Call it a (major) comeback!
Zenith is reviving its historic Calibre 135—a movement from the 1950s widely regarded as the most highly awarded contemporary observatory chronometer ever made. Ten of these vintage calibers have been restored and decorated by the lauded independent watchmaker, Kari Voutilanen, and housed in an entirely new case. The project was the brainchild of Aurel Bacs, senior consultant at Phillips auction house—and the man behind some of the largest hammer prices in history for watches—and Alexandre Ghotbi, head of Continental Europe and the Middle East for Phillips.
“I’ve known Aurel Bacs and Alexandre Ghotbi for years,” said Zenith CEO, Julien Tornare, in a statement about the collaboration. “We’ve had discussions about Zenith’s patrimony and what were the hidden treasures that remained to be uncovered. Specifically, they asked about the Calibre 135. Then I had the idea, why don’t we collaborate with Phillips to create a special series around this movement? The beauty of having such a rich patrimony as Zenith’s is to share it.”
The history of the Calibre 135 began in 1945 when watchmaker Ephrem Jobin began developing the movement for Zenith. It was put into production from 1949 to 1962 in two versions: one used solely for chronometry competitions at the Observatories of Neuchâtel, Geneva, Kew Teddington and Besançon (known as “O” movements) and a second that was used commercially. The 10 watches now produced by Zenith and Voutilainen will house original chronometry Calibre 135-O movements. The difference is that the chronometry competition movements underwent extensive testing under extreme temperatures and shocks and were run in six positions to ensure they delivered the best chronometric performance, or accuracy, with minimal variations.
Adding to their provenance, the movements are all from the years 1950 to 1954, which means they were produced during the time the 135-O won the chronometry competition five years in a row. Each was rigorously worked on in a year-long process and regulated by Charles Fleck and René Gygax, Zenith chronometry specialists.
Voutialinen is the perfect fit for the project. Before he began making his own movements, a client approached the watchmaker with the idea of making a watch using a vintage Peseux 260 caliber, a movement also submitted for chronometry competitions. The unique piece resulted in a new chronometry certification at the Besançon Observatory in France, as well as Voutilainen’s ultra-coveted Obseratoire series, based on the original. He is also known for his high-end level of finishing and given that these types of movements were not decorated since they were not intended to be delivered to end clients, he is expert hands were also brought in, not only to revive the calibers but to beautify them.
To that end, the historical movements are now revamped with hand-chamfered, beveled and polished edges on the gold-colored bridges, the screw-heads are polished, the mainplate is decorated with circular graining and the ratchet and crown wheels are finished with snailed brushing. Likewise, the sterling silver dial features immaculate guilloché engraving in a fish-scale motif, while the triangular hour markers and applied and polished dot minute markers are created from rhodium-plated German silver to contrast with the solid gold hands. The large seconds counter at 6 o’clock comes inscribed with the movement’s serial number and the dial is signed “Neuchâtel” at the bottom in a tribute to the observatory where the Calibre 135-O raked in its many accolades.
Each of the 38 mm platinum pieces will be sold exclusively through Phillips and will be delivered in a walnut wooden box with brass fasteners, inspired by the original containers of chronometry competition movements. Each package will also contain the original historic wooden box that contained the movement. Those who get their hands on one will be among the rarefied few. No doubt, one will eventually be found again on the company’s auction block for well above its original asking price of CHF 132,900 (or approximately, $138,405 at current exchange rates).