Defying Expectations

The Zenith Defy Lab unveils a fascinating double world premier.

By Stephen Watson

The Zenith Defy Lab in Green Rose Gold.

The definition of the word zenith signifies a high point in the sky or celestial sphere directly overhead. It can also designate the time in which something is at its most powerful. In a remarkable double world premiere, the legendary watch brand Zenith lives up to its name, unveiling two new horological innovations that will change the game not by looking back, but by looking aggressively forward. In Le Locle—the third-smallest city in Switzerland—a radical redesign of the mechanical watch has been quietly taking place. The Zenith research and development unit headed by Guy Sémon, CEO of the R&D Institute LVMH Watch Division, has introduced two remarkable inventions, the world’s first new escapement (since 1675) along with the application of an innovative new material used for the unusual speckled composite case.

For the first time, the breakthrough made by the Zenith Defy Lab has fundamentally updated the performance, style, and radical innovation of the modern-day wrist watch. Famous for developing El Primero, the legendary high-frequency chronograph movement in 1969, Zenith now sets its sights on ultra-high-accuracy with the development of a new triple-certified movement called the caliber ZO 342. President of the LVMH Watch Division Jean-Claude Biver passionately explained, “Guy Sémon has invented a new oscillator, a new regulator that goes away from 1675 when it was invented by Christiaan Huygens. Since then, all the movements have followed the technique and principle of Huygens, and now there is a new Huygens.”

The Zenith ZO 342 caliber with the new oscillator in place.

Casual observers of the evolution of watchmaking may be paying closer attention to the recent influx of smartwatches, making a radical development to the traditional mechanical wristwatch a rather unusual and welcome surprise. The most notable thing about the Zenith announcement seems to be not what’s going on inside the new watch; but about what’s being taken away. A simple explanation of what all this means: two advanced components now replace thirty. By taking all these traditional parts away and replacing them with this new “monolithic regulating organ” called the Zenith-Oscillator; the contact friction, wear, slack, lubrication, assemblies, and dispersions get entirely eliminated.

“No friction, no need for oil thanks to compliant mechanisms. Insensitive to temperature because we have a compensation process,” says Thomas Mercier, the Project Manager of the R&D Innovation Division of LVMH. “It’s insensitive to gravity because we completely balanced the system. And, it’s insensitive to magnetism because it’s made out of silicon. So it opens a new vista and enters a new dimension for watchmaking.”

Smartwatches notwithstanding, the real future of watchmaking lies in fascinating developments like these, a watch that uses fewer parts, made with advanced materials and modern technology, delivering impressive functionality. And this type of advancement created exclusively for this timepiece promises a bright future for the craft of traditional watchmaking.

Adding to the captivating spinning interior of the Defy, an entirely new composite material was invented for the exterior. A substance called “Aeronith” was devised for the watch case, the world’s lightest existing aluminum composite. The new material is 2.7 times lighter than titanium, 1.7 times lighter than pure aluminum, and 10 percent lighter than a carbon fiber composite. The optimal material minimizes the density of the case while vastly reducing the weight of the watch itself. Plus, it looks incredibly cool.

The Zenith Defy Lab.

Only 10 of these first watches have been produced to date and have already been pre-sold to Zenith’s top collectors, each one a different combination of color, metal, and material. At the product reveal in Switzerland, Biver explains, “It’s good to have ten pieces. Today we’re going to show you the first ten watches that have been bought by people sitting in this room. It’s the first time we present the work, and we have the watches ready, and people can go home with the watch.” But this doesn’t mean the Defy story will stop here. The technology will be shared across all LVMH brands including TAG Heuer and Hublot and eventually be made available to outside brands as well.

As the youthful Mr. Biver exuberantly explains, “A new Huygens with zero friction. With zero oil. With zero sensitivity to a magnetic field. With zero sensitivity to heat and cold. And the highest precision accuracy ever done. One second in twenty-four hours. And after sixty hours of power reserve, we still have one second. God damn! I mean … Thank God I didn’t retire when I was sixty-five. I would not have seen this. Just for that, it was worth me going on.”