Interview: A Conversation with Benoit de Clerck, Zenith’s New CEO

A few years ago, I bought my first luxury watch on eBay, an Omega Seamaster Professional Diver 300m ref. 2220.80.00. It was a watch I had first noticed on the wrist of Daniel Craig in Casino Royale over a decade earlier, and one which I had coveted. I spent way too much money on it, and accidentally (eBay defaulted to the wrong payment method) used my parents’ credit card to buy the watch.

It was a boneheaded move, compounded by eBay’s then-nascent authentication program taking over two months to actually get the watch to me. But don’t worry, I did pay my parents back in relatively short order and eventually got the watch. And I got a fun story out of it that I am unlikely to soon forget. I would posit that many of us have similar stories about how we wound up making our first big watch purchase.

Benoit de Clerck, who introduced himself to me as Ben, certainly does. “My first salary was a camera, a Nikon — you know, these old cameras and all that — but my second salary was an IWC Pilot’s Watch, 3706, and the story is, I did not have enough money to pay for it.”

“So I paid it part on my credit card; part on cash; borrowed money from friends, brothers, sister, and friends; and post-dated checks,” he told me, “And the guy had never seen someone who wanted to do that for a watch, and of course, I wanted that watch now, obviously.”

You might be amazed to know that Ben walked out of the boutique that day with his watch. “The owner of that store took a risk. Of course, the sales guy couldn’t do the transaction, so he called the owner and the owner came and we chatted and we liked each other, and he said to me, ‘If that check bounces, I know how to get to you.’”

It was only a few days between when de Clerck left that boutique with his watch and the date on the check, during which time he could barely sleep. The day the check was meant to be cashed, he went back to the store — with the watch on his wrist — and said “Please, can you please make sure you cash in that check because the money’s in the bank now.” It was an undoubtedly stressful purchase at the time but looking back, de Clerck reflects, “That’s a funny story, but a real story.”

What it’s not is the type of story you typically hear from the CEOs of luxury watch brands, but it’s exactly the kind of story one gets talking with de Clerck, and it’s exactly the kind of enthusiastic story that makes his new position as CEO of Zenith make so much sense.


Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with de Clerck at Zenith’s in midtown Manhattan. Walking into Zenith’s New York City offices, one might be forgiven for expecting something like the exuberant downtown tech offices preferred by the likes of Google, with over-the-top amenities and wild decoration.

Instead, what you find, after entering through a discreet lobby with an entrance surrounded by construction, is a small, sedate office that could be any other in New York City, except that it happens to sit at the intersection of some of the world’s most expensive, and exclusive, retail space. So it was there, in a quiet room high above the bustle of midtown, that I found myself sitting with Benoit de Clerck, a looming poster of Ryan Gosling next to us (Zenith and TAG Heuer share a New York office space), discussing Zenith, getting in trouble at Watches & Wonders, his vision for the brand’s future, and the 4:30 date position.

New Leadership for A New Challenge

Benoit de Clerck has spent a lifetime in the watch industry, beginning his career at TAG Heuer in 1999 (just before its acquisition by LVMH) before spending over two decades in various positions at Richemont, a tenure which culminated in nearly a decade at Panerai, where he spent the last few years as Chief Commercial Officer.

He moved to Zenith in January of this year in a move that saw Zenith CEO Julien Tornare move to TAG Heuer, and TAG Heuer CEO Frédéric Arnault take on a new position as CEO of LVMH Watches (and who, as of last week, also sits on LVMH’s Board of Directors). De Clerck has a close working relationship with both men, calling Tornare a “great colleague as well as a great friend,” and Arnault, “a good business partner” with whom he “speaks almost every day,” and meets in person once or twice a week. As de Clerck puts it, “We work well together.”

When Julien Tornare took over Zenith in 2017, the brand was in a very different position than it is now. It would be easy to say it was flagging, and Tornare was hand-picked by industry legend Jean-Claude Biver, then the shepherd of LVMH watches, to turn the tide and stir the brand — something he did in a big way. In just under seven years, Tornare more than doubled Zenith’s sales, rethought many of the brand’s touchpoints, and refocused its product line.

The LVMH Watches leadership team

Now, de Clerck is well aware that he has a different job to do. “I think the way I see it is Julien has woken up that sleeping beauty — he woke her up. The next phase of the brand is to put that sleeping beauty on its feet, and then to have it work and run. So it’s a different job. It’s a different approach, different job, different problems, but different opportunities as well.”

In many ways, now is the perfect moment for transition at Zenith. The brand has seen a steady stream of hits over the last few years, and next year is poised to be a big one, with Zenith celebrating its 160th anniversary, something which offers de Clerck a lot to play with.

“Zenith is a brand that’s celebrating 160 years next year. It’s a brand that has a lot of potential, pedigree, DNA, and — most importantly — history. And when you can rely on a brand that has around 160 years of history, it’s fun, because the stories are there. You just have to remove the dust and find the story that you’re looking for.”

Unsurprisingly, de Clerck is already looking towards that celebration, “I’m working hard on something new next year, which obviously I like, because it’s very unique, and we’re producing very small quantities and all that. And, I can’t tell you much more, but next year we’re celebrating our 160th year and we will come up with something that the collectors will be very, very, very happy with.”

Anniversary watches are nothing new in the watch world, or for Zenith. Under Tornare, the brand took full advantage of the 50th anniversary of the El Primero movement in 2019 to launch a whole slate of watches that helped set the stage for the brand’s current catalog. But talking with de Clerck for an hour, you walk away with the sense that none of this is bravado or a performed enthusiasm. De Clerck believes in the history of Zenith, and the strength of the brand’s archive.

“You know, when I joined Zenith, I thought I knew the brand,” he told me. “I didn’t know anything about the brand. The first day, the second day I went into that archive and met with the archivist and the people in charge of all the history – I was flabbergasted by what I heard. I couldn’t believe it. And I thought I knew. But I started calling friends, I said, ‘Do you know that Zenith has this, do you know that?’ I didn’t know that. I discovered so much.”

De Clerck is excited to put his stamp on that history, but he’s not doing it alone. Whether discussing Frédéric Arnault or his team at Zenith, de Clerck is clear that he is looking to collaborate. “I’m telling you, we’re blessed with a good team. We have good people around us. That’s true. That’s my philosophy, I don’t work by myself. What you see is me, but what you don’t see is my executive committee. Yes, I’m the CEO. Yes, I manage the brand, but I don’t manage the brand alone.”

Of course, de Clerck understands that at some point a decision has to be made and that that responsibility rests with no one but him. “At the end of the day, the job of a CEO is to decide, and I have no problem deciding,” he explained, “I can do that, but when you have a thinking process and you have people at the same table around you that are your people, your community who wants the same thing at the end of the day, that’s what makes it good. And it’s much more enriching.”

An Enthusiast’s Appreciation for Enthusiasm

Benoit de Clerck gets enthusiasm. From childhood, de Clerck was “mesmerized” by watches. “It was always something that I wanted to understand how it functions,” he says. He would take the casebacks of his father’s watch to look at the movement and despite taunts from childhood friends that he only had “grandfathers’ watches,” it was a fascination that never went away.

“So I was always focused. How can this work? And when you open a mechanical watch, it’s like having a car pressing on the gas forever because it turns all the time. It’s always on the move and always on the go like a car and it never stops. The only way for it to stop is when the spring releases and I found this very passionate at that time.”

De Clerck has never outgrown this excitement, to the point that, at Watches & Wonders this year (his first as a brand CEO), he ran afoul of the security team at Palexpo before the show even opened on the first morning. “I was so excited that I arrived at the booth before everybody else.”

The Zenith booth at Watches & Wonders 2024

Thinking his team would already be in the booth, working to prepare for the opening of the show, de Clerck let himself in. “I got into the booth, opened the door, and I hear a little bzzzzz. I said, okay, maybe something, you know, there’s nothing wrong.” So walked into the back room of the booth, only to find that none of his team was there either, and then headed back into the main section of the booth.

“I came back, it was 7:05… I go back and I see all the security people running around the booth and all that with dogs and say ‘Oh my God, what’s going on here?’ And they said ‘Sir, what are you doing here?’”

De Clerck quickly learned that no one, not even brand employees, were allowed into the building until 7:30. “I said, yeah, but I thought my team was in the back. They said, ‘No, no, no. Give us your ID, give us your paper, your pass’ and so on and so forth. And they had to take my picture — it created a big chaos on the first day of Watches and Wonders.” 

It’s the kind of situation most would find mortifying, and, though he told the story with a smile on a calm day in New York, probably didn’t help with the unavoidable nerves that come with stepping into the limelight for the first time. 

“I’ll be very honest with you, I was a bit anxious. The first couple of hours, I was very anxious, but luckily I was very busy with journalists, with customers, and all that. And I stepped out into the common area at around 11 o’clock and I felt that vibe, that noise. I said, bingo, that’s it. We’re on. And at that moment, I never looked back. I mean. the energy, the vibes, everything was correct.”

Moving forward, de Clerck is looking to capitalize on that energy, and he knows he can’t do that without enthusiasts. “We are very close to collectors, we listen to them. I know a lot of collectors, I listen to them. I love to meet them. I don’t meet them enough, and they’re very important in our discussions because we share a lot, and they share a lot as well.”

For Zenith, striking the right balance between the collectors and enthusiasts who follow the brand devotedly, and making the brand accessible to new collectors is an important guide rail, and is something de Clerck takes seriously, especially in the US, which he recognizes as a critical market for Zenith.

“The brand Zenith is very clean in America. We don’t have bad doors or bad partners and bad history, so the market is pretty clean and today what we offer at Zenith is history, we offer credibility. And you get a very modern watch with a very sturdy, successful, quality movement for a fair price. This is why I think it’s a brand made for America. I like America,” he continued, “it’s fast, it’s innovative, it’s big, it’s great.”

That said, don’t expect to see Zenith at every multi-brand boutique across the country — de Clerck understands the need to be deliberate in growing the brand. “The brand is growing. Are we going to become a mega, mega, mega, mega-brand? I don’t think so. We could, but I don’t think so. Are we going to continue to grow? Absolutely. We want to be very focused. We have to say it, we could open a hundred doors tomorrow, but this is not our intention. What I say to my team is more partnership with less partners. We want to become more important for each partner.”

I came away from my time with de Clerck thoroughly impressed by his vision for the future of Zenith, and struck by his excitement for the brand’s past. It’s always hard to predict where a brand will go under new leadership, but I did discover one thing for sure — like it or not, the 4:30 date window is here to stay.

“There are reasons why it’s at 4:30 — and technical reasons as well. But you know what? This is our signature. I think today what people are looking for is authenticity. That’s for sure. And if someone does not buy a watch because the date is at 4:30 instead of 3:00, that’s a choice and that’s a taste. And it’s okay. Both are okay. I can tell you, we don’t lose too much time on that. Of course, it’s part of the discussion, but it’s okay. You know, we are proud to have it at 4:30. That’s what makes us different.” Zenith

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A native New Englander now based in Philadelphia, Griffin has been a passionate watch enthusiast since the age of 13, when he was given a 1947 Hamilton Norman as a birthday gift by his godfather. Well over a decade later, Griffin continues to marvel and obsess about all things watches, while also cultivating lifelong love affairs with music, film, photography, cooking, and making.