Who is the most influential watch designer? I think this is a loaded question, as the only watch designer anyone knows of is Gerald Genta. There is no doubt that he created some beauties, as his Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Nautilus have been in continuous production and held up as the first watches that combined dress and sport.
As far as I know, the Royal Oak didn’t come out until 1972. Three years earlier, the Zenith Defy debuted. Overshadowed by the tour de force El Primero, the Defy was equally intriguing. A watch that was as shock and moisture resistant as it was beautiful in design and construction, the Zenith Defy beat the Genta designs to the market and deserves more attention from collectors than it gets today.
Zenith watches have traditionally been popular in Italy, where great design is well understood. When the Defy came out, It was billed as “Il casaforte del tempo” the “safe of time.” This concept of a precise timekeeper housed in a durable fortress of a case describes the watch perfectly. The Defy was produced in a range of interesting designs, but the two which are the most popular and true to form are the octagonal case and the tonneau case.
Both of these case designs feature a screwed-in domed mineral crystal with beveled edges, a screw back and a screwed down crown. The octagonal case is 37mm and came on the Gay Freres ladder type bracelet and the tonneau case is 39mm. It has a semi-integrated bracelet design, resembling thick armored plates.
The movement that was found in this watch was the manufacture 2562 PC. This high beat 28,800bph movement with the date at 4:00 was set in a thick rubber housing inside the case, to give it extreme shock protection.
Zenith Defys came with a number of dial combinations, but the most common is a coffee-colored gradient with large square applied markers. Rarer is this same gradient design in red or turquoise. Hands were a modified dauphine style with an orange luminous paddle on the second hand.
In addition to the time-only Defy, Zenith made the Defy as an El Primero automatic chronograph, as well. A781 (red) , A782 (turquoise) and A783 (silver with blue subs). This case design reached it’s Zenith (no pun intended) with the Espada, also available as the Movado Astronic. This had the incomparable 3019PHF. This translates into a high-beat, integrated automatic chronograph with a triple date and moonphase. One of the finest movements of the golden age of mechanical watches in one of the finest case designs ever created.
Zenith Defys were mainly sold in stainless steel, with a DeLuxe model sold in 18K and available in the tonneau and octagonal cases. Defy-case El Primeros were also available in solid 18k. Like wearing Fort Knox on your wrist, these are definitely imposing.
In light of the excellent design and construction of the Zenith Defy, collectors simply don’t value it as highly as they should. While a full-boat Espada in 18K is going to fetch 14-15K in mint shape, a regular time-only model Defy is going to be around $1000, give or take.
If you love these watches, you have found something that is worth more than it’s price, a rare feat. If you have never heard of a Zenith Defy, you should look at them. You might just leave the Royal Oak in the drawer more often in favor of a watch that exudes style and sophistication like no other.