A Vintage Zenith Collector’s Perspective On The Latest Defy Releases
Greg Selch discusses his collecting background, his relationship with Zenith, and the new Defy Skyline.
The first time I met Greg Selch he presented me with three open shoe boxes. One was filled with 15 or so vintage Zenith El Primero chronographs, and another featured a similar amount of Movado watches from the heyday of the Movado-Zenith-Mondia federation in the ’70s. The final box contained what I was specifically there to see – his collection of vintage Zenith Defy watches.
Selch estimates he owns around 40 different Defy examples from the late 1960s through the 1970s. They’re part of the sprawling collection that Cole profiled on Talking Watches last May. While only one Defy made the cut that day, a quick review of his Instagram account (@livingstonsatnight) revealed dozens of additional Defy watches, of all shapes and sizes, residing in his personal collection. I had to know more.
I recently found out Zenith would be highlighting the history of the Defy by reissuing an exact replica of the original 1969 ref. A3642 as part of its ongoing Revival series. And one week after the Revival was to be announced, Zenith would go even further, revealing a new flagship Defy during LVMH Watch Week. That release, called the Defy Skyline, features an updated design that explicitly references original Defy wristwatches and is outfitted with an El Primero caliber that’s been simplified to three-hander status.
There aren’t very many people out there that have more hands-on experience with vintage Zenith Defy watches than Selch. With all of this week’s drops, I wanted to know what he thought about the latest news.
So I asked him – and here’s what I found out.
HODINKEE: What’s your background with Zenith?
Greg Selch: My relationship with Zenith started when I thought I was the only person who had ever heard of this incredible company. This was in the nineties, eBay barely existed, and it didn’t cover Europe at all. Americans seemed to know much more about Movado than Zenith; Movado even seemed to be America’s version of Zenith! I was trying to understand all that stuff. At the same time, I was discovering the Movado Datron; eventually, I found my way to the El Primero. That opened up a whole world for me.
When I discovered Zenith, it felt like it was really my own thing. If I wore it out, nobody would ever recognize it. People didn’t know what it was. They thought it was a cheap watch, something made as a promotional thing for the television company. By the early 2000s, people were starting to become more interested.
How did you come across vintage Defy wristwatches?
There really aren’t that many El Primeros out there. They only made 250 or so of certain models. But I found out Zenith made the Defy, and I started to buy them in all different kinds of condition. I mean, some were really hammered. And I like that.
The beauty of the Defy is that, to me, the first design was perfect. The charge, I think, for the original designer was to build something that really didn’t need any care It was a new type of sport watch, an entirely original kind of thing.
I think that the idea was Zenith saying, “We want to make a watch that is a challenge. We are going to challenge the watch and ask, ‘Are you going to run under any circumstances?'”
When you hold the new Defy Revival A3642, what do you notice about it?
It strikes me as just like the original. The weight is really important, and it’s got that. The bevel on the crystal is just like the original.
I don’t know what it’s like if you take it apart. I have an original jeweler’s sample case. With that, you can see how simple the case design really was, you know? They used that big rubber cushion to protect the movement.
Part of what is so appealing to me about watches is how they connect us to the past. Even if you buy a watch that’s brand-new it still ties you to the past and the history of a brand. And with these heritage releases, they are even more directly connected to the past.
You can wear this brand-new watch that is going to function just as you need it to, but you get to have the internal satisfaction of knowing that this watch was really innovative when it came out, when Zenith was arguably at the height of its influence and creativity. And 50 years later, I’m wearing one myself. I’m connected to that.
Looking at the Defy Revival A3642, where would you like Zenith to focus next in the vintage Defy world?
I find the Revival A3642 exciting because I really like the sort of smoked brown dial. It definitely harkens back to what people think of as the sixties and seventies, that futuristic look. I think it’s great. But I would love to see them do something similar to what they did with an El Primero recently, by auctioning off a unique piece with a pink dial for breast cancer awareness. I love that. That’d be cool.
The fact is now you’ve got all these different parts already made. You’ve got the bracelet, which is great, they have the tooling for that. They can make those all day long. You have this case, and I don’t think that they need to do the offset four o’clock crown yet. It’s a totally different design if you think about it, with a different case.
You can use all the same tooling, but use a different dial, an entirely different dial. Or maybe they can figure out how to use the same tooling, the same case, to create a one-button chronograph like the Retrotimer.
My opinion would be to go with variations, with new dials. Maybe try a DLC coating and a black dial. How cool would that be?
I hope that Zenith keeps going in the same direction. They’re doing a great job honoring people like myself, who know these watches were and are great.
We also have the Skyline. It’s obviously a Defy, but it’s also very different from what we expect from the collection. I’m curious what your kind of first impressions are.
I always liked the new Defy. I thought it was really bold to come out with the new movement and to riff off the design of the original Defy case. We basically have a super-rugged case that follows many of the same designs as the original but bigger. On the other hand, it’s got an El Primero movement inside, which is actually bringing the watch back to 1969.
It has a great bracelet. It’s not as fat as most of the new styles of bracelet, so it actually feels better. I sometimes find these new, heavy-duty bracelets to be almost too heavy. The watches were not originally like that in the sixties. They had folded-link bracelets back then, and the new ones are solid links. I also like the fact that they have a removable bracelet with quick release. I think they’re going to want to make a leather option for it one day, or someone else is going to figure that out.
And look at that sweep second hand, it’s so cool. It’s just amazing.
Who do you think the Skyline is speaking to? Is it bringing in a new client base? Or is it trying to speak to enthusiasts? Or both at the same time?
I don’t think that they’re trying to talk to enthusiasts. I don’t think enthusiasts exist in that way today. I think in the past 20 years people have been told what they should like by the industry for so long. And it hasn’t been satisfying. And so people like me, like Jean-Claude Biver with Hublot and the Blancpain revival, and all the micro brands that are starting up, I think we are the response. We respond to the industry and say, “Don’t treat us like children and tell us what we ought to like.” We’re going to define that ourselves. We’re not gonna be defined by you.
So now we’re looking for something different. And I think Zenith is one of the companies that is a little bit more tuned in to where people are. I think people are looking to set themselves apart rather than have the same thing as everybody else. Those days are over. It’s just not that exciting. And here’s somebody who’s actually saying, “Hey, let’s bring something new.”
I think that, as a company, the one place where Zenith could do a little bit more is in raising awareness of the brand, the history, the philosophy, the design. Just the name alone, it’s not as well-known as we all want to think.
Is there anything you wish Zenith had done, or hadn’t done, on the new releases?
I think both watches are really good starting points.
These are entirely different. One of them is actually using an old movement that was created in 1969, but design-wise, it’s new and exciting. The other one uses a design from 1969, but it has the brand-new newer movement inside it, the Elite movement. I think the Skyline is already going in the right direction, by updating the design and bringing a really cool extra feature in the super-fast running seconds.
Even though they reissued the A3642, they didn’t bring the original movement back. It’s a whole different concept between the two watches, but I think they incorporated the two together really well. It just looks perfect to me.
Watch enthusiasts often criticize vintage revival attempts, but it feels like you’re really supportive of Zenith’s reissues.
I was supportive of Zenith revivals back in the nineties, when they were just like starting to sort things out. They’re trying. And they’re trying to be better. That’s all we can hope for.
I really appreciate what they do. I think that if you know who you are, you know what you have, you aren’t insecure about it, and you’re actively promoting yourself, that’s really the strongest position you can be in.
Images, Tiffany Wade