The Zenith Military Connection
The military has used watches since the 1800’s. However, their place as indispensable tools for combat began in WWI. It was then that military forces began tapping certain watchmakers to design and manufacture watches with detailed specifications for their troops.
Zenith is one of a few brands linked to military groups. Most notably, air force organizations. They first began making a name for themselves as producers of pilot’s watches in the early 1900’s. In 1909, French aviator Louis Bleriot became the first man to successfully fly across the English Channel, and he did so wearing none other than a Zenith pilot’s watch.
World War I
The First World War was a transitional period for timepieces. The pocket watch was on its way out, and the wristwatch was on the rise. Still, many military forces during WWI were still using pocket watches as an aviation tool. One of the most notable pocket watch models from this era was the Mark V, circa 1916. The British Royal Air Force used it. The design of the Mark V was to serve as a chronometer that fit into the aircraft’s instrument panel. This garnered them the nickname “cockpit watch.” Zenith is among the four known manufacturers of the Mark V, alongside Omega, Doxa, and Electa.
World War II
By the Second World War, the evolution of trench warfare tactics caused the demand for timekeeping devices to increase exponentially. The need was so great that much of the watch industry had to halt the production of watches for the consumer market to focus solely on manufacturing watches for military forces. Zenith was one of those watchmakers.
In 1939, they began producing the Type 20 Montre d’Aéronef for the French Air Force, the Armée de l’Air. These hand-wound aircraft clocks for cockpits fitted to the instrument panel and featured a distinct knurled bezel to wind and set the watch. The design of these instruments would later inspire one of Zenith’s most interesting, modern pilot’s watches: the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20.
During WWII, Zenith didn’t tie its loyalty with the Axis or Allied Powers. In addition to the French Air Force, they also supplied wristwatches to the German Army. The simple, modestly sized, hand-wound watches embodied the typical military timepiece of the era.
Since the two World Wars, Zenith has continued to supply military forces with timekeeping devices. In the early 1960’s, they began creating pilot’s chronographs for the Italian military. The A Cairelli Tipo CP-2 chronographs housed the brand’s own caliber 146 DP hand-wound movement. This was part of the foundation for the brand’s famous El Primero movement that debuted in 1969.
In more recent years, Zenith’s military past has continued to influence its present offerings. They debuted the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 wristwatch. It took inspiration of the aircraft clocks of the 1930’s in 2012. And, in early 2018, they revived the iconic Cairelli Tipo CP-2 with all-new case offerings and the addition of a flyback function.