Zenith CEO Julien Tornare on walking the tightrope between the past, present and future

"Icons are timepieces that left a certain imprint on their eras and people remember them for it."

Tornare: A mechanical watch could live indefinitely as long as its maker commits to repairs and restoration (All photos: Zenith)

Novelties season typically marks a new chapter of watchmaking innovation. Like its peers, Zenith is driving forward with spectacular launches but the brand is also keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror through its celebration of iconic heritage designs.

New this year are upgrades to collections such as the Chronomaster Sport, now with a revolutionised El Primero 3600 calibre and an ultra-readable S1/10th of a second scale etched onto the black ceramic bezel. The rugged all-terrain Defy Extreme too is supercharged with a larger 45mm case, sharper lines, reinforced components to better protect the pushers and an impressive water-resistance of 200m, rarely, if ever, seen in a chronograph with an exhibition caseback. 

Both robust timepieces are around the wrists of Zenith CEO Julien Tornare when he calls in from Switzerland to discuss the 2021 releases. “We’re all a bit tired of Zoomland, there has been too much screen time this past year,” he confesses with a laugh. “We have a high-tech set-up that allows us to communicate and show our products efficiently but, of course, nothing compares to being able to see these watches in person. That said, the buzz surrounding our novelties is still going strong and I’m very happy about this.”

He has every right to be. Some successes must have been anticipated, such as the rave reviews of the Chronomaster Sport and the surprising Velcro straps of the Defy Extreme in matte titanium, two-toned titanium and rose gold, or titanium with blue detailing. Others surely exceeded expectations, including a collaboration with contemporary artist Felipe Pantone. The 100-piece limited-edition Defy 21 Felipe Pantone featured a rainbow of solid and gradient PVD (physical vapour deposition) accents and was sold out within 24 hours. 


Defy Extreme in gold

“The Chronomaster Sport is a very dynamic timepiece with a lot of character that is still ultimately very wearable,” he says. “We didn’t want a concept watch nobody can wear because it is too big or outrageous — these days you see watches coming in at 47mm or 48mm, it’s crazy. So you have this and the Felipe Pantone alongside things like our incredible Defy 21 Spectrum collection, comprising five precious stone-studded models that take on the varying frequencies of visible light as seen in their different colours.”

Having established that innovation is rife at the watchmaking house, Tornare juxtaposes today’s novelties with epochal timepieces from the brand’s archives. The Zenith Icons is a curated collection of highly coveted vintage or historically important Zenith references that are sourced, restored and certified by the manufacture in Le Locle for exclusive sale at Zenith boutiques.

“The Zenith Icons is one of my favourite subjects,” enthuses the CEO. “You know, of course, that Zenith has a 156-year-old legacy. Our long history is one rich in authenticity, and that word is not just a marketing gimmick; it is very much real. Every single watch we produce has a Zenith movement. How many brands can say that? We will, of course, continue to innovate and introduce watches that are contemporary, but Zenith Icons is a chance to pay tribute to watches produced in the 1960s and 1970s that became icons.”

Reviving these timepieces not only resurrects a piece of history dear to the brand and its fans, but also feeds into a global movement of sustainability while validating the efficacy and relevance of mechanical watchmaking in this particular aspect. Unlike connected watches that are designed for shorter lifespans — “You won’t see us going down this road because that’s not who we are,” says Tornare — mechanical timepieces could theoretically last forever.


The sporty-chic Chronomaster Sport

“As long as you have a watchmaker who’s able to oil and regulate the watch, it should work,” explains the brand captain. “This means any watch produced by Zenith could live forever. You cannot say the same of your cell phone or television. The minute you buy your mobile phone, you know it’s already obsolete because the manufactures are working several models ahead.

"We have become such a high-consumption society where technologies are quickly changed and upgraded. A mechanical watch is different, it could live indefinitely as long as their makers commit to repairing and restoring and looking after them, which few do. This might change, as the world today cares about sustainability and circular economies — you buy second-hand, you buy used, and you don’t throw things away unnecessarily anymore.”

Demand certainly is rising for vintage timepieces, and not just because younger generations find the aesthetics appealing. There is something beautiful about watches that lived full lives before they came into ours, and knowing they will continue to find homes on new wrists long after we are gone.

“Another advantage to showcasing these restored historical pieces in our boutiques is that it allows people to see how entire collections have evolved and they can better understand who we are and what we do,” says Tornare. “This is a very important initiative for us.”

That said, it is not the team at Zenith who decides what constitutes an icon, but the clients and market demand that dictate which models make the cut.

“Icons are timepieces that left a certain imprint on their eras and people remember them for it,” he continues. “We can see some contemporary pieces that will enjoy such a reception in later years and become icons, just from the response they are receiving today. The only judge here is the client and as brands, we need to remember that, that it is the clients who ultimately decide what lives on.”


A restored Zenith Icons timepiece

While the programme is groomed to gain momentum over time, the work on creating the icons of tomorrow continues. Product development is a very personal exercise for the decision-makers at the company, who require a full defence on how proposed new collections add not just to brand value, but also brand storytelling.

“There is always a discussion between the product development team and a few of us to justify why a particular watch deserves to be made, its meaning and purpose,” he shares. “Of course, we are a business and want to sell watches, but I would never approve a watch purely for commercial reasons. Zenith is 156 years old and it is our job to ensure it’s here for another 156 years. To build a brand that endures for centuries, you need it to be true to what it is. Zenith is about precision, chronometry and innovation, so our priority is to perpetuate that culture and we do that with every single timepiece.”

Carrying such a legacy on one’s shoulders is an epic responsibility, one Tornare clearly takes seriously as he navigates his role as chief. Much forethought is necessary, and he is careful to cultivate this as a reflexive practice in considering any move the company makes.

“The pandemic was an unexpected crisis we had to manage, and I planned for a soft landing at the end of 2020 and a rebound in the following years,” he says. “I am convinced a rebound will happen, like the les années folles, or the crazy years, that succeeded The Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. This meant making some hard choices, like holding back releasing novelties such as the Chronomaster Sport last year, but that was perhaps one of the best decisions I made in hindsight. We focused on bolstering the company and preparing for the rebound to come. And it will come.”

This article first appeared on May 3, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.


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