biver is a genius but so hard to manage, but for me, it was easy,” Tornare said fondly. But it was not just personal chemistry that drew Biver to Tornare — it was the latter’s ability to drive growth, and Zenith needed a passionate leader who was familiar with the complexities of high-end watchmaking, but could still introduce a fresh perspective. And thanks to the 360° experience Tornare got at Vacheron Constantin, it was easy to see why Biver thought he would be perfect for the job.

“In New York, it was very entrepreneurial — the market was weak and I had to put my hand in the engine to move things along. In Asia, I had the experience of dimension as the market was huge. And at the headquarters in Switzerland, I had to be a good listener and a quick learner,” Tornare recounted. Adjusting to the move from Vacheron Constantin to Zenith, he said, was not too difficult. “Yes, the two groups are very different and both have their pluses and minuses. I think you have to listen [and] understand, then you adapt. The environment at Vacheron Constantin was sometimes suited to me and sometimes it was not. I have to say, Mr Biver made it easy for me to be comfortable at Zenith.”

The stylish and sporty Defy series best exemplifies the manufacture’s innovative and creative spirit

This included everything from an uplifting phone call at the end of a tiring, seemingly despondent day — in Tornare’s early months, the work was hard and he was alone in Le Locle as his family had yet to join him from Hong Kong — right up to encouraging all his bold ideas, even if they risked failure. “When I say, ‘What if my ideas are wrong?’, he would always say, ‘It’s okay’. He wants people to do things, and that’s what I am about as well,” Tornare said earnestly.

This principle also resonates with the way Tornare considers Zenith’s history — if you repeat it, you don’t respect it. “People had basic tools to make a watch 50 years ago, but today you have so much more technology at your disposal. If you do the same thing, you are disrespecting the past because the job now is much easier than before. The minimum we should do is introduce new innovations, which means taking risks, trying new things and breaking new ground. That means you can make mistakes, but it also means you are moving forward. I believe strongly that we should continue to have an entrepreneurial, innovative, turn-to-the-future spirit — even more if you want to keep millennials interested in mechanical watches. Unless you show them that the industry is dynamic and forward-looking, you will lose them,” he pointed out.

Tornare is deeply inspired by the idea of adjusting and adapting to a continually changing environment — a lesson he learnt from his postings all over the world. Closer to home, an example of an unchanging entity that is now paying the price is the Baselworld Watch and Jewellery Show, which has seen a huge number of brands rescinding their participation. The Swatch Group was the first to leave, followed by brands such as Breitling and Maurice Lacroix. Tornare told me that the LVMH Group will be organising a fair of its own in January, but said nothing more about its participation in future editions of Baselworld.

Although the prohibitive cost of entry is often touted as a major issue, Tornare said it is actually a matter of value. “You charge the public €60 but they don’t get the same welcome as retailers and journalists — this is odd because the public are the buyers! They don’t see the new models, only the old ones in the windows. They may as well go to a boutique in the city and get a much better experience with the watches.

“I think Baselworld should be more like Art Basel or Festival de Cannes — fully open to the public, lots of evening parties and all the brand ambassadors should come. We should sell special watches on site if you want to attract the world’s best collectors and create a buzz. But it cannot be only a business-to-business event that costs so much money and achieves so little. Quite frankly, I can meet our retailers and journalists anywhere! I don’t have to ship everyone to a cathedral just to impress them,” he added.

Speaking of winds of change, one of the major decisions Tornare has made in Zenith relates to its pared down product line-up, which is not an uncommon strategy in recent times and is often executed with much success. “When I joined, there were 178 references, and now there are 100. And that is what I want — four product lines and no more than 100 references. Two lines are to articulate our history and two are contemporary projections,” he stated.

“We are reworking the Elite line completely because classic dress watches have to be something very special and elegant. With the Chronomaster, there were so many references and I want to go back to what the Chronomaster means, so there will be nothing crazy for this collection. Trendier is our Pilots collection, which I want to focus on, and in Defy, where we can be innovative, creative and totally clever.”

Although many CEOs would not pick a preferred watch in the same way a parent would not publicly acknowledge having a favourite child, Tornare had no issue doing so — “These are watches, not children,” he laughed — and it was unsurprisingly the Defy line. “For me, it incorporates the values of innovation and creativity that I believe in so much. It’s the one which became a big part of our business very quickly and the one that’s bringing fresh air to the brand — so I am particularly enjoying the development of the Defy line.” His approval of my choice of timepiece earlier now made sense.

Interestingly, Tornare was even willing to disclose his least favourite of the four collections. “Elite is the least representative of Zenith at present,” he said thoughtfully. “Pilot, Chronomaster, Defy — they are all Zenith. But this is often the case with dress watches, which is why redesigning a classic line is actually very difficult. And I can’t wait to show the world what the new Elite collection looks like — it is, I think, a supremely elegant watch you would wear with a tuxedo for your wedding. So, it’s going from a great everyday watch to the most elegant of watches for special occasions.”

A big fan of the way exhibitions like A Star Through Time tells the story of the brand, Tornare said he hopes to continue along this trajectory — especially since there is much to talk about. “Zenith is the only brand in the world allowed to have the pilot word on the watch and we really need to reaffirm our legitimacy with airline instruments and capitalise on our pilot’s watches. We are also heading towards more ladies’ pieces — next year is the year for women at Zenith. We had some very nice feminine pieces during [former CEO] Thierry Nataf’s time but it’s coming back strongly now. I really do think Zenith is a rising star and I am not just saying that because I am in charge of the brand.”

Another forward-looking step that has caused quite a ripple in watchmaking circles is the way Zenith has embraced the second-hand market, viewing it as a robust part of its business instead of thumbing its nose at the prospect of selling anything less than brand-new watches. This is controversial because luxury watchmakers are seen as peddlers of a dream, and no one wants a dream someone already had. Or do they? In a recent report published by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FIHH), financial consultancy Kepler Cheuvreux estimates the global market for second-hand watches, including auction house sales, to be worth US$5 billion.

“When you hear brands saying they want nothing to do with this — well, for me, it’s not about what you want but what the clients want,” Tornare said in a slightly impatient tone. “Pre-owned watches and the second-hand market are part of the world today, so as a brand, you need to adapt! A decade ago, no one would have done this. The usual thing to say is, ‘Ah, I only sell brand-new watches’. But why not? As long as someone is buying into the Zenith dream — that, for me, is most important.”

The only thing Zenith is not changing is its historic home in Le Locle. At present, the manufacture churns out between 22,000 and 25,000 watches each year and Tornare said it has the capacity to increase that number — the entire manufacture is comfortably spread over 18 buildings, so production can easily go up with minimal impact.

But his emphasis is not on making more watches; it is on increasing efficiency. “I feel like things have been diluted and there have been a lot of changes. Zenith needs stability. And that’s why when I came, I didn’t fire everyone and hire all my friends from Richemont — I think people expected me to do that,” he laughed. “I told everyone, ‘This is my vision, please join me’. Zenith is not going be a dusty brand anymore but one that is exciting and authentic, that celebrates its many winning calibres but also looks to the future.”

The El Primero is likely to remain central to the brand’s strategy going forward, expressed by the 50th anniversary set. The box comes with 1/10th of a second and 1/100th of a second versions of the El Primero already present, in addition to the original, and a fourth, empty slot is labelled 1/1,000th of a second. The idea is that in the future, when a 1/1,000th of a second El Primero production model is a reality, those who have the 50th Anniversary set would have the option of purchasing it and completing the collection. It is a clever way to showcase Zenith’s belief in its own success — it is never a question of if, only when.