One of the highlights for me at COUTUREtime 2018 in Las Vegas was seeing and handling for the first time the Zenith Defy Lab. This is the winner for Innovation Watch Prize at the 2017 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) and for which the consensus seems to be welcoming the dawn of a new era in watchmaking. While many posts have been written about this watch since 2017, I want to instead give you my impressions after much anticipation and, like you perhaps, having read much about it. Is the hype justified?
Zenith is well known for having created pioneering innovations in watch movements. Remember, it was the one to spearhead (with Heuer, Brietling, and a few others) the creation of the first automatic chronograph: The El Primero. However, in recent past, Zenith was also associated with what are really a shameful forgetful period, where they introduced a line of watches that frankly reminds me of the worst watches in the industry today.
This awful past is thankfully behind them and while they have decided to keep using the Defy moniker, the innovation that is being introduced in this special version might make up for such sins. With the Defy Lab, Zenith has done nothing short of introducing a movement that reinvents a key part used in every other mechanical movements in history. A new system that does away with the classic lever, balance, hairspring escapement mechanism that first saw the light of day in 1675 when Dutch mathematician and physicist Christian Huygens proposed it.
Various blogs (e.g., Monochrome Watches, Hodinkee, aBlogtoWatch) have nice detailed write-ups on the ZO 342 movement. You can read them, if interested. The salient point I want to come across however, is that Zenith used mathematics and computer simulations to devise an escapement system that is essentially an odd shaped piece of silicon material. The main innovation is in the use of compliant mechanics. In layman terms, the disformation of a material to transfer movement and energy, rather than via joints, in order to generate a stable oscillation. This stable vibration is used to replace the classic balance hairspring escapement.
The beauty of this new movement is that the resulting watch has an unbeatable accuracy of about 0.3 seconds per day! This is better than Grand Seiko’s SpringDrive, which from my own experience, can achieve better than 1 second a day. On top of this, Zenith claims the watch's accuracy is stable for the majority of the duration of the power reserve (48 hours in this version). If correct, with the addition of an automatic winding mechanism, this watch indeed matches Zenith lofty claims to being the most accurate mechanical watch in the world. Easily beating all production mechanical watches and most quartz.
But what was it like in person? Well, I had two immediate impressions upon seeing it. First, the material Zenith chose to present the sold-out limited first edition of 10 is striking. It appears to be made of a porous material but with the color of metal. Zenith mentions this is a proprietary aluminum "foam" alloy with some special polymer added, called Aeronith. They claim it is 1.7 times lighter than aluminium and 2.7 times lighter than titanium. On the wrist it is incredibly light and easy to wear, even though the case dimensions are very modern Zenith- and Hublot-like at 45 mm wide and 14.5 mm high.
The second immediate reaction is the buzzing sound of the movement. It’s a constant high frequency buzz that in a crowded room would disappear as background noise, but in a quiet room would surely remind one of the mosquitoes I’ve experienced at the beach in the Caribbean. For a light sleeper like myself, it would be impossible to catch a nap with this watch on my wrist or at my bedside. However, speaking with the Zenith representative, this is not an issue that has escaped the brand and perhaps explains the very limited numbers of this first release. Surely encircling the movement in airtight sapphire or including some other noise canceling material could have reduced the buzzy noise.
But perhaps that is the price to pay to own something so revolutionary. The movement’s constant noise would be a reminder, like the striking silvery foamy case, that the watch on your wrist is about to create a new chapter in the history of horology. And just like that Zenith has reclaimed its root as an innovator and pioneer in the industry. Kudos to Mr. Jean Claude Biver and team for reviving the iconic brand, even in so doing reused and laundered an old name. I am truly excited to see what comes next when this movement goes mainstream and the quirks are resolved. I have a feeling that it might be something special that we will be talking about for decades to come. zenith-watches.com