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Watchmaker Zenith bets on new way of keeping time

High-end watchmaker Zenith is replacing a part that has kept time in mechanical watches for almost 350 years, hoping its new, apparently more accurate mechanism will help to revive its fortunes.

The Swiss brand, recently the laggard in the watches stable of luxury goods group LVMH that also includes Bulgari, TAG Heuer and Hublot, unveiled its Defy Lab watch on Thursday with a new kind of oscillator.

It was developed in the group’s research and development centre and replaces the traditional balance spring, the watch industry’s most coveted and strategic component on which Swatch Group still has a quasi-monopoly.


“We want to supply this component to other brands, to TAG Heuer and Hublot of course, but also the Swiss watch industry,” said Jean-Claude Biver, head of LVMH’s watchmaking business who vowed in January to put Zenith back on track before he retires.

Julien Tornare, from Richemont brand Vacheron Constantin, has since been appointed as Zenith CEO.

Unlike quartz watches, mechanical ones don’t need a battery because they derive energy from a mainspring that is either wound by hand or, in an automatic watch, by the natural movement of the wearer’s wrist. This energy is transmitted to the oscillating balance spring which divides time into equal parts.

The new Zenith watch no longer uses a balance spring, a mechanism invented in 1675, but replaces its approximately 30 parts with a single silicon oscillator that, Zenith says, beats at a higher frequency and is more accurate than standard parts.

Only 10 of the watches have been produced so far, but mass production is the next goal.

“We’ll be able to produce serially in three to six months,” Biver told Reuters on the sidelines of the official launch at Zenith’s headquarters in Le Locle, Switzerland.

Guy Semon, head of the LVMH Science Institute, said his teams were working to produce the new-style oscillator at the same price as the traditional one.