Julien Tornare Zenith CEO, Discusses the 50th Anniversary of El Primero

Lindsay Judge   |   12 - 12 - 2019

Julien Tornare has made a lot of changes since he joined Zenith two and a half years ago. The CEO came in with a mission to bring a fresh feel to the watch brand, developing new pieces and planning for the future, but not forgetting the rich history Zenith was built on.


Throughout 2019 Zenith has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the El Primero watch movement. This movement, which was first introduced in 2019, has become an icon in its own right, defining the brands DNA. The mechanical precision of the movement allows 36,000 vibrations per hour and was a pioneer of the industry when it was first developed 50 years ago. Since joining as CEO Tornare has spent time discovering more about the movement and celebrating the uniqueness of its design. As he arrives in Dubai on the final leg of a celebratory world tour, A&E met with Tornare to discover more about this unique celebration and his plans for the future of the brand.


ZENITH 1971 Vintage Model


You have spent this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of El Primero how has it been so far and what have been your highlights?

I joined the company two and a half years ago and we all knew that this anniversary would come in 2019. Celebrating a movement is a bit of a tricky exercise. Usually, brands celebrate their own anniversary or the anniversary of a watch model, so this is quite different. It’s a legendary movement so we had to do something big. I wanted to understand what was behind the movement so I decided to meet the people who made the El Primero fifty years ago. I managed to find eight gentlemen who worked on it and we met and talked about the past and they gave me so many inside stories. There was so much creativity and innovation in the time when they created the movement and it was a great moment to relive that past. When I met these men I realised that my mission at Zenith is to bring the brand to the next level and push the boundaries. The Swiss watchmaking industry often tends to turn to the past. There are two categories – the brands with a long history who are repeating the past, scared to evolve from what they have been doing; and the brands that are starting from a clean sheet; the ones who can do what they want because they have no heritage. So I think the El Primero celebration was a good way for Zenith to connect the two – the traditional heritage and the future of what we want to do. I believe that the best way to pay tribute to these gentlemen is by continuing to create. We’ve celebrated in 19 cities around the world and it’s been fantastic. The brand is doing really well and I’m super happy about it.


Are there any highlights you can share with us? 

It’s been a year of celebration and we have not only celebrated the movement but we have given tribute to Charles Vermot. He was one of the people who created the El Primero in the sixties. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2002. Soon after the El Primero was created in 1969 the Quartz crisis happened. The Japanese created the Quartz movement and the whole industry was shaken up. Around that time Zenith was purchased by an American group. They came to Switzerland and declared that Quartz would be the future and that the brand had to get rid of everything that had come before, including the El Primero. But Charles Vermot did not listen to his boss and instead he started to hide everything connected to the El Primero. He spent six months hiding everything in the attic of the company and then he built a brick wall to keep it all secret. Many years passed and when Vermot was retired in 1984 the company was bought by Swiss owners. The new owners wanted to relaunch the legendary movement. They called a few people in the company and someone suggested that Charles Vermot could help. So they got in touch with him and he drove to the factory, broke the wall and revealed what we call today ‘the hidden treasure’. It’s an amazing true story.


Unfortunately, I could not meet him but I managed to meet his son who came with me to some of the events this year and shared many stories about what his father did. He didn’t only do it for the passion but he took a huge personal risk. He didn’t even tell his family for ten years. His son really had tears in his eyes when he was telling me and it’s really meaningful because Zenith is not only about the product, but it’s about the people and it’s about emotion.


Charles Vermot in the 1980s


What has changed in Zenith since you joined two and a half years ago?

A lot of things I hope as that was my job! First of all, I think I brought a new mindset to the brand. It had been moving slowly before I joined. I felt that the people were down and there had been a lot of changes. So I had to do two things. The first was to bring a new dynamic to the company and I also had to create stability and show people a real vision. So that’s what I did for the first six months – I reassured the people, I told them my mission and invited them to join me. People appreciated it a lot I think. I told them I wanted a ‘start-up spirit’ and I wanted to continue to build a future as these gentlemen did in the sixties. It probably took a while for everyone to understand but I think it’s working well now. I put a lot of tools in place in terms of management to create this new atmosphere. Then, of course, we introduced new watches with a more modern and contemporary design and step by step the brand has been doing fantastically and I’m happy, but we still have a long way to go.


What would you still like to do at Zenith that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?

So many things. Honestly, I could work at Zenith for 1,000 years and I still wouldn’t have achieved everything I wanted! But what I really want is for more people to know about the brand. It’s such a beautiful brand but we are still missing awareness and people still don’t know what they are really buying when they buy a Zenith watch. For me, it’s about capitalising on our long history as well as our authenticity but also looking to the future. Zenith is one of the few brands where every watch still has a movement that’s made in house. So we have substance and we sell something true. That’s not to forget that we are creating for people living in the 21st century, so I don’t want to be selling our customers the same watch their parents or grandparents bought, I want to sell a watch that was made for them and that’s really important. I want to raise awareness by communicating the brand in better ways and raising the desirability around Zenith. That will be my challenge in the coming years.


How do you balance appealing to the customer of today without affecting your existing clientele?

I think clients respect you if you respect yourself and they will respect you if you explain why you’re doing things. I’m never going to run away from what Zenith has always been which has always been about Chronometry and precision. That’s what we are known for, so I’m continuing to work on that but in a more modern and contemporary way. When I joined the brand my boss asked me if I wanted to launch a connected or smartwatch. I told him I didn’t get the point. Many brands are doing it and it’s great, but it’s not part of Zenith and who we are and who I want the brand to be. I think by being truly who we are, even if we are evolving, clients will be in line with us. That’s what I’ve experienced so far.




The DEFY watches have been a huge launch for Zenith, what has been the feedback from them so far?

People love them, even the most dedicated watch collectors. The DEFY is inspired by a watch called the A384 which was launched in 1969. It’s much more contemporary but it’s about chronometry because it’s the first chronograph measuring 100th of a second. Yes, it was made for the 21st century, but it’s still purely Zenith because the shape was inspired by a Zenith watch and the chronometry is our own field of expertise. DEFY has become a very strong watch for us and within two years it’s now representing a huge part of our business.


What about the Middle East – how are the products received here and does it differ from other parts of the world?

I often get asked this question and I honestly think the differences from one market to another are becoming less and less. Twenty years ago, when you travelled you would have the opportunity to buy local products that you couldn’t find anywhere else, but today you can buy everything from everywhere. People today have such easy access to information like we have never had before, so I strongly believe in truth and authenticity. In the golden years of marketing you could basically make up stories and people would believe them. Now people have developed a much more critical mind and they doubt everything and want to know about everything in-depth, so we need to be authentic. It’s something that’s easy at Zenith and this is why we are coming back stronger. Every single watch has a Zenith movement and we are not only innovative with the product, but we were also the first watch brand to open up the doors of our manufacturer to the public. This also highlights our transparency and I believe very strongly in that. Some may disagree with me but I believe that millennials do care about what’s inside the watch and the authenticity. They want to understand what they are getting for their money, much more than people did before because they have access to so much information. I really pay attention to that and I take the time to meet the younger generation from different regions, including Dubai, and what people are looking for when they buy luxury is really quite similar wherever they are in the world. So no, I’m not going to make special editions of watches for certain markets, because overall everyone is the same and it’s more about quality and authenticity. This is the key to making a brand successful.


Zenith CEO Julie Tornare


What is Zenith doing and what can be done in the future to support sustainability and what are the challenges you face related to that?

There are a lot of challenges. The LVMH group is very much into becoming greener and into sustainability, so as a watch brand we also have to question ourselves. We have put a lot of measures in place to change quite a lot of processes, whether that is within the industry as a whole or simply inside the company. It could be turning SUVs into electric cars or stopping using all plastic cups inside the manufacturer. We are doing a lot of things like that. But a mechanical watch in itself is actually quite green. I’m not saying we only use green processes to build it, but we do build objects that will last forever. A mechanical watch is one of the very few objects in the world that will still be functioning in 1,000 years. Yes, maybe you might need to put some oil on it and apply some basic maintenance, but it’s going to work 100, 300, 1,000 years from now. How many things will still exist in 1,000 years? This is one way to look at it.


How important is the store experience today?

It’s hugely important. At Zenith we are catching up because we don’t have a lot of boutiques yet. We only have twenty and we should have fifty, but Zenith has always been more of a wholesale brand. This is also good, don’t get me wrong. I think today the right strategy for watches is to be balanced with an omnichannel strategy. Of course, I can’t be here telling you we are an innovative brand and not talking about e-commerce, so we need to have it to a certain extent. It’s more of a communication tool, but it’s important. Our boutiques are important, but I do believe that multi-brand retailers are very important. We sell something that is very technical and not easy to understand. So sometimes I think it is good for our customers to visit somewhere that offers neutral advice and this is what you can get from a multi-brand retailer. I think it’s important to have a balance between these three channels and that’s the way we’re going to keep on going.


Can you tell us more about e-commerce at Zenith? Is it more a research tool or are customers actually buying online?

We have a bit of both but I would say more of a research tool for sure. I can’t say 100 per cent but I believe most of our customers look online first – this could be to learn more about a specific watch or to learn more about the brand. I don’t think any brand is selling big quantities online today. If you go online there are two types of customers – those who go onto the grey market websites looking for a better price and those who look for something that they cannot find in the regular stores. The latter is the reason why we have been working very successfully on some limited edition pieces. We created one that was available exclusively on Net-A-Porter which sold out in just over an hour, and we have done others that sold out very quickly. We made a limited edition piece with Phillips Auction House where we sold a one-off piece for charity – I barely finished my speech during the evening and it was sold! So this is how it’s working. We’re not talking big quantities but we are talking communication buzz and good noise for the brand. The ones who really want something special are now waiting for the new limited edition pieces to come online. I think this is the right way to utilise it for now.


We know that you are coming back to Dubai for the LVMH Days event in January – can you tell us a little bit more about that?

You can expect a major event. I’m so happy that we are doing the first edition in Dubai because historically we have had the big trade shows in Geneva but it has always been very Switzerland focused. When I joined LVMH I also joined the Baselworld committee where I represented the LVMH Group and I told them we have to open up to the world. It’s good to have a show in Switzerland, but we also need to go to the markets. So after discussions with my colleagues, we decided to come to Dubai and do this in January. Every year we will go somewhere in the world for such a show. When you visit the markets, not only do you offer a special experience to the people, but you also have the opportunity to look after the local clientele and that’s super important. If we keep having one trade show a year in Switzerland and one out there in the market, it’s a very 21st-century approach.


What can we expect to see from Zenith in 2020?

A lot of things! DEFY has been a fantastic growth engine for the brand over the last few years and we will see some extra developments in this, which is really important for us. This year we launched a few revival editions of the Chronomaster which was made in the sixties and we will be launching a 2020 Chronomaster new edition which goes back to a very beautiful case shape with a fantastic dial and the pure tradition of watchmaking but again, always turning to the future.


What about women’s watches?

Another bit of good news is that we will be launching a great offering for women which is also a very important subject. We shouldn’t be making watches purely for women.
I think this is a thing of the past. I think we should make beautiful watches that will please men and women. So it could be a men’s size with a feminine touch. It works both ways. In Asia, we have a lot of male clients wearing diamonds. So I think it’s really interesting and we are coming back with pieces that will appeal to women and we will have an event dedicated to women as well. Dubai will actually be the first country that we launch this watch.


How would you describe Zenith in one word? 




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