Archives & heritage

Hunting Treasures: Zenith’s Heritage Department

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October 2023

Hunting Treasures: Zenith's Heritage Department

Zenith’s Manufacture in Le Locle holds many treasures: its staff, for one, its buildings, which have stood on the same ground since 1865, its collections, its movements, its archives and the countless objects that give meaning to the whole. We spent a day with Laurence Bodenmann, Director of Heritage, to understand how the brand makes the past accessible and uses it to craft the future.


here is something about every manufacture that makes it unique. The most remarkable thing about the Zenith manufacture, apart from its many buildings and size, is that it stands on the same ground on which it was founded in 1865.

While this may not seem like the most important takeaway from a day spent in Le Locle discussing watches, movements and all that goes into them, it is highly relevant. Because it has always occupied the same location, Zenith’s entire archives are conserved at this one spot, together with every one of the items required to make its timepieces. For this reason, as CEO Julien Tornare noted in a recent interview, “Zenith can repair any watch all the way back to 1865. Some will be more difficult to restore than others, we may have to build special tools, but we are capable of repairing every watch we have ever made.”

There is no manufacture quite like Zenith. More than a pleasing arrangement of bricks and mortar, it has an almost human quality. Doubtless this is due to its resilience, having survived the vicissitudes of a long existence, not least the advent of quartz technology in the 1970s. It welcomes visitors, who can marvel at the attic where Charles Vermot hid the tools and machinery used to manufacture the much vaunted El Primero movement – the first automatic chronograph, created in 1969 – after Zenith’s then American owners had ordered their destruction.

Zenith Icons: sourced, restored, certified, and made available again for purchase
Zenith Icons: sourced, restored, certified, and made available again for purchase

It’s a story told many times and not the only treasure Zenith has held onto. As well as a workforce that spends each day creating watches that will become part of horological history; alongside the expertise ingrained in these walls, Zenith possesses a heritage department whose role is to ensure that the manufacture’s past should help write its present and its future. Spend some time here and you will meet individuals who are passionate about Zenith’s history and its raison d’être. Most of all, you will discover archives and collections that go back to the company’s very first days. Drawers filled with everything needed to repair any Zenith watch ever made; plans describing how to recreate each component identically, if need be; past catalogues and more. Put simply, the heritage department is Zenith’s living memory.

N°1, the very first register

Before you can turn the pages of these foundational documents or open the multitude of drawers filled with pallet levers, screws, gears, hands and whatever else may be needed to make or repair a movement, you must first ascend several floors then walk along corridors until you arrive at the restoration workshop, in the customer service building. This is where the collections are carefully conserved, and where watchmakers work on customers’ timepieces, and also the Icons: vintage Zenith watches the brand has acquired, which will re-emerge as good as new, with a new passport and a new life ahead of them. But the key to everything are the archives and the reference pieces this is the playground of Director of Heritage, Laurence Bodenmann.

She explains: “all the watchmakers in the workshop are trained to restore customers’ timepieces but only a few work specifically on the oldest pieces: those from the time the manufacture was established up to the 1980s.” Overlooking the workbenches are the tall bookcases that house the production registers. Laurence Bodenmann selects one. Written on the back of its binding is a number, “1”. A quiver of anticipation. This is the very first register, corresponding to the year 1896.

N°1, the very first register
N°1, the very first register

Why 1896 and not 1865? Bodenmann explains: “Zenith was established in 1865. In 1896 it became a partnership limited by shares. Prior to 1896, only the cases were numbered and can be used to date a watch. When the company changed its legal structure, it had a duty towards its majority shareholders and so began to number its movements as well.”

She does something that has become second nature for her team when researching a watch’s origin. She opens a page and picks a number: 287613. “This is the movement’s serial number. It defines its identity, a bit like a surname. The register tells me it measures 19 lignes. It’s a Lépine calibre with the crown at 12 o’clock. The ébauche was finished on July 10th and the lever escapement assembled on October 18th. The hands were fitted on October 26th and the finished watch left production on December 24th 1897. Christmas Eve.”

There is still some sleuthing to do: to find out exactly what this calibre looked like, Laurence Bodenmann consults a different archive where we discover its technical sheet, complete with illustrations of the movement and its components.

The company registers and archives are fundamental to Zenith's certification and identification processes.
The company registers and archives are fundamental to Zenith’s certification and identification processes.

“Servicing a vintage timepiece is not just a matter of having the willingness to do so. It’s also a question of having the appropriate information at hand. We have this at Zenith, thanks to the foresight of the generations who conserved the original components and the documentation that goes with them. We are a manufacture: every movement, every dial, every case, every screw was developed and machined from A to Z on these premises. Because we still have the original components, with the corresponding plans and dimensions, we can identically reproduce them, either in our own machining department or elsewhere, depending on the item. We maintain a vast stock of parts. As soon as we see that quantities are diminishing, we make new elements to ensure that we are always ahead of demand.”

And demand there is. By 1910, for example, Zenith was producing 220,000 watches a year. That’s one every working minute, representing an extraordinary variety of watches and movements, as Laurence Bodenmann confirms: “From the very beginning, Zenith was making luxury watches at the same time as it was producing robust, accurate watches, with perfection as its ideal.”

After searching through another section of the archives and cross-referencing information from the production registers, she produces the order form for a watch dated 1955. It describes the case and numerous other details. “A company can issue an authenticity certificate only if it has these documents in its possession. Once you have the movement number and the case number, you can find out everything there is to know about the watch.”

Part of the creative process

There is one more source that Zenith’s Director of Heritage is eager to show us, and that is the catalogues. “They are a wealth of information which we then triangulate with the production archives and check against the watches themselves; the ones in our collections or belonging to the vast global community of Zenith watch owners.” By way of illustration, she picks out an assortment of catalogues depicting past models. They show the immense variety of watches produced by Zenith. Models which, because of their rarity, remain sought-after by collectors.

Bodenmann, who studied anthropology and history, refuses to see herself as simply a guardian of the past. As director of the heritage department, which was set up in 1980, her role is much vaster. She contributes in her own way to product creation and thus to the manufacture’s future. “The heritage department holds a collection of more than 3,000 watches as well as other objects. In addition to pocket watches, wristwatches, onboard instruments and precision regulators, Zenith manufactured instruments that go beyond the confines of watchmaking, such as altimeters, barographs, telephonometers [for measuring the length of telephone conversations], even rotary dials. Add to this the tools and machinery, and we have more than 5,000 objects, and that’s not including the items which are conserved in the attic, such as the dies and punches.” These archives and collections often provide the spark that inspires a new style or technique that can fuel the development of a new creation.

Original components: one of the key elements for high-end restoration
Original components: one of the key elements for high-end restoration

“Since 2018 the heritage department has come under the products department. Seeing what was done in the past can help the development team think about the future, building on existing elements to go beyond them. Our department liaises with all the others: product development, movement development, customer service, etc. It’s a kind of research laboratory for everyone’s benefit. Rather than house the collections in a museum, leaving them to gather dust behind glass, we use them as a playing field to highlight what we are doing today and what we would like to do tomorrow.”

The department builds on objects, archives and testimonials, which can take many forms. “These can be unfinished prototypes or records of projects that were shelved; testimony to things that were never made. Thanks to all this, we can highlight the significance of the timepieces that were made. Our role isn’t just to maintain coherence. The purpose of the archives and the collection is to encourage creativity and prevent teams from conforming to what has been done before.”

Asked for an example, Laurence Bodenmann describes the creation of the Chronomaster Sport, a perfect illustration of how the heritage department can give other departments food for thought. “The design team didn’t dare put dots on the bezel. They were afraid there would be too close a resemblance to the competition and that it wouldn’t be Zenith. Yet when you look into the archives, you see that the competitor the team had in mind took the idea for the dots from a Zenith design, the De Luca, itself inspired by the A277 from 1968. Hence the idea was an integral part of Zenith’s heritage and the design team were able to use it as something that belonged to them. Our aim is to give access to the past, thus making it into a tool that helps us move forward. It’s teamwork.”

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