Much has been said about the new Zenith El Primero Defy Lab. We have covered the breaking news in our primer on the new oscillator, and further in our conversation with Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith. We published the photographs of the new Defy Lab watch. And now we bring you the full review of the Defy Lab, with original photographs, and our hands-on analysis.
We covered the Asia Launch Event in Tokyo on September 27 on our Instagram Live acccount carrying the press conference and Q&A session over the channel live as it happened in Roppongi, Tokyo. We also managed to spend a good 1.5 hours with the Head of Watchmaking at LVMH: Jean-Claude Biver (a very interesting In Conversation article forthcoming), and time with the watch he was wearing: the El Primero Defy Lab.
Review: Zenith El Primero Defy Lab
The Zenith El Primero Defy Lab is a magnificent example of collaboration within a group. LVMH Watches, headed by Jean-Claude Biver has pulled this off better than most others would have done. The feat is rather reminiscent of how the late Günter Blümlein did with LMH by pooling together the resources from Jaeger LeCoultre, IWC and even Renaud et Papi to power the then (1990) new A. Lange & Söhne.
Jean-Claude pulled this feat off by combining the avant garde and technical escapement expertise of TAG Heuer with the material science advantage from Hublot for this amazing Zenith.
The case, dial and hands
The watch case is in a shape reminiscent of the original 1969 El Primero where Zenith premiered the automatic column wheel chronograph beating at 5 Hz. The case is somewhat larger than the original (38mm), and measures 44mm in diameter. The case material is a novel material called Aeronith, the world’s lightest aluminium composite material. Aeronith was first developed in Hublot, but is not used in any of the watches by Hublot. Jean-Claude Biver decided to take the technology, and use it in Zenith.
The new material is a kind of aluminium foam, with holes within. A poor choice? On its own, aluminium is a brittle metal with little structural strength. And since it is made full of holes (imagine the block of Aeronith as a block of Swiss cheese), the structure becomes even less strong. But the Hublot engineers managed to make a material which provides good structural strength. How? They used a special technique. A composite light polymer material is injected into the holes to provide structural strength. This allows Hublot/Zenith to make the material with a density of just 1.6 kg/dm3, which is 2.7 times lighter than titanium, 1.7 times lighter than aluminium and 10% lighter than carbon fibre.
Also interesting is that the polymer can be made in any colour, providing artistic options for the case.
Visually, the case has a cool, almost granite like look, and is smooth to the touch. It feels extremely light on the wrist.
The dial is non-existant, and in its place is the entire oscillator. The hour markers are stick index appliqués, with polished facets, which allow it to catch glimpses of light as one moves the watch. The appliqués sit in gap openings on the minute chapter ring with minutes marked on it. The visual effect is rather attractive, breaking the monolith of the chapter ring by punctuating it with the hour indices. The brand name “ZENITH” is printed on the underside of the sapphire glass.
The hands are standard baton hands which is skeletonized, and the sweep seconds hand carries a Zenith star as a counter weight.
The oscillator itself has a visually captivating shape. Add to that the visual drama the vibrating oscillator as it does its jiggling dance can be mesmerising.
The movement Caliber ZO 342
The movement is visible from the sapphire display case back. From this vantage point, the watch looks like almost any other Zenith watch, with the signature rotor as a five pointed star. The motif of the bridges and rotor follow somewhat the design layout of the oscillator.
Movement finishing looks like a very high engineering level, though not quite at the level of the typical haute horlogerie standards.
The new oscillator
The oscillator development began in TAG Heuer, with Guy Sémon, CEO of the Science Institute LVMH heading the research. They set out to completely change the thinking, to rewrite the book, so to speak. The result is a revolutionary oscillator, with no hairspring, no balance wheel, and comprise of only 2 components made out of silicon.
Key features are:
- low relative damping
- size constraints
- shock resistance
- accurate frequency
The oscillator beats at 15Hz (108,000 bph), three times faster than the high beat of the standard El Primero. We asked if the 15Hz was an empirical number due to the size and shape of the oscillator, or a design decision made a priori. The answer was the latter. And they could have chosen any other frequency, and make it work.
Power reserve is 60 hours, where the exceptional accuracy is expected throughout the entire range.
The new oscillator is best viewed from the dial side of the watch. At first glance, it looks like the vibration is very fast, reminiscent of a heart in fibrillation, and can be distracting. But after getting used to it, it is just looks vigrous and fast. The movement ticks with a higher beat sound than a regular movement, but not unusually loud. The rotor does make a grinding sound which can be obvious in quiet environments.
The first 10 Defy Lab watches are currently being delivered. The watches are already manufactured, and the new oscillator is not a proof of concept, but a commercially viable watch. All ten are sold out, and each carry a price of CHF 29,000 which includes a First Class air ticket from anywhere in the world to Switzerland and being hosted by Zenith CEO Julien Tornare and Jean-Claude Biver to personally collect the watch in Le Locle.
As mentioned in our Breaking News article, we see the competitive landscape to only have three other inhabitants – one is a commercially available watch, one a proof of concept with a prototype, and the third only a technical exposition with no proof of concept or prototype.
The Girard-Perregaux Constant Force Escapement is the only one with a commercially available product. The GP escapement features a bi-stable silicon component, which flexes between two stable positions, allowing the energy from the mainspring to escape. But the GP still requires the use of a hairspring on a balance wheel. The new component only provides a constant force to the escapement.
The second one is the Parmigiani Senfine escapement. This is also one which features silicon escapement parts. The Senfine still has a balance wheel, though it is not conventional in any sense of the word. Instead of executing an amplitude of 300°, the Senfine balance only oscillates an amplitude of 15°, thereby saving energy to provide for the rather amazing power reserve of 70 days (not hours!). The balance also vibrates at 16Hz, which is quite close to the Defy Lab’s 15Hz. But the oscillating organ is a more conventional size, being similar to the size of a standard balance wheel, and the visual impact of the system is not as pronounced. The Senfine was demonstrated in Baselworld 2016 as a prototype, and to date, no watch has been announced with this escapement.
The final inhabitant is perhaps a virtual one. We covered the announcement in some detail here, and here. This is the Dominique Renaud DR01 Twelve First promises to be a revolutionary new oscillator, which dispenses with the standard balance wheel and replaces it with a a cylinder and a blade oscillator. This seems to be a revolutionary new oscillator, but Dominique announced this in March 2016, and till date, we have not seen a proof of concept or a working prototype. As we understand it, he and his team is still working on the development.
The Zenith El Primero Defy Lab is a striking example of how a watchmaking organization can pull together their resources to execute an extremely impressive product.
The Defy Lab is not only engaging at the visual angle, with its exotic case material, with the pulsating oscillator taking prime dial space, but also engages at at an emotional level taking design cues from the El Primero of old. Plus, the Defy Lab and the new oscillator promises to deliver quantum leap levels of performance. The most promising is that this new performance afforded by the oscillator is being adapted, by a technique which Jean-Claude described to us as “origami” to reduce its physical size while maintaining the exceptional properties that it will eventually be used on all Zenith, TAG and Hublot watches, but also will be offered to any other watchmaking company for purchase.
Amazing new developments. Amazing new watch. Chapeau Zenith!