Introducing The Zenith Defy El Primero 21

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Introducing The Zenith Defy El Primero 21

Words by Mr Alex Doak

4 July 2018

The Swiss watchmaker goes back to the future with a revolutionary new chronograph.

Every industry has its characters. The automotive world had Mr Gianni Agnelli, computing had Mr Steve Jobs and fashion has Mr Karl Lagerfeld. The watch world has Mr Jean-Claude Biver.

Watch boss across LVMH Group’s portfolio of top Swiss brands, he is irrepressible and passionate, outspoken and refreshingly straightforward, and never more relevant than now, in his 69th year, thanks in large part to his recent rejuvenation of Zenith. It’s no exaggeration to say we might not be talking about Zenith at all if it weren’t for his trailblazing influence in the 1980s, when he nurtured the thin-seeming notion of a mechanical watch in a world of battery-powered quartz. Now all that expertise is focused on the new Zenith Defy line, and in particular the El Primero 21, now available on MR PORTER.

First, though, some history. In 1981 Mr Biver and Mr Jacques Piguet purchased the name “Blancpain” for CHF22,000, a sum that must have seemed trifling for a brand that could lay reasonable claim to the title of Switzerland’s oldest watchmaker (the Swiss franc was then, and still is, roughly equivalent to the US dollar). The two men rebuilt the brand on the now famous slogan, “Since 1735 there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.”

The strategy paid off, and 11 years later Mr Biver sold Blancpain to Swatch Group for CHF60m. Then, after a similarly phenomenal turnaround at Omega, he joined Hublot in 2004.

Despite being one of Switzerland’s younger brands, Mr Biver was too clever to engineer a false heritage. Instead, he embraced the collision of traditional watchmaking with the future. He fused high-tech materials such as ceramic and titanium with mechanics, established a top-flight manufactory and attracted LVMH as its new owner.

So, with Hublot and, most recently, TAG Heuer’s phoenix-like reinventions under his belt, it was time for Mr Biver to attend to one last brand before he retired. Zenith was the top horological dog at LVMH and is a gleaming jewel in MR PORTER’s horological gallery.

“Many of Zenith’s characteristics remind me of those of Blancpain,” says Mr Biver. “It is a manufacture with exclusively its own movement. It has a very conservative and low-profile design. It has quite a low awareness, a small turnover and limited budgets. But on the other hand, what appear to be weaknesses can easily be transformed into strengths.

As for the Defy El Primero 21, the poster boy for Zenith’s instant transformation, he says, “It is nothing less than the vision of the future of tradition.”

As a motto, it may sound rather tortured, but Mr Biver has cut straight to the chase. Zenith has always been about the future of Switzerland’s watchmaking tradition. When 22-year-old Mr Georges Favre-Jacot set up shop in Le Locle village more than 150 years ago, his was the only factory in the Swiss Jura mountains to have electric lighting and to bring all watchmaking’s key skills beneath one roof, rather than rely on the sprawling cottage industry of component makers dotted throughout the surrounding valleys.

He also pioneered the transfer of American industrial methods to the Jura, buying precision machinery for the production of highly interchangeable parts in big series. (This approach was adopted three years later by Mr Florentine Ariosto Jones, the father of IWC Schaffhausen, a brand recognised as the first to have industrialised the production of mechanical watches.)

Yet still, after 300 patents, 600 movement variations and a staggering 2,333 prizes in the field of precision chronometry, Zenith is firmly rooted in the art of the chronograph stopwatch function, namely El Primero.

When Zenith launched El Primero in 1969, pipping Heuer and Breitling’s collaborative Calibre 11 to the post, it could proudly advertise itself not only as the world’s first self-winding chronograph but also the first to tick at the highly precise frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour, or 5Hz. This meant you could time events down to an accuracy of one-tenth of a second, rather than the eighth afforded by all other 4Hz or 28,800vph chronographs.

Like everything mechanical at the time, El Primero was scrapped almost as soon as it was conceived to make way for new-fangled quartz. But as the youthful Mr Biver foresaw, interest in Swiss mechanical watches was back on the upswing in the 1980s when they were rebranded as “luxury products” rather than quotidian timekeepers. As luck would have it, an equally percipient workshop manager, Mr Charles Vermot, had assiduously squirrelled away the plans and every single tool required to make an El Primero movement from the raw metal – an act of insubordination we can all get behind.

First up for Mr Biver’s Zenith v3.0, in a reassertion of El Primero’s importance at the core of the brand, is the new Defy line, which runs in parallel with the more traditional Chronomaster. Named and styled after a groovy, angular 1970s collection (now in titanium rather than steel), the hero model is the Defy El Primero 21, in turn named after the century to which it most certainly belongs. Instead of feeding from the 36,000vph powertrain, its chronograph function is powered by a second, totally separate, even higher frequency geartrain that ticks at the breakneck speed of 360,000vph (or 50Hz).

The tech is derived from a short-lived experiment at TAG in 2011, and feels far more at home here. In a dazzling exaggeration of El Primero’s high-frequency capability, the axial sweep-seconds hand whizzes round the dial every second, keeping time to one-hundredth of a second. (Ultimately, it’s down to your speed of reaction and how quickly your finger can click the “stop” button at 2 o’clock.) And if that weren’t enough to keep you utterly transfixed, the dial is skeletonised to afford a glimpse into the tiny constellation of micro-mechanics within.

At the heart of each powertrain, you can spot each of its balance wheels, which oscillate and regulate the tick, like a tiny circular pendulum. Most are suspended from a tightly coiled, hair’s-breadth spring made from metal alloy or silicon. The Defy El Primero 21’s, on the other hand, are made from pure carbon nanotubes. Essentially, these are rolled-up sheets of graphite, pioneered in Manchester 14 years ago and tipped as the wonder substance for everything from bioscience to satellites. For mechanical watchmaking, they’re perfect: antimagnetic, durable, engineerable to miniscule tolerances and downright cool to boot.

As the first move in Zenith’s 21st-century masterplan, it’s a big one. And with Mr Biver on board, you can be sure this is no bluff. Zenith’s legendary El Primero chronograph is secured for future generations and it’s more cutting-edge than ever. “The future of tradition” indeed.

Defy the odds

_ Three ways to style out Zenith’s high-frequency masterpiece _

01. City ticker

As Mr Yves Saint Laurent was fond of saying, blue is the most sartorial colour, and the delicate cobalt dial of what’s essentially a high-tech sports watch, combined with those rakish case contours, makes the Defy El Primero 21 surprisingly suited to a tailored Ralph Lauren three-piece.

02. Pedal to the (titanium) metal

The earliest hand-held chronographs were conceived as sports timers, and Zenith has always made some of the finest in Switzerland, even before El Primero’s arrival in 1969. It makes this lightweight racing engine for the wrist the ideal companion for the gentleman driver – Harrington jacket, driving shoes, string-back gloves, the lot.

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Chronograph 44mm Ceramic and Alligator Watch Coming soon

03. Chronographic artist

The artisanal heritage and high craft involved make this Swiss mechanical popular with the design crowd in Detroit, London and Berlin. The Defy’s extra dose of concept technology especially suits the more angular, Rick Owens-clad 21st-century aesthete.

Find out more in our Luxury Watch Guide