The Star Of The Show
Few will have felt the pressure prior to this year’s Baselworld exhibition as much as Zenith CEO Jean Frederic Dufour; his first year as steward of the great brand has been rife with speculation concerning the direction in which he will lead the famous chronograph manufacturer. Dufour made no secret of his intentions to significantly reduce the brand’s collections in terms of diversity, citing an unmanageable number of different references as a primary factor, with the Defy collections contributing more than their fair share of the references in question. It was therefore unsurprising that in the build-up to this year’s exhibition, most expected the brand to unveil new additions to its Class and Chronomaster collections, those being the more classically styled, with focus being drawn away from the Defy collections that Thierry Nataf, Dufour’s predecessor, was certain would re-invigorate the brand.
What actually transpired was altogether more drastic. TimepieceReview was invited to discover the 2010 novelties during Baselworld and did so with high expectations: On first impression the most striking characteristic of many of Zenith’s 2010 novelties was the unfamiliar case design; many of these latest creations are not from any pre-existing collection, they are something very different. So different in fact that one may not recognise them as the work of Zenith at all, at least not the Zenith of recent years anyway. The next surprising discovering was the quantity of watches on display; surprising not simply because of the small number, as such a number of novelties is fairly standard for addition models, but surprising in light of the news that these novelties are largely intended not to complement existing models, but to replace them.
In addition to a significant down sizing, Zenith’s collections have also been subject to something of a re-shuffle resulting in several watch ‘families’ based on the type of movement, those being Academy (Haute Horlogerie), El Primero and Elite, with the Defy and Ladies collections being separate from the rule and the other collections.
The Novelties
  With the exception of the Defy Rainbow Flyback, a re-invention of the legendary sports watch, the most interesting novelties are based within the newly termed El Primero and Elite families. The El Primero Retrotimer is amongst the most unusual of the new designs, in particular the version with a carbon fibre dial and black PVD case. A monopusher flyback chronograph (the first of its kind using the El Primero), the Retrotimer brings to Zenith’s portfolio something not available from many of the brand’s competitors. In addition, the single chronograph register at the three o’clock position and the presence of only one pusher create a dynamic lack of symmetry both vertically and horizontally. Very interesting and made all the more appealing by what the brand promises to be a very competitive pricing policy.
  Another highly fascinating novelty for 2010 is the El Primero Striking 10th; an unusual, foudroyant-esque complication creates quite a spectacle as the central chronograph hand makes one revolution in ten seconds, stopping sharply at each 1/10th second mark. Incredibly practical, this complication highlights the individual pulsations of the El Primero movement, which famously beats at a frequency of 36,000 vph, allowing the measuring of time accurate to 1/10th second, superior to the industry standard of 1/8th second accuracy resulting from a frquency of 28,800 vibrations per hour. The low profile bezel of this claenly designed watch maximises dial size, so it wears much lager than its 42mm diameter. Available in steel and rose gold, the Striking 10th is certain to make an impact when it hits the market later this year.
  The highest profile new addition is without a doubt the El Primero Tourbillon, interesting in so far as it has been introduced within the El Primero family and not that of Academy, where the brand's other haute horlogerie creations can be found, perhaps an indication that it is intended as a more accessible masterpiece, a notion supported by the amazingly reasonable proposed list price. At 44mm the El Primero Tourbillon is a large watch and it certainly has the presence and feel of an expertly crafted timepiece, in fact the level of finishing is excellent throughout, easily comparable to Jaeger Le-Coultre's Master Tourbillon. Aesthetically the watch is pleasing but not perfect, the dial arrangement is excellent and the soft, warm tones of the rose gold variation work very well, set off by the radiant glow of the ruby visible through the dial aperture. The steel variation, understandably, has a
much colder, sleeker appearance, incorporating largely monochrome tones with red accents. Unfortunately, these red accents do not seem entirely appropriate and the watch would perhaps have been better off instead with clean, polished hands that would have continued the dark, mysterious personality of the watch. Aesthetic preferences aside, taking into consideration the high frequency escapement and 1/10th second chronograph as well as the highly unusual date function, that orbits the tourbillon carriage aperture, this is no ordinary tourbillon and as such makes a wonderful spearhead for the brand's new campaign and elevates one of the brand's 'standard' collections to new heights.
Other notable novelties withn the El Primero collection include; the Class Traveller Multicity Alarm, a highly complicated world timer incorporating an alarm function in addition to a 1/10th second chronograph (the brand's first to do so), the El Primero Rattrapante and the Captain, a classically styled El Primero with long baton hour markers and broad, flat pushers.
The other new primary family of watches, the 'Elite' collection (all housing the brands non chronograph movement, the Elite) is also home to some impressive novelties; the most important of which, is undoubtedly the Ultra Thin. At only 3.81mm in height, the Ultra Thin Calibre 681 is thinner than Jaeger Le-Coultre's automatic equivalent Calibre 896. Unlike the JLC, the finishing of Zenith's Calibre 681 is reserved and classically refined, more comparable to those of Girard-Perregaux or Patek Philippe, exhibiting clean lines and a subtle use movement decoration. A 40mm case diameter and a good selection of dial options create a serious new comer to the prestigeous ultra thin market, where Zenith's impressive creation will sit comfortably alongside those of JLC, Vacheron Constantin and Piaget.  
The Elite collection is now also home to the Captain Central Second, aesthetically similar to the El Primero model of the same name but featuring only time and date functions with a central seconds hands and the New Vintage 1965, a steel variation of the popular re-invention of a classic.
It is clear from Zenith's 2010 novelties that their plans for the future, at least in the short term, are based heavily on their successes of the past. The re-issuing of many 'vintage' models such as the Rainbow, 1965 and 1969 models suggests that while Dufour is certain that the brand's future is promising, he is less certain about the manner in which to progress towards a new, modern identity for Zenith. Unless of course, in light of Mr Nataf's efforts, Dufour has concluded that the best new identity for the brand is its old one; a brand based primarily on tradition and the capitalisation of previous achievements, an ethos that has worked well over the years for Patek and Rolex.
Overall, the novelties presented at this year's Baselworld by Zenith and in fact the re-birth of the brand in general, have been met with wide-spread acclaim. Of course, there is a minority that feel the strong presence of traditionalism within the collection represents yet another brand falling in the trap of un-inspired, non-progressive manufacture. However their argument is fundamentally flawed in so far as Zenith's outstanding reputation was not built on avant-garde design, but on technical achievement; all together more significant. And so, with the continuation of high-frequency tourbillons and complicated 1/10th second chronographs, Zenith perpetuates its mastery of technical watchmaking and with that, it's place among the industry's elite.
William Steed (Apr 2010)
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