Reviving the Defy name as an ultra high-frequency line of watches seems to be Jean-Claude Biver’s big plan for Zenith. So what’s special about the Defy El Primero 21?
by Chris Hall
It carries the hopes of Zenith’s revival
The fact that Zenith is going through a bit of a transition is old news – we covered it here back in January. This watch was presented at Baselworld in march as “the first fruits of a star-studded renewal” – it’s the first significant new product to emerge since Jean-Claude Biver stepped in as interim CEO after Aldo Magada resigned and took brief control of the company (he has since appointed a new CEO, Julian Tornare).
It is the first of a Defy range to emerge, all of which will place an emphasis on advanced technology and materials. To that end, the Defy El Primero 21 has a bigger, bolder look than the El Primero; it was presented with an openworked dial but we have no problem saying we prefer this closed version.
It is fast
As the name might indicate, the Defy El Primero 21 is capable of measuring down to 1/100th of a second. You get a central hand that whizzes round once per second, which is officially very cool. You may remember that sister brand TAG Heuer used to make a high-frequency chronograph, the Mikrotimer, capable of a similar feat. But this is more impressive, as the Mikrotimer was only ever a limited-run, highly expensive piece of concept watchmaking: this will go into full production and be expected to cope with the wear and tear of everyday life.
The chronograph runs alone
The Defy El Primero 21 achieves this by separating out the gear trains for timekeeping and elapsed-time-measuring. The “normal watch” runs on a 36,000 vph (5Hz) escapement just like an ordinary El Primero. But the chronograph uses an escapement running ten times faster – a whopping 360,000 vph or 50Hz. That does have an effect on the power reserve – you can run the chronograph for 50 minutes when fully wound (the watch itself is good for 50 hours). This also obviates the need for a coupling clutch to engage and disengage the chronograph from the gear train, as it’s already separate to begin with.
It’s chronometer certified
The above detail about gear trains helps to explain how the watch can also maintain a chronometer certification – anything running as fast as 50hz and attempting to keep time over the course of a day, or a week, would stand a very slim chance of staying within chronometer standards of accuracy (the headline figures are daily variance of -4/+6 seconds or better). But hiving off the ultra-fast chronograph onto its own escapement means the Defy 100 can achieve COSC levels without too much fuss.
TheDefy El Primero 21 uses two patented balance springs made from synthetic composites (a “carbon-matrix carbon nanotube composite” to be precise) which are resistant to magnetic fields or temperature changes. This lets Zenith claim that the watch as a whole is capable of withstanding magnetic forces “well beyond 15,000 Gauss”, which is the level Omega’s METAS-certified master chronometers are good for. Quite how far in excess of that coincidentally chosen benchmark, Zenith declines to say.
It does more with less
This new movement (El Primero calibre 9004) is bigger than the original El Primero from 1969 (32mm versus 30mm wide, and 7.9mm thick instead of 6.5mm) but contains just 203 components, compared with 278 for the older movement.
It should start and stop more sharply
Zenith has introduced a new, patented, chronograph reset mechanism which is says will ensure the hands for 1 second, 1/10th of a second and 1/100th of a second will all start and reset at exactly the same instant. It might sound like the least you’d expect of a chronograph, but managing the forces involved in hands springing back and forth to an abrupt halt typically results in a very small amount of delay, or judder – minimising this is one of the hallmarks of high-end chronographs. When you’re able to measure down to the second, it’s less important, but when you’re measuring down to 1/100th, it matters.
It isn’t crazily expensive
For all this, you would probably expect Zenith to stick quite a hefty price tag on the watch. But as we mentioned, this watch is intended for series production and it’s priced to match. The version pictured, with the closed dial, costs £8,300 – not dissimilar to a Rolex Daytona, or any high quality in-house sports chronograph from the likes of Breitling, Girard-Perregaux or Ulysse Nardin. The openworked version in titanium costs £9,100 (pretty much £800 to take away the dial, then…) or you can have it in ceramicised aluminium for £9,900.