Defying the Odds
Ever since CEO Julien Tornare joined Zenith last year, he has orchestrated its revival with a series of bold moves. He shares his long-term plans for the brand with
The story of the el primero blueprints being saved by a plucky Zenith employee instructed to destroy them is legendary— and for many, this is perhaps the only collection they associate with the Swiss watchmaker. No longer. Under the aegis of the LVMH Group, mentorship of industry titan Jean-claude Biver, and the strong leadership of current CEO Julien Tornare, Zenith is undergoing currents of change, and swiftly expanding its repertoire of timepieces and innovations to meet the demands of the modern customer. This comes in the form of the Defy collection, a sporty range of timepieces made for both work and play. With it came the Defy Lab, an indication that Zenith possesses both the design chops and the technical innovation. Essentially, the Defy Lab features the calibre ZO 342, with a completely redesigned regulating organ that does away with the conventional balance spring. Only 10 pieces were made and they sold out instantly. For next year, we can expect the system to be fitted in a more commercial guise. The success of the Defy Lab is indicative of the healthy appetites of watch collectors for timepieces that defy the norm—and this is exactly what Tornare wants to offer the Zenith clientele. When he joined the company a year ago, he says that his first order of business was to put the customer back at the centre of everything it does. He says, “Sometimes we forget to ask the question: is this really what the client is looking for? Is it really right for the client? I told my team that whenever we do something or make a decision, I’d like everyone in the company to take a second and ask ourselves if this is right? Is this really what the client wants?” Tornare tells us what exactly the client wants, and sets the record straight about that controversial partnership with personalisation specialists Bamford Watch Department.
What does the client want from Zenith?
What clients really want is authenticity; they want to know what they are buying. In today’s world, everything has become so transparent, and people hate to be cheated. And to be honest, the watchmaking industry hasn’t always been fully transparent. For instance, why don’t you use a transparent caseback? Because sometimes you don’t want to show the movement. So, we want to be fully transparent, and we want to show our clients why they’re paying such a price.
How do you intend to change the perception of the customer?
I don’t want to repeat the past, but I want to start from the past and be inspired by it. I’m not launching a new brand. We are proud and happy to have 153 years of history. The only way to honour our predecessors and founders is to start from the history and build something new, not to repeat it. Let’s not forget that when these guys made complications more than 150 years ago, it was with their hands and basic tools, without any computer assistance. So if you make those complications today in the same way, you are almost disrespecting them because it’s much easier today. I want to continue to create and innovate, but always respecting our past, our DNA and where we came from. And all this for the right price, meaning value for money. I think if you want to be innovative, you have to be a 360-degree innovative company. It’s not only about the products, but also the processes and the way you work. I want to implement a start-up spirit in a company that’s 153 years old. Now I’m pushing some people to work from home because I think that’s part of today’s world. Recently, we created a game room in the company. In start-ups, this is nothing special. All the companies in Silicon Valley have it, but in the watchmaking industry, I bet we’re the only one. Imagine this in the traditional world in the Swiss mountains— it’s totally crazy. But I’m working on ways to be more innovative.
What does this start-up spirit mean for the end customer?
For the end customer, it’s clear when they buy a watch, they should feel the innovation within the product, maybe in terms of design or technicalities. This is also quite new, but every single person acquiring a Zenith watch at any price and entry point will be invited to visit the manufacture. My idea is to get them very close to us and understand who we are. Right now, we’re working on an app, because I want to be in direct contact with the salespeople in our 500 outlets. And through push notifications, I’ll be able to send them messages like “Hi everyone, have a good day. I hope you sell a lot of our watches!” or “I’m very happy to give you a preview of this product”. I will try to have a few hours per month where we can do video calls and they can ask me any questions they want, so we can have a direct relationship. It’s in line with today’s world and it gives me a proximity that I cannot have simply from travelling.
Your partnership with Bamford Watch Department last year raised a lot of eyebrows. How is it going?
It’s been fantastic and I’m so glad. When [Bamford Watch Department founder] George Bamford first approached us, I was a bit sceptical. I was a bit too Swiss maybe, and too conservative. “No, no, how can someone touch our watches and change our watches?” I thought. But I was being a bit blind to today’s world. Brands that tell you that customisation is not in the air are just lying to themselves; it’s right here, people want to customise. So you have two ways: one, you do it by yourself as a brand, and then two, you have a company like Bamford, who used to do it without validation. When I got to know George, I made a deal with him and signed a contract that he needs my validation for every single watch he’s creating, meaning I have more control. He has such a good client base that’re looking for special models that we wouldn’t have at Zenith. It’s a win-win situation. Why would I say no? And on top of that, I’m being very innovative because I’m the first one to do it. What’s the risk? Nothing. Now, I’m good friends with George, and we talk every week.
POP THE BUBBLY With its openworked dial and titanium case, the 41mm Zenith Defy Classic feels light on the wrist
TOP HONCHO Zenith CEO Julien Tornare brings with him a wealth of experience as he has been in the horological industry for the past 18 years