12. time-keeper


The watchmaker who saved Zenith from oblivion

A LAST WORD TO START

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December 2018


The watchmaker who saved Zenith from oblivion

It’s a well-known story, but one that definitely bears retelling. All the more so, since this issue of Europa Star is all about the value of preserving memories of the past.

I

n 1972, the US-based Zenith Radio Corporation, which owned Zenith at the time, saw the arrival of quartz and decided that that was the future, the only future. Orders were given to get rid of everything. Machines, tools, presses and parts were to be sold off by the tonne. Plans and everything else could be thrown out.

One watchmaker was appalled. Charles Vermot was head of the chronograph movement workshop, and had had a front row seat for the development of the El Primero. He made attempts to save it, but the Americans were deaf to his entreaties. That was the past. The past was OUT. So he secretly moved 150 swages (worth CHF 40,000 each at the time, and weighing a tonne all told), along with cams, cutting tools, technical plans, files, everything. Anyone familiar with the Zenith manufacture before its recent transformation will know that, among the warren of corridors, passageways and staircases, there were some forgotten attics. And that was where he hid his treasure. Left alone with its quartz movements, Zenith faltered.

In 1978 the company was bought by Dixi micromechanics. Gradually, mechanical watchmaking began to pick up, and interest in the exceptional El Primero movement was rekindled. Ebel was interested, as was Rolex for its Daytona. There were a few left lying around, but everything else had gone, thrown away or auctioned off. At least, that’s what those in charge believed.

But in 1984 Charles Vermot decided to stick his head above the parapet. He took the director up to the old attics filled with their scraps and odds and ends, and showed him the nine crates of equipment he’d saved. He also pulled out a dust-covered binder in which all the plans were meticulously filed.

The watchmaker who saved Zenith from oblivion

Charles Vermot, a most unlikely hero, saved Zenith and made many people’s fortunes along the way.

Years later, he was still moved to tears as he recounted the entire adventure in a sensitively filmed documentary produced by Télévision Suisse in 1991*. When the interviewer asked him how he had been rewarded for saving the business, along with many jobs, Charles Vermot showed the new-generation El Primero on his wrist, a gift from the company. “It’s a very nice watch, I like it very much.” Was that all? Of course not. “My wife and I were invited out for a good meal.” Which goes to show that the present doesn’t always adequately recognise the debt it owes to the past.

The last El Primero advertisement from Europa Star Europe 2/1972
The last El Primero advertisement from Europa Star Europe 2/1972

* You can watch the video (in French) on https://www.rts.ch/archives/ tv/information/tell-quel/7386270-le-retour-du-tic-tac.html