At first glance, you won’t find any vintage design cues in the current Zenith Defy collection. The sport watches that make up this range embody Zenith’s boundary-pushing credentials, with bright colors, bold cases, and the frequent presence of industry-first technology. You have to dig a little deeper into the history of the Defy name at Zenith, as well as taking note of the case design that all Defy models share, to uncover what these watches mean for Zenith today. The new Defy is both Zenith’s answer to the high-tech world of watchmaking in the 21st century, and also a way for the brand to express forgotten parts of its past.
Today is the first time we’re adding any watches from the Zenith Defy collection to the HODINKEE Shop, and we’re starting out with four different models. Two of these come from the Defy 21 Chronograph sub-collection, which set a new standard for series-produced high-frequency chronographs upon its 2017 debut, and two from the Defy Classic, which is Zenith’s response to the demand for sport watches with integrated-style bracelets and straps.
Over A Century In The Making
Although the Defy collection, in its current form, was only unveiled in 2017, the name can be traced back much further at Zenith, all the way to the late 1800s. That’s when Zenith founder Georges Favre-Jacot produced a number of pocket watches with the French word défi – challenge, in English – written on the dial. These pocket watches were well-regarded for their robust qualities and helped establish the Le Locle-based firm as a producer of sturdy and accurate timepieces. In the late 1960s, the Defy name returned to the Zenith catalog with a series of sport watches whose angular cases resemble those used in today’s Defy collection.
The 1960s models featured a number of technical improvements, most notably better resistance to magnetism (some examples even had “Defy Gauss” printed on the dial) and a unique movement suspension system grounded by an elastic, shock-absorbing band. These were rugged watches with a distinct design that predated the development of the luxury sport watch genre by several years.
The Defy name was basically retired after the 1970s – save for a short revival in the mid-2000s – but in 2017, Zenith once again brought the Defy to the forefront and has since expanded the collection rapidly and in a diverse manner. The Defy line has now become home to some of the most technically impressive Zenith watches ever built, including the Defy Inventor, which features the groundbreaking Defy Lab oscillator (that beats continuously at an astounding 18 Hz, or 129,600 vph); the Defy Fusée Tourbillon, which combines a tourbillon with a chain-and-fusée constant force mechanism; the Defy Double Tourbillon, a chronograph equipped with a pair of dueling tourbillons; and the Defy Zero G, which incorporates a gyroscopic module on the tourbillon to alleviate the effects of gravity. At the same time those high-end and highly limited watches were hitting horological headlines around the world, however, Zenith was also placing an equal amount of attention on growing out the entry-point of its Defy line, all without sacrificing anything in the way of innovation.
While the Defy has a long way to go before supplanting the brand-defining El Primero chronographs, Zenith has now positioned the collection perfectly, by making it the tentpole of the brand’s proclivity toward horological innovation and avant-garde design. And these are important considerations since, in recent years, El Primero models have been focused mostly on the production of laser-accurate re-editions of vintage references, like the A384 Revival and the G381 Limited Edition. The contemporary Defy collection makes it clear that Zenith is now not only synonymous with the history of the automatic chronograph, but it’s also a leader in moving the genre forward today.
Zenith is one of the few major Swiss watch brands to use mechanical movements exclusively and to produce each one in-house. That’s right: You won’t find a single sourced or quartz movement powering any of the watches in the brand’s four core collections. In the Defy models we’re adding to the HODINKEE Shop today, Zenith relies on variants of its famous El Primero chronograph movement as well as its three-handed standby, the Elite.
All the new Defy watches, regardless of the price point or movement inside, share a similar case profile that recalls 1970s Defy watches. Defined by its blocky, not-quite-tonneau shape and sharp angles, this same case design can be found in every recent Defy release, in spite of their vast differences in complications, materials, and sizes. Zenith gives the past of the Defy a clear presence in its current form through its complex case geometry. All four of today’s new watches also feature bold, openworked dials and cases made from titanium, with one sporty outlier in ceramic.
The Zenith Defy 21 Chronograph
The Zenith Defy 21 Chronograph was the first watch to be unveiled as part of the new Defy lineup in 2017, and it’s served as one of the collection’s headliners ever since. The Defy 21 is the only current production chronograph from any brand that can record elapsed time up to one-hundredth of a second, which Zenith manages through a central chronograph seconds hand that is capable of making a single, lightning-quick rotation around the dial every second. There are a few other watch brands that have achieved a similar rate in the past, including TAG Heuer and Montblanc, but Zenith is the first brand to place the technology into a production watch for well under $ 50,000. And with an entry price tag of $ 12,100, the Zenith Defy 21 Chronograph stands out as a serious value proposition in comparison.
All of this is made possible through the El Primero 9004 caliber inside, which stands out for a few key reasons. This fully integrated movement is based on the original El Primero, but it incorporates a second gear train with a high-frequency escapement that runs at 360,000 vph, or 50 Hz, as well as a second mainspring barrel. There’s the normal timekeeping part of the watch that is similar to the traditional El Primero with its 5 Hz frequency, or 36,000 vph, and then there’s the secondary stopwatch-specific part of the movement that is isolated so that it doesn’t drain energy from the base timekeeping mechanism. There is no clutch that connects the two independent parts of a whole – although both are integrated on the same mainplate – so running the chronograph causes zero timekeeping fluctuations or loss in amplitude for the primary time display.
This is most clearly illustrated by the fact that each regulation system has a separate power reserve. The standard hour and minutes have the standard El Primero 50-hour power reserve, while the chronograph can only be run in 50-minute increments – which is why you may have noticed that no Defy 21 Chronograph has an hour sub-dial.
Interestingly, because both mainspring barrels are independent of one another, they are each wound separately. Conventional timekeeping is wound either through the rotor or by turning the crown counterclockwise, while the chronograph can only be wound by manually turning the crown clockwise. A power reserve indicator is located underneath 12 o’clock to indicate the chronograph running time. Silicon is used for the escape wheels and pallet forks, to ensure the high-frequency movement operates cleanly and without friction. Finally, Zenith has each Defy 21 Chronograph certified as a chronometer by Time Lab, an independent Swiss organization.
With so much emphasis on the movement inside the Defy 21, Zenith placed it on full display with a totally openworked dial layout, which allows for an unimpeded view of the El Primero 9004 at work. You can see the balance wheel for the primary timekeeping at eight o’clock, with its mainspring barrel near 12 o’clock; the separate chronograph balance wheel is visible through the sapphire crystal exhibition caseback. Since the Defy 21 can measure time up to a one-hundredth of a second, Zenith made sure it could be done legibly. A chapter ring measuring from one to 100 is placed on the watch’s rehaut, with a 60-second flange directly beneath it. There are three sub-dials, one measuring chronograph minutes at three o’clock, one for chronograph seconds at six o’clock, and constant seconds at nine o’clock.
Having two, separate independent gear trains with their own barrels and oscillators placed in a single movement requires ample space, which is one reason why the fully cased Defy 21 Chronograph measures 44mm in diameter and 14.45mm in thickness. Zenith has prioritized the use of lightweight titanium for the case metal to balance the wearability despite the large size. The short lugs and the angular case profile that have become synonymous with the contemporary Defy line also help in this regard.
The two Defy 21 Chronographs that have just arrived in the HODINKEE Shop differ in how Zenith has executed the color of the movement bridges and the finish of the case. The Defy 21 Ultraviolet is a brand-new release for 2020 with bridges and a rotor that have been anodized to reach a vivid violet hue, which Zenith says is a first in watchmaking. It’s a rich, royal color of purple that has an immediate visual impact. Zenith balances it out with closed grey sub-dials and a matte grey micro-blasted finish on the titanium case. It’s completed by a black rubber strap with a matching purple fabric top layer.
Zenith was inspired to use this shade of purple on the Defy 21 because violet is considered to be the color with the highest frequency of all those that make up the visual spectrum (being one step away from invisible ultraviolet, of course). The violet shade is also a perfect match to the shimmering purple-blue silicon elements that are visible inside the movement.
The second new Defy 21 Chronograph in the HODINKEE Shop has a brushed and polished titanium case and anodized blue elements on the movement bridges and rotor. With openworked sub-dials, this is closer to the first execution of the Defy 21 Chronograph, from 2017. There’s a nice mix of high-and-low happening in this chronograph through the blue alligator leather lining on the black rubber strap. It’s a good match for the combination of kinetic action and design panache that has come to define the Defy 21 series.
Zenith has unquestionable pedigree when it comes to the production of high-frequency chronographs, which dates back to El Primero’s 1969 debut. The Defy 21 Chronograph represents a new-age approach to Zenith’s best-known product category, and it’s available now in the HODINKEE Shop. The Defy 21 Chronograph in titanium with a blue dial is priced at $ 12,100, while the Defy 21 Ultraviolet Chronograph is priced at $ 13,100. To learn more, click here.
Zenith Defy Classic
While the Defy 21 Chronograph represents a compelling value for its combination of one-of-a-kind technical attributes and a bold visual language, there is another division within the Defy lineup that offers an ideal entry-point into Zenith watches of all types. These sport watches are closer in design to the original 1970s Defy watches, which is likely what gives the Defy Classic collection its name. Each watch features an in-house Zenith Elite automatic movement that is visible through an openworked display, with a case made of either lightweight titanium or ceramic.
The skeleton-style dial layout deconstructs Zenith’s famous five-pointed star emblem with five fork-style bridges that stretch out from the watch’s central axis, exposing the manufacture movement inside and offering a surprising level of symmetry not typically found on skeleton-style watches. And that’s not the only reference to the Zenith star branding you’ll find on the Defy Classic. The counterweight on the seconds hand is in the shape of a star, as is the movement rotor. Our favorite reference to the brand’s logo, however, comes with the escape wheel that is inside the movement architecture but is visible through the open dial. It’s made out of silicon, and its interior grooves have been shaped like a star. If you look closely for the natural blue-purple hue of silicon in the above image, you can see it between nine and 10 o’clock.
The Zenith Elite 670 SK movement inside the Defy Classic is crafted in-house by the brand at its Le Locle manufacture. This movement contains 187 components and offers a running autonomy of 50 hours. While not as well-known as an El Primero chronograph movement, the Elite calibers are high quality and offer hacking seconds and the ability to change the date both forward and backward without issue. A date ring is visible around the entire movement, but the specific date is indicated at the six o’clock position and is highlighted by a slight frame.
Zenith released the first Defy Classic in titanium in 2018, and followed it up with a series of ceramic editions in 2019. We have one option in each case metal newly available in the HODINKEE Shop: a single watch in grade-five titanium with a matching bracelet, and a second watch in white ceramic with a white rubber strap.
The titanium case has a striking appearance that is similar to what is typically associated with today’s luxury sport watches, featuring an integrated-style bracelet with H-shaped links. The entire front-facing portions of the watch are vertically brushed, while the bevels and chamfers on the bezel, case, and bracelet are all polished. The visible bridges and movement components are grey, matching the case, while the chapter ring is a metallic shade of blue that adds some legibility to the timekeeping display.
Where the titanium-clad Defy Classic has an aggressive and sporty appearance that is immediately apparent, the white ceramic iteration has a more laid-back, casual appeal that is no less wearable. Ceramic watches like this Defy Classic offer plenty of benefits to their owners. The material is completely wear-resistant, which ensures its color will not fade with time and no patina will form from age or wear. Where the white color of the case is loud and eye-catching, the size of the case, at a compact 41mm wide and 10.75mm tall (the same dimensions as the titanium), offers excellent proportions on the wrist, even wearing smaller than expected.
The lightweight nature of the ceramic and titanium case emphasizes the Defy Classic’s natural sporty appeal. The watches are also thin enough to easily slip underneath a shirt cuff, granting the Defy Classic added flexibility between relaxed and formal settings. Although the two new Zenith Defy Classic models vary wildly in execution, they both offer a modern and impressive design that doesn’t ape any other sport watch available today. Both models are priced at $ 7,700, and you can learn more here.
Discover The Zenith Defy Collection In The HODINKEE Shop
Zenith pioneered the original high-frequency chronograph with 1969’s El Primero, but its modern Defy 21 version shows how far the brand is willing to innovate today. Likewise, the Defy Classic offers a revamped and thoroughly contemporary perspective of the 1960s and 1970s Defy visual language, with a focus on dynamic, openworked elements that highlight the in-house Elite movement inside. The Defy collection represents Zenith at its contemporary best – combining high-mech horology with an unapologetic approach to design. You can explore our entire collection of Zenith Defy watches right here.