BASELWORLD 2017 : Zenith Defy El Primero 21

The departure of Zenith CEO Mr Aldo Magada and the increased engagement of Jean-Claude Biver with the brand during this interim period has, not unexpectedly, lead to something surprising – the resurrection of the Defy name.

Some of us still have memories of the Defy Xtreme era, but the new collection is nothing like that, with its influences harking back to the Defy’s earliest days. Let’s start with a quick pit stop through its origins.

The year of 1969 was notable at Zenith not only for the El Primero but for also being the year in which the Defy collection was launched. These were Zenith’s foray into the luxury sports watch market that within a couple of years would also find the name of Gerald Genta become well known, and other brands enter this newly created market.

The Defys were waterproof (double-sealed screw-down crown, locking bezels), and shockproof (anti-shock rubber casing that suspended the entire movement). Durability and robustness was at their heart. Aesthetically, now that we can look back at them (see below) with the knowledge of what followed, with their case shapes and dial colours they were very representative of that era right through to the mid 1970s. They were also sized at 37mm and 39mm, large for that period.

As well as time-only models, the 1969 synchronicity with the El Primero movement lead to Defy models with an El Primero automatic chronograph as well, but it being Zenith, the movements inside the Defy models never played second fiddle to the design, with even a high beat integrated automatic chronograph (Calibre 3019PHF) that featured a triple date moon phase making its way into the Defy Espada.

As befitting their sports watch status, the original Zenith Defys were mostly manufactured in stainless steel, although there was a DeLuxe model in 18k gold, and Defy El Primeros were also available in 18k gold.

After half-hearted attempts to keep the Defy alive, including ‘that’ Nataf era, Jean-Claude Biver has provided the impetus to reintroduce the Defy to the 21st century and in doing so, go back to where it all began, the El Primero, but with 21st century innovation.

The new Zenith Defy El Primero now finds itself with a new COSC-certified 1/100th of a second automatic chronograph movement called the El Primero 9004 that drives a central hand that rotates once per second and beats at 50 Hz (360,000 VPH), ten times faster than its progenitor. The new movement has one escapement for the watch (36,000 VPH/ 5 Hz) and a separate escapement for the chronograph (360,000 VPH/ 50Hz). Power reserve is fifty hours.

I don’t know whether nanotubes are a ‘thing’ in 2017, these having already made an appearance with two brands at SIHH 2017, but they make an appearance here as well. Developed by the LVMH group engineers, there are two new patented balance springs in this new movement, forming a double chain structure made of what Zenith call ‘carbon matrix carbon nanotube composite’, a new material that they say protects completely against temperature fluctuations and magnetic fields well beyond the 15,000 Gauss standard.

The new El Primero 21 movement is also equipped with a new patented chronograph ‘control’ mechanism, whose intend is to avoid the risk of the activated chronograph interfering with the smooth operation of the watch. This comes in the form of two independent ‘gear boxes’, one for the time telling function and one for the chronograph, each with its own transmission and escapement, and no coupling clutch.

The new movement also features a patented chronograph-reset control mechanism that ensures simultaneous resetting of the seconds as well as tenths and hundredths of a second.

If we look at the dial of the first model pictured, it is pure modern El Primero in its design references. As well as the central hours and minutes functions, there is a small seconds at 9 o’clock, the 100th of a second central chronograph hand sweeping around a scale on the circumference, a 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock, seconds and tenths of a second at 6 o’clock, and a percentage indication of the chronograph’s power reserve at 12 o’clock.

The inner bezel ring of the hundredths of a second display features featuring a graduated scale running from 0 to 100, and in this video provided by Zenith Australia you can see how rapidly the chronograph hand sweeps during its one full turn.

The fluted crown has two positions for winding and time-setting. The manual winding is bidirectional – clockwise for the watch, counter clockwise for the chronograph. Zenith say that it takes about twenty-five turns of the crown to fully power the chronograph barrel.

Naturally, a new movement and updated collection also means a new case in both shape and size. Each of the new models is 44m but two are brushed titanium, with lugs featuring brushed and satin finishing and the black strap with black alligator leather insert secured by a double folding clasp. All three cases have a water resistance of 10 ATM.

As well as the more traditional looking model with a silver-toned dial, there are also two very modern open-work dial iterations, one in titanium and one in ceramicised aluminium. Both clearly show the influence of Jean-Claude Biver, but with the current Zenith El Primero ‘markings’ of the star-tipped sweep seconds hand, baton-hands, and facetted hour markers. The hour markers are rhodium-plated or ruthenium-plated depending on the model and coated with Super-Luminova. These two iterations also have blue and anthracite sub dial rings to represent the colours on the dialled El Primeros. The dials are topped by domed sapphire crystal.

The new Defy Collection will definitely remove any Xtreme memories, and with the strong historical nod, it will be interesting to see how these fare, given the scarcity of the originals.

Australian RRPs are $14,200 for the base titanium model, $15,500 for the open worked titanium version, and $16,900 for the ceramicised aluminium one. My thanks to Zenith Australia for permission to use these photos, as we are unable to be at Baselworld 2017 this year.

Categories: Baselworld 2017, chronograph, Switzerland, Vintage watches etc, Watch movements, Watch Profile, watches, Zenith


1 reply

  1. what a chronograph mechanism! 1/100 purely mechanical movement… very nicely done zenith.


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