Could watchmaking offer a harder nut to crack than Zenith? With Aldo Magada stepping down yesterday as CEO in favour of his immediate boss, LVMH’s head of watchmaking Jean-Claude Biver, the answer would appear to be no.
by James Gurney
There’s no value in attempting a kremlinogical approach to the question of why the affable Mr Magada left one of the most universally liked watch brands. Quite apart from having no worthwhile insider gossip, Jean-Claude Biver had already been closely involved with the brand’s direction having promised last January that 2016 would be the year his focus switched to Zenith.
I would suggest that the problem lies somewhat deeper than the choice of “this strategy”, “that watch” or “this partnership” as a short-term focus and it was ever thus.
The watches are not the problem. Standard issue versions of the El Primero are impossible to fault, being built around what many regard as one of the best chronograph movements ever made.
Regardless of your views on the beating-heart designs (I’m not in favour) or the Rolling Stones collaboration (ditto), the brand offers good value, excellent design and an insider snob appeal that’s hard to match. Partnerships with Cohiba and Range Rover together with the Gentleman’s Ride sponsorship looked like good moves and natural fits that should help the brand reach a wider audience. So what was the problem?
If Zenith’s performance in comparison to TAG Heuer and Hublot was looking anaemic despite quite a positive reception from retailers, that would be sufficient cause. But it’s tempting to look at the wider picture and Zenith’s turbulent history – essentially, there are still too many ghosts kicking around the company’s giant manufacture in Le Locle. Georges Favre-Jacot, Zenith’s founder, created a monster when he commissioned the first of the new manufacture buildings in the 1860’s. The Biver of his day, Favre-Jacot was a visionary who revolutionised both production and marketing (he was linked to the Werkbund movement which advocated a holistic approach to industrial design) and drove Zenith to become one the industry’s biggest brands by the time of his death in 1917.
By the mid-1960’s Zenith, still based in Le Locle, a village on the remoter side of La Chaux-de-Fonds, had quietly declined in comparison, but was working on a bid to recapture the limelight with the world’s first self-winding chronograph. The El Primero was a well received but pyrrhic triumph, as a changing world proved it to be the wrong movement for the wrong company at the wrong time. In short order, Zenith was acquired by the Zenith Radio Corporation of America, switched its output to quartz and ordered the destruction of the El Primero machine tools (despite the myth of the tools being saved by a passionate watchmaker, they were simply stored in a room no-one ever went into).
Ever since, Zenith has suffered from having both a manufacture that’s vastly oversized (and outdated) and a hero product that’s a movement, mostly famous for being used by Rolex (in the Daytona from 1988 to 2000). That, as recent history has demonstrated, is not a recipe for success and it makes for a confusing story to engage new audiences with.
Saving Thierry Nataf’s attempt to turn Zenith into the sort of brand that Hublot became, no-one’s done anything demonstrably wrong and the one CEO who looked as if he might have cracked the problem was Jean-Frederic Dufour, who was promptly poached by Rolex before he could complete his work. We can only hope that the Biver touch is a match for Favre-Jacot’s legacy.