Tuesday, July 9, 2019

When only the best will do: ZENITH for Serbian Railways

Sandwiched between Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, the Kingdom of Serbia finally regained its independence in 1882 under King Milan I. Under King Peter I from 1903 the Serbian nation - modernised and liberalised – underwent significant economic growth. As a crossroad country between the West and East, the establishment of State Railways was one of the priorities for economic development. The first railway line between the capital Beograd and the town of Nis was completed in 1884. And, around that time, the first railroad pocket watches were imported from Switzerland.

The young and progressive Serbia spared no cash - enthusiastically placing its first orders with Zenith. At that time - and well into the 1950’s – Zenith was not just one of a handful of Swiss watchmakers specialising in high grade pocket watches of 'railroad quality', it was also synonymous with railroad timepieces. 
Here is a very brief introduction to the Zenith for Serbian Railways, circa 1915.

Dial side:

ZENITH, then signed "Мих. П Петковић и ко. Београд." Of course, Cyrillic letters are always a bit of a mystery to non-Slavic speakers, but dial writing is easy to decipher.  Mihailo P. Petkovic was appointed watchmaker and jeweller to the King. His shop was located in capital Belgrade, 38 Terazije St. Petkovic was also the official Zenith watch importer and supplier to the Government.

In other words, what Dent was for London, Petkovic was for Belgrade and Serbia.

Case back: properly signed railway Zenith

 The 'crown feature' of the watch is the fancy hand-engraved monogram. Strangely enough, even Slavic speakers can struggle to correctly identify the letters and acronym.  The intertwined letters are С Д Ж  - Српска Државна Железница or Srpska Drzavna Zeleznica in Latin - or Serbian State Railways.  The steam engine engraving depicts one of the first locomotives in service. The quality of engraving is astonishing and does not vary between examples - a mark of true craftsmanship.

The movement

The mechanism is stem wound, pin set, 15 jewels Zenith.  The escapement is straight lever construction executed in a robust manner.  The bridges are of a typical Swiss frost finish but what makes this calibre particularly unusual is the swan neck regulator with a dial.  The dial is notched disk, protruding outside the parameters of the balance cock, enabling the watch owner to finely regulate his timepiece.  This is a very user-friendly feature, quite popular with Zenith owners.  However, for laymen or railroad men, tuning a watch to keep correct time to a second was a skill in itself.


Even for the fact that we are completely disconnected with the pocket watch era, it is not hard to imagine how a Serbian Station Master felt about his social status, importance, and his self-respect which the Zenith contributed significantly to.  A railroad watch was far more than just a timepiece.  It was an essential instrument which enabled trains to run on time - the equivalent of the GPS systems that we take for granted today. 

What is hard to imagine is that today's Zenith run by LVMH is not interested in their own history.  What an opportunity missed to tell the whole world, and especially young watch enthusiasts, about Zenith's heritage and horological importance.  A full page colour advertisement of a railroad pocket watch like this one would certainly grab attention rather than yet another modern piece which looks like any other Swiss watch with no character.  

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