Review: the Zenith Defy Skyline in Black Ceramic

For fans of the Zenith Defy, it’s practically impossible not to compare the new Skyline models to the now retired Classic references. As a self described Defy fan, I’ve found myself doing this on a routine basis whenever I get a chance to handle a newer reference. I’ve long held that the Defy, over the years, is pound for pound the very best sports watch line out there. The watches in this collection are adventurous in their design, inherently robust, and naturally distinctive in a sea of sports watches that kind of all look alike. From the very beginning, the Defy has been a trailblazer, something truly unique, but frequently overlooked in favor of watches that it clearly influenced along the way. 

Zenith’s release strategy with the Defy almost begs for comparison between generations. The Defy Classic, after being issued in titanium with both solid and skeletonized dials, was made in a trio of ceramic models (black, white, and blue) with skeletonized dials. Similarly, the Skyline was introduced in steel first, was eventually given a skeletonized dial, and finally at this year’s Watches & Wonders we got a ceramic version on a full ceramic bracelet, with both the star motif dial seen here, and a skeletonized version similar to the one reviewed earlier this year by Blake right here. No colored ceramic Defy Skylines have been released yet, but it’s easy to see the similarities between Defy generations. There definitely appears to be a roadmap.


And yet, after spending some time with the new ceramic Defy Skyline, I can’t help but feel like it’s a mistake to think of the Classic and the Skyline as paired somehow. They are drastically different watches that serve different purposes, and though they fall under the same large umbrella, I think an apples to apples comparison is, pardon the pun, fruitless. 

The conventional wisdom, I think, is that the Skyline exists as a successor to the Classic, but is too thick in comparison. I can’t argue that if you’re looking for a thin, all purpose sports watch, the current Defy Skyline, in any of its forms, is probably not going to be for you. It’s chunky, but I think that’s by design, just as the slim profile of the Classic was by design, capitalizing on a desire at the time of its release for thin and lightweight sports watches. 

Now, I love the Defy Classic, but ultimately I sold mine because, while it was very comfortable, it felt a little diminutive on my wrist. Over time, I’ve gravitated towards sports watches that feel hefty, or at least suggest it. The Classic, on my wrist, didn’t do either of those things. It also, weirdly, feels like an outlier in the larger lineage of the Defy, which has for much of its history been, if nothing else, a watch with an outsized wrist presence. Think of the Defy Extremes from the Thierry Nataf era, for example, or the Defy “Spaceman” from the 1970s (a personal favorite vintage reference). These are watches that were in your face, confrontational, and never met a cuff they could slide under. And that’s just how I’ve always seen the Defy, for better or worse. 


Review: the Zenith Defy Skyline in Black Ceramic

Black ceramic
El Primero 3620
Yes, hands and markers
Ceramic bracelet, Rubber strap
Water Resistance
100 meters
41 x 47mm
Lug Width
Screw down

So in some ways, I’ve come to see the Skyline, with all of its bulkiness, as a true spiritual successor to the more out-there Defys I’ve always loved. The Classic, in a way, is a much more conservative watch, built to cast a wide net of collectors and enthusiasts. The standard issue titanium versions without Zenith’s very well executed skeleton dials are almost generic, at least for a Defy. The larger and in-charge Skyline puts a clearer focus on the interesting case geometry, and of course also highlights the interesting movement at work, something we’ll get to shortly. This is a long winded way of saying that the Skyline has supplanted the Classic for me as the contemporary Defy – it’s the one in most direct conversation with the collection’s past, and also presents an exciting platform for the Defy going forward. 

This really crystallized for me during my time with the new Skyline in black ceramic, a watch that I found to be impressive from just about every perspective I viewed it from, literally and figuratively. For me, it starts with the case. Ceramic feels like the right material for the Defy, and in black it works remarkably well, hiding a lot of the watch’s bulk that in my opinion is much more evident on the steel version of the watch (which I reviewed here). That watch is very well finished, but because it’s steel and takes a polish so well, it draws the eye to the watch’s size, particularly the brushed case walls. Even though the finishing patterns are the same on the ceramic version, the black of it all keeps it sleek. And the finishing on the ceramic here is outstanding. It’s probably my single favorite thing about the ceramic Skyline. The brushing is very pronounced and has a great textural appearance, and the polished bits look great too. You might recall that the ceramic Classic had a matte finish all around, with the exception of the bezel. For the price of that watch, I think that was fine. But rest assured, things have been stepped up considerably for the Skyline, so if you found yourself wanting a bit more pop out of the case material on the previous generation of ceramic Defy, you’ll be pleased with the new version.

I also remain a fan of the overall visual impression of the case. It’s 8-sided, with a 12-sided bezel that’s polished on the side and brushed on the top. It’s geometrically complex and throws a lot of light when you get it out in the sun, which is not typical of dark toned ceramic at all. Whether or not the dramatic angles and architectural details appeal to you is obviously going to be subjective, but I think as contemporary watch designs go, this one ranks pretty highly. Because it has a relatively short lug to lug distance (about 46mm by my measurement) it’s remarkably easy to wear even at 41mm across. I’d say it shouldn’t be a millimeter smaller, as the prominent wrist presence of a watch like this is a huge part of the appeal, at least for me. 

When I hear criticisms of the Skyline, they’ll often focus on the thickness. I’ve even mentioned it in this review, and the watch definitely has a chunkiness to it that ultimately works in its favor. The reality, though, is that this watch is only about 12.5mm thick, which is honestly not too bad for a sporty watch with 100 meters of water resistance. Of course, it’s thicker than the classic, which in practice wears nearly like an ultra-thin sports watch. At the end of the day, the case height, such as it is, leaves a visual impression rather than one you feel too much of when you’re actually wearing it. I think part of this is the black tone of the case material playing a trick on the mind, shrinking the watch slightly, and another part is the relative light weight of ceramic. But it’s also just the frame of mind the watch puts you in when you strap it to your wrist: it feels right, inspires confidence, and the last thing that entered my mind while wearing it was that the proportions are somehow off. 

When the steel Skyline first hit the market with a pseudo-integrated bracelet (it appears fully integrated, but can be quickly swapped out for a Zenith strap) it occurred to me that eventually we’d get a ceramic option on a matching ceramic bracelet. Well, to nobody’s surprise, that ceramic bracelet is here, and it’s a huge draw for the Skyline, truly taking it to another level. 

Ceramic cases are quickly becoming more and more common, with options coming in below $2,000 in some instances (I’m thinking of the new Zodiac Super Sea Wolf in white ceramic here, which uses a “shell” placed over a steel frame). Ceramic bracelets, however, are far more difficult to manufacture given the many small parts and tight tolerances required, so they’re in turn far more rare, and drive up the cost of a watch considerably. The end result, though, is something that feels exceptionally luxurious and high end, particularly when finished to the degree that Zenith that treats their ceramic bracelet. 

On the skin, ceramic has a very different feel than steel. You really feel the lightness of the material when it drapes over your wrist, and the ceramic itself is finished in such a way that it feels smooth and neutral on the wrist, as opposed to stainless steel that tends to lock itself in place. There’s a slinkiness and sense of movement to the way this bracelet fits that’s similar in a lot of ways to the great bracelet on the Moser Streamliner. 


The bracelet links taper fairly dramatically from the lugs to the clasp, which certainly aids in overall comfort. Most of the surfaces on these links are brushed, but outer edges and inside of the center links are polished, which accentuates a sense of motion when looking at the watch on the wrist, and allows for some great light play in outdoor situations. It’s a great, uniform look that makes a lot of sense, and it’s nice to see that for this Defy, Zenith has not taken any obvious short cuts in the bracelet construction. This was a flaw in the ceramic Classic, which featured an easily scratchable foldover clasp mated to the stock rubber strap made of titanium.

The look of this watch on a bracelet is likely to generate feedback in the watch community that has dogged the Defy line over the last several years, namely that it’s a Royal Oak imitator. On the one hand, I hate to draw attention to this, as it’s a silly complaint, predominantly made by people who lack an understanding of the Defy’s long history. At the same time, I don’t want to pass up an opportunity to point out that the Defy A7682 is truly a missing link in the story of integrated bracelet sports watches. These early 1970s Defys predate the Royal Oak, and were designed very intentionally to have an “integrated” look. They even have a similar “port hole” style dial opening, and were among the first watches produced by a Swiss manufacturer with a bracelet that was clearly meant to paired with a particular case and appear as a single unit. The Royal Oak is ubiquitous today, but when it was introduced there’s a good chance anyone with exposure to the A7682 might have seen it as the imitator. 

A vintage Defy A7682 and a Defy Classic in black ceramic

Nevertheless, we should talk about the fact that in the current watch climate, integrated bracelet sports watches are still the hottest thing going, and the new Defy Skyline in ceramic is a compelling proposition to people who might not have the patience or funds for a Nautilus or Royal Oak. Realistically, I don’t think there are many collectors who are actually cross shopping these watches, as the Audemars Piguet equivalent is multiple price brackets ahead of the Zenith. But that’s the thing: there’s an AP equivalent in this Zenith that is tough to ignore. There are a number of areas in which the Zenith is not as refined as a ceramic Royal Oak (the dial and movement, for instance) but AP can no longer be said to have a monopoly on integrated bracelet ceramic sports watches with genuine heritage from an upmarket Swiss luxury brand. The retail price of the Zenith is $15,000, which is not inexpensive by any means, but if you start shopping for a ceramic AP, you’re going to be spending roughly four times as much (and your watch will be 34mm). 

The dial of the Defy Skyline in black ceramic has exactly the same star motif seen on the steel models, and while there’s nothing wrong with it exactly, it’s the one area of the watch that leaves me just a little cold. The star design is a tribute to the original Zenith logo, so the dial here is about paying homage to the brand’s past, but that feels somewhat out of character on a modern Defy. Zenith does such a great job of walking the line between tribute watches and pieces that are more forward thinking, it’s a little jarring to see a design that tries to split the difference in this way. My preference, I suppose, is going to lean toward Zenith’s openworked dials in the Defy collection. These just feel truer somehow to the spirit of innovation and bold design decisions that have always guided the Defy, and in making watches in that spirit, I think Zenith actually pays greater tribute to the past than they can by reminding us of the brand’s old logo. 


That said, in terms of pure functionality, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the star motif dial. Hour markers are applied and filled with white lume, making them easily legible against the black backdrop, ditto for the hands. The dial’s proportions feel right to me as well. The date window at 3:00 is very close to the dial’s perimeter and outer minute track, which I prefer to it being scrunched too close to the dial’s center. And it balances nicely with the subsidiary seconds counter at 9:00, which is nicely finished with a very fine concentric circular pattern on multiple levels, providing for some nice contrasts with the main dial. While the dial doesn’t have an element that blows my hair back in the same way as the case, it’s objectively easy to read, and ultimately proves to be inoffensive. 

The Defy Skyline is powered by the El Primero 3620, and it’s still one of the strangest calibers used by a big Swiss brand. It uses the same base movement as Zenith’s vaunted chronographs, but of course doesn’t display elapsed time. It retains, however, the most dramatic feature of the current generation El Primero movement, and that’s a second hand run directly off the escapement that makes a full rotation around the dial once every ten seconds. In Zenith’s chronographs, this allows for a level of precision in timing an event that’s honestly hard for the human nervous system to keep up with. On a three-hander, it serves as a constant reminder of the high frequency movement at work, and makes for a fun visual parlor trick at the watch meetup. When I wrote about the steel version of this watch, I said that it was Zenith flexing, showing off their heritage in high frequency movement making, and I still think that’s the case, and can’t fault them for wanting to remind people of the El Primero every chance they get. It’s an historic caliber that continues to get better as the years go by, and even if it doesn’t actually prove to be functional here (beyond, in theory, better timekeeping) it feels like an authentic way for Zenith to weave their brand’s story and history across collections. 

The Defy Skyline has really grown on me since I first spent time with the steel version over a year ago, and now in ceramic, I feel like the watch has found a sweet spot. While my preference would be for an open dial, there’s no denying the appeal of this case, which is somehow both ergonomically correct and architectural in a nearly sci-fi way. 

The Skyline has also done a funny thing with respect to how I feel about the Classic, which I can’t help but see in a different light now that the new collection is a bit more fleshed out, and the Classic is all but erased from the catalog. The Defy might mean something different to each collector and enthusiast that engages with it, but if you view these watches as being made with the intent to be bold statements on the vanguard of contemporary design, the Skyline, by just about every measure, is better at being a Defy than its predecessor. There is, I hope, a spot in Zenith’s collection for a thin, modern sports watch using an Elite series movement, but in terms of the Defy, I’ve come to think that watches bearing that particular designation should be a little flashier, a little more adventurous, and more advanced in terms of materials used and the movement tech. The Skyline in black ceramic, particularly with this impressive bracelet, is a showstopper, and feels completely worthy of the Defy name. Zenith

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.