Zenith is one of those brands that seems to be always paying tribute to their history, even in their most contemporary watches. Can you blame them? They’ve been around since 1865 and at this point can lay claim to several historic references that are household names, as long as your household is full of watch enthusiasts. After a period of time in their recent past where even enormous fans of the brand (myself included) might say that they were muddling along, they’ve hit their stride recently with a series of watches that pay direct homage to the past, while paving the way forward, imagining what a next generation version of Zenith will look like. Of course, this is what most brands with some semblance of heritage are attempting to do, but Zenith, in my opinion, is currently balancing the past and present better than just about anyone. Their newest watch is a surprising three way collaboration that reaches back further into the brand’s history than we’ve seen from recent reissues, and is simultaneously an exciting new endeavor unlike any we’ve seen from Zenith before, and it speaks to the respect the brand has earned from the larger watch community over this most recent stretch.
To understand the new Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition requires a grasp of the watchmaking world as it stood in the 1940s and 50s, specifically the practice of watchmaking companies entering their movements into observatory chronometer competitions. This is truly a bygone era, but at the time it gave brands great credibility to say that their calibers outpaced movements made by other brands. These days, a chronometer certification is fairly well understood, but before a COSC certification was relatively commonplace, brands would tout their watches as winners at what amounts to a watchmaking Olympics. Zenith had a particularly good run with their Calibre 135, which won over 230 chronometry prizes during its production run, which spanned between 1949 and 1962.
The Calibre 135 had a commercial variant that found its way into production during this time period, and those watches are prized by vintage collectors for their chronometric importance. But the movements that were actually entered into these competitions were specially tuned by Zenith watchmakers, and given the distinctive 135-O designation. They were never intended to be made available for sale, and went through a variety of additional tests that the commercial movements weren’t subject to. This new edition, conceived by Aurel Bacs and Alexandre Ghotbi from the Phillips auction house along with Zenith, revives the actual vintage 135-O calibers and puts them in a luxurious package worthy of a movement with such a legendary status.
And that’s where the third collaborator on this extremely limited edition comes in. Kari Voutilainen is generally regarded as one of the greatest living watchmakers, and has an expertise in both dial making (through his Comblémine atelier) and movement finishing. The ten watches that make up this limited run have had their 135-O movements meticulously restored and hand finished by Voutilainen, with new dials created that intentionally mimic the style of the 1950s watches Zenith would have put production versions of the 135 in, but with some additional Kari touches.
It’s important to note that Voutilainen, in his restoration, has preserved the original regulation these movements went through 70 years ago. As he puts it, the watchmakers who worked on these calibers “had the know-how to make things precise,” and that this precision didn’t go anywhere in the ensuing decades. Voutilainen’s job here was to preserve that original high level of performance while making the watch suitable for regular wear. He also, of course, took the time to hand decorate each caliber, which gives these movements a certain aesthetic appeal they were never really intended to have. As these calibers were made for competition, finishing the movements was never a concern. The 135-O has literally never looked so good.
While the movement here will understandably get most of the attention, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the dial. It’s made of sterling silver and slightly domed, in an inky black with complementary gold hands. The outer section has a guilloche engraving in a fish scale pattern, while the inner section has a simple matte finish to set off the inherent depth of the engraving around the perimeter. The subsidiary seconds register at 6:00 is signed with the movement’s serial number, effectively making each of the ten watches in this run a unique piece unto itself. The case is in platinum, and measures 38mm in diameter.
The Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition is obviously a unique release, seemingly designed for the well-heeled Zenith obsessive (it’s priced at 132,900 CHF). There’s something under the radar about this watch that’s appealing – ususally when you think of a six figure timepiece, your brain goes to something a bit louder or recognizable. There’s a good chance, I think, that if you were to simply wear this watch around town, nobody would give it a second look. It’s almost generic. But the history is undeniable, and a look at the movement through the display caseback would ultimately reveal just how special it is.
The Calibre 135 Observatoire Limited Edition is available exclusively through Phillips.