At BaselWorld 2013, Mint Indulge spoke to Yves Corthesy, director of research and development at Zenith. Corthesy told us about the brand’s extended range of pilots’ watches and the evolution of the brand’s signature range of Christophe Colomb timepieces. Edited excerpts from an interview that was conducted through an interpreter.

What are your most important watches for this year?

So we have an extension of the pilot line. Some slightly smaller sizes than before. An annual calendar; a tourbillon with a chronograph. The specialty here is the patented calendar around the tourbillon. Definitely an innovation by Zenith. Then there is the piece with the second time zone. I think it has a very clean and crisp look to it.

We also have a new variation of pilot watches for ladies. We have several models with multiple functions and with some strong jewellery elements.

Aren’t you addressing too much of a niche market by making pilot watches for women?

Well, I can only say whether the market is niche or not after the fair gets over and we get a sense of how many orders we have!

But seriously speaking, we used to have models targeted at female customers before. We’ve retained some of them and eliminated the ones that weren’t received enthusiastically. We’re hoping that the new ones will have a stronger positive reaction.

Why has Zenith invested so much in pilots’ watches over the last two years? It is not something that many other brands have done. Most have chosen to not do anything audacious at all. But you’ve made a bold statement.

Zenith has always had a history of making watches for aviators. (Louis) Blériot, as you know, flew across the (English) Channel wearing a Zenith watch in 1909. There are historical and emotional ties with the world of aviation.

And last year, when we made some pilot watches, we saw a lot of excitement in the market and among clients and connoisseurs. There was a lot of excitement that Zenith was once again focusing on something that was part of the Zenith heritage. So, clearly the experiment was worthwhile. It was a natural thing for the brand to do…and a natural proposition for the market to accept.

I am told that your personal brainchild is the new Zenith Academy Christophe Colomb Hurricane timepiece… It is a remarkable piece…

As you can see…the bubble extends to the case back as well. I always point that out.

When we look for accuracy and precision in a watch, we need to eliminate the influence of gravity. But then the next hurdle is the difference in amplitude of the balance wheel when the barrel is fully and partially wound. Something has to be done to stabilize the amplitude irrespective of how much the watch is wound. So we had to create a system, using the chain as you can see, to create a constant force system.

And on top of all this, we have the Zenith signature high-frequency mechanism, the famous El Primero, which also helps in increasing the reliability of the watch.

So does that make it the most precise watch ever made by Zenith?

Yes. As we all know the El Primero is already a very precise watch. The tourbillon takes it to the next level. And the movement inside the Hurricane takes it one level further. This is basically a miniaturization of the marine chronometer… It is the same principle. Where we use a system of gears to always keep the mechanism in the watch in a horizontal position. And to all this we add the chain device… We’ve covered every possible base.

I recall that when the first Christophe Colomb was made a few years ago, it seemed like a one-off experiment. But now it seems to have evolved into a family by itself. It has become a huge deal. How did this happen? Or was this always the secret plan? To evolve into a family of high-complication pieces?

This family has been my baby since the very beginning. It did start off as a small project. But I always hoped it would develop into a family of pieces by itself. But I was never sure. At least not in the beginning.

When it was first developed, the business was somewhat different. Everyone was bringing out watches with complications. All kinds of things. Many of these complications were useful. But many, many of these were not. It took a while for consumers to realize that not all of these complications were useful. It took a while for them to distinguish the really useful ones from others. And, as that realization and awareness has grown, so has this particular family of watches for us. It is a direct response to a demand for meaningful complications.

Where did the inspiration for the particular design idea of the Christophe Colomb come from? For the bubble housing?

The initial idea struck me shortly after Jaeger-LeCoultre came out with the gyrotourbillon. And I was asked to work on a product that could compete with that great piece. So I thought: fair enough. The tourbillon improves the watch and makes it less susceptible to gravity. But it does this by averaging out a series of errors. So my idea was to take it a step further.

I did not want to average a series of errors, but eliminate these errors altogether. Which is a big difference. An entirely different approach.

So my team and I decided to explore a way of freeing the mechanism, as it were, from the constraints of two axes by using a three-dimensional system. The idea itself is simple. But realizing it inside a watch…that is an entirely different challenge.

So do you think you have ended up with a solution that is, perhaps, more elegant than the gyrotourbillon?

Look, the gyrotourbillon is a beautiful, precise watch. I must say that with utmost respect. But this design has a few advantages. First of all, here the balance wheel is kept horizontal at all times. This is the best position for regular amplitude and reliable adjustment. Also, in multi-axis tourbillons, there is energy required to keep all these axes in motion. And this is energy that is taken from the spring and barrel. The Hurricane movement doesn’t need this. We use gravity to do the axis correction for us. This means we don’t need to particularly worry about the weight of the cage or the mechanism, because I don’t expend any energy in moving it.

So in a sense by solving one huge problem—keeping the cage horizontal—you’ve solved a bunch of other smaller problems of design and engineering. Have you refined this movement between the first Christophe Colomb and this one? Could you mention one or two?

Sure. In the original mechanism, we had to perfectly align several ball bearings to make it work properly. And these bearings were somewhat susceptible to shocks and drops. But in the newer models, we have a new self-aligning system that automatically takes care of this and makes the watch much more robust. That is just one example. And we keep working on improvements.

How much pressure to improve comes from the CEO of the company, Jean-Frederic Dufour?

This is an important question particularly with reference to the latest model. I was very proud of the fact that we’d discovered a particularly simple solution for the Christophe Colomb. And then one day, Mr Dufour came to me and said: We should simplify this even further.

I thought he was joking. But he wasn’t. It was just before the summer holidays, and he dropped this bombshell just before I went home. But, by the time I came back, I had a solution. A simpler way of constructing the watch. So it ended up becoming a working holiday.

Before you go, I want to show you just one more piece. A lightweight El Primero made of titanium and carbon. This is just an example of how we’re evolving established designs and concepts.

One last question. What does Zenith do with pilot watches that makes them special? What do you do that no one else does?

The Christophe Colomb, obviously, is a class apart. As far as the pilots are concerned, we try to build on our heritage and then take it a step further. Take the case of the high-frequency tourbillon. Nobody thought we could combine those two complications into one. The Striking 10th is another example of an idea taken to the next level.

One other difference is that nobody else has the legal right to call their watches Pilot’s watches! Only we can!

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