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Zenith’s CEO Julien Tornare on how its Defy collection looks to the past to come up with a design for tomorrow

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 12 min read
Zenith’s CEO Julien Tornare on how its Defy collection looks to the past to come up with a design for tomorrow
Zenith’s CEO Julien Tornare on how its Defy collection looks to the past to come up with a design for tomorrow
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Zenith’s CEO Julien Tornare on how its Defy collection draws inspiration from the past to come up with a design fit for tomorrow

Julien Tornare, the energetic CEO of Zenith, had a great start to the year after a refreshing vacation. He was eager to share his enthusiasm for the Zenith timepieces showcased at LVMH Watch Week 2023, which took place in Singapore alongside LVMH Maisons Bulgari, Hublot, and Tag Heuer.
In a private room at the Capella Singapore, Tornare orders a large espresso and explained why he needed it. Everything had been progressing non-stop since he landed the night before — a far cry from the stillness of the Covid-19 shutdown.

He expresses his joy at being able to travel and have face-to-face interviews once again. Moreover, last year was a good one for Zenith. He says, “I am very happy because we finished an incredible year with Zenith. Over the last few years, we could not visit the markets. It’s all good now; let’s be positive.”
Tornare summarises that in the last few years since he joined the company in 2017, he has been building the brand through marketing, events and a stronger presence on social media. “In 2019, we started to feel things turning around. We were bringing the brand to a different league. In 2020, we had the LVMH watch week in Dubai, which was a great success,” he says.

Then Covid-19 struck and it seemed everything was forced back to where it started. However, Zenith was probably one of the most active brands during the pandemic, he says. “We continue to develop and we kicked off e-commerce. We dramatically increased our social media presence and kept in contact with all the markets. And everything that was done before began paying off in 2021.”

His confidence comes from nearly two decades of experience in the watchmaking sector. After working at Raymond Weil for two years, he spent 17 years at Vacheron Constantin, holding various key roles. As Zenith’s leader since 2017, he revitalised the brand’s products and communication, bringing it back to the forefront of watchmaking.

Tornare provides further insights into this year’s collection, his management style and the perspectives of the new generation regarding timepieces.

See also: Wearable artistry

Will Zenith face the same accessibility issues like other luxury watch brands for serious collectors?
We encountered a similar situation with the Zenith Chronomaster Sport and the Defy Skyline. By launching these new products, we already feel the demand is growing stronger. Yes, it happens, but it is not our objective. I don’t believe in having empty shops or creating waiting lists for years.
My greatest pleasure is delivering a watch and making someone happy. That’s precisely what I will do tonight for a Singaporean collector who is a big fan of Zenith and he’s expecting a very special piece. Instead of him receiving the watch in two weeks through our boutique, I decided to bring the watch with me and surprise him tonight when I make the delivery. The best feeling is seeing a client so delighted to receive his watch finally. Due to its success, there might be some waiting time, but we strive to keep it at an acceptable level.

Millennials and Gen Z have very different spending habits. They also have stronger spending power now so how will the brand target this audience?
I’m very confident that this generation values and appreciates beautiful mechanical watches. A few years ago, we heard about the generation that preferred wearing smartwatches on their wrists rather than traditional timepieces.
Now, I believe they appreciate the significance of legitimacy and heritage. These aspects are crucial as they instil trust and confidence in the brand’s longevity. Understanding what they buy is essential to them, so they check for authenticity. At Zenith, we pay great attention to this aspect, whether through the stories we tell with our ambassadors or by exclusively using Zenith movements for our watches.
Of course, we are in the 21st century, and creating modern, contemporary, and dynamic watches is vital. We must also communicate through the right channels to connect with the younger generation. We reach this clientele through social media, our website, and dynamic event organisation. Notably, five years ago, the average age of our customers was 44, but today it is 33.

In the press release, you said: “This year, the collection is growing with a new skeleton version featuring a bold and futuristic design, as well as a mid-size unisex version of the Defy Skyline in 36mm with some vibrant dial colours.” Is this part of the plan to attract more women?
Yes and no. Let me explain why. For years, women have been buying and wearing what some call “men’s watches” and sometimes larger timepieces. At Zenith, we have removed the gender-based selection for the last year and a half. We should stop labelling watches as “for men” or “for women”.
Imagine a woman wanting to buy a larger watch; she would have to go into the men’s section. Why should that be the case? That’s why we introduced the 36mm, a very unisex watch, as in many countries, men also appreciate wearing this size. Our approach is simple: we make beautiful watches, and the clients decide. Many brands claim to be client-centric but we shouldn’t decide for the clients if that’s true. They should be free to choose whether they want a large or small size, with or without diamonds, and in pink or blue — without any gender influence.
I always give this example: it was true in the car industry, about 30 years ago, that people would classify cars as “for men” or “for women”. But imagine today, if you go to a car dealer and he says, “This is the men’s section, and this is the women’s section”, we would find it offensive. The traditional watchmakers need to change. We must consider these things as a contemporary brand, which we proudly claim to be.
I’m thrilled to say that Zenith is a pioneer in this change. To answer your question, we have noticed an increasing number of women showing interest in Zenith, probably growing from a 20% share to around 30% to 32%.

The Defy collection goes as far back as 1969; what else is there in the archives that you are keeping your eye on?
Yes, we always do that. Constantly, in fact. Many watches we have launched over the last few years have been inspired by our archives, sometimes even finding elements in the attic where the hidden treasure was kept.
But there’s a significant difference between delving into the past and copying it versus using it as inspiration to continue being creative — a crucial distinction.
At Zenith, we believe in the constant pursuit of innovation. Having a long history means we must be careful not to get stuck in the past because our predecessors were remarkably creative and innovative. I was privileged to meet the gentleman who created the El Primero in the late 1960s. He was 84 or 85 years old. He shared many things with me but the most important message was, “Julien, continue to bring new things.” It’s wonderful to pay tribute to our past accomplishments, but we must embrace the same spirit of innovation today.

The word “defy” means to resist openly or to refuse to obey … how is this tied in with the collection?
You’re right. “Defy” means not following the rules and not always staying in familiar fields. To me, it’s about exploration and entrepreneurship. I might apply some rules for a more classic product line, but I keep it a bit more open for the Defy collection.
I tell my team, “Bring me ideas”. Sometimes, they present new ideas that I feel aren’t right and we shouldn’t pursue them. Other times, I immediately love their proposals. And occasionally, I need some time to fall in love with a watch or an idea.
Nevertheless, I adore the philosophy of embracing an entrepreneurial culture. At Zenith, one of the first things I did a few years ago was ask every employee for a KPI on creativity and innovation. It’s easy to bring new ideas for products and marketing, but it might be a bit more challenging for finance. However, even in finance, we can find ways to do things differently. It could be a management or an HR idea, but the key is bringing something new to your work. This is how we keep the brand evolving and moving forward.
Defy perfectly exemplifies this approach. We want to keep it alive because we won’t be here one day. Our responsibility is to elevate the brand to the next level so that when the time comes, we can pass the torch to someone else while ensuring the brand endures through time. The Defy collection serves as a perfect vehicle for this purpose.

Zenith has enjoyed a dynamic and eventful year, marked by the introduction of three standout models that have garnered widespread attention and earned a legion of followers

See also: Time’s treasure trove

Lucky in love
Zenith launched the Lucky Red edition of its Defy timepiece in May to commemorate the 520 Valentine’s Day celebration in China. The choice of the auspicious colour red was deliberate, symbolising passionate love. Adding to the allure of the release is the brand’s ambassador, Xiao Zhan, who has been a prominent figure in Zenith’s campaigns.
Xiao Zhan, an award-winning 31-year-old actor, debuted in the entertainment industry as a member of the Chinese boy band X Nine member. His acting career began in 2016, and he has since earned accolades for his performances in dramas like The Untamed (2019) and The Oath of Love (2022), among others.
Just as Xiao Zhan found success in his career, the Defy Skyline’s success stems from a time-tested design inspired by the Defy models of the 1960s, complete with a faceted steel case and a dodecagonal bezel. The Defy Skyline Lucky Red edition has 52 brilliant-cut diamonds set on the bezel that complements the diamond-set hour markers on the red dial and sets the entire silhouette on ablaze.
To complete the look, the Defy Skyline Lucky Red has a red rubber strap with a starry sky pattern. The same red patterned rubber strap is also available as a limited edition for the 41mm versions of the Defy Skyline, delivered with a steel folding clasp.

In perfect time
In June, Zenith launched the Defy Skyline Skeleton boutique edition in gold with highlights of contrasting tones of grey. This is the world’s first and only skeleton watch to feature a 1/10th of a second indicator. The timepiece was conceived for an ever-fast-moving world where every fraction of a second can be decisive.
Drawing inspiration from modern cityscapes where structures and light collide, the Defy Skyline Skeleton integrates the open dial with an open-worked version of the El Primero high-frequency automatic. The open dial is a four-pointed star, a throwback to the “double Z” logo of the 1960s.
With a dial draped in a silvery-grey shade, other features include a darker chapter ring with applied gold-plated baton hour markers filled with Super-LumiNova and matching hands for legibility. A constantly running 1/10th of a second counter at 6 o’clock makes steady jumps in fixed increments, completing one revolution every 10 seconds. This unprecedented feature is unique to the new generation of the El Primero automatic high-frequency calibre.
To retain the 1960s octagonal geometry design, the angular steel case of the Defy Skyline Skeleton features the same DNA of robustness and durability as its predecessors, resulting in an edgier and more architectural aesthetic. A faceted bezel tops the 41mm stainless steel case with sharply defined edges: Inspired by those from early Defy models and reimagined with twelve sides positioned as extensions to the hour markers. Additionally, it offers water resistance of up to 100m, making it a perfect companion for the active person.
The beautiful high-frequency automatic El Primero calibre, the 3620 SK movement, can be admired through the open dial and the sapphire display back. Built with a similar architecture as the El Primero 3600 1/10th of a second chronograph, this automatic manufacture movement drives the 1/10th of a second hand directly from the escapement, which beats at 5Hz, thus making it a “natural” fraction-of-a-second indication. It is also endowed with a stop-second mechanism for precise time-setting.

Add colour to your life
Zenith introduces three new boutique-exclusive editions of the Defy Skyline with a blue dial to keep you cool as the summer heat peaks. Additionally, a new comprehensive strap service for its online boutique allows you to browse and purchase a selection of compatible straps, giving your Zenith timepiece a personal touch.
As a first for the Zenith Boutique Edition, new colours breathe an air of freshness into the 41mm steel case and its mid-size 36mm edition in two versions, with or without diamonds on the bezel. This launch marks the beginning of a series of new colours, blending the architectural lines and robustness of Zenith’s Defy collection, both from the past and present.
Both watches feature the Zenith automatic manufacture movements; the Defy Skyline Ice Blue Boutique Edition in 41mm is powered by the El Primero 3620 automatic high-frequency calibre, featuring a 1/10th of a second indicator driven directly from the 5Hz escapement. It features a power reserve of approximately 60 hours and a stop-second mechanism for precise time-setting.
The smaller 36mm version of the DEFY Skyline Ice Blue Boutique Edition runs on the Elite 670 automatic manufacture movement with an autonomy of 50 hours. Both automatic manufacture calibres feature star-shaped oscillating weights that can be admired through the sapphire display backs.
The Defy Skyline Boutique Edition features a steel bracelet with a satin-brushed surface and chamfered and polished edges that follow the contours of the angular case. An Ice Blue rubber strap with a starry sky pattern is also provided, with a steel folding clasp and can be easily swapped without any tools using the Defy case’s ingenious quick strap-change mechanism consisting of secure buttons on the back.

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