Apparently, Zenith continues to be one of the most challenging-to-get-right luxury watch brands around. Since the renaissance of the luxury watch industry not too long ago, Zenith has enjoyed great successes and some scary downturns, a hectic period of time in the manufacture’s some 152-year history. The latest pivoting point comes as Zenith has today officially announced that Jean-Claude Biver, Head of Watchmaking at LVMH, is taking over the role of CEO of Zenith from Aldo Magada.
You could think that this simple “swap” at the helm of Zenith could be summed in one paragraph, but there actually is a whole lot at stake here that we must consider: the fate and foreseeable future of Zenith hangs in the air now, and the most interesting thing is that it could go in a number of ways.
First, a quick look back to understand why that is. Zenith, if you care think about it, appears to be a pretty straightforward brand: for over 50 years, despite all efforts, the manufacture’s name has been virtually synonymous with the El Primero, one of the most highly regarded automatic chronograph movements out there. If you look at the ups and downs in Zenith’s recent history, you’ll find that troubles always started when the brand wanted to step out from that vintage-inspired, classically styled groove and become more modern and, dare we say, hip.
The Nataf-era, the first and thus far greatest crisis in the modern history of Zenith, is notorious to this day – just read this “review” of the Defy Xtreme to get a quick idea on why that is. It was a time when Zenith went completely bonkers, leaving pretty much all historical values (apart from whatever they harnessed from the El Primero caliber) far behind. Then, a certain Jean-Frédéric Dufour, enjoying the guidance and help of Biver, took Zenith over and steered it back to where, as it turned out, everyone wanted the brand to be: making beautiful, elegant, classical watches (yes, mostly El Primero chronographs) that, at first, weren’t ruinously expensive either. This hot strike had been spiced up by occasional high-complication watches to add that almost obligatory “halo effect.”
Zenith was solidly back on track when Aldo Magada came onboard to guide the Le Locle-based manufacture in July 2014 after Jean-Frédéric Dufour left the brand with a star to the one with a crown – Rolex (read more about that story here). While Magada hasn’t done anything even remotely as bad as what we saw happen during the Nataf-era, Zenith, for the last 2.5 years, hasn’t really taken a clear direction either.
If anything, the brand has taken some, ahem, small but unexpected detours, including a not-at-all-Zenith-like collaboration with the Rolling Stones, some ridiculously large Pilot Watches, escorted by a number of forgettable iterations of the El Primero (like this or this, neither of which likely having left a memorable impression on most).
To be fair, Zenith’s collaboration with Land Rover does have a lot of potential, and Magada also did what many would agree was the right thing when he left some of the great classics in the El Primero line in production, including this eye-wateringly fantastic El Primero Original 1969 that I reviewed and loved to bits.
With Jean-Claude Biver taking over the CEO position at Zenith, the question is how the brand will be positioned: will we see a quick and strong return to the classical Zenith that was so heavily based on the El Primero and Elite collections, or will we continue to see new partnerships, limited editions, and more modern styling from the brand.
Here’s what Jean-Claude Biver says on the matter: “I am personally taking over interim management [of Zenith]. I want to be more involved and to create greater synergies between the group’s three brands. I’ll be working with the teams to give this brand the lustre it deserves.”
While there admittedly are more than three watch brands under the aegis of LVMH, Biver surely is referring to the trifecta of Hublot, TAG Heuer, and Zenith. Greater synergy could mean a lot of things, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see heavy reliance on the El Primero, including some new (or resurrected) versions of it featuring new-old complications such as annual calendars, moon phases and, perhaps, even tourbillons.
A synergy also means less competition: as soon as Zenith has started producing ceramic-cased, modern-looking watches this last year, it has admittedly stepped on the toes of TAG Heuer (similar price segment and value proposition now met a comparable modern approach to styling and use of materials). Hence, to create a more harmonious environment, it would make sense to see Hublot remain the high-end modern brand, TAG Heuer be the modern, cool, more affordable, and high-tech manufacture, and Zenith take a solid position as a more dressy, elegant, vintage-themed brand.
And if you think Biver can only do loud and 21st century styling and branding, it’s best to remember one of his greatest success stories as he took Blancpain and rebuilt it from scratch into a key player in the luxury segment; Zenith, in its own way, could perhaps go down a similar route.
A lot of questions remain to be answered, that much is for certain, but if we are to believe Jean-Claude Biver, we can expect Zenith to finally regain the “lustre it deserves.” One thing we can be absolutely sure of is that Biver will not take long to act and to set Zenith’s course. zenith-watches.com