n June 2, Zenith launched ten timepieces that are exceptional in several ways; ten chronometers powered by the famous calibre 135-O, produced from 1949 to 1962, which was the most awarded movement when there were still observatory chronometry competitions taking place. These calibres, which are museum pieces, belonged to Zenith’s heritage, which agreed to sell them. As for the case, the dial, and the restoration of the movement and its decoration, it is all the work of master watchmaker Kari Voutilainen.
This idea was born in the minds of Aurel Bacs and Alexandre Ghotbi of Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo - and they were responsible for selling the ten models. It took them a few minutes to do so. The price of these unique watches: CHF 132,900. This great story, which brought together three companies, lasted two years.
The 135-O calibre, which marked a milestone in the history of watchmaking, had been developed by Ephrem Jobin starting from 1945. Produced between 1949 and 1962, it existed in two versions: the calibre 135.O, intended to take part in the chronometry competitions of the Neuchâtel, Geneva, Kew Teddington and Besançon Observatories, and the calibre 135, its commercial version. With more than 230 chronometry awards, it holds the largest number of awards in the history of watchmaking.
- René Gygax in 1957, one of the Zenith timekeepers who adjusted the Calibre 135-O
With more than 230 chronometry awards, the Calibre 135-O holds the highest number of awards in the history of watchmaking.
The ten movements chosen belong to the years 1950-1954 and were adjusted by Charles Fleck & René Gygax, two Zenith chronometer specialists with golden hands. As these calibres had never been commercialised, they laid untouched in their small protective wooden box in the Zenith archives. A master watchmaker was needed to restore them, embellish them and bring them back to life: Kari Voutilainen took up the challenge. Our interview with Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith, and Kari Voutilainen.
Europa Star: This project represents two years of work and at the end the timepieces were all sold in a few minutes. How do you feel emotionally about this moment?
Julien Tornare: We expected that, as soon as the announcement was made, the pieces would go very quickly because there were only ten of them. That evening, Kari Voutilainen, Aurel Bacs and I started receiving messages and we soon saw that the potential customers were getting carried away. When I went to bed, I felt a mixture of happiness, pride in what we had achieved together, but also a little nostalgia because it was over. With Aurel, we said to ourselves that we should continue to see each other regularly and that perhaps one day we could reunite the ten owners to keep the emotion alive...
Kari Voutinainen: When things happen like this, it’s proof that you’ve done a good job and that it’s simply right.
What customer profile did you favour?
J. T.: The selection criteria are complicated, but the priority goes to people who are going to appreciate what Zenith has done in giving up pieces of history and heritage, as well as the exceptional work that Kari has completed on these watches. We also apply the principle of first come, first served. Aurel Bacs told us that they are not necessarily Zenith or Kari Voutilainen customers - although some of them are - but they are collectors who appreciate this level of creativity.
K. V.: It was mostly people who were passionate about watches who bought them, not speculators.
- Julien Tornare, Kari Voutilainen and Aurel Bacs
How do you protect yourself from speculation?
J. T.: By knowing our customers. We know that they are lovers of this type of product and not people who need to sell their watch one or two years later to earn another 100,000 francs. I hope they will keep them for life. And that’s exactly the spirit of Kari’s clients. We didn’t do this project for financial reasons - otherwise we wouldn’t have done it - but for the love of fine watchmaking.
It all gives the impression that the Zenith manufacture is a huge Ali Baba’s cave, filled with treasures that may be discovered sometimes at random...
J. T.: It’s true. After five years, I’m still discovering things. It is a brand with a lot of history. We knew that these movements were in the manufacture, we knew their history, because we work a lot with Laurence Bodenmann, our Heritage Manager, but between knowing this and deciding to put them at the centre of a new project, there is a gap. Zenith has lived a lot around the famous El Primero movement. When I arrived at Zenith, Jean-Claude Biver (who had the interim management of Zenith in 2017, editor’s note), asked me: “El Primero, is it a good thing or a bad thing?” I replied that it was an incredible asset but that we needed to work on the rest, the weaker elements, and that’s what we did. We knew the legendary and unique aspect of the 135-O calibre, we knew that we could only do a project like this once. This calibre stands next to El Primero and we can be proud of it.
“We knew the legendary and unique aspect of the 135-O calibre, we knew that we could only do such a project once. This calibre is positioned next to El Primero and we can be proud of it.”
Kari Voutilainen, did you already know this calibre?
K. V.: Yes, in Finland there were three very popular brands from the 1950s until the quartz crisis: Eterna, Omega, and the most famous, Zenith. You can find a lot of Zenith pocket watches in Finland. I knew this calibre because I was in charge of the after-sales service for the commercial version of this calibre.
Is that the reason for this collaboration?
K. V.: Chronometry is one thing, but what is at the centre of the collaborations that I make is the human aspect. Alexandre Ghotbi (Phillips’ Director of Watches, Continental Europe and Middle East, editor’s note) is the key person in this project. We have known each other for a long time. I didn’t do this for the money and we have enough work as it is. It’s the interaction with people I get on with that I’m passionate about.
There are three companies involved in this adventure: a manufacture belonging to a large group, an independent master watchmaker and an auction house. How did you manage to harmonise this collaboration?
K. V.: It’s the human contact. And the LVMH group belongs to a family that respects its brands.
J. T.: I have worked for different groups and we are lucky that Mr Arnault, as a serial entrepreneur, gives us room to manoeuvre. This project, which would have required an infinite number of validations in another group, I decided on behalf of Zenith. That’s why we were able to have this spirit of collaboration. And then it’s mainly a question of people: we listen to each other, we respect each other. We debated, but there were no problems whatsoever. It was a Swiss compromise in the right spirit. I have only good memories.
These ten movements are historical pieces that were never intended to be commercialised. I imagine there were internal discussions about letting go of heritage calibres, which are museum pieces?
J. T.: Indeed there were debates but quickly everyone realised that the best way to honour magnificent movements like these, made 70 years ago by exceptional people, was to give them a new life. These calibres were made, prepared, trained for chronometry competitions. But the essence of a movement is to end up in a timepiece that will be worn. We have kept a few pieces that are part of our heritage department and will never move. Only one more watch will see the light of day: a unique piece made of a material other than platinum and with a different dial. After selling these 11 pieces, we will never market these movements again.
“The best way to honour magnificent calibres like these, made 70 years ago by exceptional people, was to give them a new life. The essence of a movement is to end up in a watch that will be worn.”
- Zenith’s 1950s record of the Calibre 135-O
This work is akin to restoration. You had no room for error. What was the most difficult thing?
K. V.: We kept all the original elements without changing them. We embellished the bridges and the plate. Decorating the wheels, cleaning the balance wheel, all this was risky. We had to think before we acted.
Is there anything about this movement that we couldn’t invent today?
K. V.: We could create this movement today but not the balance spring which is the heart of it. A Guillaume balance wheel is no longer manufactured, nor are steel balance wheels, but in terms of precision, it is the best.
Why was the Guillaume balance wheel abandoned?
K. V.: Because the chronometry competitions were abandoned. During the quartz crisis, it was thought that the mechanical watch was dead and the competitions stopped. The Guillaume balance wheel is expensive to manufacture. It is a calibre that combines a steel balance spring and a bimetallic balance. But unlike traditional bimetallic balances, this one has a brass blade and a blade made of an alloy called Invar, a temperature-insensitive metal invented by Charles-Edouard Guillaume. This compensates for variations due to temperature changes.
“A Guillaume balance wheel is no longer manufactured, nor are steel balance wheels, but in terms of precision, it is the best.”
There was no anti-shock system on these movements as they were not intended to be worn. Did you add one?
K. V.: We chose not to. If we had added an anti-shock system, we would have had to modify the balance bridge and the adjustment system, and as we wanted to respect the original calibre, it was not possible. It is up to the customer to wear this watch with respect.
J. T.: We will explain this to all the purchasers. They all have enough knowledge of watchmaking to avoid going to a squash game with their timepiece...
These movements had no face and you had to create it. In what spirit did you operate?
J. T.: There are some similarities with the dials of the commercial calibre 135 but we wanted to leave as much freedom of interpretation as possible to Kari so that he could give it the most beautiful face.
K. V.: All the aesthetic choices are the result of discussions. It had to be a Zenith watch, a bit vintage, but modern.
J. T.: And we also wanted the spirit of Kari to be present in this model. It was a quest for balance. Kari is one of the greatest master watchmakers but he is also a humble and modest person and his personality is reflected in the dial.
These movements are part of the history of watchmaking, they are museum pieces. How do you put a price on such watches, knowing that the calibres that power them are limited, non-reproducible and reworked by a master watchmaker like Kari Voutilainen?
J. T.: It’s very complicated. We have taken several things into account. The first is the fact that the movements we are giving away are part of our heritage, and we cannot put a price on such pieces. Secondly, there is Kari’s exceptional work. Everyone knows how much his watches sell for and how well they do on the secondary market. We both know our clients very well, but the collaboration with Aurel Bacs and Alexandre Ghotbi was very interesting because they know the point of view of the collectors who buy pre-owned watches of different brands at auctions and the price they are willing to pay for them. When we all discussed it together, we agreed on the price of 132,900 francs. This was the one that seemed fairest to us.
Can we expect more stories like this in the future?
J. T.: This is going to be complicated. I wish I had a 136, 137, 138 calibre in my drawers but I don’t. It was an exceptional operation and it will remain so. This is also one of the reasons why Kari, despite his enormous workload, agreed to help us.
If you were offered a new exceptional project, would you go for it again?
K. V.: (laughs) We’ll have to see what it is... We have to concentrate on our business now, but if something that interesting came up again, I wouldn’t say no.
Julien Tornare, do you plan to extend your collaborations?
J. T.: It’s like for limited series: you can’t do too much or you kill the magic. We receive proposals for collaborations every week. We don’t have a business model based on this kind of operation. It has to stay sharp, it has to make sense, and we can’t do too much of it to keep the mystery and beauty.
“Only one more watch will be launched: a unique piece made of a material other than platinum and with a different dial. After selling these 11 pieces, we will never market these movements again.”