n June 2, Zenith launched ten timepieces that are exceptional in several ways. These ten chronometers are powered by the celebrated calibre 135-O, produced from 1949 to 1962, which won more awards than any other during the period when observatory chronometry competitions were still taking place. These calibres, which are museum pieces, were part of Zenith’s heritage collection, but the watchmaker agreed to sell them. The case, the dial, the restoration and decoration of the movement are all the work of master watchmaker Kari Voutilainen.
The idea was born in the minds of Aurel Bacs and Alexandre Ghotbi of Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo. They were responsible for selling the ten models – a feat that took them little more than a few minutes. The price of these unique watches was CHF 132,900. This amazing story, which brought together three prestigious companies, was two years in the making.
Ephrem Jobin began working on the 135-O calibre, which marked a milestone in the history of watchmaking, in 1945. It was manufactured between 1949 and 1962, and existed in two versions. The calibre 135-O was designed specifically for the chronometry competitions of the Neuchâtel, Geneva, Kew Teddington and Besançon Observatories, while the calibre 135 was the commercial version. It holds more than 230 chronometry awards, more than any other movement in the history of watchmaking.
- René Gygax, one of the Zenith timekeepers who adjusted the Calibre 135-O, in 1957.
The Calibre 135-O holds more than 230 chronometry awards, more than any other movement in the history of watchmaking.
The ten movements chosen are from the years 1950 to 1954 and were adjusted by Charles Fleck & René Gygax, two Zenith chronometer specialists with a golden touch. As these calibres had never been commercialised, they lay untouched in their small protective wooden boxes 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. We interviewed Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith, and Kari Voutilainen.
Europa Star: This project represents two years of work, and in the end the timepieces were all sold in a few minutes. How do you feel 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 our 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. Aurel and I said to each other 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 prioritise?
J. T.: The selection criteria were complicated, but priority went to people who would appreciate what Zenith has done in giving up a portion of its history and heritage, as well as the exceptional work that Kari has executed 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 are 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 gives the impression that the Zenith manufacture is a huge Ali Baba’s cave, filled with treasures just waiting to be discovered!
J. T.: 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 relied heavily on the famous El Primero movement. When I arrived at Zenith, Jean-Claude Biver [Zenith’s interim CEO in 2107] 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.: CChronometry is one thing, but what is at the centre of the collaborations I undertake is the human aspect. Alexandre Ghotbi [Phillips’ Director of Watches, Continental Europe and Middle East] 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 work in harmony?
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 in another group would have needed an infinite number of people to sign off on it, 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, done in the right spirit. I have only good memories.
These ten movements are historic 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 very 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 designed, manufactured and prepared 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 in our heritage department, and they 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 record of the Calibre 135-O from the 1950s
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 couldn’t have been invented today?
K. V.: We could create this movement today but not the balance spring at its heart. Guillaume balance wheels are no longer manufactured, nor are steel balance wheels, but in terms of precision, they are 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. This calibre 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.
“Guillaume balance wheels are no longer manufactured, nor are steel balance wheels, but in terms of precision, they are 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 taking their timepiece with them to a squash game.
These movements had no face and you had to create one. Where did you draw your inspiration?
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 in number, non-reproducible, and have been reworked by master watchmaker Kari Voutilainen?
J. T.: It’s very difficult. We took several things into account. The first was 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 what seemed fairest to us.
Can we expect more stories like this in the future?
J. T.: It will be difficult. 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 another exceptional project, would you go for it?
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, are you planning more collaborations?
J. T.: It’s the same issue with limited series. You can’t do too many 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 be focused, it has to make sense, and we can’t do too much of it if we want 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.”