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Review: Zenith Defy Skyline

The first half of the 2000s were filled with hope and optimism. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, 1,000s of songs on a single iPod, the personal transport revolution that was the micro scooter—but then into the second half, it all went wrong. No, I’m not talking about the financial crash. Worse. This is when Zenith released the Defy, the most hated watch ever made. And they’ve brought it back.


The Defy name has actually been part of Zenith’s collection since 1969, created in defiance of the quartz invasion from the East. Fat lot of good that did for them. Just six years after the announcement of the movement that would usher Zenith into a new era, the El Primero automatic chronograph, the brand was being dismantled. The quirky, charming looks of the Defy resisted the waves of change with all the might of a wet paper towel.

It was an odd-looking watch for sure, blending case and lug beneath a multifaceted bezel in a style that was soon to define the revival of luxury watches into the 1970s. It was ahead of its time, three years in advance of watches like the mighty Audemars Piguet and seven years on the Patek Philippe Nautilus.

The resuscitation of the Zenith name following the shutdown was not easy. First, a revenue stream was generated by the fortunate preservation of the El Primero plans and tooling by Zenith employee Charles Vermot. There’s a reason many chronographs of the early 90s used an El Primero movement—including the revamped Rolex Daytona—and that’s because Zenith had the capability on tap, thanks entirely to Vermot.

But the 90s were hard for Zenith and its first party products. There was momentum building in this watch collection renaissance, but for brands like Rolex and Patek Philippe, and not Zenith. New blood was needed to find a path for Zenith that would give it a prominent identity, and in 2001, Thiery Nataf was appointed CEO.

The Defy Xtreme was Nataf’s vision for the future. I’ve chosen not to show that watch for you here since they may well be children present. In Nataf’s defence, this was an era when Panerai, Hublot and U-Boat were drawing a lot of attention, collectors swinging hard from one extreme—the small, subtle watches of the 90s where an open heart tourbillon would have been considered vulgar—to the complete other.

Nataf was summarily dismissed in 2009 after sales plunged by over 41%. It would be ridiculous to suggest this monstrosity of a watch caused the financial recession, but, hey, there’s no smoke without fire. Its mere existence was enough to lose all hope in humanity and the institution.

So it was a brave move from Zenith in 2017 to bring the name back again with the Defy Lab, a very expensive limited run watch that featured a 0.5mm single element oscillator in silicon which was said to be the most accurate mechanical watch in the world. Unfortunately, it didn’t work very well and so the follow-up series model the Defy Inventor had to be canned. But what stuck was the design, an evolution of that original Defy, to become part of the permanent collection. Could this new watch finally put the Defy name to the test and change Zenith’s fortunes?


The first in the new series of the Defy, the Defy Classic, first emerged in 2018, and was joined by the skeleton version shortly after. This edition here is the limited run Night Surfer, a collaboration piece with Time + Tide that brings the addition of the dial gradient and matte titanium. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that the Defy Classic did good things for Zenith, capturing the essence of the integrated craze with a genuine bloodline to that style that existed, indeed, before the Royal Oak.

The 41mm case housed a Zenith Elite calibre, sealed to 100m and running for 50 hours. In non-skeletonised form it was understated and refined, and can still be found for £5,500 new, which actually, with prices having slowly crept up, feels like pretty reasonable value. The skeletonised version gains an open dial with spokes fashioned into the Zenith star logo, revealing the also skeletonised date wheel and the operational innards of the Elite calibre.

The Elite was designed as a competitor to ETA’s popular 2892 in 1991, attempting to continue the business-to-business success of the El Primero. It was the first movement designed by Zenith on computers, a practice that is now commonplace and in fact virtually obligatory today.

The Elite has been a bit of a punching bag internally for Zenith, with 2009 CEO Jean-Frédéric Dufour switching it out in cheaper models for Sellita units, a decision that was swiftly reversed by Dufour’s replacement, Aldo Magada, when Dufour moved to helm Rolex in 2014.

That’s why the introduction of the Defy Skyline is more than just a midlife refresh for the 2022 Skyline. It may well seem like the day one update to a semi-broken game or the perpetual tweaking of a designer that can’t help but noodle, but as it happens, this isn’t just a superficial tweak. The entire foundation of the watch has been changed with the switch from the Elite to the famed El Primero. “But wait, you horological hero,” I hear you cry, “isn’t the El Primero a chronograph movement, and this Defy Skyline isn’t a chronograph?”

You’re right. The chrono-gubbins has been ditched, and what’s left is a three-hander with sub-seconds and a date. For the standard Skyline the sub-dial is at nine, like the El Primero in chronograph form, but for the Skeleton it’s slipped around the six and the date has been lost completely. This is not an insignificant difference in design and production between the two calibres, and one Dufour definitely wouldn’t have allowed.

What the two Skylines do share with each other, and indeed the El Primero, is the high-beat, 36,000vph escapement. To show it off, the sub-seconds dial is actually a tenth of a second dial, going around once every ten seconds in a flurry of motion. It’s a nice touch that makes the inclusion of the El Primero more than just a scoop of member berries.

Compare both Defys and it’s instantly obvious there’s been more than just an engine swap. The five-pointed star skeleton dial is now a cross, and the effort of opening the dial feels like it was much more worth the effort. This new Night Surfer Time + Tide edition retains the gradient blue and matte titanium from the first Night Surfer, but you can also see more blue elements inside, plus there’s a better view of the silicon escapement.

The still-41mm case and bracelet too feature more refined details like bevelled edging and a multi-faceted bezel like the original Defy. Speaking of which, 2022 also saw the release of the Defy Revival, a like-for-like reedition of the original 1969 Defy. For the Skyline however, it’s very much a modern approach to the Defy name, and even though the crown looks perhaps a touch like a nuclear reactor core, the watch as a whole feels like a justified update on the Defy Classic. The Defy Skyline starts at £7,900, with the skeleton available from £9,700. The Defy Skyline Night Surfer is limited to just 200 pieces and is available for £10,600.

It’s been a bumpy road for Zenith and the Defy, but it feels like we’re finally at a place where it’s all starting to make sense. Okay, so the original message of defiance from the 1969 watch may have been lost to a more corporate, “I’m here too!” play, but doesn’t stop the actual watch from being a well-built, attractive, homologically significant addition to the Zenith line-up, and it looks like the updated Skyline only goes to move things in the right direction. What do you think? Is Defy Skyline enough to make the difference? Or is it too little too late?

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