In-Depth – Zenith DEFY LAB, 3 Centuries of Regulation & Chronometry Revolutionized with a Radically New Oscillator (Technical Insights & Video)

calendar | ic_dehaze_black_24px By Xavier Markl | ic_query_builder_black_24px 8 minute read
Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator

It’s now time to lift the veil on the big and truly exciting news we had anticipated further to Jean-Claude Biver’s (President of the LVMH watch division) and Julien Tornare’s (CEO of Zenith) press conference last May: a groundbreaking development in the field of chronometry, exploring unchartered territories and challenging the basic operating principle of the mechanical watch regulation, invented in 1675 by Christiaan Huygens – a principle that has remained basically unchanged since its creation. The name of this watch is the Zenith DEFY LAB, and it comes with a revolutionary, yet technically quite simple, type of oscillator.

Background – over three centuries of regulation based on Huygens’ principles

Believe it or not, but the way watches and clocks are regulated has not changed during the last three centuries. Of course, drastic improvements have been made. Yet, since the second half of the 17th century, all mechanical timekeepers are based on the following formula:

Energy → Transmission → Escapement → Oscillator

The energy (stored by a coiled spring in a watch or a weight for a pendulum) is released in discreet bursts by the regulating organ, which is comprised of an escapement and oscillator. The escapement gives impulses to the oscillator. In return, the escapement is regulated by the oscillator. Each oscillation, therefore, allows the gear train to advance or “escape” a set amount.

basic principle mechanical watch - chain of transmission

In the second half of the 17th century, the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens exercised profound influence on the progress of horology. In particular through his works on oscillators. He first adapted Galileo’s law to develop a pendulum clock, which dramatically improved the accuracy of the mechanical clock. Still a clock had to be large enough to accommodate the swing of a pendulum and if the clock was shaken, its functioning would be disturbed. These problems were solved by another major invention by Huygens in 1675: the balance spring.

With it, an extremely thin coiled hairspring ensures that the balance swings back and forth at a constant frequency. It controls the speed at which the gears of the timepiece turn and thus its rate.

Christiaan Huygens 1675 first balance spring-spiral

Drawing of one of the first balance springs attached to a balance wheel by Christiaan Huygens (February 1675). If Huygens is credited “by common consensus” with the invention, some of the greatest minds of the 17th scientific revolution all sought ways to improve the regularity of timepieces and optimize the clock and watch rate: Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Jean de Hautefeuille, Ignace-Gaston Pardies, Robert Hooke, …

Since then, the sprung balance has been the exclusive time basis for the mechanical watch. The balance and hairspring have been optimized to the greatest possible extent, but its principle has remained virtually unchallenged in mechanical watchmaking for over three centuries. That was until 2013 when Jean-Claude Biver gave the green light to the LVMH Watch Division R&D institute team of Guy Sémon to embark on a revolutionary development, made possible by the gathering of multi-disciplinary expertise, and going way beyond that of traditional mechanical watchmaking. According to Guy Sémon, the research started from learnings of quantum optics for which the study of oscillations is key – the high tech world truly revolutionizing the old-world watches!

The Zenith DEFY LAB and its revolutionary oscillator

Compliant mechanisms

Zenith Defy Lab - Oscillator manufacturing

In mechanical engineering, compliant mechanisms (monolithic or jointless structures) are flexible mechanisms that transfer an input force or displacement to another point through elastic body deformation. No need for mechanical connections, no joints hence no rubbing friction and wear.

Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator

The application of compliant mechanisms has allowed Zenith to replace the 30 parts or so of a standard regulator by a single element. The absence of mechanical coupling eliminates contact, friction, wear, lubrication or dispersions.

Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator

With its long, unique tradition in the field of chronometry, Zenith was the perfect brand to introduce this groundbreaking development. The brand’s new calibre ZO 342 is regulated by a monolithic oscillator made of monocrystalline silicon developed thanks to the application of the laws of compliant mechanism. The escapement working with the oscillator is very similar to a clock anchor escapement. The anchor is integrated within the oscillator (just like the anchor can be integrated to the pendulum for some clocks!) and works in conjunction with a silicon escape wheel. The rest of the movement is ‘conventional’ and actually uses parts from an existing Zenith calibre. Just watch the following video which will make things clear.

The oscillator of the ZO 342 calibre combines high frequency (15Hz or 108,000 vibrations per hour) with low amplitude (+/- 6 degrees versus around 300 degrees for a standard balance wheel). Despite the high-frequency, the movement has a healthy power reserve of 60 hours – which is 10% more than for El Primero, although the frequency is three times higher. The energy consumption of the regulator is 3 to 4 times lower than that of a conventional mechanism.

ZENITH Defy Lab - Mouvement escapement detail

Up close with the escapement of the ZO 342 calibre – a silicon escape wheel and an anchor integrated into the silicone monolithic oscillator.

With such a high frequency the second’s hand appears to be running smoothly with no jerks.  The accuracy of the mechanism is impressive. Zenith announces a daily rate precise to 0.3 seconds per day. By way of example, a COSC chronometer needs to operate within a range of -4 to +6 seconds per day.

Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator

The isochronism of the oscillator is excellent, resulting in a record precision of +/- 0.5 seconds per day from 0 to 48 hours. From an aesthetics stand point, it is indeed mesmerizing as the rapid beating of the large oscillator can be seen underneath the openwork dial.

Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator

The monolithic Zenith oscillator made of monocrystalline silicon coated with a layer of silicon oxide (hence its changing colour) and its mind-blowing design (that involved the Delft University). It is 0.5mm thick, with parts thinner than a human hair. The regulator (1) allows adjusting the rate by +/- 400 seconds per day. Moving it changes the tension of the flexible structure. The anchor (2) is integrated within the oscillator. Two eccentric screws allow precise adjustment of the position of the oscillator with regards to the escape wheel.

The monolithic structure of the oscillator and the use of silicon also makes the movement virtually insensitive to temperature changes, gravity and magnetic fields (the movement can withstand 1’100 Gauss) eliminating key weaknesses of traditional hairsprings.

Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator

The ZO 342 automatic calibre – ZO stands for Zenith Oscillator. 342 refers to the number of years since from the invention of the sprung balance by Huygens.

This concept is presented with the Zenith Defy Lab, a special edition of 10 unique pieces. The ZO 342 calibre is housed in a 44mm case fashioned out of Aeronith. Aeronith is a new material – for which a patent has been filed by Hublot’s R&D department – made of aluminium foam and a special polymer. The result is a new hybrid material (rather than an alloy) that is 2.7 times lighter than titanium, 1.7 times lighter than aluminium, and 10% lighter than carbon fibre.

Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator

The Zenith oscillator is, without doubt, an astonishing development. We are dealing here with the very essence of watchmaking and chronometry.  Its design is all the more impressive in that it is almost “simple” in its concept, and the movement is traditional with no fuss or extra-sophistications. The escapement is “simple“. The oscillator principle is exceptional – its concept and design are pure genius and require thorough expertise and cutting edge technology.

Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator

There have been several developments over the past few years in the field of escapements and oscillators. The Omega Coaxial escapement is the unique example that made it to significant serial production so far. Very few new mechanical oscillators have been presented – among these the TAG Heuer Mikrogirder, the oscillator of the Genequand/Senfine regulator of Parmigiani Fleurier or the DR01 concept drafted by Dominique Renaud. What LVMH is presenting here is not just another “concept-oscillator“. The group is planning to manufacture 10 watches to launch it with Zenith, but new watches fitted with this oscillator will be presented as soon as in 2018. The goal is to industrialize the concept, ramp-up production shortly, and offer it not only to other LVMH brands (including TAG Heuer very soon) but also offer it to third parties.

Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator

The “aluminium foam” Aeronith case is interesting too because it is innovative (and as such, it is a further demonstration of the exceptional innovation capacity at LVMH). Yet, we do not think that such a stunning development needed this – a conventional metal would have been perfectly suited.

Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator

Lastly, visiting the LVMH R&D Institute has been an eye opening experience – to say the least. The high-profile, multi-disciplinary expertise has been gathered by Jean-Claude Biver and Guy Sémon, the resources invested by the luxury powerhouse are impressive. What we’ve seen there (yes, there is more to come!) was simply jaw-dropping, so stay tuned! For more information about Zenith, please visit www.zenith-watches.com.

Zenith Defy Lab revolutionary oscillator


Technical Specifications – Zenith DEFY LAB

  • Case: 44mm x 14.5mm – Aeronith (aluminium foam composite material) – sapphire crystals – water resistant to 50m
  • Movement: Calibre ZO 342 – mechanical with automatic winding – 14’’’ ¼ – 8.13mm – ~60h power reserve – 108,000 vibrations/h – 18 jewels – hours, minutes, seconds – 148 parts
  • Strap: rubber-alligator leather strap with titanium double folding buckle.
  • Certification: “viper’s head” chronometer certification of the Besançon Observatory – Thermal behaviour ISO-3159 standards – Magnetic criteria ISO-764 standards
  • Reference: 9000.342/78.R582 -10 unique pieces
  • Retail price: CHF 29,900

10 responses

  1. Silicon proved a revolutionary material for Breguet and UN, but its potential as a technological game changer is exciting. Thanks for such a comprehensive explanation with visuals. Do you see GP’s constant escapement as a similar technological advancement or the adaption of new materials in the old regualation paradigm?

  2. Hi Max, Thank you so much! Silicon is indeed a game changer in the field of chronometry. Interestingly, LVMH’s Guy Sémon told us that they are working on evolutions of their oscillator that would include other materials. Compliant mechanisms also offer a wide array of potential developments for watchmakers. Something, I got convinced about a few years ago further a discussion with Nicolas Déhon (the inventor of the Constant Escapement you know well too – for instance, at the time, he had implemented compliant mechanisms made through LIGA to setting mechanisms but had much more than that in mind) . The GP Constant Escapement is a remarkable development. Much more than just the application of new materials to the old regulation paradigm, it is an unprecedented solution to drive constant force to a conventional oscillator (so far GP has used conventional balance wheels). With Zenith, the escapement concept is rather simple (very similar to an anchor escapement in a pendulum clock), it is the oscillator that is completely new. As mentioned in the article, there have been very few developments in the field of mechanical oscillators recently. Very exciting developments…

  3. as far as I know girard perregaux too has a similar oscillator. I wait for the mass production but with a decent price range not over 10 G. cheers

  4. @alexandru GP’s innovation, the Constant Escapement, is a constant force escapement working with a conventional oscillator (a balance wheel with hairspring). From what we heard, Zenith and LVMH are aiming at a ‘reasonable’ price range with this new oscillator. The pricing for the first ten watches (29’900 CHF) was way below what we expected (and way below all products fit with innovative escapements or oscillators presented in the lt few years). If they ramp up volumes as announced, they will most likely be in a position to offer it at a lower price.

  5. Highly impressive – a tribute to lateral thinking with innovative design and the power of modern CAD and production technology.
    +/- 0.3 sec/Day with a mechanical oscillator and escapement; with practically nil effect of magnetism and gravity; and effective temperature compensation is astonishing. I wonder how long the escapement pallets (teeth) will last? they are small and must be subject to some erosion eventually. Replacement should be easy and cheap however with mass-produced silicon oscillator “balance”.

    Why only ten produced? Ridiculous ! These should be mass-produced, available to everyman and at a relatively cheap price. Tool-up and get producing now! I want one.

    Douglas Denny. BSc. Hons.
    Bosham. England.

  6. I want one too. And wish I was able to afford this first run as its imminently collectible and amazingly cheap as such. I am warming up to the case material, wonder if its weirdly light on the wrist, and am curious if the texture is as rough as it looks. What I really like is the accuracy. Finally a mechanical solution that approaches quartz and looks to be highly adaptable to other complications.

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