Jean-Claude Biver on Zenith’s New Chronograph Movement

RB: Zenith made a name for itself with its own in-house movements, but also with the high precision of those movements. The manufacture has won over 1,500 chronometer competitions in the past. Will you be looking at this topic again?

JCB: Yes. Chronometry is part of our strategy.

Certified chronometer: Zenith Academy Georges Favre-Jacot in titanium (69,900 euros), constant force with fusée and chain mechanism

RB: Are you planning to have additional movements certified at COSC?
JCB: Yes. I’m also playing around with the idea of having watches undergo additional certification by the Besançon Observatory.

RB: But the topic of precision is not very sexy.
JCB: No, but it is part of our DNA and nevertheless it is proof of high quality. Even though we stand for “accessible tradition,” we strive for the highest level of quality. One can only justify an affordable price when the quality is right. And a chronometer certificate is an excellent way to provide proof of quality.

RB: Does “highest quality” concern the movement, primarily?
JCB: This concerns the movement primarily but of course not exclusively. And one should never forget that the real quality of a watch is found in the parts you can’t see!

RB: To what extent does this also concern the refinement of the movement? What level do you want to reach there?
JCB: I’m not looking to start a revolution. The El Primero has been the measure of all things for us since 1969. But this doesn’t mean that we won’t introduce special, exclusive pieces in our Academy watches, which will be refined individually to an even greater extent. I want two levels, like the automotive industry: Mercedes mostly sells six- and eight-cylinder cars, but they offer a twelve-cylinder model, too.

“The El Primero is and remains the measure of all things for us.”

RB: Doesn’t Zenith also need a proper sports watch?
JCB: Yes, I think so. People’s lives are moving more and more in the direction of sports and leisure. We have the Pilot collection, which includes pilot’s watches, instrument watches – but for me those are not 100% sports watches. A true sport watch, one that can be used for sports and recreation, will be well integrated into the 2019/20 collection.

RB: Are you considering a dive watch?
JCB: I haven’t explored this fully as of yet. We are chronograph specialists, first and foremost, and a dive watch with a chronograph makes little sense. Besides, a dive watch is made for a very specific, narrowly defined sport. What is more likely for us is a sporty luxury watch à la Royal Oak, Nautilus, or Classic Fusion from Hublot — a sports watch that you can also wear with a suit. But if we should see that we need a sport watch it won’t be introduced next year, but probably the year after that.

RB: Zenith is known above all for its famous automatic chronograph movement, the El Primero, first introduced in 1969. And now you’re introducing a new chronograph caliber.
JCB: The El Primero from 1969 is very justifiably well known and highly esteemed. It is a beautiful and fascinating movement, because all the chronograph functions can be seen through the [watch’s] crystal caseback. And it is very reliable. We have absolutely no problems with it. An additional advantage is its small diameter, because the tendency now is for watches to become a bit smaller again. Nevertheless we want to show that we can also make an El Primero for the 21st century. So now we’re introducing the El Primero 21. This is a chronograph movement that can time events precisely to the 1/100th of a second.

RB: What does the design look like?
JCB: It has two escapement mechanisms and therefore two balance wheels – one with the classical, Zenith-typical 36,000 vph for the time, and the other one operating at 360,000 vph for the chronograph. A special, in-house case is also planned that will be distinguishable within the collection from the standard El Primero. The collection will be called “Defy.”

The Zenith manufacturing facility in Le Locle

RB: “Defy” is a name with tradition at Zenith.
JCB: Defy is a challenge — because we are setting up a number of tasks for ourselves. In addition to the measurement of 1/100 seconds, it will have extremely high anti-magnetic protection and high temperature resistance. The movement is designed to function well in extremely cold temperatures as well as heat up to 50 °C without any major effect on the rate.

RB: How high will the anti-magnetic protection be?
JCB: Our goal is to have the movement be practically resistant to magnetization. We are using materials like silicon, a nanotube hairspring made of carbon, and other innovative materials. I won’t say that we will reach all these goals, but that’s the challenge. We are working on them.

RB: When will this movement hit the market?
JCB: I’m hoping sometime in late 2017.

RB: How many pieces will you produce each year?
JCB: Between 2,000 to 3,000.

RB: So this caliber is intended to show what Zenith is capable of.
JCB: Yes, that too. At Zenith we prefer to invest in R&D and in our manufacture rather than spending money for expensive brand ambassadors. In our case the product has to speak for itself. But back to the chronograph movement. With the El Primero — which measures tenths of a second — we have the chronograph for the 20th century. And the El Primero 21 — which measures hundredths of a second — is the chronograph for the 21st century.

RB: What will this watch cost?
JCB: I don’t know exactly. Probably around 11,000 euros. Here, too, the price is intended to be lower than what one would expect for this kind of watch.

RB: Several years ago Guy Sémon, General Director at TAG Heuer, developed a chronograph for TAG Heuer with 1/100th second timing capabilities. Was he involved in the new Zenith movement?
JCB: Yes. I also brought together several different engineers and designers from Zenith, TAG Heuer, and Hublot to form a kind of task force. We had the best people from our brands on the team.

Guy Sémon and Jean-Claude Biver

RB: What did your briefing look like?
JCB: I wanted a combination of the 20th and 21st centuries. That’s how the idea came about — to take the El Primero, with its 36,000 vibrations, as the basis, and then switch to 360,000 once the chronograph is engaged. Between June and November there were regular meetings between Guy Sémon and engineers from Zenith and designers. Christoph Behling, the head of design at TAG Heuer, was also on board. Work has been carried out on the movement at Zenith since December. This has been the first time within my division that we’ve used synergies from our different areas of expertise. One day, when everything has evolved, Zenith will eventually need fewer synergies, but I will always want to use these phenomenal and great synergies from our Watch Division.

RB: You’ve revitalized the TAG Heuer brand so that it appeals to younger people now. Will this be a necessary step for Zenith too?
JCB: Yes. Every brand needs to be revitalized from time to time and needs to connect to the future. But it’s at a different level at Zenith than at TAG Heuer. The design of the new chronograph with the El Primero 21 has to appeal to younger people who don’t even know about Zenith.

(Interview by Rüdiger Bucher)





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  1. Reg Brobson.

    It is a nice watch. I have had an El Primero Defy for about 22 years. But much prefer an El Primero 410 Complete Calendar Moonphase to the new watch. Do not know if will ever buy one now as am in my 86th year.

  2. Donald Patrick McLeod Hawkins

    Fascinating interview but what a man with such incredible vision within his field!

  3. Albert Kotzé

    You can create the best movement in the industry but if you make an aesthetically unpleashing watch your sales will suffer. Zenith has made a good number of bummers over the years. An instance is those monstrosities that are sold as pilot’s watches. If you make smaller watches with the el Primero movement, please keep the sub dials separate. As a fan I hope you get it right soon.

  4. Jeff Smith

    I love watches…especially unique timepieces…could you please answer one or more question (s), why is this exquisite timepiece worth more than a years some economies? And, what is the materiel and labour cost to produce it….? Finally, Swiss watch sales are depressed at the moment…reported to be as much as 50%…Why does this watch cost so much? Take care and thanks…Regards,

  5. Andrew Hughes

    Great interview. I am pulling for this brand and the magic JCB can do. One question…. does the man ever sleep?


    Post-Scriptum: This is one of the best interviews I ever read.


    This excellent interview shows two things: Jean-Claude Biver is in fact a genious and also an enfant terrible in the world watch industry. First, he doesn´t run away from the questions. Secondly, he has a clear business plan in his mind to make a company profitable due to his vast experience in the watch industry since when he bought Hublot and Blancpain many years ago. Thirdly, he is not afraid to break traditions.

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