By Jason Heaton
on 10.15.12
Photo by Zenith

John Glenn strapped a Heuer stopwatch to his wrist; Scott Carpenter wore a Breitling chronograph; and everyone knows the story of Omega’s Moonwatch. Now it’s Zenith’s turn to join the list of legendary space watches. When Felix Baumgartner stepped off that skateboard-sized platform this week and plummeted to Earth while millions watched, you may have noticed a watch strapped to his right arm. It was the Zenith Stratos Flyback Striking 10th and, as part of Baumgartner’s supersonic free fall, it now holds the distinction of being the world’s fastest wristwatch.

Read more about Zenith’s supersonic timepiece after the jump.

Zenith is a brand on a comeback. After decades of near-dormancy during the so-called quartz crisis, followed by some ill-conceived designs and questionable branding, the once venerable Swiss watch company is hitting its stride again. What’s the secret to Zenith’s newly rediscovered success? Going back to its roots.

Before 1969, chronographs were all hand-wound; the problem of integrating a self-winding mechanism into the tight space of a chronograph movement was yet unsolved. But in that year that saw the space race reach its zenith, the world also saw another sort of race — one that culminated with Zenith’s creation of the world’s first integrated full-rotor automatic-winding chronograph: the El Primero.

The El Primero movement is unique not only for being the first automatic chronograph, but also due to the high speed at which the movement’s balance oscillates. The balance wheel swings back and forth an astonishing 36,000 times per hour (that’s ten times per second). The significance of this high frequency, other than making for a smoother traveling seconds hand, is in making the chronograph more precise and enabling it to subdivide time into smaller segments. In fact, the El Primero is capable of timing events down to one-tenth of a second. Never mind that your finger’s reaction time is far slower; from a watchmaking perspective, this is no small feat.

Despite the advent of the automatic chronograph, 1969 also brought about the quartz revolution. New, Japanese battery-powered timepieces — precise, rugged and cheap — spelled doom for the Swiss watch industry. Zenith was eventually taken over by the American electronics firm of the same name (Zenith TVs anyone?), and the company’s new owners saw mechanical watches as a thing of the past. They instructed employees to dismantle and destroy all the plans, parts and tooling for the El Primero movement and focus on quartz. At the risk of being fired, one employee, Charles Vermot, squirreled away the necessary bits for making the El Primero in a dusty corner of the Zenith factory’s attic, where it would wait for years for the brand’s resurrection.

By 2009, after years trying to find its feet, Zenith — under new management and with a new CEO — began to crank out watches that recaptured the brand’s heyday designs, proudly featuring its trump card: the resurrected El Primero. The flag bearer for this brand resurgence is the Striking 10th, a chronograph whose center sweep hand skips around the dial once every 10 seconds. When stopped, the elapsed time can be read in minutes, seconds and tenths of seconds. The watch world was back in love with Zenith. The company cranked out dozens of new models, one hit after another. Then, along came Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos project.

When Zenith agreed to be the official timekeeper and a sponsor of Baumgartner’s ambitious jump from the edge of space, they realized none of their watches quite fit the “plummeting to earth from over 24 miles up” niche. Again, the brand looked back for inspiration; it chose to emulate its vaunted Rainbow Flyback, a tough chronograph it had built for the French Air Force in the mid-1990s. The new watch would not only feature the Striking 10th complication, but also be a “flyback”, meaning a single push of the reset button would stop, reset and restart the chronograph instantly. It would be the first of its kind for Zenith and a fitting piece for Baumgartner’s mission. The brand chose the name Stratos, acknowledging its role in Red Bull’s project to skydive from the stratosphere. While the first edition of the watch came with a transparent caseback, in its newest iteration, the watch sports an engraved caseback featuring Baumgartner’s likeness and appropriately commemorative text.


With a domed sapphire crystal, ratcheting rotating bezel and massive 45 millimeter case, the Stratos Flyback certainly looked up to the task. But how would it perform strapped outside of a spacesuit in the extreme cold, ripping velocity and shockwaves at Mach 1? I’m sure there was much hand-wringing behind the scenes at Zenith when Baumgartner stepped out of the capsule in to the frigid wasteland (waste-air?) of 128,000 feet. There’s no telling whether he actually used the chronograph to time his fall, but we suspect he had other things on his mind at the time he jumped. Regardless, by the time Fearless Felix landed 9 minutes later, the watch appeared unscathed, still lashed to his arm with an extra-long Velcro strap.

Other watches have gone supersonic inside of airplanes and spacecrafts; some have survived the harsh environment of outer space. But the Stratos Flyback Striking 10th was the first timepiece to be directly exposed to a supersonic free fall through the stratosphere, thus becoming the fastest wristwatch on Earth. It’s a title that Zenith will probably hold onto for many years to come.

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