Among many other things, modern Zenith watches have had their fare of “extreme” faces over the last two decades. And recently, the Swiss watchmaker reintroduced the Zenith Defy Extreme. The last time I recall this product name in the Zenith catalog was during the Thierry Nataf years. He wasn’t a very good product designer, but he was a charismatic showman. He didn’t know what a nice watch looked like, but he did help usher in a modern approach for Zenith design that hit its “zenith” point when the brand was briefly being run by the now-retired Jean-Claude Biver. Today, the Zenith Defy Extreme name is back — in a much more sensible, albeit still attention-grabbing, enthusiast-oriented timepiece package.
Zenith designed the Defy Extreme to include its fancy 1/100th of a second El Primero automatic movement as well as a mostly see-through sapphire crystal dial. The in-house-made caliber 293 El Primero movement has skeletonized bridgework, which allows you to see through much of it. Similar in fashion to an Hublot Big Bang UNICO (Zenith sister company), the Defy Extreme dial is meant to be both legible and 100% suggest a clear view of the mechanical components within. This is a key style element that the watches have in common, as well as the geometric industrial case designs.
The movement combines Zenith’s 5Hz (36,000 bpm) El Primero 21 movement with much faster 50Hz (360,00 bpm) 1/1000th of a second chronograph. The chronograph uses a lot of power and thus only measures up to 60 minutes. It must also be independently wound manually given that it is too high-torque to be wound using the automatic rotor. The power reserve indicator under the 12 o’clock position on the dial is for the chronograph only, and helps you know in advance of using it if there is enough power in the mainspring barrel that is especially used for the chronograph. In a sense, the caliber 293 movement is two systems in one. First, it is a 5Hz-frequency time-indicating system with a 50-hour power reserve and an automatic winding system. The movement also happens to contain a 50Hz 60-minute chronograph with its own manually wound power source and even higher-frequency regulation system.
The best part of the chronograph (with what some might consider expensive given the underlying engineering going on here) is the “flying” chronograph central hand which is the 1/1000th of a second indicator. While the chronograph is in operation, the hand wildly spins about and is a delight to watch and hear hum in action. It also never occurred to me that I didn’t find anything particularly interesting to time for which knowing 1/1000th of a second accuracy proved more interesting than just wearing a hip contemporary El Primero around. Winding the chronograph is interesting. It is done by unscrewing the crown and spinning the crown in one direction, while the other direction winds the mainspring for the time. For performance assurance, the caliber 293 El Primero movements have silicon escapements and have been awarded COSC Chronometer certificates.
If I had to criticize the design of this new generation Zenith Defy Extreme, it would merely be that it fails to strike a really distinctive chord. It’s designed like a nice Cadillac or Lincoln. No, they might not be award-winning designs, but they are often deceptively well-thought-out and nice to live with. Zenith offers a lot of great features in this watch, ranging from the materials, movement, legibility, bracelet, etc… It really ends up being an attractive package, even if it feels like you are getting an Acura or Lexus in a world that probably puts too much stock in Audi or Porsche.
Not everyone will love the design of the Defy Extreme, but like the Girard-Perregaux Laureato Absolute, it manages to successfully compete in a category hungry for luxury-sport lifestyle watches with interesting movements inside. I did like wearing the Defy Extreme a lot given that, regardless of its 45mm-wide case, it wears very comfortably and has considered ergonomics. The case is also about 16mm-thick and has a roughly 52mm lug-to-lug distance. It is most comfortable on the rubber strap and actually includes three wearing options right outside of the box. More on that in a moment.
Zenith produces a few versions of this Defy Extreme model collection series. This reference 87.9100.9004/03.I001 has a bead-blasted titanium case (with matching bracelet) and some 18k rose gold sections for the bezel and the chronograph pushers. It also has matching rose gold-toned hour markers and hands. The same gold tone is fashionably carried over into the movement for the bridges, as well as for the color of the Zenith star logo skeletonized automatic rotor, which you can view through the sapphire crystal caseback. If you look through the correct angles, you can see all the way through the other side of the movement.
Zenith engineered the 200-meter water-resistant can to have a special strap release system that uses a small button on the bottom of the case to release the strap end. It works well enough, but is another instance when watch enthusiasts will not be able to easily swap out straps with their own. It is unclear how much new straps will cost, and what variety Zenith has available. With that said, Zenith might say that while they understand people’s interest in using third-party straps, they intended each of their watches to be paired with one of the three included straps — and for those to have a unique experience. Which is true…
When you see the Zenith Defy Extreme on the included micro bead-blasted titanium bracelet (done in a slick gunmetal color), it is hard not to argue that Zenith was aiming for the look of the bracelet on the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (a design which, at this point, has been emulated more so than not). That doesn’t change the fact that it is a nice bracelet, which is sized using screw-bars and closes with a butterfly-style deployant.
Zenith also includes a fabric strap with a Velcro-style enclosure (that was too large to fit my wrist) and a stylized rubber strap that comes on a different type of fold-over deployant — which is what I preferred for my wrist when it came to overall comfort. Zenith packed a lot of features, ranging from technical prowess to contemporary fashionability, into the Defy Extreme watch. It doesn’t have an established personality in the enthusiast community, but it does deserve the chance to develop one. Price for this reference 87.9100.9004/03.I001 Zenith Defy Extreme watch is $22,000 USD. Learn more at the Zenith website here.
>Model: Defy Extreme reference 87.9100.9004/03.I001
>Price: $22,000 USD
>Size: 45mm-wide, ~16mm-thick, and ~52mm lug-to-lug distance.
>When reviewer would personally wear it: To high-style events where there are bound to be other timepiece enthusiasts.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Bold luxury watch lover who enjoys mechanics and playfulness in their timepieces.
>Best characteristic of watch: Great mixture of modern features and wearing options make for a versatile and artistically interesting high-accuracy mechanical watch with high-end appointments.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Design execution comes across as a bit generic even if it is eye-pleasing. Difficult to make a utilitarian argument for needing a 1/1000th of a second chronograph. Dial overall feels very much like many other Zenith watches and might benefit from more unique design elements to go with the Defy Extreme case shape.