Few and far between are the houses that have complete mastery of the manufacture of their timepieces and have the right to the supreme title of Manufacture. Zenith is one of them. In 1865, for the first time, its founder, Georges Favre-Jacot brought together all the craftsmen involved in the complete realisation of a watch under one roof. This gesture, which was ahead of its time, was the key to the immense contribution that the entrepreneur would make to the development of the industrial architecture in Le Locle, a town today classified as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Influenced by avant-garde American production methods, Georges Favre-Jacot continuously increased the infrastructure and productivity of his factory, with the sole aim of improving the chronometric or timing-precision performance and reliability of his movements. He procured machines, and perfected new manufacturing techniques such as automation and interchangeable components. He was thus responsible for the advent of the modern watchmaking industry, while upholding manual finishing and decoration.
Over the years, the Manufactures at Les Billodes grew, to the the point of employing up to 10% of the town’s population. Its workshops developed to the east, all along the street, then behind and on the hill. The hilly nature of the area made moving between buildings difficult, but on the other hand, provided excellent exposure to light through the juxtaposition of shallow spaces. On this complex architectural site, watches were manufactured from beginning to end, from the raw metal through to final decoration, including cases, dials and movements.
It was here, always between these same walls, that Zenith chronographs were born. A total restoration project for the 19 buildings started last August, designed to optimise the manufacturing process and logistics. The first phase of the works started with the rehabilitation of the three-storey main building, built in 1905, with its façade that is so emblematic of the turn of the century. Between the huge bay windows – 400 in all – Zenith’s name is spelt out with the initials of founder, G.F.J.
The building’s metallic structure and red bricks, typical materials from the industrial era, have been preserved. The building will benefit from modern construction standards in the form of triple glazed windows, thermal insulation, air conditioning and temperature regulation. The interior will be completely revamped in order to significantly improve the industrial logistics.
The central building will house the various manufacturing trades in a dozen workshops, notably machining, stamping, decoration, the various stages of control, mounting, adjusting, casing and Fine Watchmaking. Other buildings on the site will also be renovated. This vast undertaking, intended to modernise the manufacturing process, while paying tribute to Georges Favre-Jacot’s heritage, will be completed in 2015, the 150th anniversary of the Manufacture.