Feature: Zenith Old vs New
No conversation about legends in watchmaking can exist without a mention of the brand Zenith. It’s had its ups and downs, been through thick and thin, and has stood the test of time as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of mechanical timekeepers. But times are changing, and Zenith with it; is this a good thing?
If there were to ever a be a watch nerds’ citizenship test, question three would be: who created the first automatic chronograph movement? It would of course be a trick question, but the right answer would certainly make mention of Swiss giant Zenith.
Referencing the highest peak of an astronomical body in the sky—hence the star logo—founder Georges Favre-Jacot wasn’t shy about his intentions when he branded his company Zenith. By 1925, the company employed over 1,000 people, pooling every type of expertise needed to make a watch under one roof, an unusual approach that gave the company a unique advantage over its rivals.
And no better was the time to demonstrate this advantage than in 1969 with an automatic chronograph, the El Primero—the first. Whilst we understand complications like the perpetual calendar and minute repeater to be the most intricate and grand, it’s the chronograph that proves to be the sticking point.
It’s a highly complex thing, requiring some two-to-three hundred components in total, yet also serves as a mainstay feature for many established watchmakers. Take a watchmaker at the pinnacle, Patek Philippe, for example. Simple, time only movements—it can make those in-house no problem, always has done. Grand complications like the perpetual calendar and minute repeater? The reputation of such functions warrants a price to match, and so the time and dedication to making them can be afforded.
The chronograph, however—it also takes time, but is ubiquitous enough not to carry such a high price, and the result is that very few watchmakers attempt to make them. That’s why we see so many third-party chronograph movements in watches, even high-end ones. I mean, Patek Philippe only started making its own as late as 2005.
But Zenith was determined to do it all, and with the absorption of chronograph manufacturer Martel in 1960, the gauntlet was thrown down to make the first, and best, automatic chronograph movement in the world. Whether it truly was the first we can only speculate; what we do know is that, compared to the Chronomatic, the work of a consortium of Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton and others, the El Primero was smaller, more efficient and more technically proficient. Only the quiet might of Seiko could contend.
It was these halcyon days of Zenith that gave us the inspiration for this, the New Vintage El Primero 1969 reissue. Whilst it’s not strictly accurate to the 1969 watch, borrowing some elements from later seventies editions and growing a little to a more modern 40mm, it is essentially the essence of a Zenith watch of the last century. Clean, simple, but interesting, unusual—the overlapping, multicoloured sub-dials and angular case are both distinctive yet unobtrusive, design that has identity without interfering with its duty. It is, unequivocally, a classic. How does it compare to the Zenith of today?
Immediately, the Zenith Defy Classic is quite an eyeful. Subscribing to a modern, detail-driven, decorative style, popularised by Richard Mille in the early 2000s, the Defy Classic is no shrinking violet. There’s a lot to look at, all the time, a lot to dissect—and this isn’t even a chronograph. Yes, all you’re getting here is the hours, minutes, seconds and a date.
It’s not all without meaning; the structural elements of the skeletonised dial radiate from the centre to form a representation of the Zenith star logo. In fact, in this version for Range Rover—yes, the manufacturer of off-road vehicles—this element has been stylised to more closely approximate the alloy wheel design of the Evoque. The star is repeated in the movement, the slender Elite 670, for the rotor weight, too.
Overall it’s a very layered design, and I mean that quite literally; look into the Defy’s dial and you’ll see a lot of fine detail peeking through the spokes, from the colourful silicon escapement to the stencil-like date wheel—even the hand-setting mechanism is on show, its operation visible when setting the time.
It’s a stark contrast to the Vintage El Primero, and the vintage El Primero isn’t by any stretch a spartan watch. But squint a bit and you will see carryovers from one to the other; the case, for example, shares integrated lugs, and the hands evolve between the two. So, it’s not a completely disassociated design; it does share a legacy, albeit one that’s very well hidden in amongst all this extraneous detail.
What it boils down to is all-important innovation, the appearance of moving forward and not standing still. From the start, this has been vital to Zenith, what lead it to develop the El Primero and what keeps it standing today. But the landscape has changed since then, shifted away from technological importance and into the realms of material enjoyment. There won’t be another El Primero because the mechanical watch is for all intents and purposes extinct, at least in the wild. Now it’s just a curiosity preserved in captivity for the enjoyment of people who like that sort of thing.
And that’s where we’re at with the Defy. We’ve spoken before about the whizzy Defy El Primero 21 and its one-hundredth of a second chronograph, but really that’s going to trouble the forefront of timekeeping technology in much the same way a fancy titanium sundial would have done back in 1969.
No, the biggest weapon in a watchmaker’s arsenal in this era is the way it looks and feels. It’s why vintage watches are becoming increasingly popular, and why Zenith reissues watches like the El Primero 1969. But it isn’t enough just to look back; nostalgia never innovated anything after all. Hence the Defy Classic. It may not be anything like what we remember from Zenith, but the approach is everything we’d expect. It’s essentially a window into the outdated yet somehow charming mechanical heart of the watch, an opportunity to appreciate it and enjoy it every chance you get.
I can understand how it may seem like watchmaking is veering off into a strange new world of industrial design and overcomplication, but that’s just a very narrow view of the whole. Vintage designs have never been more popular, reissue watches becoming increasingly more prevalent, but with it we’re getting to witness some of the most dramatic evolution this business has ever seen. That both these watches can be the doing of just one company, two conflicting yet symbiotic interpretations of the same ethos, is indicative of a bright and healthy future. In other words, everybody wins.
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