03/17/2022
 5 minutes

The Zenith DEFY Skyline: How much El Primero is inside this new watch?

By Tim Breining
Zenith-Defy-Skyline-2-1

Stainless steel sports watches with integrated bracelets as far as the eye can see: Zenith is throwing its hat into this ring with the DEFY Skyline. What at first glance looks like yet another Royal Oak homage, upon closer inspection reveals itself to be a distinctive timepiece, both technically and historically. But is that enough to make a mark in a price category that sees the introduction of new watch on what feels like a weekly basis? Or is the Zenith DEFY Skyline going to end up jammed somewhere between the Tissot PRX and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak? Let’s take a closer look at Zenith’s new timepiece, and figure out just how much El Primero can be found in the Skyline. We’ll also look at where the DEFY name come from. 

What’s behind the “Defy” in the Zenith DEFY Skyline?

There’s a clear difference between Zenith DEFYs from back in the day and the current model. Anyone who hears “Zenith DEFY” and has any experience with the brand will think first and foremost of the 50-Hz chronographs whose two balance wheels with separate escapements achieve a modern power reserve, together with the ability to precisely measure intervals down to one hundredth of a second. The El Primero 21 movement powering these watches, however, is technically-speaking not an actual El Primero. Instead, the movement is based on the TAG Heuer Mikrograph, a caliber that has been off the market for quite some time, but as property of the LVMH group is being used in watches again. 

When you hear the word “Defy,” you might also think of the Defy Lab from 2017, which presented a revolutionary new oscillator system that did away with a balance wheel and spring to make room for a one-piece silicon oscillator that delivered impressive performance. 2019 saw the introduction of the Zenith DEFY Inventor, which featured this technology. So, although these watches carry the El Primero name, they don’t house the movement you might expect. 

The Zenith DEFY Classic: a unique watch in its own right, not just another Royal Oak homage
The Zenith DEFY Classic: a unique watch in its own right, not just another Royal Oak homage

The Groundbreaking Achievement of the Original DEFY

All of the DEFY models from recent times have virtually nothing to do with the DEFY Skyline. Anyone looking to return to the roots of the Skyline needs to go back over a half century ago to 1969. That’s the year Zenith introduced a watch so far ahead of its time that, looking back through the lens of today, it could very well be considered a watch capable of sharing the spotlight and lore of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.   

You heard that right: Zenith’s original DEFY A3642 was introduced a few years before the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. It featured design DNA that would later come to be primarily associated with the Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus. It was all there: the DEFY had a striking polygonal case, a steel bracelet, and a sporty look. Something the DEFY lacked, however, was an integrated bracelet tapering seamlessly into the watch case – a key characteristic of the Royal Oak and Nautilus. That’s not to say its so-called “ladder bracelet” was nothing special. The name says it all: The bracelet looked like a ladder with rungs, giving a glimpse of the wearer’s wrist between them. This unique look was created by Swiss jewelry manufacturer Gay Frères, renowned for their creative designs and collections. Gay Frères was bought by Rolex in 1998, which might explain why its vintage watch bracelets carry the prices they do. See for yourself here on Chrono24. 

The 1969 A3642 runs on a Zenith 2552PC, an automatic 3 Hz (21,600 vph) caliber. The DEFY A3642 Revival was a faithful re-release that preceded the DEFY Skyline. Along with its differences in design, the Revival also runs on a Zenith Elite 670 caliber, a thin, in-house automatic movement from the 1990s. This isn’t the case with the Skyline that we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at in just a moment. But first let’s talk a little about the history and importance of the Zenith El Primero.    

The Zenith A3642: an innovative design that stands out, even without an integrated stainless steel bracelet
The Zenith A3642: an innovative design that stands out, even without an integrated stainless steel bracelet

Zenith and the El Primero: A Quick Refresher

Zenith’s entire brand identity revolves around the El Primero, a caliber that is connected to the (near) downfall and renaissance of mechanical watches like no other. The basic architecture of this high-frequency caliber is found in a majority of the watchmaker’s models to this day. Diehard fans of the brand will know that the Zenith watchmaker Charles Vermot famously protected the El Primero’s future from those at the company who were planning to scrap the technical plans and tools required to make the movement. This was good for the company, and good for the future of automatic chronographs, because just about every other watchmaker who was striving to create a mechanical chronograph at the time has since faded into horological history. The El Primero was the sole survivor of this chapter of the quartz crisis, and was helped along in part by companies like Ebel, Daniel Roth, and not least of all Rolex, who used this technology in their watches. 

A modified El Primero (which among other things has a lower beat rate) replaced the Valjoux calibers found in the first Rolex Daytonas. Of course, Daytonas have now long been powered by in-house Rolex calibers. Zenith, however, has achieved a number of revolutionary developments with the El Primero.  

How much El Primero is in the DEFY Skyline?

So, how much of this rich heritage will you find in the Skyline? The short answer: everything inside the DEFY Skyline is El Primero. However, the El Primero 3600 chronograph caliber has considerably more components than you’ll find in the 3620 that powers the Zenith DEFY Skyline. Although you might expect the 3620 to be a upgrade of the 3600, it is in fact a three-handed, simpler form of the current El Primero chronograph. A number of time-keeping components have been removed, including a column wheel, clutch, snail cam, and counter, not to mention the respective chronograph subdials on the watch.  

A classic: the El Primero movement in the 1969 chronograph of the same name
A classic: the El Primero movement in the 1969 chronograph of the same name

Therefore, this isn’t a new 5 Hz (36,000 vph) movement that was constructed completely from scratch, but instead a derivative of the “real” El Primero. Its high beat rate powers the rather unusual and – what should we call it – questionable 10-second subdial located at 9 o’clock. Some will find this gimmick charming, while purists and fans of a more mechanical feather will be left shaking their heads. After all, a caliber that was originally created for a chronograph is not going to be able to optimally showcase its strength on a three-handed timepiece. Like the 3600 in Zenith chronographs, the 3620 Zenith DEFY Skyline has a 60-hour power reserve. You might expect that the high level of torque that a chronograph requires from its movement to maintain a stable amplitude level would equate to an even longer power reserve in a three-handed watch. This, however, would have required an extensive redesign of the movement, which is probably why Zenith decided to stick with the existing design.  

There’s no question that the Zenith DEFY Skyline is going to polarize watch enthusiasts. There will be those who don’t put watchmaking under the microscope, and will likely enjoy the unusual gimmick of its ten-second subdial. These folks will be perfectly happy with this timepiece. On the other hand, those focused on the details who value the construction of such an iconic caliber are probably going to be more than a bit put off. Thankfully, there are still the good-old, tried-and-true Zenith El Primero chronograph calibers out there for them to enjoy and marvel at. 


About the Author

Tim Breining

My interest in watches first emerged in 2014 while I was studying engineering in Karlsruhe, Germany. My initial curiosity quickly evolved into a full-blown passion. Since …

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