Martel watch co was founded in 1911 in Les Ponts-de-Martel by Georges Pellaton-Steudler.
1911 was also the year that Georges Favre retired and changed his company name from "Georges Favre-Jacot" to "Zenith” (see Roessler, p.11-12).
Note that Zenith and Universal were both in le Locle, at approx. 10 km from Martel.
Around 1918 Martel is seen supplying Universal with chronograph movements (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Genève#1930s-1949:_The_Chronograph_and_.22Watch_Couturier.22_er a).
Universal Geneve claims on their website that in 1917 they launched the world’s first wristwatch chronograph (see http://www.universal.ch/newsletter/en/details/didyouknow.htm).
Combining this information we can conclude that "the world's first wristwatch chronograph, launched by Universal", probably used a movement made by Martel.
From this advertisement (ca. 1927?) we can see what those early Martel wristwatch chronographs looked like :
Next thing we know around 1932 Universal launched the world’s first wristwatch chronograph with two pushers.
The wristwatch chronograph with two pushers as we still know it today, was born!
And it will become clear from the watches produced during the 1930's that the movement had been created by Martel.
The next year in 1933 Universal launched the world’s first two pusher chronograph with three counters. (other sources say it was 1934).
The chronograph with three subdials, another important and exciting improvement which remains a classic until today!
Thus the two chronograph movements were born which Martel was going to make for 37 years (1932-1969).
These two could easily be made in different sizes : of 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 lignes.
Zenith named them according to their size cal. 122, 136, 146, 156, 166. They are all basically the same, different in size only. Each can be made with two or three counters: cal. 136 D and cal. 136 H, and so on.
Universal used the same movements and of course their own caliber codes, caliber 281 and so on.
It should remain clear that Universal had the initiative. Zenith perhaps got in the project thanks to its investment power in those days. Exactly at which date Zenith got in the project, we don't know, but it was probably quite early.
In 1933 Raoul Perret, the son of Georges Perret (the co-founder of Universal Watches in 1894), came in charge of Universal. The same Raoul Perret can be found in 1935 on the board of administration of Zenith :
Through Raoul Perret the Universal and Zenith Watch companies could easily cooperate in the field of the new wristwatch chronographs with two pushers.
Thanks to this cooperation Zenith from the beginning around 1932 had the same first wristwatch chronographs with two pushers available, as Universal had.
Take a look at this 1930's advertisement for Zenith chronographs:
This probably dates to around 1932-35. It could be the first known advertisement for a two pusher chronograph. The title is : "A new chronograph caliber with two pushers".
The text mentions that it is one and the same caliber for different sizes, with as a result the ease of interchangeable parts : a characteristic of Martel calibers.
Zenith praised the extraordinary quality of the movement and the reasonable price.
The advertisement also mentions that the chronograph dials could easily be exchanged. This is interesting, because it is possible that changing the dial was about the only thing that Zenith had to do in the making of these chronographs. There is a plausible theory that in this period not only the movements were made by Martel, but the chronographs were then also cased by Universal, before they were delivered as complete chronographs to Zenith.
In any case since Martel was making the movements, all there was left for either Universal or Zenith was adding the dials, hands, and cases to the movements, with the company names and numbers.
An example of the gold watch in the advertisement, an early 1930's Zenith chronograph with two pushers and Martel movement (Zenith caliber 136), can be seen in this thread :
In Roessler's book about Zenith, we can also see several examples of early Zenith chronographs with two pushers, made in the 1930’s (p. 216-218).
Around 1936 Universal then introduced the “Compur” and “Compax” names for chronographs with two or three subdials. Zenith used these names as well.
Roessler shows some Zenith chronographs from this period with ‘Compur’ on the dials (p. 219-220).
From advertisements we also know that there was a direct and open collaboration between Universal and Zenith, both using the Compur and Compax name. This advertisement for the Compur must date to ca. 1936 :
Here is another one :
And here is an advertisement from the same period (ca. 1936), where we find Zenith (and Universal is mentioned as well) advertising the Zenith Compax :
Next we should mention the renaming of Universal as Universal Genève in 1937. (Again I found some uncertainty about the exact date: some sources cite 1934, but 1937 is more likely to be the correct date).
Due to the succes of the chronographs in 1941 Universal Geneve had to build a new, ultramodern production line for chronographs (see for instance : http://www.montreshorlogerie.com/histoire-montres-universa-geneve.html ).
From this follows an example of a mistake which originates from one site, and is then copied by others. The opening of a new production line for chronographs in 1941 was misinterpreted by somebody as the founding date of Martel. This mistake has since spread to more sites, who copied the wrong information. As a result, some people have started believing that Martel was only founded in 1941. Please note that Martel was not founded in 1941 by Universal, as it had already been founded in 1911 by Georges Pellaton-Steudler.
Around 1942 the Martel/Universal Geneve/Zenith collaboration then led to the first wristwatch chronograph with date. (see for instance Page Modèles)
A Zenith example of the first chronograph with date can be seen in Roessler on p. 217.
It is estimated by Roessler as "1930"(s), this should probably be "1940"(s). Interestingly the movement is signed with two caliber codes : "287" and "146" (a Universal Geneve and a Zenith caliber code for the same movement).
But this chronograph with date was only the last step before Martel came to make the star product, the first wristwatch chronograph with full calendar and moonphase in 1944.
And Zenith also got it: an example of the Zenith "Tricompax" can be seen in Roessler p. 221.
Then towards the 1950s it seems that Universal Geneve shifted its attention more and more to that other novelty of those years : the automatic wristwatches. This eventually led to the Universal Geneve Polerouter, which (starting in 1954) became another success for Universal Geneve.
Zenith in the meantime started using the Excelsior Park chronograph movements as well. During the 1940's, starting ca. 1942, a movement was made by Excelsior Park which was then used by Gallet, Girard-Perregaux and Zenith for their chronographs (see Page Modèles).
Still at the same time Zenith remained faithful to the Martel chronographs as well.
Thus for a period of ca. 10 years (1946-1956) Zenith used both Excelsior Park and Martel chronographs.
We then find Martel ca. 1956 happily, independently and optimistically doing business.
Martel all the time had continued to supply Zenith and Universal Geneve with chronograph movements during the 1940's and '50's.
But now they also had watches under their own brand name.
An interesting non-chronograph with full calendar and moonphase.
Around 1956 they can be seen advertising for their own new automatic watch with date.
Note how this ad mentions that the watch was made in the best Martel tradition of precision and that Martel already had more than 40 years experience at that time :
"...precision workmanship and impeccable quality guaranteed by Martel's 40 year reputation for dependability and outstanding service to the watch trade."
This funny ad dates to ca. 1957 :
Shortly afterwards, around 1958, Zenith bought the entire Martel Watch co.
Usually 1960 is cited as the date of the acquisition (for instance by Roessler). Elsewhere I read 1959. But in Roessler's movements and calibers' list (p. 32) 1958 is indicated as the date when they effectively started with the Martel 25x2 movements.
Not only was Martel the supplier of excellent chronograph movements for Zenith since (at least) the early 1930’s, by 1956 they also had developed a modern automatic watch (with rotor), with date, and the same Martel precision. Zenith could use a modern automatic movement. Until then Zenith only had bumper automatics.
The Zenith Martel cal. 25x2 could also be used for handwound watches. It became the main Zenith movement line during the 1960’s and ‘70s (until 1975). It was further developed and updated by Zenith almost every year during the 1960’s, until ca. 1975.
At the same time the Zenith Martel chronographs could be continued and developed further, now also by bringing all the new technologies together : wristwatch - chronograph ; automatic - with date; with the addition of a very high frequency (a novelty from the 1960's).
As a result, in 1969 the Zenith El Primero was born.
Martel had made the worlds’ first automatic wristwatch chronograph movement.
And not only that : they made it straight away with chronometer precision; with three counters; with date (and quickset); they made it ultra-thin; with a very high frequency (36000 bph); and yet very solid and stable, durable and reliable.
In 1971 followed the worlds’ first automatic wristwatch chronograph with full calendar and moonphase (Zenith Espada).
Unfortunately for Zenith and the mechanical watch industry in general, at the same time during the ‘60s other people had been experimenting with electronic and quartz watches.
As a result Bulova, owner of an electronic watch movement, was able to buy Universal Geneve in 1967.
And in 1972 a Zenith radio (and television) company was able to buy Zenith watches.
In 1975 the Zenith radio company ordered Zenith watches in Switzerland to stop the production of mechanical movements altogether, including the chronograph production in Martel and selling the Martel building and destroying all their tools.
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?
Martel was 64 years old, when it was not needed any more.
Fortunately Charles Vermot (who for 40 years was chef of ébauches production at Zenith), at that time went against the foreign orders and saved many tools, machines as well as know-how from the Martel building, which all proved to be very valuable for Zenith ten years later in 1985 when the El Primero was revived. Charles Vermot was a visionary and saved the finest tools and machines from the Martel plant in Ponts-de Martel.
You can see a moving interview with Charles Vermot on the Zenith site :
A golden age came to an end, however soon to be revived.
In the early 1980’s a few business men bought up the old stocks of Zenith’s Martel chronograph movements (both automatic as well as handwound chronograph movements), cased them, and sold them with a profit.
Soon orders for new movements followed and around 1985 the El Primero was resurrected.
The rest is history.
Through the El Primero, which is now more alive than ever, the legacy of the small Martel Watch Company from Les Ponts-de-Martel also lives on.
But it also lives on in the many fine watches from the past, such as most Zenith chronographs starting from around 1932 and many Zenith watches from the 1960's (until 1975).
In memory of the Martel watch company, founded a hundred and one years ago (in 1911) in Les Ponts-de-Martel by Georges Pellaton-Steudler. Among its accomplishments are the world’s first wristwatch chronograph with two pushers (1932), with three registers (1934) with date (1942) and with full calendar and moonphase (1944); and the world’s first automatic wristwatch chronograph (with three registers, date, high frequency and ultra-thin) (1969) and with full calendar and moonphase (1971).