Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph Watch Releases

The Zenith Defy El Primero 21 is the first major new Zenith timepiece release under still new "interim CEO" Jean-Claude Biver. The head of the watch division at LVMH is now personally running both TAG Heuer and Zenith (Hublot and Bulgari are also LVMH watch brands), which is no doubt challenging given the opportunities each brand presents, as well as the current difficulties facing the luxury watch market. It was just a few months ago, in January of 2017, that Zenith announced Jean-Claude Biver would take the helm for the time being.

A few months is not enough time for anyone to come up with a product from scratch, yet this Zenith Defy El Primero 21 feels very fresh and a new, welcome direction for Zenith as a high-end watchmaker. Though, as you will see, it is a well-curated assortment of skills and inventions pulled from the family of brands - as well as a totally new movement and concept for Zenith. Once again, Mr. Biver and team cleverly mix modernity and heritage for a watch thoroughly positioned "in the now" that allows us to optimistically ponder the future direction of where he will lead Zenith.

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph Watch Releases

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph Watch Releases

With little time available and Baselworld 2017 to prepare for, Jean-Claude Biver needed something wow-worthy to debut to an audience very eager to see what his plan for Zenith is. Speaking to him long before he took over Zenith, he mentioned during a conversation in semi-jest that "Zenith could be renamed 'El Primero' as a brand" because of how important this signature movement is to the company. The story of the El Primero is not often discussed, but it is very fascinating.

I will only cover the basics for now. It debuted in 1969 as one of the first automatic chronograph movements and further benefited from having a 5Hz (versus 4Hz) regulation system speed. Operating at 36,000bph allowed the movement to be more precise over time and to measure 1/10 of a second as opposed to 1/8th of a second. In our world of digital instruments today that number hardly means anything, but to devotees of mechanical measuring devices, it is a big deal. Everyone loves speed.

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph Watch Releases

During the quartz crisis, the El Primero more or less stopped being made and was almost totally forgotten about, according to some testimonies. In my understanding, the designs for the Zenith El Primero were almost lost, saved by a particular employee at Zenith who hoarded away the technical specifications intentionally, fearing that they would be trashed. It is because of that individual that the El Primero lived on when the mechanical watch became a luxury item sometime later in history. Today, the Zenith "El Primero" is a name that any even remotely educated watch lover is familiar with.

In my mind, the "El Primero 21" name signifies that the El Primero 21 movement is the "El Primero for the 21st century." Aside from the name, the movement inside of the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 watch is not a traditional El Primero. It is, in fact, technology that began at fellow LVMH group brand TAG Heuer that has been refined and re-engineered for Zenith in a way that probably makes a lot more sense at the Zenith of today than the TAG Heuer of today. Jean-Claude Biver has always been smart about using established assets to create things which feel fresh.

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph Watch Releases

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph Watch Releases

When I last saw this 1/100th of a second chronograph movement concept it was back in 2011 inside of the TAG Heuer Carrera Mikrograph (hands-on here). The dial layout is unchanged for the Zenith Defy El Primero 21, but the movement architecture itself is totally new, according to the brand, as is the use of materials such as Carbon-Matrix Carbon Nanotube used to produced the two balance wheels. This light, strong, and totally anti-magnetic material was not available in 2011, and is a major part of what makes this movement even more competitive today. Moreover, it isn't in a watch priced at $50,000. More on the movement in a bit.

I spoke with Guy Semon - the "head engineer" at TAG Heuer who is among the most important technical people at the brand - about the El Primero 21 movement. Guy admitted that he was more or less the person who began the El Primero 21, which makes total sense because he is the guy to go to (as TAG Heuer and Zenith are in the same group), and Mr. Biver knows it. Guy started at TAG Heuer around 2004 when the brand needed someone to make the now famed Monaco V4 watch work. TAG Heuer never let him go, and for good reason.

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph Watch Releases

Mr. Semon is the man responsible for some of our modern era's more technically challenging watch movements and also for helping TAG Heuer connect with Intel for the Connected smartwatch product. He is also the mind behind the Zenith El Primero 21 movement. According to Guy, while there are similarities between the El Primero 21 and the Mikograph, beyond sharing a dial layout, the two movements don't share any parts, and the Zenith El Primero 21 is a movement that is totally fresh with an entirely novel system.

The last time most people recall hearing the "Zenith Defy" name was back in the Nataf era, when some extremely unfortunate design and marketing decisions were being made at Zenith. With that said, the Zenith Defy name goes back several decades and is now back in the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 - for the better. Case design for the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 is novel (inspired by the late 1960s, apparently), but blends aesthetic elements which are truly "Biverian" when looking at many of his other popular models from both Hublot and TAG Heuer.

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph Watch Releases

The debut Zenith Defy El Primero 21 will come in a 44mm-wide titanium case, in three versions. Zenith refers to the case design as "powerful," and indeed it is more modernly masculine than pretty much anything Zenith makes right now (emphasis on modernly). With that said, this is very much a restrained design in the scheme of macho watch cases we've seen released under Mr. Biver's leadership at various brands. It is much more elegantly simple than, say, a Hublot Big Bang, and certainly a bit more mature than the TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer 01. Zenith says the case is inspired by the Original El Primero from 1969. While that may be the case, to me, it seems to have more in common with contemporary sports watches.

What the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 does have in terms of "Biver sports watch DNA" are angular edges mixed with larger rounded shapes, a seamless integration between case and strap, prominent crown and pushers, as well as a thoroughly skeletonized dial. This latter component is likely a crucial part of a larger strategy to distinguish mechanical watches from... well, those that aren't mechanical. The notion likely being that when someone spends a lot of money on a mechanical watch for the movement, it isn't a terrible idea to visually let them see the movement (both on the front and back of the case).

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Watch With 1/100th Of A Second Chronograph Watch Releases

Very little on the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 watch is shared with other Zenith timepieces save for some of the important dial elements such as the hands, hour markers, and color schemes. In addition to the main hour and minute hands, we see elements from existing Zenith timepieces such as the three-spoke subsidiary seconds hand and the colors of the chronograph subdials. I'll have to wait until I see the Defy El Primero 21 watch hands-on make final conclusions about how the dial and skeletonized view of the movement work together, and how those elements affect legibility.

The three versions of the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 for 2017 include a natural titanium case with a skeletonized dial (reference 95.9000.9004/78.R582), a black-coated titanium case with a skeletonized dial (reference 24.9000.9004/78.R582), and non-skeletonized dial and natural titanium case model (reference 95.9001.9004/01.R582). The latter model is going to be the more sober, classic-looking of the models, but the movement is interesting-looking, and modern visuals of the skeletonization will likely appeal to more people.

What do you think?
  • I want it! (73)
  • Thumbs up (22)
  • I love it! (16)
  • Interesting (10)
  • Classy (2)
  • R Khalifa

    I certainly think non-overlapping subdials is a great start for JCB at Zenith. Legible Zenith chronos? Amazing! Good looking except for the screamy oversized crown and pushers.

  • Jim

    The silver dial version already looks a little busy and difficult to read at a glance, but the open worked dials just look completely illegible to me! As Ariel said, best to wait to see them in the metal but I just can’t see that working for me and my deteriorating eyesight. I do like the departure from overlapping subdials though and the star winding rotor is seriously cool.

  • IanE

    I know that many complications are largely pointless (other than for fun and decoration of course), but going for a 1/100th of a second just seems ludicrous in the extreme given human response times in the region of a quarter to a half of a second. Biver seems determined to start with a big bang.

  • Word Merchant

    The skeletonised dials are a complete mess – ugly and totally illegible. This stupid trend needs to die now.

    The solid dial version looks the most interesting but I don’t like the fat buttons, cyberman head crown and the odd looking power reserve. But at least Zenith are trying something new, even though the most granular period I now use to measure time is half an hour.

  • Pete L

    I quite like the case design and pushers but find the openworked dials are too busy. I like the solid dial but would have preferred the Zenith signature 3 colour sub dials.

    • Jeffc2

      Why on earth would you want another EL Primero 1969?

      • Pete L

        I wouldn’t. I thought it worked really well on the Stratos too and it’s just a Zenith identifier I really like. Personal taste really and unquestionably different from the other manufacturers.

  • The Good:

    * Not mentioned (or I missed it) but I assume that this movement hacks – unlike classic El Primero movements.
    * Cool star shaped rotor
    * Sub-dials that don’t eat each other on the non-skeleton version
    * Modern looking movement
    * Non-crazy price (all things considered)

    The Bad:

    * Blocky case – too much much TAG and Hublot looking for my taste. But I realize it may have more charm in person.
    * Skeleton dial – just horrid. And the bottom register’s chapter ring is perverted by the view of the balance.
    * The power reserve indicator on the non-skeleton dial is a bit obtrusive. Sure you need to have the indicator but it just looks a bit crass.
    * Would have a broader appeal if the case was 42 instead of 44.

    Overall I’m glad to see a new generation El Primero but I worry that “Biver Effect” on design may destroy the design language of Zenith. Must everything from LVMH look like a skeletonized Hublot?

    • ??????

      Agree on all points.

    • Jeffc2

      How about making an informed opinion before discussing the Biver effect. First off, look at the Defy model before this update. Its one of the most horrific things to ever come out of Zenith’s Factory. Please Google Zenith Defy. I mean look at this… http://www.chrono24.com/zenith/defy-extreme-chronograph-sstit–id5803735.htm

      • Yeah, I’ve seen some of the horrific Defy references from the Thierry Nataf days. But what I refer to as the “Biver Effect” is his penchant for making TAG and now Zenith watches looks like Hublot line extensions. My concern is that post-Nataf, the Zenith language has returned a more classic vibe which now seems under threat. You may disagree with my conclusions but that does not mean I’m “uninformed”. BTW – I think I just coined the phrase “the Biver Effect” and if so I don’t see how I could have abused its use. Cheers.

  • SuperStrapper

    Nope. Go back and try again please.

  • PleaseSpellRoman4AsIV

    I know most people will haste the aesthetics, but I find the titanium one rather cool, and also a wearable size compared to the Hublot line. And great to see that LVMH are continuing with pushing down the prices.

  • Ibrahim

    360,000 bph mechanical escapement able to measure 1/100th of a second! Skeleton dial in place to see all the action. And offered for a very fair price. Fantastic achievement IMHO. Congratulations Zenith!

    P.S: Ariel, the Striking 10th measures 1/10th of the second and the central chrono hand completes a full rotation in 1 seconds rather than 1. You may want to edit that part of the article.

  • MEddie90

    Interesting concept, basically having two separate movements and trains in the same case. It’s been done before by Tag Heuer (as an aside it’d be nice to see more work put into tags insane 1/10,000th of a second chronos) and more recently by the Montblanc team with the timewriter 100 and 1,000 but this is the first time I’m aware of where you can get a 1/100 chrono at a reasonable price.

    Obviously it’s not out yet but its nice to see the concept leave the experimental realm and enter the mainstream.

    The non-skeletonised dial is attractive, would be nice to get one with the more colorful subdials the El Primero is known for and a more subtle power reserve but its still attractive. Not to keen on the cushion case design or the chunky crown and pushers but either way i’m sure as time goes on we’ll see a little more diversity added to the line up. Will be keeping my eyes on these.

    (Edit: as an aside i think it’s incorrect to give Biver much credit for this, sure he probably had a hand in the skeletonised dial design but in terms of movement design and prototyping this has probably been in the works for several years)

    • Jeffc2

      Zenith already had a 1/10ths chrono before this.

      • MEddie90

        You can shake your head all you want, doesn’t make me wrong.

  • ??????


  • David

    Will the second hand stop when pulling out the crown? I don’t like the fact that existing El Primero time piece can’t hack the second hand for a precise time setting and I have one of them

    • Jeffc2

      Hacking is one of the least essential features of a watch.

  • hamzanet

    if your remove zenith name from watch I will thought this watch is hublot

    • Well that is true for the skeleton dial version.

  • Yanko


  • Ulysses31

    Any brand under Biver seems to end up looking indistinct and cluttered. There are exceptions of course but you can see his influence on watch design from a mile away. I remember years ago when BMW design took a nose-dive under one particular designer whose name currently escapes me, and they have barely recovered since.

    • Jeffc2

      While you may disagree with Chris Bangle’s designs at BMW, it was under his era that BMW overtook Mercedes as the global leader in premium car sales. He really influeced the subesequent era’s for all brands. To BMW, it was a success.

  • Josh

    Love the technology in this watch…leaders in movement making.

  • WatchCollector

    I would have agreed with everyone saying that the watch is “too busy”, “useless complication”, “looks like Hublot”, etc. After seeing it in person, this watch (the titanium skeleton version) is amazing to me! People have to remember that you’re buying timepieces not just to tell time, but as wearable art. How many people will truly have a use for a 1/100th second chrono? Not many (if anyone at all), but what an amazing feat of engineering to design and make something mechanical that can do that AND be worn on your wrist! As for it being busy…possibly, but its beautiful to look at (from an artistic and engineering point of view). Remember, Art is subjective and not everyone is going to love it. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.