The Zenith Defy 21 represents a high performance, modern take on the cherished El Primero movement. Sure, it doesn’t have the charm you’ll find in something like the A386, but it pushes the architecture into a new direction and appeals to a new generation of enthusiasts in the process. This dichotomy parallels a similar journey happening at Land Rover in their task of bringing the Defender into the 21st century with an all new generation for MY2020. It’s only fitting then, that Zenith was tasked with designing a Defy 21 to celebrate the new Defender, as each looks to build new chapters atop their illustrious past without losing too much soul in the process.
The Land Rover Defender is famous for (among other things) just how little it has actually changed since being introduced in 1983 (or further, if you count the Series I, II, and III). It’s squared off, boxy body became synonymous with ruggedness over its lifespan thanks to pairing capable (if not always dependable) powertrains with minimal interior fuss; the Defender is a testament to function over form everywhere you look. For 2020, Land Rover has given the Defender new life as a thoroughly modern SUV, including amenities that OG D90 and D110 owners wouldn’t have dreamed of (nor welcomed, most likely). The back end is still squared off, and the powertrain is still capable as ever, but this is no throwback by any stretch.
Likewise, the Zenith Defy 21 is a remarkable bit of watch making that builds on a template set forth in 1969 with the original El Primero, but there is no mistaking the new watch for anything resembling an homage. In standard production form, the Defy 21 features a nearly entirely open worked dial, revealing a chaotic scene within the movement, which houses a true 1/100th of a second chronograph complication. In making the Land Rover edition, Zenith took a more conservative route with the dial and case that honors the functional British design of the Defender.
The Land Rover edition of the Defy 21 receives an entirely matte finished titanium case paired with a matching matte grey dial. The rubber strap is color matched with the case and dial, creating a uniform look throughout the watch as a whole. The grey is only broken by the white dial markings and orange accents. The dial has been kept minimal as well, displaying only as much as a 1/100th of a second chronograph complication requires. There are no hour numerals of any kind, just bars and lines that mark out the hours, minutes, and each 100th of a second. The only numerals present at all appear against the chapter ring, marking each 20th of a second. The overall look of the dial is somehow stark, and intricate at once. Even the power reserve indication (for the chronograph barrel) is relegated to a small slit under the logo. Anything more would have certainly pushed the aesthetic into uncomfortable territory, as the markings that are present require just the right proportions to work here.
The case is muscular with generous chamfers creating a dramatic presence that is only dulled by the fact that it is uniform in color and in texture. At 44mm in diameter that drama is on full display as the dial sits tall atop the case walls, 14.5mm in thickness altogether. There’s not much lug to speak of so this is a watch that sits just inside the confines of my 7.25” wrist. The robust dimensions can be forgiven considering what’s inside, however.
The real star of the show here is the El Primero 9004 movement inside the Defy 21. Did we mention the 1/100th of a second chronograph complication? Well, it gets its own dedicated mainspring, gear train, and regulating organ that beats at an incredible 50Hz (360,000 vph), a ten fold increase from the 5Hz pace needed for regular timekeeping duties, which is, by the way, chronometer certified. This means you’re effectively getting 2 movements worth of components inside a single case. Suddenly the size is beginning to look rather impressive. Starting the chronograph via the button at 2 o’clock sets the timing seconds hand into motion at a dizzying pace, circling the dial once per second. The dial at 6 o’clock tracks those seconds, while the sub dial at 3 o’clock totals the minutes.
The exhibition caseback provides a glimpse of the dual escapements, which is an impressive sight with the chronograph engaged. The nearer escapement is moving fast enough to look stationary to my eye, like Dash setting a pin on his teacher’s chair, your brain barely registers the movement at all. Sadly, much of the movement is obscured by the oscillating weight, which features 5 wide spokes that mimic the design of the wheel you’d see on the new Defender. It’s cool, but not nearly as cool as what’s happening underneath. It’s also here, on one of those spokes, that you’ll find one of just two pieces of “Land Rover” branding, the other also being on the caseback. This is a welcome restraint, as the dial would have lost all balance with such a logo applied.
In total, the Defy 21 is a deeply impressive watch to behold. And with a price tag of $ 13,400 and just 250 examples being made, it had better be. This isn’t a watch for everyone, but taken for what it is, this is a feat of watchmaking worthy of appreciation, or at least of a little nerding out over. If you prefer the more overt executions of the Defy 21, you can save a few bucks and get much of the same experience without the minimal dress up of the Land Rover edition. Learn more about this watch from Zenith.