The 5 most underrated Zenith watchesBorna Bošnjak
Though it would be difficult to call Zenith underrated these days, considering the success of their Chronomaster Sport line and the accompanying waitlists, some models still enjoy an IYKYK status among collectors and enthusiasts. Whether that’s due to their low production numbers, ultra-complicated movements or vintage status, most of these do not align with the sporty chronographs and pilot’s watches that we so often associate with the brand.
The Zenith Defy Classic may not be an immediately obvious entrant on this list, especially since it’s been replaced by the Defy Skyline since its discontinuation in 2022. The Skyline, however, doesn’t quite capture the same essence of the Classic, opting instead for a decidedly angular, aggressive aesthetic and a more complex dial complete with a 9 o’clock running 1/10th of a second counter. Flying under the radar, even with the integrated bracelet craze going on, the Defy Classic’s refined aesthetic perfectly bridged the gap between Zenith’s dressy Elite collection and other, more sporty Defy models.
And of course, lest we forget, our own Night Surfer was part of the Defy Classic line-up, too.
Zenith Calibre 135
Next up is the watch that served as a big inspiration for this round-up in the first place. Though Zenith is certainly best-known for its El Primero automatic chronograph movement, the Calibre 135 is deserving of just as much praise, as it basically ruled the Neuchâtel chronometry trials in the 1950s. Produced in only about 11,000 examples, the movement is considered among the finest hand-wound calibres ever created. Its life began in 1945, at the behest of Zenith’s technical director Charles Ziegels and guidance of engineer Ephrem Jobin.
Its oversized balance with Breguet overcoil necessitated a re-design of the wheel train, where the centre wheel moved off-centre to accommodate it, with a large barrel for improved isochronism and power reserve.
For those who prefer something modern, Zenith hired a little-known, independent watchmaker by the name of Kari Voutilainen to create a dial for and dress up an even more special version of the movement – the 135-0. This line-up is of the actual movements used in the observatory trials, but while you can pick up a vintage cal. 135 for less than five figures, the Zenith x Voutilainen limited edition went for CHF 132,900. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Defy Fusée Tourbillon
The only currently available model in the Zenith catalogue, the Defy Fusée Tourbillon showcases just how competent of a watchmaker Zenith is. A tourbillon, though complex, is becoming more and more common in watches, and with that, also more affordable. The fusée-and-chain component of this Defy, however, is anything but. A power transmission method invented in the 15th century, it was invented as a way for the barrel to deliver a constant force across its entire reserve range, and it works something like this. As the mainspring unwinds, so does the chain, wrapping around the barrel and providing an increasingly greater turning force on the fusée, thus evening out the amplitude of the regulating organ. The high-beat El Primero 4805SK calibre is manually wound, and consists of 807 components, a mind-boggling 575 of which are reserved just for the heat-blued chain alone.
Academy Georges Favre-Jacot
A spiritual predecessor to the Defy is this, one of the crown jewels of the now-defunct Academy collection which sat at the top of Zenith’s line-up. Named after the brand’s founder and released in celebration of Zenith’s 150th anniversary, the Academy Georges Favre-Jacot also incorporated a fusée-and-chain mechanism as explained above, though packaged in a more traditional case when compared to the Defy. Cased in 46mm of titanium, it’s crazy, but not even the craziest model in the range – that honour probably belongs to the Academy Christophe Colomb Hurricane.
The Defy LAB is likely the most technology-forward piece Zenith has produced in recent years, and that’s thanks to the Zenith Oscillator, a single piece of monocrystalline silicon that vibrates at a staggering 15 Hz and replaces the balance wheel, spring and lever of a common escapement. It boasted stunning accuracy of within 0.3 seconds per day, doing so for most of the barrel’s reserve – all without needing lubrication. It was updated in 2019 with a sped up frequency of 18 Hz, a new name (Defy Inventor), and a promised production run in the hundreds as opposed to the very limited run of 10 for the original LAB. However, the Zenith Oscillator is currently not present in any of their offering, something I truly hope changes in the future.