The Zenith Manufacture is most known for a movement: the El Primero. The first serially produced automatic chronograph movement, released exactly 50 years ago. Few innovations have occurred in the space since and this movement remains widely used today and was indeed the basis for many legendary wristwatch chronographs, including the Rolex Daytona and the TAG Heuer Carrera.
Today, Zenith has experienced a revival. Not simply as the creator of a legendary movement but also one that is innovating on mechanical engines, reviving classic watches, and releasing bold new designs. Each of these three points can be seen in their Defy Lab watch released last year, the popular vintage-inspired pilot line, and their bold new Defy collection.
Toward the end of the week of SIHH in Geneva, I had an opportunity to see first hand a sneak peak at the new 2019 collection from Zenith. While I was sure to be interested in what they could be doing for such an important anniversary, what ended up catching my attention, to my surprise, was something else.
The Defy, today represents Zenith’s bold and brash collection with modern styling using advanced materials and movements. So I was a bit happy to see that what Zenith showed me in Geneva was in line with this thinking but restrained just a bit to be the kind of watches one could wear everyday.
I think the trick was to simply release a set of Defy Classic models that kept the same bold look of the previous releases but are thinner, smaller, and use color-matching soft rubber strap. Coming in at 41 mm wide and about 11 mm high the Defy Classic comes in three colors: black, white, and blue.
Constructed from ceramic, the case has the same sharp and modern look introduced by the larger Defy chronograph with the same complex pattern on the dial that allows the wearer to see through the expose Elite in-house three hand movement. Showing a distinctive date at 6 o’clock which works with the skeletonized dial.
On wrist it wears super comfortably. The soft rubber with matching deployant clasp is easy to adjust and wraps around the wrist. And perhaps that’s what surprised me the most since previously when I had tried the revived Defy line, bold, big, and 1/100 seconds chronograph, were the words that came to mind. This time, here was a watch that one could actually wear everyday and even in a business casual settings, especially if your style is modern, avant-garde, and similarly bold.
Priced at $7,500, the ceramic models should be attractive with younger buyers though I wished it was under the $5,000 mark. There is also a two tone gold and brushed titanium model priced at double the entry cost. It did not speak to me but I have lost any interest in two tone gold watches.
I also love that Zenith somewhat restrained the ceramic models to three neutral colors. However, I would not be surprised if you see limited editions in more vibrant ceramic colors as sister brand Hublot has done recently with the Big Bang Unico red and blue ceramic. Creating brightly-colored ceramic is a technology that the LVMH group owns and likely will share across non-competing brands’ models.
The second line that Zenith had some novelties for is their popular Pilot watches. With a design adapted from watches they first created at the dawn of aviation in 1909 and supplied for the great wars, the Zenith Pilot is an heritage piece that checks all the boxes for the nostalgic collector wanting a large legible pilot watch with unquestioned history. Zenith had two updates in Geneva.
First a bronze model with no-date and blue dial and strap. This is an update from previous models with green dial. They come in at 45 mm and just above 14 mm high and includes the classic Pilot look with that large onion crown. The engine is the in-house three-hand Elite 679 automatic movement. One model is done in bronze with a case back in titanium engraved with Zenith flying instrument logo. The key change here is the dial color and matching blue oily nubuck leather strap.
Second is the aged stainless steel metal black with matte black dial model named Pilot Type 20 Ton Up. The result is a gorgeous version that appears smaller on wrist due to the darker color implementation. It’s a tribute to the Café Racer Spirit. The resulting watch is great on wrist and should be attractive to all even if you are not a biker. Prices for these two Pilot watches are attractive at $6,700 and each come, as mentioned, with a nubuck strap with and a tang buckle matching the case.
50th El Primero Anniversary
With 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of their most important asset I was sure to see some new announcement from Zenith related to the El Primero. But again the novelties are restrained. No doubt to leave enough to show at Baselworld in late March. However, what they showed was a true collectors item.
Essentially, it’s a complete “desk” and watch-box set celebrating Zenith‘s famous movement. The box is large and would fit an entire commode in one’s office or bedroom. On top are loupes and lights to allow the collector to admire the famous caliber. I am not 100% sure if the sample movement is provided but if you end up getting one of these I’d be sure to ask for one, since as a super aficionado of the famous movement and I am sure Zenith would oblige.
There is space on the top to allow one to use this for changing strap or even service your watch if you have the skills or are feeling adventurous. Though I would not recommend it. But the best part is that there is a shelf that includes four watch cushions. The first three occupied and one empty.
On the first one is a reissued model of the original Zenith El Primero done with correct size and dial color. The second is the updated striking 10th model with 1/10 seconds chronograph. And finally the third is the most recent evolution of the movement, the El Primero 21, which features a 1/100 seconds chronograph. Each watch have the common tri-color chronograph sub-dials layout and is marked with the same serial number from 1 to 50.
The last spot is left blank and is a hint at what Zenith has in store to complete the 50th anniversary celebration. Buyers of this special box set will have priority to buy an exemplar of the future watch to complete their collection. The set comes in at a whopping (you guessed it) $50,000 but considering the three watches, limited edition, and first in line position for the 50th anniversary model for a serious Zenith collector or an El Primero aficionado, this maybe an interesting proposition.
Like Jean-Claude Biver has said multiple times since taking over Zenith in 2017, innovation and technological focus are keys to Zenith’s revival and achieving again the success that they have enjoyed in the past. For me the preview announced in Geneva gives hope that the revival is on track as they are releasing models in key categories that help ensure that those unfamiliar or discovering the brand have ample options to chose from.
The new Zenith Defy Lab concept that includes the new oscillator and revolution of the sprung balance is a good example of this revival in full swing and I would not be surprised to see a production run of this watch with a chronograph complication for Baselworld or later in the year. If that is the case then buyers of the 50th anniversary box set will be pleasantly surprised. After all, such a watch is bound to become legendary. Anyhow, since I am speculating here perhaps it’s best to wait and watch.
Overall I Love the focus at Zenith and the streamlined novelties. They are relatively well priced and are addressing the segment that should help them continue their revival. And while I was initially skeptical, perhaps it’s time to admit that the Defy has been brought back from the dead. I was hesitant when the model was first renewed at Baselworld 2017, but I am happy to be wrong and look forward to the remaining novelties for 2019 in early spring. zenith-watches.com