Zenith CEO Julien Tornare was in Paris recently to inaugurate the new Zenith boutique at Le Bon Marché luxury department store, and I was thrilled to have an exclusive interview with him. I’d followed many of his on-line conferences and presentations during Covid restrictions, and admired how hands-on, attentive and considerate he was.

He arrived as CEO at Zenith on May 1st 2017, bringing with him many years of watch industry experience. From family-owned Raymond Weil, he’d moved to giant Richemont Group’s Vacheron Constantin where he stayed for 17 years, as Managing Director first for Europe, then the USA, followed by Asia-Pacific.

Once at Zenith, he moved quickly, building on the brand’s rich history that includes the renowned El Primero – the world’s first fully integrated, high frequency, automatic chronograph movement. He began with the design in 2018 – 2019 of the Zenith Chronomaster Revival collection, inspired by key elements of the historic A277 (from 1968), the A386 (Zenith’s first El Primero watch, 1969), and the De Luca (1988). Launched in 2020 “with 5 times more sales than expected and a waiting list of 1,000”, it was followed shortly after by the Zenith Chronomaster Revival Manufacture Edition with 3 blue-hued counters.

Also scheduled for a 2020 release but delayed (due to lockdowns) until January 2021, the Chronomaster Sport 41mm – that Tornare was wearing in Paris – combines design elements from the historic A386, De Luca, and Rainbow models. And just a few months later, success continues with the Chronomaster Original that retains the unique aesthetics and 38mm size of the first El Primero A386. Both of these lines are equipped with the new El Primero 3600 Automatic Chronograph that measures 1/10th of a second.

In addition to creating historic-inspired collections and editions, Tornare wanted “to renew each existing Zenith timepiece, and make it renewable forever”. Quite the statement. And duly accomplished, with the Zenith Icons collection that consists of sourcing rare vintage Zenith watches from the 1960s and 70s, then restoring and certifying them with a 3-year warranty. “And they are very difficult to find” he adds, “because nobody wants to sell them!”. Available for now in 5 boutiques: Ginza, Shanghai, Singapore, Dubai and Paris, each with its own unique pieces, they can be consulted on-line, transferred from one boutique to another, and acquired on-line.

Alongside the Chronomaster line, Tornare has developed the “contemporary horology” Defy collection, Zenith’s ‘laboratory’ that includes spectacular pieces to show off Manufacture 1/100th of a second chronographs, double tourbillons, and gyroscopic mechanics. Each of these two lines, considered “strategic”, represents 30 to 35% of Zenith sales, with 10 to 15% for each of the more “tactical” Elite and Pilot lines. As for a breakdown of men’s vs women’s models, it is no longer a consideration for Tornare. “Apart from one or two models such as Defy Midnight for ladies, I have banned that terminology at Zenith. We make watches for everyone. Period.”

And the results of all this? “So far, for the first half of 2021, our turnover is +20% compared to 2019 at the same time, and this is without travel retail.” The fact that Tornare opened on-line sales has also contributed to the increase. “We’ve opened E-commerce in Europe, in the US, in China, and over 6 months this has amounted to 5% of our sales.” Triggered by confinements and travel restrictions, Tornare now considers E-commerce as a general customer service, especially for those in the USA, Australia… in remote areas far from stores. “I thought, if auction pieces are bought on-line, often unseen, why not us? Even better, our pieces are brand new, flawless, and can be returned if you’re not satisfied.”

Zenith currently has 20 boutiques – “Eleven of our own and nine franchises. And we will double in 4 years. France is one of Europe’s best, in fact among the top 5 or 6 worldwide. And Covid has taught us that local clientele is more important in terms of sales than we thought. Our main markets remain China, Japan, and the USA where our turnover has tripled – we’re very happy with our ambassador there, Aaron Rogers, who is admired for his authenticity.” Ah, the ambassadors…

“Our ambassadors are not red carpet” says Tornare, “as can be seen with the №«Time to Reach Your Star» and «Dreamhers» campaigns. We look for real people who reach for their star and work hard to get there. Soon we will even post testimonial videos from fans who will explain what they like about Zenith and why.”

And what’s in the stars for Zenith? Personalisation projects and the development of interchangeable straps such as the 3-strap package proposed with DEFY Midnight are possible paths to explore…

In the meantime, one thing is certain: for CEO Tornare, not even the sky is the limit.

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