Why I Bought It: The Zenith Chronomaster Tribute To Charles Vermot
It was the height of the Quartz crisis, and Zenith, the venerable old marque that had bested Japanese juggernaut Seiko and a consortium of Swiss watchmakers in developing the first fully integrated, automatic chronograph movement, had been gobbled up by an American electronics manufacturer that was, perhaps not coincidently, also called Zenith.
The new owners – who were in the business of manufacturing TVs and clock radios – wanted in on all that cash being generated by low-priced quartz watches that were cheaper to maintain and more accurate than their mechanical counterparts.
And so the call came down from the suits over in America. Zenith was no longer in the business of manufacturing high-end mechanical watches. Its future was strictly in quartz. Vermot was ordered to scrap all the machine tools for making the historic, high-beat El Primero movement, and gear up to begin churning out the cheap, electronic watches the market was clamoring for.
Vermot’s heart sank. Mechanical watchmaking was in his blood. He’d been a loyal employee of Zenith since 1959, when his original employer, the Martel Watch Company, was acquired by Zenith. Vermot had witnessed first-hand Zenith’s almost insurmountable David v Goliath struggle to produce the first fully integrated chronograph movement that had nearly bankrupted the company.
Defying the orders of his new American bosses, Vermot hid the machine tools for making the El Primero in a factory loft, thus saving the historic chronograph movement for posterity – and the folks at Rolex a little over a decade later.
Zenith electronics eventually divested itself of the Swiss watchmaker and was in turn gobbled up by Korean electronics giant LG. Zenith, the maker of fine Swiss luxury watches, continues to turn out high-end mechanical watches today, including this metallic blue dial special edition El Primero Chronomaster, a tribute to the man himself, Charles Vermot.
There’s a scene in the Matt Damon movie Ford v Ferrari that always brings a lump to my throat. Lee Iaccoca, as portrayed by actor Jon Bernthal, delivers an impassioned speech to Henry Ford II, the crusty, hard-boiled monarch of the Ford Motor Company. Iacocca tries to convince the boss of America’s largest automobile manufacturer that a little dose of that legendary Ferrari mojo might just be the antidote to flatlining car sales. Heck, why not just buy the whole damn company!
Iacocca tells Ford that Enzo Ferrari will go down in history as the world’s greatest carmaker — not because he made the most cars, but because he made the best! Adding, “Enzo Ferrari has spent the last twenty years chasing perfection. Now that he’s caught it, it’s bankrupted him.” (Cue the Kleenex.)
Grown men aren’t supposed to cry (certainly not over a Matt Damon flick). But in this day and age of shameless, unbridled corporate greed, when nothing else matters save serving up yet another profitable quarter to satisfy shareholders and justify the megabuck salaries of shortsighted CEOs, the thought of a company – any company – casting caution to the wind and choosing to pursue excellence over profits, is downright mindboggling. And not just mindboggling; almost mythic and heroic in its purity.
And so, as Enzo Ferrari nearly drove his company into bankruptcy in the pursuit of perfection, so did the folks at Zenith in developing the world’s first (high beat) fully integrated, automatic chronograph movement. What must have truly been perceived as a fool’s errand given the brand’s formidable competition.
I could go on and on about the Zenith Chronomaster Tribute to Charles Vermot’s stunningly beautiful, metallic blue dial, silicon escapement (visible via the open heart feature), and COSC chronometer certification. I could tell you that it’s one of the last truly great Chronomasters produced in that unique style and aesthetic that’s become so emblematic of the brand – one that borrows from no other. But I’d be missing the real point – at least as far as I’m concerned.
That two of horology’s greatest and most inspiring bits of history (the story of the creation of the El Primero and its savior, Charles Vermot), can be celebrated in a single wristwatch, is – for this collector – truly priceless.
For more information, please visit www.zenith-watches.com/int/brand/heritage-charles-vermot
Quick facts: Zenith Chronomaster Tribute To Charles Vermot Open Heart
Case: 42 mm x 14.05 mm. Stainless steel, brushed & polished. Push/pull crown.
Movement: Zenith El Primero Calibre 4061. Automatic, column wheel, lateral clutch chronograph. 36,000 vph/5 Hz frequency, silicon escapement, COSC Certified Chronometer, 31 jewels, power reserve 50 hours
Crystal: box sapphire (front), Sapphire display back.
Strap/bracelet: rubber with double deployant clasp.
Water-resistant: 100 m
Retail price: $9,000 (launched 2014, out of production)