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Moments in the Manufacture: Zenith Watches, Le Locle Switzerland

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Zenith is a brand that chooses its family very carefully, so it's with great pride that we are able to report that one of Topper's very own stars, Jay Liu was recently selected to join a small group of top-performing Zenith retail and culture ambassadors on an exclusive tour of the Zenith manufacture in Le Locle, Switzerland. As Topper's foremost expert on all things Zenith, and an ardent fan of the brand itself, the following are Jay's own words, recalling this once-in-a-lifetime experience and take you behind the curtain to explore the brand and its incredible heritage. And when you're done, be sure to give her a follow on Instagram to stay current on all her Zenith adventures. [Ed.]

"We are here
to perpetuate heritage..."

The drive from Neuchatel to Le Locle was lush and serene. I can understand why the winter months would entice one to perfect their watchmaking skills. It's Thierry Collot, Zenith's Director of North America who's leading us on this journey of self-discovery through watchmaking. As a philosophical thinker who loves psychology, he is at once fearless and fascinating. "We are making timepieces that are timeless," he says, words that now echo in my mind as we arrive at the manufacture.

I’ve loved the Zenith brand for a long time. I hear this from the collectors often: "This brand is quietly making exceptional timepieces, it’s surprising that it is not more known than one would expect.” After my visit to the manufacture, I understand why. During the entire four hour visit, can you guess what I heard? Nothing. The intensity and focus of the watchmakers, designers and people walking by were so strong, it felt like a research center filled with those who’ve dedicated their lives to define time. At many moments during my visit, I felt invisible. Until someone looked up from the bench then I saw their warmth and welcoming smiles. Transparency is important to Zenith. We made random stops and watched the makers hard at work behind their benches but it never seemed to deter them. Like an artist working on the smallest masterpiece, she or he is determined to perfect it, piece by piece, inch by inch, one by one.

We met with the design team. They are young, humble, and wildly innovative — not unlike many of my friends and collector colleagues in the Silicon Valley tech community. Leading the Design department is Romain Marietta, Director of Product and Heritage. I asked him what inspired him, he humbly said: “I am just trying authentically to pursue what has been done over the last century and a half with this Brand.” Unsurprisingly, his father owns a dial manufacture, so watchmaking runs in this family’s blood.

Moments later, I was moved when Romain Mazzilli, the Customer Experience Manager, told us that there are two women whose primary watchmaking task is the traditional art of “hand bending” (Ed. note: Some El Primero-powered references have hands that are subtly curved at their tips which match the curvature of the convex dials or domed crystal.) It’s a craft so uniquely specific to each individual, that they’re each able to tell who bent the hands just by visual inspection alone. One of the Zenith ambassadors in our tour was wearing such an El Primero which had bent hands – Romain held it out to the watchmaker and asked: "Do you recognize these hands?” She examined it for 1/10th of a second and quickly said “No,” with a sly smile. Only a few short minutes later, we ran into her colleague and again showed her the watch, and she excitedly responded “Oui! It was me!” Immediately, she asked the ambassador if they could take a photo together – it was like a little family reunion with many hugs and smiles – one of her children coming home after being away for many years. When we visited the “decoration department," we learned that it took an entire day to decorate only two rotors. Even movement plates that aren’t visible through the exhibition caseback are still decorated with ornate patterns. Why? Because it’s simply the right way – the way that cuts no corners to produce a watch. And perhaps one day, if a watchmaker were to dis-assemble the movement and see undecorated movement plates, this is simply not acceptable.

Room after room, building after building, we walked through bright work spaces and saw precision machinery designed specifically for Zenith – all of it, framed behind by beautiful mountains. Photos of the past hanging above the machines serve as a reminder of who Zenith is: a company of watchmakers, generation after generation. Most of the watchmakers are from right here in Le Locle, they were born into the profession. The sense of calm and zen was overwhelming. Work was their meditation. I almost feel like I want to be a watchmaker.

Even without words, watchmaking was explained to us, making the “why” all-too-clear. Zenith derives its inspiration and innovation from the past, and strives for perfection in the present. It was Romain Mazzilli who said it perfectly: "We are here to perpetuate heritage.”

And then we walked up the winding staircase and visited the Attic. On the wall hung an old television which played an interview with the now-famous Zenith watchmaker Charles Vermot, where it was said to him in response to his request to preserve the El Primero movement: "Little Vermot from Pont de Martel is mired in his swamp. He has to wake up. It is the electronic era!" His letter to the company he loved was so dignified. As the Quartz Crisis loomed over the Swiss watch industry, for two whole years, he carried heavy machinery, stamps, and tools up the manufacture’s attic after work, where he hid them in hopes of preserving the incredible legacy of Zenith. He did it all in secret – so much so, even his own wife didn’t know what he was doing night after night. When he was able to break down the cemented brick wall and share the hidden treasures, can you imagine his joy? His bravery and foresight saved the first chronograph and elevated Zenith to where it is today. And yes, I might have teared up a bit when I entered the attic for the first time – Zenith left it exactly how it was found back in 1984, so I could also share in that feeling of discovery and the preservation of this incredible history. And sadly, no, I did not find any hidden prototype dials. As we left the attic, Thierry pointed out a wall upon which will inscribe the names of the fifty owners of 2019’s El Primero 50th Anniversary set – the ultimate achievement for any watch fan and collector!

Our group were amongst the very first visitors to see Zenith’s new boutique located in the manufacture, which is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its contributions to the framework of watchmaking urbanism. I think anyone would be blown away by the experience. I made a mental note to bring that level of passion and excellence and quiet attention to detail back to our own new store opening later this fall in Burlingame.

As I rode the Zenith bus back to Neuchatel, I found myself in quiet reflection, unsure how to fully process or share what I’d just experienced on the level that it truly deserves. Those who know me know I am rarely at a loss for words – it’s even in my Instagram handle – @SheSpeaksWatch, but in this moment, I am truly speechless.

Things move slower in Switzerland. It takes longer to charge a phone or lower the electric blinds – a stark contrast to home life back in Northern California where everything is shared instantly. But I knew I could not rush the thoughts needed to relay what I’d just experienced. After all, it took eight months for Zenith to design a new watch, a seamless team of dedicated watchmakers to build a watch from the tiniest parts and jewels, and then five more days just to test its precision tolerance. So I think I can also take my time to share my visit to the Zenith Manufacture. It was at the end of our special visit when Romain said it best: "My world is as big as this movement in front of me.”

Many thanks to the Zenith family for making this incredible experience possible.

In addition to being a Zenith Ambassador, Jay Liu is the Corporate Sales Manager for Topper Jewelers. Give her a follow on Instagram at @shespeakswatch, or email her directly for all your Zenith needs at Jay@topperjewelers.com

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