It’s no secret that the watch industry is currently trending toward smaller, more demure models across nearly every product line, and the enthusiast public’s response to this wave of compact, reserved designs is largely positive. Despite the success of these less extravagant, more conservative designs, however, there’s still room in the current watch landscape for bold, audacious, and in-your-face watches to succeed and connect with fans if executed thoughtfully. In addition to its success with faithfully proportioned vintage-inspired designs, Zenith is a master of this brand of huevos grande horology. The best showcase for this bolder side of the brand is the bleeding-edge Defy Extreme collection. First launched in 2021, the Zenith Defy Extreme Carbon adds an aggressive, rallying-inspired energy to this already bold design, and backs this aesthetic up with one of the most technically impressive chronograph movements of the modern era.

The Zenith Defy Extreme Carbon’s forged carbon and titanium case is deliberately bold on the wrist but wears better than might be expected due to a handful of factors. At 45mm-wide and a full 16mm-thick, there’s no hiding this case under a cuff, but the lightweight carbon case material makes this hefty form impressively airy and comfortable on the wrist. The extremely short, sharply downturned integrated lugs and the well-known slimming power of black help to make this model wearable even on smaller wrists, as well. Speaking of black, the quality of Zenith’s work with forged carbon here bears mentioning. As carbon has gradually become an increasingly more common material in watchmaking, the quality differences among carbon cases have also grown. There’s no shortage of affordable, simplistic carbon designs in the current market, with completely matte finishes and soft edges that lack the crispness of their metal counterparts. Here, Zenith’s forged carbon feels like a proper luxury material, with a pleasantly smooth feel against the wrist and a not-quite-matte satin finish that gives an iridescence to the rippling lighter layers of the carbon material. This effect shines through brightest in the raised inner bezel segment, but a new shimmering highlight will occasionally reveal itself along the case sides or atop the sculpted pushers with a turn of the wrist. The dark, matte titanium used for the dodecagonal outer bezel and the aggressive wedge-shaped pusher guards complements this more nuanced take on carbon nicely, while also drawing attention to the most complex shapes in this case design. Like most black cases, the Defy Extreme Carbon does have a tendency to hide many of its facets at first glance, but the strongly angular octagonal main case does reveal each of its sharp planes and angles on closer inspection. As one might expect for this skeleton design, Zenith tops the watch with a sapphire display caseback. Unlike many other high-end skeletonized chronographs, however, the Defy Extreme Carbon is built as a true sports watch, first and foremost, and offers a hefty 200 meters of water resistance.

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It’s easy to go overboard when creating a skeleton dial for a chronograph, but the Zenith Defy Extreme Carbon keeps the overall layout commendably legible and balanced. Each of the four subdials sits atop a smoked sapphire plate, creating a visual barrier between the hands and the movement below for easy reading. Once one does start looking through the sapphire layers to the movement beneath, the thoughtfulness of this skeleton design begins to reveal itself. The dark-coated main bridge underpinning the subdials forms the brand’s vintage four-pointed star emblem (modified at 3 o’clock to accommodate a few gear train elements), and leaves a fair amount of visual real estate open to showcase the cutaway mainspring barrel and the movement’s two escapements at 8 o’clock and 10 o’clock. Interestingly for such an unabashedly bold design, the Defy Extreme Carbon’s dial hints rather than outright states its unique capabilities. For a start, there are not one, but two seconds subdials. The first white-accented subdial at 9 o’clock is a familiar running seconds, but the latter green-accented one at 6 o’clock is a chronograph seconds instead. It’s then that the significance of the decimal scale on the rehaut falls into place. Press the 2 o’clock chronograph pusher, and the Defy Extreme Carbon springs into life in a way that no other mechanical chronograph can. This is a fully mechanical 1/100 second display, and the lemon yellow-tipped central hand whirls around the dial at a breakneck pace of one revolution per second. It’s a truly stellar horological party piece, even if it’s more than a little impractical in the real world (more on that impracticality later). Beneath the wild complication, aggressive semi-skeleton paddle hands, and the layers of sapphire construction, though, this is still a Zenith design to the core, down to the fine touches. For example, all the colored accents of the dial work as a tribute to the classic Zenith El Primero Rainbow Flyback — these red, blue, green, white, and yellow hues were all present on that ‘90s fan favorite.

Despite the boldly sized carbon and titanium case and the intricate skeleton dial, the real centerpiece of the Zenith Defy Extreme Carbon is its in-house El Primero 9004 automatic chronograph movement. Before digging into the chronograph complication itself, the El Primero 9004 is the sort of solid performer one might expect from Zenith. This movement averaged an impressive +3 seconds per day in accuracy across our testing period and offers a robust 50 hours of power reserve at a smooth 36,000 bph beat rate without the chronograph engaged. The chronograph complication itself, however, seems to be pushing the laws of physics. In order to accurately track intervals of 1/100 of a second, the chronograph carries its own independent, dedicated escapement, vibrating at an astonishing frequency of 360,000 bph. With this kind of bleeding-edge capability, it’s natural to expect some drawbacks, and the El Primero 9004 has its fair share of these. As one might expect, this sort of ultra-high-speed escapement is immensely power-hungry. During our testing, we noted that the chronograph will eat through the movement’s aforementioned 50-hour power reserve in roughly 45 minutes of continuous chronograph use; energy-efficient this is not. Secondly, the chronograph escapement moves quickly enough to make a fairly loud whirring noise on the wrist. This isn’t necessarily a drawback. In fact, it arguably adds to the chronograph’s “look at me” factor in practice, but it is worth noting. While there isn’t any official data on this, it’s also easy to imagine that these extreme high-frequency components might require more frequent servicing, as well. Visually, the El Primero 9004 is suitably intricate and ultra-modern, with a caseback view dominated by a blacked-out half-gear-shaped upper bridge and a unique star-shaped skeleton rotor. Cleanly brushed and matte-blasted skeleton bridges interlace beneath these darker elements, providing plenty of detail for close inspection.

Zenith fits the Defy Extreme Carbon with a variety of quick-release integrated strap options, but our review sample arrived with both the optional Velcro-fastened black fabric strap and a blazing red sculpted deployant strap in rubber. This rubber option ratchets up the visual aggression of this design even further, coupling its vibrant base color to a series of engraved grooves and center link-esque raised segments. By comparison, the fabric strap with its raised rubberized central ridge could almost be called subtle, but the length of the Velcro strap end can lead to a slightly awkward visual overhang on some wrists.

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Given the watch industry’s general trend towards smaller, quieter designs in recent years, the brash, vibrant Zenith Defy Extreme Carbon seems like something of an outlier in this day and age. Thanks to its striking carbon construction, impressively detailed design, and truly one-of-a-kind take on the chronograph, however, this feels less like Zenith is out of touch with the times and more like a spectacular, deliberate counterpoint to the small, staid offerings that are gaining popularity among enthusiasts. The Zenith Defy Extreme Carbon is available now through authorized dealers. MSRP for this watch stands at $25,100 USD as of press time. For more information, please visit the brand’s website.

Necessary Data
>Brand: Zenith
>Model: Defy Extreme Carbon
>Price$25,100 USD
>Size: 45mm-wide, 16mm-thick
>When reviewer would personally wear it: As a maximalist statement piece for parties or as a conversation starter when meeting with other chronograph fans.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: High-end collectors looking for an alternative to the usual integrated-bracelet chronograph offerings; die-hard chronograph fans searching for the ultimate technical expression of the complication.
>Best characteristic of watch: Mind-bending chronograph complication with an astonishing ultra-high-frequency dedicated escapement; impressively thoughtful and legible skeleton layout.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Unapologetically beefy proportions won’t be to everyone’s taste; chronograph use burns through the power reserve extremely fast.

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