Much has been made of Zenith’s rebirth. The dark days that spawned collections like the leaden-footed, garish Defy might seem distant all of a sudden, but let’s not forget it’s only three years on June 1 since the brand overhaul commandeered by the driven-but-likeable Jean-Frédéric Dufour began.As it was officially embargoed until March, it required some serious biting of fingernails not to shout from the rooftops about the brand’s new releases, particularly the Zenith pilot’s replica watches. Until Jaeger-LeCoultre announced the Deep Sea Chronograph a week before, the Pilot Big Date Special was unchallenged, in my opinion, as this year’s best-looking chronograph.
I was in Geneva in January and met with Dufour to get a sneak peak at this year’s Zenith collection, the latest installment of the story.
But the talking point of the new offerings has been the Rose Gold Zenith Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 replica watch, one of the bravest bits of watch design I’ve seen in years.
On the wrist, it’s palpably big. The first thing that strikes you as you put it on is the thickness of the strap and the size of the buckle – momentarily, it’s like you’ve just been zapped by Rick Moranis and you’re a mite among giants. Once attached, the lighter titanium version still has the feeling it might dislocate your shoulder, largely because of the heaviness of the 50 mm movement, and in rose gold it’s heavier still. Both take issue with your cuff.
As is common to pilot’s watches, particularly if they’re this big, the dial is beautifully clear and legible, and I imagine it would be in the dark too – the elegant Arabic numerals are entirely coated with Super-LumiNova. The onion-style crown is in proportion with the overall scale of the watch as is the plaque bolted on to the side of case indicating the serial number. Both the dial side and case back are protected by glareproofed sapphire crystal.
And, boy, does it have presence. It’s not quite the horological equivalent of driving to work in a monster truck and parking it in spaces reserved for the president and the chairman, but it’s close.
Let’s be clear here: at 57.5mm, the technical fake Zenith Type 20 watch is never going to win awards for everyday practicality and it will look patently silly on many wrists, simply because of its size. And for that, it has come in for a little criticism.
But that misses the point. This is a collector’s piece for the consumer who knows and loves Zenith’s history and wants to invest in it. The watch was never intended as anything else.
Limited to 250 pieces in titanium and a further 75 in 18-karat rose gold, it houses Zenith’s Caliber 5011, a pocket watch movement used by Zenith with considerable success in the 1960s. Zenith enthusiasts revere this movement – in 1967, the Neuchâtel Observatory recorded it as the most accurate chronometer it had ever tested and it has a special place in the brand’s history.
Caliber 5011 vibrates at 18,000 vph, or five times a second, and is particularly accurate thanks to its vast balance wheel, which measures 14 mm in diameter. In a traditionally-sized watch movement, a balance of this size would drain the power reserve, but with its similarly Brobdingnagian barrel, the brand claims the Type 20 will still crank out 48 hours of power from a full charge, as indicated by red hand on the subdial at 3 o’clock.
Putting Zenith back where it belongs
When I saw him last, just a few weeks ago, he said, not unreasonably, “Without Zenith, the watch industry would not exist as it does today.” He was referring, of course, to brand founder Georges Favre-Jacot’s pioneering decision to bring all the watchmaking processes under one roof – or, as we call it today, vertical integration.
More than anything, the Type 20 typifies Dufour’s determination to recapture and reestablish the essence of Zenith. Not just its watchmaking credentials, but the historical significance of the brand too.
Louis Blériot wore a Zenith when he became the first man to fly across the English Channel in 1909, as did Léon Morane as he broke the 100-kph barrier in a plane a year later. The original Type 20 was used on the instrument panels of many planes in the late 1930s and 1940s, most saliently by the French Army in the Caudron Simoun C.635 models its pilots were trained in. This is a proud heritage – and it matters to Dufour
The Type 20 is a big watch that brings a little slice of Zenith’s illustrious history back to the fore, a none-too-subtle reminder that the brand belongs up there with the best of the bona fide watch houses. As it goes, it’s pretty effective. Kudos, again, to Dufour. And kudos to Zenith.