The Man Behind Zenith’s Star Power
Zenith CEO Julien Tornare gets candid with us about scarcity in watchmaking, while also talking up the new Pilot collection
Perhaps it is still a feature of the extended pandemic hangover we are experiencing but we found ourselves mostly circling about with old friends and acquaintances at Watches and Wonders Geneva. This would not be out of place if we had skipped the physical fair last year, but we did not. We showed up, and even made time (no pun intended, and if you see this word appear frequently in these pages, just accept that we are mostly playing it straight – Ed) for some cocktails on day one. At the Zenith cocktail in the city last year, we experienced the camaraderie between the executives in different regions, as well as some of their retail partners. To be clear, one is not a party animal if one shows up to the first proper cocktail of a watch fair – one with light bites, not a full feast. We humbly suggest that one must be in dire need of engagement to do this. If any brand can be said to thrive when one can touch and feel the timepieces, it must be Zenith.
Though its budgets may not be the biggest, and its stand at Watches and Wonders Geneva was far from a sparklefest (more on that in a bit), Zenith really shines in one-on-one interactions. Not only did we experience this last year, but also multiple times in Singapore, most recently at the LVMH Watch Week. Zenith CEO Julien Tornare has a bit of history with us, hence the opening point about mingling with familiar faces. In case you have forgottten, we met Tornare for the first time, directly, at the first version of Watches and Wonders, in Hong Kong in 2013. At that time, he was Vacheron Constantin’s Man- aging Director for the Asia-Pacific region, and thus he has a number of personal connections with Asian retailers and press.
Tornare, 51, is also a native of Geneva, and the only watch brand CEO we know of to be a champion water-skier. We can report that Zenith has yet to venture into this particular sport, although we think it would be a great idea. Seriously though, Tornare is an orig- inal thinker who has left his mark in every collection the brand has launched since he took the helm in 2017. Perhaps most significantly, he has done so by neither aping the past nor denying it. This year, at Watches and Wonders Geneva, Tornare demonstrates this yet again with the Pilot collection, and he did not even try to get a lifesize vintage biplane or something into the booth. Instead, Zenith has the best demonstration area (for a small group) where everyone can test the pusher action on the chronograph, or play with the date via the crown. This engaging feature is just one of many differences between Zenith and other brands.
Instead of us telling you about all this, we will let Tornare do the talking, starting with the start attractions of the year.
To begin with, let us talk about Zenith’s star piece, the Pilot Big Date Flyback. Take us through the decision to revisit or update this collection.
Yeah, that’s our big deal this year (at Watches and Wonders Geneva). We are super happy really to have this couple of launches (the time-only Pilot and the Big Date Pilot). As you know, we have been repositioning the Defy collection over the last few years, and more recently also with the Chronomaster (since 2021)… That’s been a great success and I had to do something on the Pilot collection, which is a very important line for us. The last new collection was presented in 2013 by Jean-Frederic Dufour (the former CEO of Zenith, and current top dog at Rolex, who relaunched the Pilot in 2012) and it was very vintage; very big on bronze and aged steel.
Now we want to go again, with a much more contemporary approach, knowing that we have this transversal concept of revival, in which we can launch vintage pieces; re-editions and so on. But the top of the range should be contemporary. So that’s exactly what we’re doing now (because it was missing in this collection).
Plus, we have a huge legitimacy because the name Pilote (see our story on this watch in Highlights – Ed) was protected by our founder in 1888, years before the first plane even took off and then reinforced in 1904 with the English word (with its specific connotations). So we have a great history, and we can show what we did (originally) with three-handers and chronographs (in the area of aviation watches).
In the original use of the name Pilote, that was more about navigation no?
True, of course and I think it’s still perfect because being a pilot in the old days was also about navigation, so that is a really nice fit.
Did this idea, for the current reimagining of the Pilot collection, come from rediscovering the old story?
No, no, no. We always do brainstorming between a few key people. Here I mean Romain Marietta, from production; our historian, who’s in charge of the archives; as well as our (lead) designer and myself. So it is a small group. We look at the past; we look at the history; we look at every single vintage watch; and then we start to brainstorm. Basically, we discovered that we are actually stronger in (the pilot’s watch category) than we expected in terms of legitimacy.
So, we had to come up with a collection that would be in line with this (fantastic history) and that would be really, again, contemporary. That was the clear decision. We like to lean into our heritage, but be contemporary at the same time. What we don’t want is to repeat the heritage (and to live in the past). We have a long history and we cannot run away from that but if you only repeat the past, then at some point you become a museum brand. That’s not Zenith.
Let’s go back to process of developing the Pilot collection. Tell us more about it please.
The brainstorming was the starting point, and once we had a few more (specific) ideas that we could execute, we made 3D visuals, renderings and such. This is shared with our product committee, where we are 10 people, and then we start prototyping. We had like three or four different kinds of prototypes and we picked up the one that was the most meaningful to us.
We bring this up because we know there are a lot of new people interested in watchmaking who might know next to nothing about how the watches are developed.
Yes, of course I think it’s one way to go; to be very transparent with clients and to explain how watchmaking works. You know, sometimes clients are waiting a long time for watches and you need to explain why. I’m very much against what I would call artificial scarcity. Sometimes, with some types of complex watches, you understand that because of the complexity of the mechanism, not many people are able to make a watch like that, or regulate the watch. Basically, there are some real constraints.
But there are also watches that are quite simple, and they are limited on purpose because the brand (reasonably) could do more, and yet it does not. We don’t want to play that game at all, so while we’ve had some watches where there was a waiting list, depending on the period and on the watch, it’s not an objective in itself.
I don’t think it’s right, and we always tell the client our objective is to satisfy you, as soon as possible…that’s what we do with our retailers too. We have to make watches available for them to sell. Now, I have heard some complaints from our retail partners about brands that show them great watches, only to then tell them that those pieces are not for them. I have heard that more than ever this year, and I don’t know why it should be so; I think it is wrong. Of course, there are boutique editions, and we have those too, but when it comes to major launches, like the Pilot this year, the collection is meant for all retailers.
Another related thing is what you mentioned, that people have the wrong idea about how the watches are made and it’s not good for the industry, I’m telling you. Yeah, because I hear more and more clients complaining about various practices (which are standard in watchmaking). There’s an arrogance there when a client tries to buy a watch but is confronted by some (dubious) questions, like are you a real client…how many of so-and-so pieces do you have… I know one client who said he did not want to be forced to buy eight watches he didn’t want, just to get one that he did want. I think we have reached the limit of this sort of thing.
Speaking of limits, we were pleased to hear that watch brands are hiring again and looking to expand production. Tell us about the evolution of work at Zenith, because we know you were already doing interesting things here, almost as soon as you settled into the top job.
True, but it’s a lot about what the brand is doing…you know the values of the brand, not just the marketing initiatives. For example, we have something called Zenith Horizon. This covers inclusion, diversity and employee wellness too. We do not do these things just to look good. We took concrete actions to make the workplace the best that we can. At Zenith today, this ranges from the new restaurant in the manufacture, to the yoga courses and fitness centre within the office itself. Yes, we have to pay the right salaries but we also have to have the right lighting and ambient conditions, especially when it comes to the technical jobs because those who do this work tend to be sensitive to the environment.
Another example (that involves myself) is a breakfast meeting I organise every month at the office for everyone who celebrated their birthday the month before. Usually, it’s around 20 to 25 people with me from many different departments, of course. We talk freely, and I ask them, what do you think about this thing, whatever it is, that we are doing at the company? What did you see that you like? What did you see that you don’t like? I also give them insight into what’s happening with the brand. So the exchange is extremely good and this is something they love…You know, in most companies, most guys, they never talk to the CEO… They only receive a one-way presentation at the Christmas party and that’s it. And it is really paying off for us because we have a very low turnover rate. This is even though we are based in Le Locle, which is not the best location always to hire people!
Finally, tell us about your experience with Watches and Wonders Geneva in general. Is a physical fair really the best way to communicate what watchmaking is about?
First of all, we know we cannot have a one-size-fits-all strategy or even (talking points). Some people are willing to understand technical details and they’re not so much into the storytelling; some other people, they don’t want to hear anything technical so we have to be smart in the way that we deal with (both sets of) clients. You need tools around you to communicate; you need to explain what the brand is all about. To some extent, this is what we are paying for (in terms of Watches and Wonders Geneva). We learned from COVID that we could still sell watches digitally, but you are right that are limits <this is the bit where I usually go on about the importance of trying on watches – Ed> and we need a (physical platform to express the brand’s identity. You know, the best compliment to me is when people say they look and explore the booth and (in this way) they understand what Zenith today is all about.
This article was published in World of Watches #69 Summer 2023 issue
For more on luxury watches, click here.