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Julien Tornare: Vintage is the new contemporary

Zenith’s CEO looks back on a challenging start at the 154-year-old watchmaker. As the brand launches its 2019 novelties and 50th anniversary celebrations of the El Primero movement, he discusses how he plans to align the brand with a modern audience

Everybody likes to buy vintage items, from clothes to cars and motorcycles.

It’s never easy coming in as the new guy. Coming in at the top of a company that’s more than 150 years old, and helping that company appeal to a contemporary consumer, is doubly hard. But it’s a challenge Julien Tornare relishes as he sets about changing the internal mindset at Zenith and repositioning the brand.

In his nearly two years at the helm, his focus has been future-proofing the business while respecting its heritage. “I don’t think you respect your history and your predecessors if you’re mainly repeating what they did,” the 46-year-old CEO tells Debonair in Dubai. “A century ago watchmakers had only very basic tools and their hands with which to make perpetual calendars, tourbillons, power reserves and the like. But if you visit any manufacturer today, you’ll find tons of IT everywhere and computer assistance for everything, which makes it so much easier than it was in the past. So how are you respecting your heritage by doing that? 

“I think the only way to respect patrimony is to use your predecessors’ achievements as a starting point and to build and evolve from there.”

Tornare says the brand respects its heritage, but unlike many others in the Swiss watchmaking fraternity they don’t rest on that aspect. “I believe at Zenith we have our feet rooted in the heritage but our hands are reaching for the future.” 

Everybody likes to buy vintage items, from clothes to cars and motorcycles.

The Zenith Defy Classic Black Ceramic is forged from wear-proof black zirconium oxide ceramic.

Born in Geneva, Tornare joined Zenith after nearly two decades at Vacheron Constantin — first as market head for Switzerland, after which he was appointed the brand’s US director and most recently its managing director for Asia-Pacific — and before that Raymond Weil. “The mood wasn’t great when I moved back to Switzerland from Hong Kong,” says one of the youngest CEOs in the industry. 

“People are very particular over there in the small village of Le Locle in the Swiss mountains. You can’t force them to change — you need to evolve their mentality. They don’t listen to a marketing strategy; they want to really understand what you’re about. They need to believe in you before they’ll follow you. And being not just the guy from Geneva but the guy from Geneva who lived in New York and Hong Kong, I was an alien to them.”

Tornare says he won his team’s trust by not firing a bunch of people and bringing in his own team. He also organised monthly meetings where he explained his vision and that of LVMH president Jean-Claude Biver, and kept staff up to date on the brand’s activities around the world. “That was a big challenge at the beginning, and it took me a few months but I could really feel the mindset and the mood of the company change step by step.”

Born in 1969, the iconic El Primero high-frequency chronograph movement celebrates half a century of avant-garde and precision this year.

Tornare has adopted a start-up mentality at the company to assist in modernising the brand’s perception. 

His biggest external challenge is the same facing the rest of the industry over the past 15 years — the collapse of the Chinese market. “The industry thought we could coast forever on China’s consumers. Boy, were we wrong. 

“The reality we have to deal with is the shift of generation. The new generation of Chinese consumer is much more like you and me in terms of purchasing behaviour: They want to buy a watch of their time, not something of their parents’ or grandparents’ time; they want to buy at the right price; and they want to buy substance and value. That’s super important, and I guess brands forgot that.”

The solution to this aligns with appealing to a younger, tech-savvy demographic, says Tornare. 

He’s focused on presenting Zenith’s heritage in a contemporary manner — always underpinned by substance and authenticity. “I know everybody wants to be authentic. But when I say authentic, it means that any Zenith watch you buy will have a Zenith movement, even though it would cost a lot less to buy in the movement. 

Defy Zero G. 

“This new generation has full access to information about products. They want to buy something real, something with substance. And while it’s important that we’re a real manufacturer with a long heritage, it doesn’t mean we need to express things the way we did 100 years ago. We need to be contemporary. The best example of that is the Defy — the name is from the 1960s, and the shape is from the second year of the El Primero generation, which was 1970.”

Zenith celebrates the 50th anniversary of its fabled El Primero movement this year — a special feat in a landscape where brands mainly celebrate their manufacture’s anniversary, or that of a specific model. The brand is planning monthly celebrations around the world, with Dubai slated for December. Unusual as it may seem, these celebrations befit the very special movement. It forms the basis for the Defy El Primero 21, which sits at heart of the Defy Lab, the timepiece that won the Innovation prize at the 2017 GPHG. 

The watch brings together two special elements, he says — an iconic movement and an iconic watch to go with it. Tornare is excited about bringing the world’s most precise mechanical watch to market this year. “That win was very important for us. It made the message that we’re building on our heritage very clear. 

“I’m so happy to be able to say that we’ll finally commercialise a series of that timepiece. My worst nightmare would’ve been to have it only as a prototype. The watch will have a new name and concept, and only be available in a few hundred pieces, but expect a lot of buzz around that.”

The Zenith Defy Lab with its 15Hz movement is the world’s most accurate watch. 

The watch will be launched at Baselworld, alongside other novelties including the Defy Classic Black Ceramic, the first time this material is used in the collection. 

The brand also continues to build on its successful vintage-inspired pilot line.

“I think vintage is actually contemporary, because vintage is cool today. Everybody likes to buy vintage items, from clothes to cars and motorcycles. People want new things but they also like vintage things, which is quite interesting,” says Tornare. 

“Since 1911 or 1912, Zenith has been the only brand allowed to have the word ‘Pilot’ on the dial. And we’ve created something cool of the connection with Louis Blériot, who crossed the English Channel with a Zenith watch in 1909. The vintage pilot watches are very popular, but now we have to work on a contemporary pilot watch.

“Personally I don’t believe in making new things to look like old ones,” he says. “Either you’re going for vintage, or you create. And vintage is cool, but the trend won’t last forever.”

Tornare’s strategy for the brand also includes looking at ecommerce, customisation, the pre-owned market and special editions from time to time, such as the 50-piece Zenith Pilot Type 20 Chronograph emblazoned with the UAE flag.

Zenith launched its ecommerce platform in the US in December, with China and other markets to follow. “In the meantime we’re testing the waters through partners,” he says. 

Last year Zenith released a 50-piece UAE limited edition of its famous aviator’s watch, the Pilot Type 20 Chronograph.

“We should be careful, because we’re selling highly technical products and people need advice. And you don’t always get that online the same way you do offline.”

Zenith’s first official customised watch, with Bamford Watch Department, sold out in just over an hour — which helped the brand warm to the concept. That deal only came after Tornare had met with George Bamford. “Personalisation happens, but I wanted to validate and approve every single piece,” he explains. “It was important that we had more control than before.” 

He takes the same approach with the pre-owned market. “We don’t do this directly yet, but at some point we should. For now, there are enough dealers in that space. I’d just like it to be structured and organised.” 

The new product launches, development of future pieces and that very important anniversary celebrations are adding up to a busy year for the Zenith head, but he’s energised. 

“I’m excited,” Tornare says, “because if I take the last five month where we really saw a big improvement in our performance, plus what we have ahead of us — I can only be motivated.”

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