Zenith Defy Watches: A Brief History and Guide to the Current Collection

Zenith Defy Watches: A Brief History and Guide to the Current Collection

Swiss watch manufacture Zenith traces its roots to 1865, when it was founded in the village of Le Locle by precocious 22-year-old watchmaker Georges Favre-Jacot. As one of the first watchmaking maisons to integrate all aspects of the watchmaking process under one roof, from case manufacturing to movement production to final casing and assembly, Zenith has long prided itself on its quest for timekeeping precision. The company has earned a record number of chronometry prizes over the years, and its most influential contribution to watchmaking history is its El Primero chronograph caliber, released in 1969. (Learn more about El Primero here.) In that same pivotal year, Zenith also released an avant-garde wristwatch series called Defy, whose bold, edgy design proved to be ahead of its time, and found its expression in the now-legendary Ref. A3642. 

The Original Defy (1969)

Zenith Defy vintage adThat watch was nicknamed the “coffre-fort,” a French term translating to “bank vault” or “safe,” a reference to its robustly angular, octagonal case, 14-sided bezel, and high-for-the-time water resistance of 300 meters, secured by its crown, caseback, and mineral crystal, all of which screwed securely into the case. Its “ladder-style” bracelet from legendary chainmaker Gay Frères also made the original reference notable. The Defy was positioned as Zenith’s toughest watch, featured in an advertisement in which six of the watches were strapped to the spokes of a motorcycle in a speed test at London’s Wembley Stadium. Like many traditional, mechanical watches introduced in that transitional era for the watch industry, the Zenith Defy had a relatively short initial run: by 1977, it was one of many casualties of the Quartz Crisis, essentially priced out of the market by cheaper, battery-powered competitors from Japan. 

Zenith Defy XTreme Double Tourbillon

Mechanical watches came roaring back in the 2000s, however, and Zenith, now part of the LVMH luxury group that had scooped it up in 1999, began writing the Defy’s second chapter in 2006. The Defy models built for the “bigger is better” early aughts, however, might have been just a little too out of step with the brand’s core audience — lots of precious metals, tourbillons and other expensive complications (as in the "Xtreme" model above), and an ad campaign that emphasized high fashion over high horology. The Defy models quietly faded from the scene right around the time when the Chronomaster, a more classical round, tricompax chronograph model born in the same era as the original Defy, began to emerge as the brand’s flagship. But in 2017, Newly minted Zenith CEO Julien Tornare turned to another revival of the Defy line as both a new growth engine for the brand as well as a canvas for some of its most technologically ambitious watchmaking concepts.

Defy 21 (2017)

Zenith Defy 21 Carbon

Price: $13,000 - $48,300, Case Size: 44mm, Water Resistance: 100m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 9004

The evolution of the Defy began in 2017 with the introduction of the Defy El Primero 21 Chronograph. The watch’s bold mission statement was to further solidify Zenith’s reputation as the king of high-frequency chronographs, a crown that it had first claimed with the release of the El Primero. The El Primero 21 movement, Caliber 9004, took its ancestor’s already brisk 36,000-vph frequency and multiplied it by a factor of 10, making the timepiece that contained it the first mechanical watch able to measure elapsed  times to 1/100 second as well as display them. The central chronograph hand makes a complete rotation around the dial once per second rather than the standard once per minute and points to an ultra-precise 1/100-second measurement on a graduated bezel. This is all in addition to the other displays on the dial, which include running seconds at 9 o’clock, 1/10-second display at 6 o’clock, a 30-minute totalizer at 3 o’clock, and an analog indicator of the chronograph’s power reserve at 12 o’clock. (El Primero Caliber 9004, which is both skeletonized and self-winding, contains two barrels for two separate power reserves: 50 hours for the watch, and 50 minutes for the running 1/100-second stopwatch function.) Further distinguishing this ultra-modern movement, which can also be found in models of the Defy Extreme series covered below, are its balance spring, made of a carbon-matrix nanotube material patented by Zenith, as well as its chronograph-reset control mechanism, also patented, that uses three heart pieces and a specially developed starter device that allows for quick resetting of the seconds, 1/10-seconds, and 1/100-seconds simultaneously.

Defy Classic (2018)

Zenith Defy Classic

Price: $9,000 - $35,900, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 10.75mm, Water Resistance: 100m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic Elite Caliber 670

After making a high-tech splash the previous year and earning the accolades of the high-horology cognoscenti, Zenith reached out to a more mainstream audience with a more sedate, three-handed version of the Defy in 2018, initially in a 41-mm case made of titanium. The Defy Classic comes in two design executions, one with a solid, sunray-pattern dial, the other with a star-motif openworked dial. Both versions have faceted, rhodium-plated, luminous-coated hands and hour indexes and a date display. On the solid (arguably more “Classical”) dials, this date appears in a window at 3 o’clock; on the open-dial (more “Defiant”) models, it’s at 6 o’clock, indicated by a white dot over cut-out numerals on peripheral disk; the color used for the outer minute track on the skeleton-dial models is the same one used on the original El Primero watches from 1969. Inside the Defy Classic is a skeletonized version of the automatic Elite 670 movement, a three-handed descendant of the original chronograph-equipped El Primero. It debuted in 1994 and is composed of 187 components, including a silicon escape wheel and lever, and stores a power reserve of 48 hours. The Elite calibers are also notably thin (just 3.88 mm), which means Defy Classic models are also slimly elegant in profile, just 10.75mm thick.

Defy Inventor (2019)

Zenith Defy Inventor

Price: $19,000, Case Size: 44mm, Water Resistance: 50m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 9300 with Zenith oscillator

For the 50th anniversary year of both the El Primero caliber and the first Defy wristwatch, Zenith further capitalized on its high-frequency chronograph cred with the introduction of the Defy Lab, which represented Zenith’s 21st-Century answer to the question, “How do you improve upon the revolutionary high-frequency accuracy of the El Primero?” The oscillator of the Defy Lab was made from a wafer of silicon and served as a single-piece replacement for the movement’s sprung balance (balance wheel, balance spring, and lever) and thus eliminated the need for lubrication while removing the risk of friction. The movement equipped with the oscillator boasted a frequency of 15 Hz (compared to the 5 Hz of the El Primero) and a daily precision rate of 0.3 seconds. The 10 watches outfitted with the regulator sold out swiftly; in 2019, Zenith presented their serially produced successor, called the Defy Inventor. Like the original Lab watch, the Inventor used a lightweight, high-tech aluminum alloy called Aeronith for the bezel of its titanium case and it featured a skeletonized dial that showed off the hummingbird-like oscillations of the now-patented Zenith regulator. The bold technical achievement ushered in the modern era of Defy as the proving ground for some of the manufacture’s most unconventional and ambitious ideas, from both an aesthetic and a horological standpoint.

Defy Extreme (2021)

Zenith Defy Extreme

Price: $18,000 - $79,700, Case Size: 45mm, Thickness: 15.4mm, Water Resistance: 200m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 9004

Zenith continued to swing for the fences in the field of ultra-accurate chronographs in 2021, introducing the Chronomaster Sport, the first chronograph watch that displayed 1/10-second readings on its etched bezel. While that watch garnered the lion’s share of media attention that year, Zenith also continued to grow its Defy family with the launch of the Defy Extreme collection, an aggressively sporty spinoff of the main Defy line with larger cases (45mm diameter, 15.4mm thick), most of them in tough but lightweight titanium; robustly made integrated bracelets equipped with a quick-change mechanism, and inside, the skeletonized, dual-escapement El Primero Caliber 9004 that famously made its debut several years earlier in the El Primero 21 models. In 2023, Zenith expanded the Extreme collection with the Defy Extreme Tourbillon, which broke new barriers in ultra-advanced chronograph timekeeping with its two independent tourbillon mechanisms — one connected to the timekeeping, which rotates every 60 seconds, the other connected to the stopwatch, which makes a complete lightning-quick rotation every five seconds, the latter a watchmaking first. 

Defy Skyline (2022)

Zenith Defy Skyline

Price: $8,400 - $12,000, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 11.7mm, Water Resistance: 100m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 3620

With the Defy Skyline, unveiled in early 2022, Zenith reimagines the El Primero’s legendary high-frequency timing performance for a subtler, non-chronograph style of timepiece, while once again paying homage to the company’s history. The octagonal 41mm case in stainless steel is derived from the avant-garde “bank vault” case of the first Defy wristwatch from 1969 and its overall geometric, architectural aesthetic is meant to evoke urban landscapes, hence the model’s name. The watch’s 12-sided faceted bezel aligns with the hour markers on the dial, which is enhanced with a repeating pattern of four-pointed stars that visually recall a vintage Zenith logo from the ‘60s. Also on the dial, and only subtly noticed at first glance, is a small seconds subdial at 9 o’clock, balancing the date window at 3 o’clock, whose constantly running seconds hand makes a complete revolution every 10 seconds rather than every 60 — a dynamic display courtesy of the 36,600-vph frequency of the re-engineered, sans-chronograph El Primero 3620 caliber. The Zenith star logo, incidentally, derives from founder Favre-Jacot's fascination with the night sky; the brand name refers to the highest point in that starry firmament.

Defy Revival (2022-2023)

Zenith Defy Revival red 

Price: $6,900 - $7,000, Case Size: 37mm, Thickness: 11.9mm, Water Resistance: 300m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic Elite Caliber 670

Following up the red-hot 2019 release of the El Primero A384 Revival, a period-accurate re-creation of a rare 1969 model, came the Defy Revival A3642, a limited edition, in 2022. Like the former, it reproduces the primary elements of its ancestor in impressively meticulous detail thanks to Zenith’s watchmakers using the original production plans from 1969. Its warm gray dial has a gradient effect that darkens toward the edges, a visual motif that the original model was among the first to introduce to the watch world. The dial sports the same applied square hour markers with horizontal grooves, wide sword-shaped hands (filled with a tritium-colored Super-LumiNova to evoke the vintage model), and paddle-shaped central seconds hand. At LVMH Watch Week 2023, which just concluded this past week, Zenith rolled out the first model of the Defy Revival to join the brand’s permanent collection.Based on a predecessor from 1971, it boasts a bright red dial with a similar gradient "vignette" effect as its predecessor and contains the same Elite 670 automatic caliber as the Defy Classic.

Defy Skyline Skeleton (2023)

Zenith Defy Skyline Skeleton

Price: $11,000, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 11mm, Water Resistance: 100m, Crystal: Sapphire, Movement: Automatic El Primero Caliber 3620

Also debuting at LVMH Watch Week 2023 was the Defy Skyline Skeleton, which showcases through its star-motif open dial a skeletonized version of the El Primero 3620 caliber. The 41mm stainless steel case features an architectural aesthetic, with sharply defined edges and the twelve-side, faceted bezel that graced its solid-dial predecessor. The chapter ring surrounding the openworked dial has baton hour markers which like the hands are filled with Super-LumiNova for nighttime legibility. The 1/10-second subdial spotlighted at 9 o'clock on the original Skyline moves to 6 o'clock on the Skeleton models, which are executed in either a blue or black colorway, with the finishing on the movements matching the tone of the dial details. The satin-brushed steel bracelet flows elegantly from the sharp facets of the case, and an exhibition sapphire caseback ensures that the back view of the watch is as eye-catching as the front.

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