Ahmad Zamroni / Forbes Indonesia
For the cognoscenti who know watches, Zenith holds a special place in the Swiss watch constellation. While not having the instant brand recognition of Rolex or Audemars Piguet, the brand is one of the few Swiss watchmakers that proudly calls itself a “manufacture”— a sign that it makes all its own movements in-house (movements are the engines that drive all mechanical watches). In fact, Zenith movements have such reputation that Rolex once purchased them to power its famous “Daytona” watches from 1988 to 2000.
“We don’t pretend to be a manufacture, we are one,” says Aldo Magada, 58, the president and chief executive of Zenith, during a recent visit to Jakarta. “Zenith is the last under-exploited brand in the Swiss watch industry.” Aldo should know, as he has held senior positions in the watch industry since 2000. He is also friends with and works under the legendary Jean-Claude Biver, the head of LVMH’s watch division (LVHM bought Zenith in 2000)—Jean-Claude put him into his current position in July 2014.
Zenith watches are also something of a niche product, as the company makes about 35,000 units a year, a relatively modest output. It is also differs by being affordable, with the vast bulk of its output sold in the range of about $5,000 to $15,000 per watch. “You don’t have to be rich to buy our watch,” says Aldo.
The brand itself goes back to 1865—Zenith celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, and its headquarters are still located in Le Locle, often cited as the birthplace of the Swiss watchmaking industry. The town, and the nearby neighboring town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, were designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2009.
The company was, ironically, owned for eight years by the U.S.-based Zenith Radio Corporation, which closed down mechanical watch production in 1975 when the Swiss watch industry was threatened by quartz watches. The company was ordered to sell off all its mechanical watch technology.
One of the employees, Charles Vermot, secretly disobeyed the order, hiding more than a ton of equipment, along with blueprints, cutting tools and other items to save Zenith’s mechanical expertise from extinction. In 1984, when the Swiss watch industry revived, Charles revealed his subordination, allowing Zenith to quickly reopen its mechanical production. Today the company honors him as a “hero” for his disobedience.
With such heritage, Aldo stresses that Zenith focuses on making beautiful watches with classic designs. “We want to have a timeless design,” says Aldo, noting his watches’ design will not go out of date after a few years. For example, one of its flagship series is the El Primero, the world’s first watch to have an integrated automatic chronograph movement. That model is still made today. Another is the Pilot series, which celebrates the Zenith watch worn by the French pilot Louis Bleriot, the first to fly a plane across the English Channel in 1909. (Another famous customer was India’s Mahatma Gandhi, who kept a Zenith for many years that was given to him by Indira Nehru.)