Zenith Watches – A Factory Tour

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This is my first post by a guest blogger.  Dan Ravenna went to Germany recently to visit his son, and a kind offer from Zenith, a Swiss watch maker, to tour their Swiss factory made for a more than agreeable detour.  Dan is a watch enthusiast and forum co-moderator at watchuseek.com.

My history with Zenith reaches back over a decade. It started shortly after I had acquired my "grail" watch of that era, a Speedmaster Professional with the see-through back. Then, I heard of the Zenith El Primero Flyback. A little research brought up several cool factors about the brand and the El Primero movement itself. It was not much later before I had mine. The fact that the brand was not that appreciated worked to my advantage as I bought the watch for less than the Speedy Pro!

As the years rolled by, I spent more time with WatchUSeek and eventually became the moderator for the Zenith forum. It's been my pleasure to see it grow to the thriving community that it is today.

I had always wondered what a watch factory looked like, but as some of the watch brands I enjoyed started to fade or be bought out (Minerva, Revue Thommen, etc.), I gave up the notion of seeing one. So it was to my surprise when Ernie Romers, owner of WatchUSeek, mentioned that a trip to the Zenith factory may be in the works and that he, Hartmut, and I could tour the factory together. I took it as a double blessing that I would see my co-moderator Hartmut again! So with fingers crossed, I let the magic work itself.

After emailing back and forth with Maud, Zenith International PR Manager, and Nastassia, Zenith Communications Department, the plans were set. Early on a Friday morning, my wife, Cindy, and I boarded a Lufthansa flight from Munich to Geneva. After arriving, we were greeted by a chauffeur who took us to Le Locle in a nice Mercedes. As picturesque as the countryside was, we were wondering if we would make once it started to snow! We had never seen it snow in late May.

We did make it. Due to life’s complications, we never did get to meet up with Ernie and Hartmut. Once inside, we met with Nastassia and then Maud. Nastassia first took us through a presentation of the brand. Zenith has come a long way since I bought my El Primero and the presentation showed us with pride where they were and where they wanted to be. One thing both Cindy and I noted throughout our entire stay was how passionate they all were about their brand. There was no mistaking that!

As well, they are very proud of how they just recently moved all of the manufacturing areas to under one roof as they had been spread about in the large Zenith complex. The synergy they derive from this is very positive.

After the presentation, Maud reappeared and the two of them showed us the complete line of watches, including some of those destined to be sold in the new boutiques. While both Cindy and I found this display to be really nice, we were both happy to hand back the Christophe Colomb as it cost more than our house did when we bought it!

To make sure we had the energy for our tour, we joined Romain, Zenith Product Development, for lunch. We started with shrimp and asparagus, followed by cordon bleu, and finished with apple crepes. We talked about what we did and I was most interested to see how they got to their present position in Zenith.

Now it was time for the tour. Our tour guide was the very capable Nastassia. We first started with their R&D department, the only place we were asked not to take photos. Here is where the watches went from design to mock up to trial units. They have some fantastic software that allowed them to show the movement working, and by fading out certain parts such as a bridge, you could see how the parts underneath work even if you could not see them in a finished watch. Very important if one has to trouble shoot!

Then it was off to the manufacturing area. The first area is where brass square blanks are placed in CNC machines. Each machine has a variety of tool heads (all made in house) and they are all used to drill and cut the blank. As you can see in the photos, many steps are involved before one ends up with the base plate or bridges. They also showed off some of their new equipment that allowed for the same process, but used far less cutting oil and is therefore environmentally friendly.

Machining-Room

Plate and Bridge Cutting Area

Machine-1

First Cut

Plate-Before-and-After

Plate Before and After

 

Example-several-operations

After Several Operations

 

Environmentally-friendly-eqpt

Newer and Environmentally Friendly Equipment

 

The next room houses a most fabulous machine, a five-axis CNC machine. Once programmed, this beast could make the complex geometry cuts required to make the movement cage of the Christophe Columb. The pictures show some fine examples of the components that are fabricated here.

Five-position

Five-Axis CNC Unit

Five-Axis-Pieces

Pieces Made on the Five-Axis CNC Unit

After this room, we saw the actual area where brass flats are received, cut to size, and then indexed. The final part of this process is to insure each blank is the same thickness. This is very critical given the way they are machined!

Brass-stock

Brass Stock

 

Brass-stock-QA-QC

Brass Stock Quality Assurance/Quality Control

 

Afterwards, we saw other equipment used to fabricate gears and other components through a variety of processes including stamping. Zenith makes over 80% of its own gears. The escapement is one set of parts that are not made in house.

Other-gears

Other Gears Made In-House

 

To this point, I've talked mostly about equipment, but make no mistake, there is plenty of human involvement. There are numerous QA/QC stations throughout the process. We also found it interesting that deburring is all done by hand. Even a five-axis CNC machine cannot do everything!

QA-QC

One of Many QA/QC Areas

 

At this point, the human element becomes far more important. The next step we saw was one of the finishing stations. Here, the plate and bridges are polished, the cotes de Genève are added, as is perlage. In this picture, one can see one of Zenith’s talents hard at work.

Decoration2

Hard at Work Adding the Good Looks

 

Now we are getting to the actual assembly. In this picture, a press is used to set a part. In this next picture, parts are arranged on a plate for further work. These next two pictures show how jewels are set into the plate. They are first sorted as to size, and then the head picks them and places them in the proper hole. They are then pressed into place. While one normally conjures up images of an old watchmaker using an anvil and press to put jewels into place, I for one appreciate the preciseness of this device to insure a well running watch!

Setting-part

Setting Part to be Pressed

 

Parts-on-tray

Setting Parts on Tray

 

Jewels-on-tray

Setting Jewels on Tray

 

Setting-jewels

Setting Jewels on Plate

 

As you can see by the pictures, we are now getting to movements that are finished. Note the paperwork that is in place to track their progress and quality control. In this area, the movements are tested. The equipment monitors how well they beat under different positions. They have some fabulous equipment that allows them to visually monitor the engagement of the pallet fork in the escapement. Whether you have an Elite that beats at a leisurely 28,800 or an El Primero humming at 36,000 variations per hour, you want that engagement to be perfect!

Busy-at-work

Busy at Work

Getting-there-cropped-2

Looking Good!

 

Engagement2

Equipment for Testing Engagement

 

In this next series, you can see the finishing of the movements. Dials are secured to the movements and then the hands. While wandering amongst the work benches, I showed off my Flyback of ages past. It impressed one the staff so much that when she was done, she showed off the new generation she was working on. Isn't it wonderful?

Further-finishing

Further Finishing

 

To-be-done

Waiting for Further Work

 

Almost-done

Almost Done

 

Flyback-of-new

The New El Primero Stratos Flyback Boutique Edition

 

Speaking of the staff, you won't find too many old watchmakers there. They are mostly young and mostly female. And all very happy with their company and their work.

Lastly, we have the room were all the grand complications are made. The watchmakers here are the crème de la crème. Here you can see and hear the minute repeater. Then there is a tourbillon. And here is a finished Pilot Montre D’Aeronef Type 20 Tourbillon.

Working-in-the-stratosphere

Where the High-End Work is Done

 

Montre-DA-Type-20

Pilot Montre d”Aeronef Type 20 Tourbillon

 

Tourbillon2

Tourbillon Out of the Case

 

We then finished with a wrap-up with Maud and Romain.  Due to the weather, we did not go outside, but here are some pictures from the building.

New-facade

Some of the New Façade

 

Windows-incorporate

Windows from the Past Now Inside the Building

 

View-from-one-of-the-windows

The View from a Window

 

Now to get back to the beginning of our visit. Remember the watches we said we saw? Well, here pictures of some of them. I just wanted to get the tour taken care of first.

EP-Diamonds

El Primero 36’000 VpH with Diamonds

 

EP-Diamonds-Side

Same Watch, Side View

 

EP-1969

El Primero Chronomaster 1969 Boutique Edition

 

Espada-Journeyman

My Favorite of the Bunch – El Primero Espada Graduation

 

Espada Journeyman Back

El Primero Espada Graduation Coin

 

EP-St-10-Baum

El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th (Felix Baumgartner)

 

EP-St-10-Baum-back

The Back Showing Felix Baumgartner

 

The-new-Flyback-and-original

The New El Primero Stratos Flyback Rainbow and an Original (Mine)

 

CC-front

Academy Christophe Colomb Hurricane on my Wrist (I paid less for my house!)

 

CC-back

Back of the Academy Christophe Colomb Hurricane

 

Cpt-Winsor-Annual

Captain Winsor Annual Calendar Boutique Edition

 

Type-20-GMT

Pilot Montre D’Aeronef Type 20 GMT Red Baron

 

Type-20-GMT-back

Fokker Dr. 1 on the Back – I am sure Hartmut would have liked to see it!

 

Cindy and I were very impressed with our tour of the facilities. The investment in equipment, labor, and buildings shows us Zenith is here to stay. We are also very impressed with the passion that the employees displayed for their product and their company. It makes me want to work there! It certainly left us with a desire to supplement our collection with additional Zenith watches!

Thank You Zenith!

Dan Ravenna
WatchUSeek Zenith Forum
Co-Moderator

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