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One Brand's Unique Response to the Growing Demand for Vintage and Pre-Owned Watches

Zenith’s ICONS Program puts an emphasis on sustainability and upholding tradition in the secondhand market.

Photo via Zenith

Vintage and pre-owned watches are becoming an increasingly popular and important market within the watch industry. What was once reserved for pawnshops and eBay has exploded into a $27 billion dollar business and is expected to hit $85 billion, thereby outselling new models in the next decade, according to a new industry report by Swiss firm LuxeConsult.

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The boom in the past few years in particular is largely due to the pandemic, which, for many big brands, brought production of new watches to a screeching halt. Watches are inherently time-consuming to produce thanks to their intricate mechanics and abundance of decoration and hand finishing, so recouping that lapse in production hasn’t been quick or easy. As a result, many boutiques have been left with countless “for display only” signs on their watches, and waitlists for popular brands and models have mounted to epic proportions. Thus, turning to the vintage and pre-owned market has been a natural alternative.

The Long Overdue Rise of Vintage and Pre-Owned Watches

People are finally beginning to recognize the legitimacy of the vintage and pre-owned dealers who have often been overlooked and, more importantly, the value of investing in vintage and pre-owned pieces. From a sustainability perspective alone, vintage and pre-owned beautifully fits into a circular economy. Vintage and pre-owned timepieces are a smart investment—if, and only if, they’re restored and maintained properly.

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With the surge of the vintage and pre-owned market, many brands like Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and Jaeger-LeCoultre have decided to take matters into their own hands and place more attention on their archives by unveiling their own certified vintage and pre-owned programs. However, Zenith took a different approach with its ICONS Program launched just two years ago in 2021.

Zenith’s Response to the Demand for Vintage and Pre-Owned: the ICONS Program

While the motivation of other brands seems to be about getting a slice of the lucrative vintage and pre-owned pie, the impetus behind Zenith’s ICONS Program came from a different place. For Zenith, heritage is the best way to demonstrate the evolution of the brand, and the ICONS collection gives some of the manufacturer’s most emblematic and rare watches from the 1960s and 1970s a second life.

Photo via Zenith

“Zenith ICONS is not about selling watches,” shared Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith, “it’s about telling people a story of the history and giving people an understanding of the brand. Any watch you buy today, it will last forever because we have made the commitment to repair and restore any watch since day one.” 

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What Is an ICON?

Before Zenith could begin sourcing watches for the program, the brand found it essential to define what an icon is—the term “icon” is not one Zenith uses lightly. The goal of the ICONS Program was never to source as many vintage models as possible or corner the pre-owned market. Instead, Zenith wanted to curate very specific collections defined by three core attributes that they believe make a watch an icon: it must tell the history of watchmaking, it must resonate within the collector community, and it must mark a significant moment in history for the brand.

Four Significant References That Exude ICON Status

The process begins with Zenith’s “hunters” who are tasked with chasing down iconic references that have been well preserved. The ICONS Program launched with a set of four El Primeros from 1969-1972 that served as the first collection. This was an obvious choice for Zenith given the importance of the El Primero in both watchmaking history and the brand’s legacy as the first automatic chronograph in 1969.

Photo via Zenith

Acquiring these early references for the inaugural ICONS collection was crucial in illustrating Zenith’s roots as a brand. The A384, A385, and A386 each launched in 1969. The A384 is instantly recognizable as being the “face” of the newly launched El Primero line. It notably features a “square barrel” case design and panda dial. Alternatively, the A385 left its mark on the era thanks to its “shaded smoky brown” gradient dial. The A386 most closely resembles the El Primero we know and love today and became the template for Zenith’s signature Chronomaster line. It features the classic round case and tri-color chronograph registers and is considered one of the most significant references in the El Primero’s history. Last but not least is the A3818 from 1971, which was produced in a limited run of just 1000 pieces. This model stands out for its vertically satin-brushed oxidized blue dial, with a “pyramid track” fractional scale.

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“This is an exciting new chapter for Zenith’s legacy, and I’m extremely proud of the teams at the Zenith Manufacture for taking on this initiative,” added Tornare. “We are bridging the past with the future by celebrating Zenith’s rich history and the references that have become true icons of watchmaking. We are acquiring historical timepieces from sources who have cherished them for a very long time and allowing others the opportunity to enjoy them. These rare pieces can now embark on a second life using existing resources at the Manufacture, and I’m really excited to share these pieces of history with our customers.”

Procurement, Assessment, and Restoration

For the second act, Zenith curated a selection from the 1970s that represents the second generation of El Primero watches and their place in this particular era of watchmaking, the brand’s catalog, and hearts of collectors. 

Outside of these two capsules, Zenith guides its procurement by hunting for references that illustrate the lineage of new releases. For instance, the new Pilot collection that launched at Watches & Wonders earlier this year spurred the procurement of pilot references from the past.

Once procured, the watches are returned to the same facility in which they were originally made. The original Zenith manufacturing facility consists of 18 buildings and has taken up an area of roughly 9300 square meters in Le Locle, Switzerland since the brand’s founding in 1865. Because Zenith has enjoyed an uninterrupted history in the same facilities for over 150 years, they are fortunate enough to retain a comprehensive archive of every Zenith watch ever produced as well as an original spare parts stock that spans the entire history of the Maison. This, in combination with the brand’s ability to leverage modern technologies, allows them to reproduce other necessary components for any Zenith watch that cannot be found within the historical stock.

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Before any work begins on the watch, it goes to Zenith’s Heritage Department, which was established in the 1980s, marking one of the first heritage departments founded within a watch manufacturer. Here, the watch must be assessed and researched to trace it back to its origins and ensure that all parts are genuine and consistent. This is all possible thanks to the archives and spare parts stock. Once it’s approved and purchased, the Heritage Department can begin the delicate process of restoration.

When restoring these historical pieces, the craftsmen in Zenith’s Heritage Department follow a strict code of ethics. The goal is to allow the original character of the watch to shine through by preserving it in its historical condition, respecting its given traits, and keeping as many of the original parts as possible. Therefore, the Heritage department takes the utmost care to maintain the original integrity of the watch by only restoring what is absolutely necessary for the watch to receive a second life, even if it means leaving imperfections that tell the story of the previous life it led.

The final and most important step is preparing the watch for its next life. Here, Zenith issues each restored timepiece a passport that allows it to be fully traceable back to Zenith’s archives. It also receives a three-year warranty covering the movement and any manufacturing defects and normal wear-and-tear of components.

A Holistic and Sustainable Life Cycle for Timepieces

Zenith’s ICONS program extends beyond the scope of other vintage and pre-owned markets by creating a holistic life cycle for the brand. Today, customers who wish to purchase a Zenith watch can choose between three options. They can select a brand new, totally re-designed and thoroughly modern model like one from the aforementioned Pilot collection. Alternatively, they can pick a revival piece that replicates a model from the past with a modern movement and materials like the duo of Defy watches that debuted at the first of the year. Or, they can choose a faithfully restored vintage watch from the ICONS archive. In this way, Zenith is creating a sustainable approach to watchmaking through both its modern creations and its restoration of models from the past. The brand believes this is the bridge for the next generation of watch enthusiasts to become lifelong collectors.  

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“Young people especially understand the sustainable nature of a watch and the fact that a watch can still be here in 400 years,” asserted Tornare. “In one sense, we’ve been afraid to lose the new generation to connected watches, which become obsolete the minute you buy them, but on the other hand, when you explain it, young people say, ‘this is great because I’m buying something that can basically live forever.’ And yes it can! If it’s a high quality, mechanical watch that’s well maintained, it will.”

Watches for the Next Generation

Watches are inherently generational objects. In one respect, they’re intrinsically timeless, transcending trends throughout their lifecycle whether they’re sold and repurchased in the secondhand market or passed down from generation to generation. In another sense, timepieces naturally tether us to the present moment, and it’s vital that watches resonate with the current generation in order for their lifecycle to be perpetuated. 

For years, the industry has toiled over how these mechanical objects will survive in a tech-centric world and how a social generation who has grown up with access to the Internet and portable digital technology from a young age will connect to such objects that in many ways seem outdated. What the watch community didn’t anticipate was the social consciousness of this generation whose passion for sustainability and comfort level with shopping online—even for a high-value item like a mechanical timepiece—created the perfect circumstances for the vintage and pre-owned market to flourish, particularly in the e-commerce space. 

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A program like Zenith’s ICONS that’s taking things a step beyond the traditional secondhand market with an intentional approach to creating a circular economy perfectly exemplifies the shopping experience the next generation will expect when collecting. For now, Zenith carries a small selection of the watches from the ICONS program in its online boutique, and further curations can be found within Zenith’s brick and mortar boutiques throughout Asia, Europe, and the U.S. 

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