June 4, 2022
by Mike Razak
You probably didn’t see this coming: Zenith has teamed up with auction house Phillips, with assistance from legendary watchmaker Kari Voutilainen, to produce a 10-piece collection using one of the most award-winning chronometer movements of all time. Rub your eyes and read that again because that’s what we have in the Zenith Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition. In recent years, Zenith has been spending a good amount of effort on its Defy collection (while keeping the burner on under its flagship El Primero), but keep in mind that despite its modern aesthetics, the Defy collection is driven by the most basic horological pursuit: accurate and precise timekeeping. So, when Phillips came to Zenith suggesting that it do something with the historic Calibre 135 chronometer movement, the brand saw an opportunity to celebrate its longstanding pursuit of timekeeping excellence. How did it all come to pass? And how did Kari Voutilainen get involved? Let’s start at the start.
In 1949, after four years of development by watchmaker Ephrem Jobin, the Calibre 135 began production. While some 11,000 movements were produced, the caliber was, in fact, produced in two versions: one commercial and one solely for submission to chronometry competitions at the Observatories of Neuchâtel, Geneva, Kew Teddington, and Besançon. While they aren’t as common today, chronometry competitions were serious business before the quartz crisis. A win meant a boost to the brand’s reputation as makers of exceptional timepieces and a commensurate boost to its sales.The competition version was dubbed the Calibre 135-O (for Observatoire) and was subject to obsessive regulation by Zenith chronométriers Charles Fleck and René Gygax in the brand’s Laboratoire de Chronometrié. While the Calibre 135 went on to win over 230 chronometry prizes, perhaps its most impressive accomplishment was an uninterrupted series of wins in the 1st category range from 1950 to 1954.
Fast forward 70 or so years to Phillips auctioneers Aurel Bacs and Alexandre Ghotbi. The two had previously collaborated with Zenith on a few custom El Primero chronographs, but they had a new idea in their heads. “Wouldn’t it be great to do a sort of super-limited-edition with the Calibre 135?” inquired Bacs. Zenith came back with 10 of the original 135-O movements from the 1950-1954 run of wins. Each movement had been regulated by Fleck and Gygax and each movement had been awarded prizes at competition.
Remember, though, that these movements were designed for competition, not wear. Zenith and Phillips had to find someone to get them ready for showtime. They went to the best there is: Kari Voutilainen. Voutilainen may be renowned for his exceptional watches, but before launching his own brand, he spent nearly a decade restoring some of the most important timepieces in the world (and he happens to own one of the finest dial manufacturers). Voutilainen disassembled the movements, cleaned them, and added decoration and finishing by hand, all while apparently leaving the regulation done by Fleck and Gygax untouched: “The persons working on these movements were the best watchmakers at the time. They had the know-how to make things precise… Our duty was to not touch that performance,” said Voutilainen.
The refreshed movements power the Zenith Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition, and the watch takes its inspiration from its movement’s time. The platinum case is 38mm across, 46.5mm lug-to-lug, and 10.35mm-thick (7.96mm without the domed sapphire crystal) — a modern size that tips its hat to the smaller cases of the ‘50s. Its round bezel and chamfered tapering lugs are designs that are timeless: you could find a dozen watches from 1950 or 2020 with similar silhouettes. The case is almost entirely polished save for the sides, which feature well-defined brushing. The pull-out 3 o’clock crown features the modern Zenith star logo, while the watch has a truly vintage 30 meters of water resistance.
Zenith smartly capitalized on the access to Voutilainen’s Comblémine dial workshop, and the result is a piece of artistry that captures the essence of the ‘50s with a dash of modern design. The outer hour track has a fish-scale guilloché with applied rhodium-plated German silver triangular hour markers and minute pips. The markers call to mind a number of watches from the era and, to be sure, they can be found on original models featuring the Calibre 135. All hands are made of solid white gold and finished with a high polish. An oversized recessed sub-seconds features radial grooves and a charming touch: the number of the specific movement encased in each watch. Instead of the expected “Swiss Made” at the bottom of the dial, Zenith has opted for “Neuchâtel” in a nod to the movement’s origins.
The Zenith Calibre 135-O movement is on full display through a sapphire display caseback. Off-center gearing allows for an oversized balance wheel featuring a Breguet overcoil hairspring and a larger mainspring barrel, both of which allow for greater isochronism. The movement beats at 18,000 vph and features 19 jewels and 40-hour power reserve. As discussed, the gold-plated movements have all been refurbished and hand-finished by Voutilainen and feature chamfering and polished edges on the bridges, beveled and polished screw heads, circular graining on the mainplate, and spiraling on the ratchet and crown wheels. It should be noted that the accuracy of the movement is not provided; while these movements swept five years of competitions, they have presumably been sitting idle for almost 70.
Even as a 10-piece release, the Zenith Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited edition is a commitment by Zenith to its history and its timekeeping pursuits, as well as a sign that brands are becoming more comfortable creating modestly sized dress watches — and that the market is there for them. If the hand-finished historic movements and the Comblémine dial weren’t enough, Zenith will deliver the watches in walnut boxes with brass fasteners, modeled after the containers used to transport the movements for competition in the 1950s. The Zenith Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition is priced at CHF 132,000 and will be available exclusively through Phillips. For more information, visit Zenith’s website.