Introduced at Baselworld 2019, we get our hands on with the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Carbon for a week and used it as our daily beater. This is our hands-on review of the watch.
Zenith first introduced the Defy El Primero 21 about 3 years ago, with the lightning style chronograph seconds hand which makes one complete revolution every second.
The original Defy El Primero 21 was available titanium and ceramicised aluminium in an openworked dial, with a solid closed dial version in titanium. New for 2019 is this version in a full carbon case.
Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Carbon
The case, dial and hands
The case is 44mm in diameter and is made completely of carbon. The case shape is the classic Defy shape, with angular facets on a tonneau case and a round bezel. Living with the watch, we find the sapphire glass does its utmost best to attract and retain fingerprints, though all told, it is rather easy to clean – a quick swipe with a clean handkerchief or micro fibre cloth makes it gleaming and clean in an instant.
The carbon case is inherently unique in that it has layout patterns which become its own finger print. To us, this whirls in the carbon and striations are beautiful in their own right. and a big plus.
The dial itself is heavily skeletonized, and the indices are applied on the inner of two rings around the peripheral. The outer ring bears markings of 1 to 100, allowing a timing granularity of 1/100th of a second. The double balances are visible through apertures in the dial piercings.
The overall aesthetic is excellent. The watch looks quite classy, and has some wrist presence. We particularly like the little touches like the Zenith logo printed on the underside of the crystal, which looks like it is floating and lording over the dial. Excellent indeed. Though truth be told, the combination of heavy skeletonization, and the dark hues (50 shades of grey?) of the dial makes it a rather difficult proposition to read the time, and even more challenging to read the chronograph indicators in the dark. Which is a pity, as the seconds hand spinning furiously around the dial, is quite a sight.
We do note that there is a whirring sound as the chronograph is engaged. We found it to be a rather pleasing buzz, and one which despite the ferocity of the hand spinning, has a calming effect.
We guess the carbon case is perhaps also more fragile than its titanium or ceramicised aluminium cousins, but have no direct experience as we neither dropped the watch nor subjected it to sufficient stress to test this.
The movement: El Primero 21
The movement remains the El Primero 21 which was also featured in the earlier models. Except that for the Carbon edition, the star shaped rotor visible from the back is blackened, as are some of the plates.
The El Primero 21 features two trains. a regular wheel train beating at 36,000 bph which runs the timekeeping functions, and another with a separate escape wheel which starts only when the chronograph is activated. This second train runs at 360,000 bph, and allows the watch to resolve to 1/100th of a second.
When activated, the chronograph second hand runs at a furious 1 revolution every second. As the train which powers this hand runs on an escapement beating 360,000 bph, this hand makes 100 discrete steps every revolution. To the naked eye, these small steps, each 3.6° arc is not discernable, and the hand looks like it is moving smoothly across the dial. When stopped, it is then able to rest in any of the 100 positions, giving the 1/100th second resolution. The visual impact of the sweep seconds moving at such a speed is quite mesmerizing, as is shown in our video taken in 2017.
The movement finishing is not haute horologie levels, but is typical of Zenith. We would describe the finishing as adequate, but with a good eye to aesthetics. A good level of engineering finish.
The competitive landscape
The Defy El Primero 21 Carbon has a retail price of S$27,000 which represents almost a S$10,000 premium over the titanium/openworked earlier edition (which is still available).
And other than its own earlier versions, the competitors remain the same as in our 2017 review – chronographs capable of 1/100s granularity is a rare breed. At the risk of repeating ourselves, here is the 2017 landscape inhabitants.
The closest is perhaps stable mate TAG Heuer Carerra Mikrograph (in titanium US$ 21,000). The dial layout looks very similar to the El Primero 21. However, the TAG runs on 28,800 bph base train with the chronograph train at 360,000 bph.
The power reserve is 42 hours instead of 50 hours for the watch and 90 minutes for the chronograph instead of 50 minutes.
Another inhabitant on the competitive landscape that comes to mind is the Montblanc Timewalker Chronograph 1000 ( € 175,000, limited edition 18 pieces, black DLC titanium case) announced in this year’s SIHH 2017.
The movement and its concept is actually been introduced earlier by Montblanc in the TimeWriter II Chronograph Bi-Fréquence 1000 in 2012. The concept is the same, two trains. One running at 18,000 bph (half the speed of the El Primero 21), and the chronograph module running at 360,000 bph. The Montblanc goes one up, with a system to interpolate to provide a final resolution of 1/1000th of a second.
The other chronograph which makes its claim to 1/100th of a second resolution capability is the F. P. Journe Centigraphe Souverain (approximately CHF 62,000 in a gold case).
The Journe caliber does not use twin trains, but rather depend on the single train similar to a standard chronograph, but uses a interpolation method, similar to the Montblanc to resolve to 1/100th of a second from its base train beating at 21,600 bph.
The list remains unchanged, except for the addition of its own El Primero 21 in titanium and ceramicised aluminium.
The new Defy El Primero 21 is one class act. The carbon case makes a unique proposition. Living with the watch as a daily beater only deepens my respect and admiration for the tremendous technology and savoir faire that went into its creation. And was flawless in its performance during the week it sat, almost permanently on my wrist.
But is it worth the nearly S$10,000 premium it commands over its titanium cased openworked version? Only you can answer that question.
A friend of mine asks the corollary question: is the carbon case worth the premium, like a carbon frame on a top end road racing bike? Most hard core cyclists would answer that a carbon frame and wheel set is certainly worth the 10 grand premium.
Though, the final analysis is that even with the carbon bike frame, where the benefits are measurable and palpable, nobody except you can decide if its worth your hard earned money. In the watch, it is the unique look of the carbon case, itself a statement on its own that becomes the central consideration. Rather than structural advantages of rigidity balanced with compliance, the ride feel, and the weight savings which are the considerations for a carbon bike frame.