In the early 1970s, Swiss watchmaking was facing stiff competition from quartz and in the grips of an unprecedented crisis. In 1975, Zenith Radio Corporation, the American brand that owned the brand with the guiding star between 1971 and 1978, decided to limit its production to quartz watches only. The decision was irrevocable and the metal of the presses and tools – along with a century of tradition – was to be sold by the ton to the highest bidder.
Charles Vermot decided to safeguard
the components that are essential for
the production of the El Primero caliber
In workshop 4 of the Manufacture, the news was greeted with dismay. The foreman, Charles Vermot, was a specialist in chronograph movement construction who had followed the development of El Primero ever since the first sketches and spent his entire career within the Manufacture.
Firmly convinced that mechanical genius would one day take revenge on the electric battery, he tried to persuade the management to hold on to the production equipment, but to no avail. He therefore decided to store the essential elements away safely.
Evening after evening, he began secretly hiding away the presses (150 of them, weighing more than a ton), the technical plans, the cams and the cutting tools.
Making a swage
Technical drawings from the period, El Primero Caliber
Each component and each tool was carefully listed in a ring-binder file that he kept in a forgotten attic of the Manufacture.
In 1978, Zenith changed hands. The new owners believed in the renaissance of mechanical watchmaking, as did other brands that were turning to it as the only Manufacture capable of producing a chronograph as precise and reliable as the El Primero.
This ordinary hero enabled Zenith to relaunch production of its legendary chronograph in 1984
But what could be done without the dies, the technical drawings, the plans and the tools? Not to mention without the watchmakers who had either retired or been laid off since?
It was then that Charles Vermot showed the new management the large wooden crates that had harboured the proofs of his insubordination over the previous nine years. Displaying no sense of triumphalism, but instead the simple satisfaction of having done his duty, this ordinary hero enabled Zenith to relaunch production of its legendary chronograph in 1984.