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“The creators of El Primero made me go beyond El Primero”

JULIEN TORNARE, ZENITH

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July 2020


“The creators of El Primero made me go beyond El Primero”

Since taking the reins of Zenith in 2017, Julien Tornare has been patiently moving ahead with the work of “refounding” the brand, to take it beyond its El Primero heritage. The strategy is largely based on the Defy line, which last year became Zenith’s most important collection, commercially speaking. But the onset of the pandemic is undermining this long-term effort, at a time when the strategy was starting to show results.

J

ulien Tornare’s outlook seems to be tailored to the “post-coronavirus” world being created before our eyes: affable, warm and direct, the Zenith boss had no trouble turning to digital communication in times of crisis.

And yet, this crisis is bad for Zenith, since it has hit at a time when the “refounding” plans initiated in 2017, based mainly around the new Defy line and its disruptive design, were starting to bear fruit. The brand can certainly count on the support of the largest luxury group in the world, LVMH, of which it is one of the smallest companies. Nevertheless, Julien Tornare will now have to prove that his strategy will hold up under pressure.

Europa Star: How did you get through the pandemic crisis in the first half of this year?

Julien Tornare: At the beginning of February, we saw the first problems emerging in Asia. In mid-March, I was still in the United States for a fantastic launch, then... nothing! Since mid-May, we have witnessed the reopening of certain markets. In June, Europe woke up but the market remains very dependent on tourists. The United States and Latin America are lagging behind. There will be no return to normal before September at best.

“On March 17, the day the workshops closed, I gathered the teams and told them to digitise all the functions they could!”

Julien Tornare has been managing Zenith since 2017. Previously, he worked for Vacheron Constantin for 17 years.
Julien Tornare has been managing Zenith since 2017. Previously, he worked for Vacheron Constantin for 17 years.

How can this episode transform the watch industry?

The Swiss industry remains very conservative and, until now, remote working has not been in tune with the times. On March 17, the day the workshops closed, I gathered the teams together and told them to digitise all the functions they could! Even the most resistant employees have had to get used to it, and it’s become clear that it is a really effective working method. We will travel less, and spend more time at home. The industry’s digital conversion is accelerating. For years, the general mindset was the same: the internet is not the place to sell luxury watches. The crisis has accelerated the digital transition among those who had already started this strategic shift.

With the Defy 21 Ultraviolet, Zenith has decided to give its El Primero 21 chronograph calibre, which beats at a record frequency of 50 Hz, a purple makeover. Purple is the colour with the highest frequency: beyond that, there is only invisible ultraviolet light...
With the Defy 21 Ultraviolet, Zenith has decided to give its El Primero 21 chronograph calibre, which beats at a record frequency of 50 Hz, a purple makeover. Purple is the colour with the highest frequency: beyond that, there is only invisible ultraviolet light...

Does this apply to you?

Yes, the launch of our e-commerce platform was already planned for this year, in fact. The crisis has accelerated events: we launched the platform in Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. We started with an exclusive piece, the Chronomaster Revival Manufacture Edition (see below), and everything sold out in three days. What is important is that we somehow manage to “humanise” the digital world.

“What is important is that we somehow manage to ‘humanise’ the digital world.”

2019 marked the fiftieth anniversary of El Primero, the first high-frequency automatic chronograph movement. The Chronomaster Revival Manufacture Edition, which reproduces a previously unknown El Primero dial prototype, is exclusively available on Zenith's new e-commerce platform, as well as to visitors to the factory in Le Locle.
2019 marked the fiftieth anniversary of El Primero, the first high-frequency automatic chronograph movement. The Chronomaster Revival Manufacture Edition, which reproduces a previously unknown El Primero dial prototype, is exclusively available on Zenith’s new e-commerce platform, as well as to visitors to the factory in Le Locle.

In parallel with this digital acceleration, there is still a strong desire for vintage inspiration…

What we consider vintage today was breakthrough innovation in its time. On this subject, I can share an interesting story: I was fortunate to meet the watchmakers who participated in the birth of El Primero – the oldest was born in 1939, the youngest in 1945 – and they told me how it happened. All of them spoke of the innovative and dynamic spirit of the time, but also of the detractors who wanted to stay wedded to the past. Above all, they encouraged me to go further than El Primero, as they did in their time: “What you’re creating now, if you do it right, will be the icon of tomorrow!” they said. And they know what they are talking about ... Zenith’s vocation is not to copy what has already been done but to create the future of watchmaking. Our history is only a base which helps us to design watches for the 21st century.

The Elite Moonphase Romeo y Julieta watch is the latest series of models resulting from the collaboration between Zenith and Habanos, the Cuban cigar manufacturer.
The Elite Moonphase Romeo y Julieta watch is the latest series of models resulting from the collaboration between Zenith and Habanos, the Cuban cigar manufacturer.

Is your new strategy with the Defy line, launched in 2017, paying off commercially?

Clearly. In two years, it has become Zenith’s main collection in terms of sales. Last year, for the fiftieth anniversary of El Primero, we also focused on anniversary models in the Chronomaster line. Today, Defy and Chronomaster are the two pillars of Zenith, accounting for around 30% of sales each. The Elite and Pilot lines are also tactical, responding to a demand for very fine and elegant models. To sum up, Chronomaster represents the origin of our specialisation in chronographs, and Defy gives a new direction to this specialisation. I like this duality.

The Chronomaster Revival “Shadow” is inspired by a little-known prototype dating from 1970, found in the secret walled attic where Charles Vermot had previously hidden all the plans and parts necessary for the production of the El Primero movement.
The Chronomaster Revival “Shadow” is inspired by a little-known prototype dating from 1970, found in the secret walled attic where Charles Vermot had previously hidden all the plans and parts necessary for the production of the El Primero movement.

The coronavirus crisis also exposed the logistical flaws of the current commercial model, particularly when deliveries of components from Asia were interrupted.

We cannot call ourselves an innovative brand, and innovate only with our products. I can’t tell you too much, but we are working on a concept for next year whose main innovation will relate to the mode of delivery. Managing flows is very important, as is transparency. Seen from abroad, Switzerland often gives an opaque image. Since the brand renewal initiated with Jean-Claude Biver, we have focused on transparency. This led to the opening of our factory to the general public, two years ago. We show everything because we have nothing to hide and we are proud of it. All of our models are fitted with in-house movements. To succeed, Swiss watchmaking must open up, be more accessible and more transparent in the 21st century.

“To succeed, Swiss watchmaking must open up, be more accessible and more transparent in the 21st century.”

Indeed, you have to go to Le Locle in person – or to your e-commerce site – to buy the Chronomaster Revival Manufacture Edition.

Yes, because the story of this piece is very personal for us. In 2018, we found a box containing some old dials in three different shades of blue. After interviewing those who lived through the El Primero adventure, it emerged that these were prototypes that were never sold. As they were found at the heart of our manufacture, we decided to make a series of manufacture editions. The story of Zenith is such an engaging one, it grabs you by the guts!

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