Review: the Zenith Defy Skyline

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has read my work on this site or chatted with me about watches in person or on Instagram, but there really isn’t a brand whose new releases I anticipate more fervently than Zenith. I’ve long had a fascination with the brand (which I’ve covered a bunch) and have felt like many of their watches are criminally overlooked in favor of any number of hype watches of the moment. But Zenith is a brand with real history, many technical innovations, and frequently displays a flair in their design language that more conservative Swiss brands would frankly never even approach. They strike a chord with me for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is their perennial status as the underdog against bigger brands with watches that are, at least in the strange terms of our hobby, household names. 

But something has happened to Zenith over the last few years. They are no longer the same scrappy underdog. Now, every new release is covered by every watch media organization, and the story of the El Primero is nearly as well known as the Speedmaster. Zenith even has their own hype watches, commanding well over retail on the secondary market, and at auction no less. And while Zenith has leaned heavily into their considerable chronograph history, they’ve had strong showings in the Defy lineup as well, and in the more avant-garde realm of watch design, where I’d argue that complications aren’t really the centerpiece anyway. They look back to the past with (mostly) faithful reissues of watches from their archives, and balance the vintage inspired stuff that appeals to collectors with watches in an ultra modern design language, never afraid to play with color or materials. They’ve even got people interested in their wayward early aughts era (OK, that’s probably just me).

The point I’m trying to make here is that Zenith doesn’t really make watches that fly under the radar anymore. Everything is released with real purpose, and the watches are examined and scrutinized to the same degree as any other high end luxury watch that comes across our desks, which is to say, we pick them apart. The new Zenith Defy Skyline has a lot that can be picked apart. For a brand that is becoming more mainstream year after the year, the Skyline is, in some important ways, an incredibly strange watch. It seems like one thing at a glance, but is very much another when you put it on your wrist and begin to log some hours with it. 


Review: the Zenith Defy Skyline

Stainless steel
El Primero 3620
Yes, hands and hour markers
Stainless steel bracelet, rubber strap
Water Resistance
10 ATM
41 x 46mm
Lug Width
Screw Down

There’s one thing I think is worth addressing right away, and that’s the similarity between the Defy Skyline and the Royal Oak. This gets brought up in just about everything I’ve read about this watch, and it doesn’t take long at all for a chorus of Instagram commenters to chime in that it’s an RO knockoff whenever this watch is posted, seemingly anywhere. (And seriously, how does that happen? Do you guys have an alert set up to troll Zenith whenever this watch hits social media? I’m very curious about this.)

While this watch bears a certain resemblance to the Royal Oak given it’s eight sided case, charges that Zenith is copying Audemars Piguet with this watch (or any Defy, for that matter) reveal a certain lack of understanding of watch history, as well as a failure to acknowledge what makes a Defy a Defy in the first place. I got into this a little bit in my review of the Zenith Defy Classic some time ago, but certain points bear repeating given the increase in Zenith’s profile in a relatively short amount of time. 

A little bit of history: the Defy was introduced in 1969, in a reference that was revived via a Zenith tribute watch earlier this year. The Defy line existed for a full three years before the first Royal Oak, and by that time Zenith had moved on to other interesting case shapes for the Defy, their premier robust sports watch, some of which could be seen as the pseudo integrated bracelet precursors to the Royal Oak, Nautilus, and many other watches that command a truly inordinate amount of attention these days. But the general style similarities (and the fact that the Defy came first) aren’t really the point. The point is that the Defy has always been made with a very specific idea about what it is that is actually in direct contradiction to the Royal Oak. 

“it would be fair to ask why Zenith has made a watch with a small seconds hand that makes a full rotation every 10 seconds instead of the expected 60. The answer, I think, is pretty simple, and that’s to show off.”

The Defy through the years can be characterized as a tech forward, modern sports watch for the people, never really intended as a high luxury item. The designs are unusual by today’s standards, but were very much of the moment in the 70s and in line with what Zenith customers wanted. These watches were ultimately meant to be practical. They had high water resistance ratings, frequently 300 meters when competitors could only go to 100 or 200, and Zenith invented what was then a game changer in shock absorption tech, surrounding the movement with what was essentially a large rubber gasket. And everything was machined and finished to the highest standards. Holding a vintage Defy from the 70s and comparing it to a Rolex from the same era is a revelation – they are not even close. The so-called charm of a vintage Oyster bracelet is not found in Zenith’s Gay Freres designed “Lobster” bracelet, which at 50 years old feels as modern and robust as any steel bracelet made by a big brand today. These watches were built tough, with real flair, and made to last. 

A vintage Defy on a “Lobster” bracelet, and a Defy Classic in black ceramic

That’s just not even close to what the Royal Oak is, or was ever, about. It was always conceived as a high end luxury watch – the print ads famously touted it as the most expensive steel watch ever produced. It’s made exceptionally well, but to call it robust or say it was designed for sport is a stretch. That’s as true today as it ever was, just as the Defy is still Zenith’s showcase for superior watchmaking tech, with an eye toward actual real world use. Zenith is squarely in the luxury category no matter how you slice it, but their watches are (for now) fairly accessible, and their sportiness is essentially built right in.

If Zenith had decided to make a razor thin Defy with an emphasis on movement and case finishing, I think you’d have a case for calling this a Royal Oak ripoff, and I’d have been disappointed in the end result, What they’ve done, though, is much more interesting, in building an additional platform to show off their mighty impressive El Primero 3600. While the Defy Skyline isn’t a chronograph, it uses the same El Primero 3600 caliber as a base, but with the chrono works stripped out. The result is the same impressive accuracy from a movement made to operate at a high frequency, as well as a fun show on the dial side, with a small seconds hand driven directly off the escapement, making a quick rotation around its register every 10 seconds. 

At this point it would be fair to ask why Zenith has made a watch with a small seconds hand that makes a full rotation every 10 seconds instead of the expected 60. The answer, I think, is pretty simple, and that’s to show off. Whether this is impressive to you or not will depend on the value you place on Zenith (or any brand) continuing to innovate and try new things in movement making, but there’s no denying that its chief function is to act as an inescapable, constant reminder that the El Primero 3620 keeping time inside your new Skyline is something a little different and special. 

It’s not, however, the first time Zenith has made what is essentially an El Primero without the chronograph. Zenith produced the Espada in the early 2010s with a lot of the same logic seen in the Defy Skyline: make use of the superior timekeeping inherent in their own high frequency chronograph movement beating at 36,000 VPH, but without the complication itself. The Espada’s movement, the El Primero 4650 B, is really a precursor to the El Primero 3620 found in the Skyline, but built off the previous generation El Primero caliber 400 chronograph movement. The Espada, unlike the Defy Skyline, also has the unusual distinction of having the El Primero wordmark present on the dial, but without the pesky subdials of a chronograph. Truly a strange bird, and an interesting cousin to the Skyline. 


Of course, because the seconds hand in the 4650 B is run through the gear train in the traditional way and not directly off the movement’s escapement, it’s easy to track an elapsed minute with the Espada, and if you’d like you can easily see the benefits of the higher frequency movement when it comes to chronometric precision. That’s something of a challenge with the Skyline. Because the watch doesn’t tell you when a minute “starts,” it’s up to the user to hack the movement and set it against a known reference time. From there, you should be in sync if you synchronize your watch with that reference time, but you won’t know “where” in that minute you are at a glance in the same way you would with a traditional seconds hand. In practice, this isn’t likely to make anyone late for a meeting, but it’s a strange paradox built into a watch that should ostensibly be more precise than Zenith’s Elite line of movements that beat at a traditional 28,800 VPH. That doesn’t mean users won’t experience the benefits of a high frequency movement – the rate should be more stable with this movement, so the timing should “drift” less when worn regularly. But if you’re someone who frequently sets their watch to and likes to observe its performance, this watch will behave a little differently than what you’re used to.  

OK, so the movement is strange, but given the Defy’s historic tendency toward technological innovation, it makes a lot of sense if you take the macro view. But how does the new Defy Skyline hold up to just being worn as a watch, without all the baggage? Rather well, in my opinion. As a former owner of a Defy Classic, I have a certain sense of how a modern Defy wears, and even though the Skyline is a full 1mm larger in every dimension than the Classic, it’s still quite comfortable on my 7.5 inch wrist. At 41mm across, the case hits something of a sweet spot: it’s commanding and has real wrist presence without being over the top. The case is about 12mm tall, which certainly isn’t too thick for a sports watch, but if you’re after the slender lines of the impossible-to-get integrated bracelet sports watches that sit well upmarket from the Skyline, you’ll likely be disappointed. If you have a smaller wrist (or just want something more under the radar) the Defy Classic will certainly wear a bit better with its Elite movement. That extra milimeter is the tax we pay for the novelty of a high frequency El Primero caliber. 

The case finishing is impressive, with crisp transitions between brushed and polished finishes that highlight the complex geometry of the case and bezel. The most impressive light play occurs thanks to the polished bezel sides, which bump against brushed finishes on the main case and top of the bezel. It’s pretty impressive, and gives the watch a luxurious feel that isn’t always present in vintage Defys, or even more recent Defy Classics. 


When I first encountered press photography of the Skyline, I was a little concerned about what the dial’s star pattern would look like in person. Very often initial photographs and renderings supplied by brands do a poor job of highlighting the critical details that can make or break a watch, and I just wasn’t sure what to make of these stars – they felt a little hokey to me at first. In person, like the rest of the Defy Skyline, the dial pattern makes a bit more sense, and it’s mostly a result of the semi-glossy finish of the dial surface providing an interesting visual contrast to the holes left by those stars. There’s an impressive precision to the dial, and the end result, to me, was aesthetically pleasing. The applied hour markers and hands are a nice complement to the dial, but lack a special or unique design characteristic. That’s fine – again, this is a sports watch, and the hands have an obvious functional responsibility that they meet quite easily. I don’t imagine anyone will make a buying decision in either direction based on the hands or markers on the Defy Skyline – they’re fairly neutral. 

The Defy Skyline comes on an excellent bracelet that is very comfortable and machined to a high standard. It’s similar in style to the Defy Classic bracelet, so doesn’t break any new ground for the new watch, but it achieves a handsome integrated look that suits the watch. It’s easily removable via a quick-change button built into the endlink, and can be swapped in seconds for a rubber strap on a deployant buckle that Zenith supplies with every Defy Skyline. The strap is comfortable, soft, and supple, but I wasn’t a fan of the deployant. Full disclosure: I’m never a fan of deployants, and will almost always prefer a tang buckle or a simple fold over clasp. This one is fairly cumbersome with fold-over points that are unequal in length, making for some slightly awkward handling. It has a very secure and satisfying “snap” to it when it closes though, so I always felt like the strap was well secured when I was wearing it during my brief testing period. I imagine if I owned one of these, I’d find myself wearing it on the bracelet more frequently than the strap.

The Defy Skyline is a very enjoyable watch to wear, but it’s one you’ll want to try on before making a buying decision. At 41mm the case is a medium size but has elements that might make it wear either larger or smaller depending on the shape of your wrist. It’s an integrated design, so the lug to lug distance (46mm) is not substantial, but that’s countered by pronounced slab sides that don’t bend or curve at all to hug the wrist. I think this watch is probably best suited to folks with wrists on the larger side that happen to be mostly flat. If your preference is for the lug to lug span to cover the entirety of the top of your wrist, smaller wristed collectors will like the look of the watch when they check the time, but might find it uncomfortable or puck-like. Like other Defys, this one is more severe than elegant. I find that to be part of the appeal of these watches through the years, but that’s obviously highly subjective. 

This is not an under the radar watch – it’s large enough for people to notice, and has a lot of shiny polished surfaces on the case, bezel assembly, and dial. The highly faceted nature of the case design exacerbates this considerably, so if bead blasted tool watches are your thing, this one hits a very different note. That said, it’s built like a tool watch and feels genuinely tough and ready for anything, and I guess that’s the thing about the Defy: when you boil it down, it wouldn’t be unfair to categorize these as flashy tool watches. 

I think that’s distinct from the “dressy tool watch” designation that is sometimes thrown around, which implies a watch that’s built tough but discreet enough to not draw attention to itself as part of a formal get-up. A flashy tool watch like the Defy is something different – it is going to draw attention and make a statement while still being highly technically capable. It combines innovative technical features with a specific and design forward style in a way that most modern tool watches aren’t really interested in – the trend of the moment seems to be to strip tool watches of flash, or anything compelling or unique that draws the eye. The Defy is one of my favorite sports watch lines because these watches know that function and readiness don’t need to lead to watches that are non-descript or generic. It’s sporty and robust, but it was also conceived to be a beautiful object and piece of design in its own right. 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.