A Horological Revolution: The Zenith Defy Lab

Zenith Defy Lab
The 44mm Defy Lab case is made from Aeronith – the world’s lightest aluminium composite material

Fusion is defined as a cellular process in which single nucleus cells combine to form a multi-cellular entity. It is the basis on which living creatures grow larger, stronger and more powerful. For more than four decades, Jean-Claude Biver has proven himself the master of nuclear fusion – he is an unrivalled Jedi in the art of uniting watch brands with the ever-expanding, diverse, specialised universes that collectively make up the tapestry of contemporary culture.

You could say that Hublot is Biver’s masterpiece of fusion. With Hublot, he transformed first what a watch looked like, making it a shimmering symbol of modernity, then proceeded to radically redefine the worlds a watch brand could attach itself to at a cellular level. Like football, where Hublot was the official timekeeper of the World Cup. Like music, where Hublot was the first watch brand to create a watch in collaboration with Depeche Mode. Hublot was everywhere, even appearing on Floyd “Money” Mayweather’s trunks when he fought Manny Pacquiao.

To quote Walt Whitman, Hublot is “large, it contains multitudes”. It passes through innumerable worlds, through the blood-brain barrier, it smashes through the walls of impulse control and is made manifest on wrists of uncountable individuals around the world. Music, sports, auto racing, graffiti, tattoo culture… The seemingly endless universes were each colonised by Biver. He planted a field of Hublot flags so vast that – to co-opt a phrase once used to describe the British Empire – today he can irrefutably claim, “the sun never sets on the world of Hublot”.

So, when he shifted his focus to Zenith, the technically proficient though occasionally somnambulant manufacture located in the sleepy town of Le Locle, the entire watch world waited with bated breath. What would the unrivalled, undisputed, unmatched and undefeated all-time heavyweight champion of horological communication select as his vision for flipping, reversing and re-engineering the fortunes of this valid if slightly out-of-touch brand?

Jean-Claude Biver
Jean-Claude Biver searches through the treasures at Zenith

First and foremost

“Everyone was expecting me to use a similar tactic I used with Hublot or TAG Heuer, which is to unite the brand with new worlds. But the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became to me that this would be the wrong approach. Because at Zenith it had to be the watches themselves that would be the stars.” Which is to tap into the brand’s extraordinary history with marine sniper-like precision.

After all, it was Zenith that irreversibly revolutionised the watch universe in 1969 when it unveiled arguably the greatest precision timing achievement of the late-20th century, the incredible El Primero – the world’s first automatic integrated chronograph movement. And yes, although Heuer/Breitling/Hamilton-Buren/Dubois-Depraz launched a modular automatic chronograph that same year, comparing this to the El Primero is like comparing the four-cylinder motor to a naturally aspirated Ferrari V12.

You see, the El Primero was designed from the ground up to be an integrated chronograph movement. It was a proper haute de game chronograph in that it featured a column wheel. And, most incredibly, it beat at 5 Hz, a first for a serially-produced movement in true quantity and the first time the public had been offered a chronograph that could divide time to 1/10th of a second.

Says Biver: “In 1969, people were amazed because the El Primero was so incredibly ground-breaking. It represented new technology and pushed mechanical watchmaking to a whole new level. The escapement wheels couldn’t use normal oils because they turned so fast, so Zenith had to develop a special paste. And it is the spirit of pioneering innovation, always in pursuit of writing the next page in the history of mechanical watchmaking that must be the core mission of Zenith. This is who we are. This is our raison d’être. And every watch we make must be infused with this message, this narrative.”

Jean-Claude Biver and Julien Tornare
President of LVMH Watch Division Jean-Claude Biver with Zenith CEO Julien Tornare

Zenith Defy El Primero 21

Understanding this to be his mission, Biver demonstrated the full capacity of Zenith’s technical might in March 2017 at Baselworld with the launch of the new Defy featuring the El Primero 21 movement. Says Biver: “In the same way that the El Primero was a revolution for the 20th century, the El Primero 21 is the revolution of the 21st century.”

What exactly does this 44mm titanium watch do? It’s a chronograph that divides time down to 1/100th of as second. It does this with two oscillators – one for the civil time function of the watch that beats at 5 Hz, and a second that is only unleashed when the chronograph is activated. Says Zenith CEO Julien Tornare: “The Defy El Primero is really the symbol of what Zenith will be in the future, the home for true functional innovation in precision timing.”

Case in point, the watch in question becomes the first in Swiss horology to use a carbon-fibre balance spring (for both oscillators). Hit the chrono button and immediately the dedicated balance wheel springs to life and vibrates at a blitzkrieg speed of 360,000 vibrations (50 Hz) an hour meaning that the escapement locks and unlocks 100 times per second. Watching the chrono seconds hand whip around the dial is a hallucinatory illusion created by how rapidly it adopts 100 positions in one second and it is incredible to behold. And, while it’s true that Zenith is not the first brand to create a wristwatch with a 1/100th of a second chronograph – that honour belongs to Zenith’s LVMH Group sister brand TAG Heuer and its Mikrograph – the Defy is the first watch to bring the price of this complication into a totally accessible range under £10,000.

Zenith Defy El Primero 21
The El Primero 21 Defy was the star of Baselworld

How is Zenith able to do this? First by sharing the myriad competences of the group. According to Biver, who is President of LVMH Group’s watch brands: “I will never understand why you own a watch group and do not take advantages of the shared competences between your brands. Of course, some of the technology first developed at TAG Heuer can appear in a Zenith, and of course some new materials first developed at Hublot can also appear in a Zenith. And in the end if I can reduce the final price of the watch because of these shared competences then it is my customer that wins. He is pleasantly surprised at how well-priced the watch is relative to his expectations. Indeed, to do otherwise – to separate your innovations, to not share and, therefore, adversely effect the cost structure of your watch meaning its final price will be too expensive – can be considered unethical!”

But there is another reason for the fierce innovation emerging from LVMH Group that is – in keeping with Biver’s plan for the brand – specifically focused on Zenith. And that reason is a man named Guy Sémon. The title he holds is General Manager at TAG Heuer, but it actually should be Head of Black Ops or Director of Horlogical Ninja Assassin Programme. Sémon has quietly over the past decade emerged as one of the most brilliant minds in watchmaking today, which is particularly amusing as watchmaking is in fact not his background.

Sémon, a scientist by background, started at TAG Heuer ten years ago to industrialise the famous V4 concept watch. He explains: “Maybe it’s because I don’t come from a structured watchmaking background that I am able to find solutions from outside the box. With the El Primero 21, as with the TAG Heuer Calibre Heuer-02T tourbillon chronograph, the method for reducing the price of the watch was simple. We had to design the movements, to make them easy to assemble and to run so well that they would be within COSC standards with minimal or zero regulation.”

Guy Sémon
Guy Sémon, General Manager at TAG Heuer

Zenith Defy Lab

It is precisely Sémon’s out-of-the-box thinking that allowed him to draft the fundamental underpinnings of one of the most breathtakingly radical concepts in modern watchmaking.

“This is the greatest innovation since Huygens invented the pendulum,” says Biver, pounding the table and causing the saucers and cups to dance as if in agreement. And, after seeing the Defy Lab ticking in my hand and then worn on my wrist, I am totally inclined to agree. Says Sémon: “Since the birth of the wristwatch it’s always relied on the same kind of oscillator, a wheel fitted with a spring that swung in one direction then the other locking and unlocking an escapement. And over the past 20 years many efforts have gone into improving this system – new balances, new escapements, the introduction of silicon, the elevation of vibrational speeds – but no one has stepped back and asked if there is a different solution.”

Sémon’s initial forays into re-conceptualising the oscillator stemmed from the desire to augment the frequency of movements. He explains that past a certain point the traditional oscillator can’t cope with the elevated speeds. After creating the Mikrotimer, a watch capable of measuring 1/1,000th of a second and with a balance that runs at 500 Hz, he explains that “basically we had reached the limits of performance for a hairspring”. By rethinking the entire concept for a mechanical regulator Sémon came up with the vibrating beam in the Mikrogirder that measures elapsed time to 5/10,000th of a second.

“The system in the Mikrogirder was optimal for super-high frequencies, but interestingly not for lower frequency,” he says. “This was the point of departure. I began to think of an all-new oscillator not one dedicated just to measuring elapsed time but as the primary system for telling time in the watch. It would be a watch with balance wheel, no hairspring and a complete reinvention of mechanical time keeping.”

Zenith Defy Lab
Zenith Defy Lab
The caseback of the Defy Lab, with rotor featuring the signature Zenith star

So Sémon began first with a series of mathematical calculations which gave him the basic parameters of what he needed for a totally different system. “In essence, the oscillator is basically a filter, it filters energy from the mainspring into a form that is usable for time telling known as vibrations. I began to think of a different system utilising compliant mechanics – meaning that certain parts would be able to shift and exert a force. A silicon monobloc piece that would incorporate the function of 31 different parts, that was an oscillator but that only shifted 6 degrees in amplitude always with total consistency and that was driven by springs built into the oscillating system.” The result is an incredible-looking silicon mask that occupies the entire dial of the new Zenith watch and that appears to be constantly vibrating at some crazy speed but, in reality, is oscillating first in one direction then the other with a minimal angle of amplitude at a super-fast 15 Hz speed.

According to Sémon: “The beauty about this system is that it does not rely on the power from the barrel for accuracy and as such there is no loss of accuracy as the quality of power begins to wane.” In a normal watch as torque from the barrel lessens and as power reserve diminishes the end effect on the oscillator is a loss of amplitude which leads to inaccuracies. Here, as long as there is enough power to set the system into motion, it is the integrated springs built into the silicon mask that account for the impulse to the oscillator, meaning that it is always either functioning at 100 per cent accuracy or not functioning at all.

Because of this, the watch will have a deviation of maximum 0.3 seconds per day, measured on 48 hours. In addition, it is not affected by magnetism or temperature variation and, because we have radically reduced the number of parts and because there is almost no friction, there is no need for oil and the service intervals can be extended considerably.”

Zenith Defy Lab Movement
Zenith Defy Lab Movement
Assembling the Defy Lab
Assembling the Defy Lab
Assembling the Defy Lab
Assembling the Defy Lab

Zenith is making just ten of these Defy Lab watches, which were launched on 14 September 2017, each configured to the desires of the client. Says Tornare: “Of course, we had many more people who wanted to buy the watch but we wanted to start with just ten timepieces. We wanted to be very selective about where we placed them and are delighted that one of them has been purchased by Revolution magazine. You will, with the other nine clients, be our test pilots and give us feedback on the watch and its performance.”

Sémon adds: “The applications for this technology are vast, and we will use it as soon as possible for mass production using an original design. We are already working on the next model of this system which will be smaller and occupy less space, so we will be able to add complications like a chronograph on top of it and which will be driven by the same oscillator. It is simultaneously very far from classic watchmaking but it is still high watchmaking.”

This extreme theme carries on to the case developed for the Zenith Defy Lab. It is made of Aeronith, known across industries as the lightest composite material ever developed. Taking advantage of the ingenious material manipulation knowhow held within Hublot, engineers first heat raw aluminium to its liquid form. Then in a proprietary process, the molten metal is poured into a mould, where it slowly settles to form the open-pore metal foam structure. These pores are then further filled with a specially developed polymer that fills the spaces. This special polymer in particular is said to be resistant to ultra-violet rays — or simply put, it’s going to be highly resistant to decolouration and wear.

Once cooled, the final case is formed, which has a mere density of just 1.6 kg/dm3 and is said to be 2.7 times lighter than titanium, 1.7 times lighter than aluminium and 10% lighter than the lightest of materials known today in watchmaking —  carbon fibre.

The last word goes to Biver: “Nothing like this has ever existed in mechanical watchmaking. We are the first, we are the pioneers, we have had the courage to go where others would never dare and I think this is important for the watch industry. To bring back the desire for innovation to push the boundaries of what’s possible and in so doing lead the way. This is what Zenith will be for the future, because this has always been our story.”