Introducing Zenith’s latest Defy is the funky ’60s revival I’ve been waiting for

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The contemporary Zenith Defy collection, in its current form since 2017, looks like a watch that was designed to meet the trends of the 2020s. The connection between the bracelet and strap has an integrated aesthetic; the bezel profile and case design prioritize hard angles and flat surfaces, and the dials have a maximalist tendency toward skeletonization. Each Defy update since its official return five years ago has reflected the larger demand for daily-wear sport watches.

However, the Defy also has a rich history at Zenith, a past that’s been skipped over time and time again by today’s watch lovers. After Zenith’s significant investment in expanding the Defy and making it central to the brand’s vision for future growth, the Swiss company has decided to give one of the original 1969 Defy wristwatches the special “Revival” treatment. This comes after several successful Revival releases in the El Primero-powered Chronomaster series, and hopefully it’s a sign of even more heritage-focused watches to come from Zenith. The Zenith Defy Revival A3642, a limited edition of 250 watches, is priced at $7,000 and runs on the in-house Elite 670 caliber with central seconds.

The Defy can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century. That’s when Zenith founder Georges Favre-Jacot registered a trademark for and began production on a new series of pocket watches labeled with the French word défi – challenge, in English – on the dial.

At this point in the history of Swiss watchmaking, Zenith was one of the first brands to prioritize vertical integration and bring nearly all aspects of the watchmaking process under a single roof. Doing anything new is always a risk, of course, and Favre-Jacot is said to have faced considerable resistance from the old guard in Zenith’s hometown of Le Locle. But Favre-Jacot’s new way of working was quickly validated thanks to the high quality of the Défi pocket watches and the renown they achieved across Switzerland.

These early examples of the Défi solidified Zenith’s reputation as a producer of sturdy and accurate timepieces. Zenith continued production of the pocket watches until the late 1960s rolled around, when the Défi name was subsequently anglicized (Defy) and transitioned over to a new family of wristwatches whose angular cases resemble those used in today’s Defy collection.

It’s this period – 1969, the same year Zenith’s El Primero was released – that the original A3642 was revealed as one of the inaugural Defy wristwatches. These watches had a singular goal: to achieve a higher standard of durability than was typical of the Swiss watch industry at the time. It was achieved through a series of substantial technical improvements, including 300 meters of water resistance and the adoption of a tougher mineral crystal, which promised to be more scratch-resistant than plexiglass. Zenith was one of the first Swiss watch companies to make those upgrades.

“The Defy is linked to the definition of a modern person,” says Laurence Bodenmann, Heritage Manager for Zenith. “A modern person is always on the move. So this type of person would need an El Primero chronograph, to be precise and to measure time, and they would also need to have a watch that would defy the elements and be more waterproof. That’s Defy.”

Certain Defy watches went so far as to pioneer a higher level of resistance to magnetism; you can find those printed with the “Defy Gauss” label on the dial. What was standard on all of these early Defy examples, however, was a unique suspension system, in which the movement inside the watch was grounded by an elastic, shock-absorbing band to provide nearly unprecedented impact protection.

In Greg Selch’s Talking Watches – where he describes his vintage Defy as his “desert island watch” – he tells Cole a story of how Zenith employees would test the shock resistance of the first Defy prototypes by tossing them out of a second-story window at the Le Locle-based manufacturer and onto the concrete below (a process that would famously be repeated at G-Shock, 15 years or so later). When I asked Zenith about these early trials, I half-expected a much more boring story to emerge but that wasn’t the case – Zenith’s employees wanted to confirm that the suspension system would protect the movement from the impact generated by a two-story fall onto concrete.

“Zenith was well-known for precision at this time; they were the champion of many different chronometry competitions,” Bodenmann says. “Those chronometers were always framed in classic cases, in gold cases. They didn’t talk about the resistance of the watch at all. But the Defy was for the everyday person – male or female, the Defy existed for both – who just wanted to live with a watch on an everyday basis.”

For those keeping track at home, the 1969 debut of the Defy wristwatch also predates the development of the luxury sport watch genre by several years. While there are some aesthetic similarities between early Defy watches and the 1970s-era sport watch design that followed, led by the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Phillipe Nautilus, the Defy kept much more utilitarian ideals. It was simply a rugged watch built for the on-the-go individual.

The purity of that approach clearly resonated – Italian collectors assigned early Zenith Defy models the nickname of Il casaforte del temp, or “the safe of time,” and French folks began lovingly referring to it as the coffre-fort, which can be seen on the above vintage advertisement and translates directly to “bank vault” or “safe-deposit box” in English.

The new Defy Revival draws its inspiration from the ref. A3642, which was one of many early Defy examples to feature a unique, geometric design combining an octagonal steel case with a 14-sided bezel and a ladder bracelet sourced from Gay Freres. But the collection wasn’t small in scope or scale – the Defy quickly expanded in a major way to include dive watches (certain ones tested to 600 meters!) and a wide variety of other case and bracelet options.

“This was the time in the sixties when we were still doing pocket watches, so we had full legitimacy in this field, but we wanted to turn it into a wristwatch, of course,” says Bondemann. “We had all these sports watches that didn’t have a commercial name. The Defy enabled us to collect everything under a powerful name.”

The design language of the A3642 is extremely retro in its appeal, which is one of the reasons the team at Zenith selected it to bring back over another old-school Defy reference. Using the original 1960s production plans, Zenith was able to resurrect all the aesthetic elements that made the watch stand out.

The taupe dial has the same sort of fumé finish you’d find on an original example, transitioning from shades of grey in the center of the dial to a light brown hue on the periphery. The applied hour markers feature identical horizontal grooves, a design that the Zenith team in Switzerland has nicknamed “Toblerone,” for the visual similarity to the famous ridged Swiss chocolate bar. The hands even share the same sword shape as the original (but are filled with Super-LumiNova rather than tritium). Even the white date aperture finds a home in the same 4:30 position as the 1969 watch. Other than the caseback, the architecture of the external case is also basically identical – a 37mm three-piece design in polished stainless steel.

The only differences to note, really, include the use of sapphire crystal, the application of a display caseback instead of a solid back with the brand’s four-pointed star logo, and the modern Elite 670 caliber ticking inside rather than the original 2552PC/2562PC movements. The original shock absorption band is also gone, in favor of much-improved modern shock testing and impact resistance methods. Unfortunately, this does mean that I have to inform you that Zenith no longer drops any of its watches out of its windows.

What We Think

The original Defy A3642 is a very interesting watch, with an identity that’s entirely its own. I remember the first time I saw one in person – the 14-sided bezel and the octagonal, fully polished case had a beat-up look with plenty of scratches for me to run my fingers over. It had very clearly been worn, and it appeared to have lived a good life up to that point.

With my interest fully piqued by this oddball of a sport watch, I kept my eyes open for other vintage Defy examples out there. I was – and still am, really – shocked by the diversity of options available. There seem to have been countless dial color variations produced and a wide variety of case designs. That’s why I was hugely surprised that these watches weren’t already collector catnip. With all the variants to track and the available history out there, not to mention the true-blue value proposition a vintage example represents, watches like the original (and the Revival) Defy A3642 have so much to offer.

However, unlike the El Primero Revival series, which builds on the demand and strong performance at auction of vintage models such as the A386, A384, A3818, and others, we haven’t seen much of an uptick in demand/interest for vintage Defy. Consider this A3642 that was sold in the HODINKEE Shop a few years ago – we asked $900 for it, and valuations haven’t changed much since that watch was available.

Of course, when compared to the El Primero, it makes sense that there aren’t as many vintage Defy examples out there in pristine, unworn condition. These were watches built for everyday life, after all. And sure, there’s obviously much less sex appeal to the story of a tough – albeit funky – tool watch than Charles Vermot and his adventures in the attic with the El Primero. But it has always felt to me like vintage Defy examples have just been sitting around, waiting to blow up in popularity. The watches are simply too good not to achieve broader interest in time.

For all intents and purposes, the Defy Revival A3642 is an excellently executed and picture-perfect comeback of one of the most recognizable vintage Defy examples. It could prove the catalyst for broader interest in both the back catalog of the Defy collection and the impressive, tech-forward watches that make up the contemporary Defy line-up (like the Defy Extreme I recently went Hands-On with). I think it will be fascinating to watch what happens next for the Defy.

Because if things go well with the A3642, we could potentially see the floodgates open and more Defy Revival pieces come out of the woodwork. Just imagine a new variation of the Defy Plongeur dive watch – it would potentially be the first Zenith with an external rotating bezel in years!

Right now, the potential of the greater Defy collection appears endless. We just have to wait and see what comes next.

Source: www.hodinkee.com

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