To the Xtreme: A Look at the Zenith Defy of the Past

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We recorded a podcast some months ago all about “Guilty Pleasure” watches, and while I strongly believe that there’s no such thing as a “guilty” pleasure at all, I think there are definitely watches that we become transfixed by against our better judgement. For one reason or another, or maybe a whole host of reasons, these watches seep into our brains, become WatchRecon alerts, and eventually turn into small objects of obsession, even though they’re not practical, cohesive in your collection, or even objectively good looking. I guess this is me coming clean, and admitting to a so-called guilty pleasure that I failed to recognize on that podcast, or perhaps it’s only just surfacing now. Either way, we should talk about the Zenith Defy Xtreme.

Before we get to the Xtreme, a watch that’s long deserved a proper reading, let’s give a quick shout out to the new watch on the block, the Zenith Defy Extreme, unveiled just a few weeks ago at Watches & Wonders. The Extreme, we’ll point out right away, has absolutely nothing to do with the Xtreme. This new El Primero 9004 powered high frequency chronograph shares a name (but not a spelling) with the Xtreme of the 00s, but is an altogether different type of watch with a very different look, and fits more cleanly into Zenith’s modern design language than the Xtreme of old did when it was initially introduced. Put more simply, the new Extreme doesn’t feel like a radical departure from the norm in the way the Xtreme did years ago, and that’s a credit to Zenith for building out the Defy collection in recent years in a deliberate and logical way that’s in tune with the brand’s history.

The Extreme is a big and bold titanium watch with a highly angular 45mm case that draws inspiration from the earliest Defy references. The starting price of the Extreme chronograph sits at $18,000 (and goes up if you want one with gold accents), and it has an over-the-top quality to it, both aesthetically and mechanically, which is a defining historical characteristic of all Defys.

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The history of the Defy has been somewhat obscured for a variety of reasons. As a sports watch, it never sold as well or became as culturally important as competitive products from the likes of Rolex and Omega. And over the years, particularly as the rise of vintage watches has informed contemporary design, Zenith has placed an emphasis on the El Primero, sometimes at the expense of other, non-chronograph products in their catalog. But the new Extreme traces its lineage all the way back to the very first Defy, the A3642, which appeared in 1969 and featured what, at the time, would have been an avant-garde design paired with some truly next gen watch technology. It’s this Defy that created the thematic template for all future Defys, including the Xtremes that appeared in the mid-aughts. 

The design link between the first Defy and the new Extreme chronograph is simple enough to spot, and can be found in the case shape. The early Defys featured a unique eight sided case (and fourteen sided bezel) with highly polished facets that the new watches borrow from heavily. The geometry of these watches is quite complex, and certainly much more daring than most sports watches from the 60s and early 70s. What set these watches apart from their peers even more than their looks, however, was the way they were built. Although not indicated on the dial, the Defy was water resistant to 300 meters, and the movement was protected in a patented “capsule case” and mounted within a flexible rubber ring to protect it against shocks. The Defy is an early example of a Swiss brand pulling out all the stops to create the most robust sports watch possible (something the industry as a whole is currently obsessed with), and that’s a thread that runs through every iteration of the Defy, Xtreme to Extreme.

Promotional material for the first Zenith Defy

To jump fully down the Xtreme rabbit hole, we need to travel back in time to the mid 00s, when Thierry Nataf was at the helm of Zenith. It’s important to remember that when Nataf came on board early in 2001, Zenith was barely seen as relevant in many circles. Today they’re covered frequently in watch media (which itself was a very different landscape twenty years ago), but by the late 90s they were hanging on as a connoisseur’s choice, and their adventurous sports watch heritage had nearly been erased from memory. The Zenith of the 90s was stylistically bland. Lots of yellow gold, El Primeros with Roman dials, and other conservative styles that would have been the favorite of any grandparent. 

The conventional wisdom is that the Xtreme was somehow out of character for Zenith, but to me it’s a logical continuation of the Defy story, and the Xtreme line was Nataf’s attempt to restore a piece of Zenith’s history that he felt had been lost to time. The brand in many ways was the originator of the stylistically adventurous and genuinely tough sports watch, and that was not only a type of watch Zenith hadn’t made for years when Nataf joined the company, but a segment that was only beginning to come into its own within the broader context of the world of Swiss watches. 

And stylistically adventurous is likely a conservative way to categorize the Xtreme watches. This was a historic Swiss brand borrowing not just from their own heritage in terms of a flexibility with materials and designing something that was almost comically overbuilt, but pulling from the emerging vanguard in high end independent watchmaking, where experimentation was rewarded, and creative watchmakers were in the beginning stages of playing with form and turning the established and proven aesthetic of what a watch should look like on its head. The anything goes attitude of the Xtreme borrows as much from the spirit of Zenith’s own past as it does from the likes of Vianney Halter, Urwerk, and Harry Winston’s Opus series. The Xtreme doesn’t look like those watches, but it seems to come from the same school of thought: that there simply are no rules or norms that need to be adhered to in a flagship, high end timepiece. And that school of thought is certainly in line with Nataf’s general posture as CEO – in a magazine interview in 2007, he described Zenith as “a start-up that is 150 years old.”

I touched on this balancing between the new and old in my review of the black ceramic Defy Classic, and drew connections between that modern watch and early watches from the Defy line that date to the 1970s. These watches have always been a step ahead of trends and the current technology, and sought to make the most of materials and tech that was available at the time. The end result is a reflection of the aesthetics of the time during which the watch was made. In the 70s that meant a chunky steel cushion case. The current expression of the Defy is sleek with precise finishing and sharp angles. The Nataf era Defy Xtreme watches reflect a bold overconfidence, with color palettes left over from the 90s, and a brash look befitting of someone who had not lost his shirt in the popping of the dot-com bubble. 

 

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That last point is important, as these watches were expensive, and positioned to a high end luxury customer who might be cross shopping precious metal Rolex sports models, or entry points into brands like Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe. A fully coated limited edition version of the Defy Xtreme equipped with an El Primero movement dubbed the “Open Sea” retailed for over $20,000. These days, they can be had for less than $5,000. Non LE variants are even more affordable and have experienced similarly dramatic depreciation, as have Xtremes with tourbillons. Of course all of the Nataf era Defys are limited in the sense that his time with the company was relatively short and fraught, and the design language he’s credited with (blamed for?) didn’t exactly have legs. In any case, time has done its thing, and like so many other watches of the era, what was once unobtainable is now quite accessible. For a particular type of collector, with a particular taste, these watches are a major nostalgia play. 

The Defy Xtreme “Open Sea,” image via Sotheby’s
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Something that I hear a lot in the criticism of these watches is that “It looks like an Invicta.” Look, I can’t argue that they don’t share some similar aggressive and in-your-face design traits. These watches leave an impression of having too many gauges, switches, buttons, screws, and everything else. They are just a lot. What’s undeniable, though, is that the workmanship and build quality is about as far away from a Home Shopping Network special as a Bic pen is from a Montblanc. Nataf was clearly highly committed to the Xtreme, and the result is a watch that’s fully luxurious in terms of its build quality and finishing, even if it looks like something that in 2021 we’d expect to find on that bargain table full of discontinued products selling for cheap at a big department store. These watches helped to set a trend that other overbuilt sports watches from major Swiss brands would follow in specs but not style. The bracelets have Kevlar accents, and the water resistance ratings were set up to 1,000 meters (some variants were close to 20mm in height thanks to extra thick crystals). Zenith even patented their own alloy, “Zenithium,” said to be a combination of titanium, steel, and niobium, and used it in the balance cocks of some of the movements used to power the Xtremes (it was created with shock absorption in mind). There’s also ample application of carbon fiber on these watches – not just on the dial, but as an accent on the chronograph pushers of El Primero versions of the Xtreme. It’s hard to think of a more period appropriate design detail, and your appreciation for it is likely directly proportional to where you were and what you were into in 2005. 

Everything about the Xtreme watches was excessive, and a reflection of the time they were made. But that’s true, to a certain extent, of every Defy, and you could make an argument that it’s what makes a Defy what it is. Even before the launch of the new Extreme line, the current crop of Defy 21 chronographs felt like the legacy of the Xtreme in a very real way, even while looking nothing alike and not sharing any direct design links. Both are built to a high standard, with exotic materials, and the latest movement technology. They possess similar and unapologetically modern design tropes. And they’re even divisive in a similar way, although the Defy 21 pieces have certainly been more fervently accepted by enthusiasts and the arbiters of what flies in contemporary watch culture, for whatever that’s worth.

A Defy Xtreme with Kevlar accents on the bracelet

As a Zenith fan through and through, these watches fascinate me to no end, and seen from our vantage point in 2021 they appear to have had a lasting influence, or were at least part of a sea change in how materials like titanium were used. You could also say that they predicted the prevalence of ceramic and skeletonization in hardcore sports watches, both trends that have become so common they’re barely even trends at this point, although the Xtreme certainly wasn’t the only watch in the segment to experiment in these areas.

Sometimes when I’m poring over press releases or scrolling through Instagram, and lamenting that everything seems “vintage inspired” and looks the same, I think about the Defy Xtreme, and how this truly original and often misunderstood watch continues to generate reactions that can best be described as the vomit emoji in word form (or, sometimes, just in emoji form). And I also think about how it nearly ended a career – Nataf would continue to work in the watch industry, but never again for a brand with the stature and history of Zenith. This enormous, ostentatious, and controversial watch wound up having power and influence that’s disproportionate to how much people actually “like” it, and while I might never take the plunge and buy a Defy Xtreme (or maybe I will…), I hold out hope that Zenith and other brands will once again take the kinds of risks that Nataf did twenty years ago. Zenith

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.
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