Shaking Things Up
Zenith CEO Julien Tornare talks about living in the present
Within the Swiss watchmaking industry, it’s hard to see a major player without a history stretching back for at least a century. The burden of that kind of heritage, however, is the need to balance it against the challenge of being contemporary. This has been quite the challenge for Zenith.
But, things are looking up. Last year, a new CEO was appointed, and he has really shaken things up with new initiatives, new products and even the introduction of the “startup spirit” to what is essentially a traditional craft based in the pastoral mountains of Switzerland. That man is Julien Tornare and this is a glimpse into some of the ways that he is taking Zenith forward into the future with a firm hand on its glorious past.
DA MAN: Can you tell us about the market that Zenith is aiming for? Julien Tornare: When I met Mr. Biver [Jean-Claude Biver was at the time President of LVMH’s watch division], we agreed on a few things immediately: That Zenith was a beautiful brand, with a long history, a very serious manufacture. And that everybody likes Zenith, everybody wants Zenith to become stronger and stronger. But, Zenith was also covered a bit by, I would say, dust. It’s a little bit old-fashioned, sometimes a little bit boring. We needed to create energy. It’s fantastic to be 153 years old, but just because you are 153 years old you don’t need to dress like a grandmother. You still live in the 21st century and you still sell watches to people living today. So, the idea was: Let’s start from our history, let’s build from the history, but let’s be a contemporary, dynamic brand, living and working in the 21st century—which means being innovative, creative and changing the spirit of the brand.
That said, there are two other elements that I brought on. We want to remain very authentic. Today, too many brands—in my opinion—claim they are a manufacture but they don’t make their own movements. At Zenith, today, we can say that we use 100-percent in-house movements. It’s a very clear statement. And also the price. We believe that, following what I would call the Chinese boom for a decade and a half, many brands went crazy with their pricing.
DA : How would you describe Zenith’s current consumer demographic? JT: That’s always a very difficult question, because I’ve been traveling a lot during the last year and I met many of our clients, and it’s difficult for me to put all of them in the same box. But, I would say, they are people that are looking for something authentic. Usually they will ask
questions about the brand, they want to understand.
And it’s people of taste; it’s people who don’t want to look like the guy next door. They want to buy a beautiful watch that corresponds to their personality and one that they can talk about. This is why the Defy 21 is meeting so much success now. Visually, many complications are too complicated to explain. This one you press and you can see the spiral movement of the chronograph. It’s the fastest chronograph in the world today. People love to do it because you don’t need to say anything.
DA: You mentioned about changing the spirit of the brand. What, then is the DNA of Zenith?
JT: For me Zenith is about heritage and history. But it’s also about chronometry—we are known for chronographs—and precision. My objective is not to change this DNA. We have to build from that, we have to build from the history, but in a contemporary way. If you think about this year, we are launching a chronograph that measures 1/100th of a second. And you might also have heard about the Defy Lab with the oscillator which improves precision. So, we are being very innovative, very creative, but we stay in our field.
Many people ask me: “Are you going to make a connected watch?” I say, no. I really agree with Mr. Biver, we don’t do connected watches. The second thing they often as is: “Are you going to mix up the materials and so forth?” I said: “No, that is not Zenith.” We will never do art of fusion. My objective is to make sure we stay within our field and respect our past. But respecting our past doesn’t mean that we only repeat the past.
If we can manage to have heritage and history in a contemporary way, fully in-house and at the right price, then we have a very good position for the brand. That’s what we’ve been missing. I believe that today, the world goes so fast. Everything is changing so fast. Smartwatches are coming. I think it’s good; I don’t think it’s a threat. We’ve learned that from the quartz revolution: Quartz didn’t kill mechanical watches. I think it’s the same today. Smartwatches are not going to kill mechanical watches if we continue to create, because the young generation don’t want to have museum brands. They want to have something dynamic. DA: So, digital watches are not part of Zenith’s future. But how about digital retailing? JT: Of course, e-commerce is here. It’s part of today’s world. So, we have to. Now, we are not yet ready, but at some point, for sure, we will do e-commerce. I hope that within 18 months we can start a direct kind of e-commerce, but we have to do it very smartly.
I’ll tell you why: Today we use partners. We are already working with Mr. Porter, for example. In China we work with jd.com and Tmall. But we don’t want to be in direct competition with our brick-and-mortar stores. If we do e-commerce, I don’t expect huge volumes immediately, because it will take time. We could do, for example, a special edition available only online, limited quantity. It has to be as much of a business tool as it is a communication tool.
You know, when I came back to Switzerland, I had to buy a car. As you know we have partnership with Range Rover, so I said I’m going to buy a Range Rover. For that I went online. Now, the car industry is much more advanced in terms of online configurators. So, I did my car, click, click, click, I finish it, print it out and say: “Great, I have my car.” All I need to do is go to the car dealer and it will only take 20 minutes. I went there and spent two and a half hours.
“My objective is to make sure we stay within our field and respect our past. But respecting our past doesn’t mean that we only repeat the past”
Close-up of the Defy El Primero 21 in rose gold Opposite page The Defy Classic