Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Subjective Impressions
Probably the most exciting new watch of 2017 is the Zenith Defy El Primero 21. The watch highlights one of Zenith’s many quirky traits, like including the movement’s name in the name of the watch. It’s also a subtle way of demonstrating the brand’s priorities: movements come first and when that’s done they’ll get around to building the watch around it. 2017 has been amazing year to showcase this fact because if the El Primero 21 is a significant evolutionary step, the upcoming Defy LAB is an outright revolutionary leap. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At our recent Zenith event I finally got to spend some time with the watch one on one. I wanted not just to give an overview of the watch, but to reveal some subjective impressions of the watch not often covered elsewhere. The thing that surprised me the most about this watch was actually the sound. Running the chronograph near your ear doesn’t even sound like a watch.
Since the chronograph is running at a ridiculous 360,000 BPH while the watch itself continues to run at an extremely high 36,000 BPH, you don’t hear ticking. Instead, you’re basically hearing a low frequency, but nonetheless consistent, tone. Your brain doesn’t perceive it in the way you hear a normal watch, which is basically a sort of on-off-on-off pattern. This is more like a low note being played.
One of the things you start to realize looking at the skeletons is that the El Primero 9004 (yeah, that’s what it’s called) is basically a new stage in the development of the integrated chronograph. Now, to be clear, this isn’t the first time something like this has been attempted before, but I do think this is particularly impressive because this is a surprisingly affordable full production watch, not an ultra-expensive haute horology piece. The implementation is also unusually radical. Normally, we discuss integrated chronographs as chronographs that are, well, literally integrated into the same space as the timekeeping watch components, as opposed to being on an entirely separate layer.
The El Primero 21 is not that kind of integrated chronograph. What we’re really looking at here is, more or less, two separate watches coexisting in a beautiful synthesis. The chronograph is literally not a complication on the watch, it’s just a stopwatch. Although it’s sharing space, and a crown stem, with the other components that keeps time, they basically don’t rely on one another in any important way. They have their own escapements and power reserves, for instance.
Because they do share a crown stem but not mainsprings, you get some more fascinating weirdness. Setting an El Primero has always been a unique experience given Zenith’s idiosyncrasies, a tradition they’re keeping alive here. Although an automatic watch, as far as I can tell the rotor can only wind the timekeeping half of the movement. However, manual winding the watch in one direction winds the timekeeping part of the watch while turning it in the other direction winds the chronograph. As if that weren’t unique enough, the prototypes we had actually hacked! Curiously, the Zenith rep said that the production models would have hacking removed. We’ll have to see if that’s true, but that’s a strong commitment to weirdness to actually create and manufacture a hacking function and then to remove it after the expensive R&D part was over.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about my impressions of how the watches looked. Initially, the Defy El Primero 21 was a bit divisive, due to a distinct “Hublotness” to its case, but quite oddly for me, no fan of Hublot, I liked it from day 1. To me, the case, or at least the bezel, is almost more of a rounded Patek Nautilus, lacking screws in the bezel, but with a brushed top surface, a finely beveled and polished slope, and the rest of the top part of the case brushed. It’s subtler than a Big Bang, or at least, the case is. The Defy’s case is very bold and strong, but it isn’t especially in your face. It looks and feels extremely well made. The unusual shape of the case has precedent in the brand’s history. Fans usually call this the “vintage” case, I suppose thanks to Zenith reissuing it in a model called the “New Vintage” for the El Primero’s 40th anniversary.
Having the watch on my wrist in real life didn’t change my feeling about how it looks; I liked it in photos and I liked it in person.
Sadly, the model I really wanted to see, the much more subdued non-skeletonized model, wasn’t available, so that’ll have to wait. I think the skeletonization, although perhaps not for me, was a smart choice for Zenith, because they really want to showcase this crazy new movement, and because you can actually see the separate balance wheels from the front of the watch, it really makes a statement. That said, I do expect to like the more conventional dial more.
There is so much more to talk about these watches, but I’ll get to that down the road in the review. Also, please remember that these are just prototypes, so some things may change.