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Zenith’s Jean-Frédéric Dufour Discusses the Future of the Celebrated Swiss Watch Brand

James D. Malcolmson

Since becoming the CEO of the Swiss watch manufacturer Zenith in late 2011, Jean-Frédéric Dufour has overseen a dramatic shift at the LVMH-owned company. In the last two years, Zenith—whose beginnings date back to the mid-19th century—has moved away from the flamboyant, modernist designs for which the company had become known prior to Dufour’s arrival. The first launch with Dufour at the helm, in 2012, returned the brand to its historic roots with the rerelease of its highly complicated flagship collection based on the El Primero chronograph. Later that year, Zenith unveiled its Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 limited-edition watch, which presaged a much larger collection of now-popular pilot’s watches that the company has continued to develop over the last 18 months. Indeed, Zenith under Dufour’s guidance features broad collections and a returned focus to original complications. Robb Report recently sat down with Dufour to discuss his vision for this historic watch brand. (866.675.2079, www.zenith-watches.com)

RR: What does the Pilot collection offer loyalists of the Zenith brand?

JD: Today we have three different pillars for the brand: We have Captain, which are very classic watches inspired by our genes as a company; in the middle is El Primero, which is the backbone of the company and an icon of the Swiss watch industry, and so we have to handle it with care and advance it with new materials and designs; and then comes Pilot, which is designed for a somewhat younger wearer. We chose a design [for the Pilot watches] that features a large case with soldered lugs. This design goes back to the origin of the first wristwatches, which were essentially modified pocket watches. Our legacy in the field goes back to the time of the very first airplanes, and this history makes the whole collection coherent.

RR: Why do you think Zenith’s El Primero watch has had such lasting appeal?

JD: To me, the El Primero has the ultimate balance of frequency and power reserve. You can increase frequency, but it is usually at the expense of power reserve. There is a lot more than just frequency that goes into the accuracy of the watch. Maintaining the right amplitude of the balance is also as important, especially as the watch moves in different positions. Without the right amplitude, you cannot adjust the watch for different positions. The torque and energy you supply to the balance is also crucial. It’s a lot like a car; there are many features you have to develop to make it handle properly.

RR: With many watchmakers dramatically increasing their prices in recent years, citing fluctuating exchange rates and costs of precious metals, what are some of your thoughts on pricing?

JD: Twenty years ago when you were taking about luxury, you were never talking about price. Now things are changing because there is so much competition in luxury goods. As watchmakers, we have to bring people something that is emotionally strong—an experience they have not only when they are buying the piece but also when they are wearing it. We have to reinforce this with everything we do so that the more you learn about Zenith, the better you will feel. Many watch companies forget this. They think because they have a certain name, they can charge whatever they feel like. This is not the way we approach things.

RR: How do your complicated watches, the Christophe Colomb models, fit into the Zenith family?

JD: We’ve talked about pillars; Christophe Colomb is the roof. Naturally, it’s important for us to show that we’re capable of producing exclusive watches at that level. However, we want show that we can make not only complicated watches but also exclusive mechanisms. The gimballed gravity-control system on the Christophe Colomb is a unique feature. It cancels gravity error on the balance spring like a tourbillon. It could probably never have been built in the time of Abraham-Louis Breguet [the inventor of the tourbillon], because the calculations needed to make so many wheels turn would have been too difficult. It’s really a fantastic system that we want to keep in our collection forever—and we have many developments on the way.

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