Someone who describes themselves as having a cultural background in watches is likely from Switzerland. And this is exactly how Swiss-native Julien Tornare describes himself when asked how he entered the watch industry in 1997.
One of the youngest CEOs in the world of luxury timepieces, the 46-year-old’s career has taken him around the world, from New York to Hong Kong, but for now he is back in his home country, running Zenith.
After a phone call with LVMH’s Jean-Claude Biver some two years ago, Julien, who has described Zenith as being a “sleeping beauty” at the time, was persuaded to join the company on the promise of a real plan to develop the brand.
The CEO Magazine sat down with Julien to speak about authenticity, how he is bringing together history and innovation, and some intriguing plans for 2019.
The CEO Magazine: How would you describe Zenith?
Julien Tornare: It is a beautiful brand that’s historically been very innovative and creative. My job is about appreciating our long history but also recognising that if you don’t build a brand, you don’t build a future.
I believe that if we want to win the interest of the younger generation, we have to show them that the industry’s very dynamic and we don’t just replicate the past. That’s what I want to bring to Zenith.
Tell me more about your vision for Zenith.
What I really want to do with Zenith is be proud and respectful of our 153-year heritage and history, but to continue to be innovative and to express it in a new way.
I’ll give you an example. We are well-known for creating the first fully integrated, high-frequency automatic chronograph movement, El Primero, in 1969. It was the first to measure one-tenths of a second and was very innovative for its time.
In 2017, we reinterpreted El Primero as the Defy El Primero 21 for the 21st century. With this new incarnation, we can measure not just one-tenth of a second but one hundredth of a second. We decided to make this watch in a very contemporary style. That, for me, is a perfect example of how we start in the past but move into the 21st century.
What has been most challenging since you started with Zenith?
There’s no way you can manage a brand like Zenith from your office in the mountains. You have to get down to the market. One of the biggest challenges for me was how to be in the headquarters and in the market at the same time.
I have travelled more than a million kilometres in a year and a half. I’m a father of three and I have to count on my wife’s support for this because I’ve been away a lot.
200-300 is the average amount of hours it takes to create a Zenith timepiece.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m someone who shares a lot of information. I like to discuss a lot and to collaborate. At some point, of course, I need to make the decisions, but I like to get people on board. I don’t think you can just give orders.
You need people to agree with you. You need people to jump on your boat and then you can ride it together. I take the time to explain where we’re going and why.
How do you plan to leave your mark at Zenith?
While Zenith has a long history it also wants to be seen as a modern watchmaker. Zenith has always pushed the boundaries, and I want to continue to push them further. If you create things today, you should add value.
If you just repeat the past, you are not showing respect, in my opinion, and you are not honouring our predecessors. The minimum we should do is to craft the future, to build tomorrow. I want to be seen as someone who contributed to Zenith’s new dynamism.
What can we expect from Zenith in 2019?
This year is a huge one for us as it’s the 50th anniversary of El Primero. We will launch something very special to link the first year of El Primero to today, and also to connect it to something in the future that doesn’t even exist yet… And that will be something totally crazy; I’m sure the collectors will love it.
We will celebrate in 12 different cities around the world and share stories about El Primero; secret stories that are not yet public knowledge. The second element is very much anticipated by the market.
In 2017, we presented the Defy Lab, an innovative watch with a revolutionary new silicon oscillation system, making it the most precise mechanical watch ever made and giving it a cool look. It’s a special watch and now the commercial series is finally coming.
150 is the number of watchmakers at Zenith.
What watch do you regularly wear?
I wear the Defy El Primero 21 because it is, for me, the perfect illustration of what the brand has been doing and where it is heading.
In other words, we have a movement from the original El Primero from 1969 and we have a new movement to the hundredth of second, and we put it in a watch that is designed in a contemporary way. I love to wear it. The best way to sense the direction of the brand is to put this watch on your wrist.
What is your dream timepiece?
The new generation Defy. For me to wear something on my wrist that is a revolution of the system that has existed since 1675 will be so special. We are making a revolution from 300 years ago. It’s very cool and very modern.
It is also very authentic and this is something I strongly believe in. If you want to respect your history but you also want to be contemporary and build a future, you need to be authentic.
"If you want to respect your history but you also want to be contemporary and build a future, you need to be authentic."
Tell me more about authenticity and what it means AT Zenith.
It means that when you buy a Zenith watch, it has a 100 Zenith movement. The industry has not always been fully transparent but at Zenith we are authentic and transparent.
You can visit our manufacturer and I can introduce you to the watchmaker who made your watch. Again, this is something many brands underestimate. They think the new generation only want to buy a luxury watch. I disagree. When you buy Zenith, you buy substance, you buy something real. You don’t buy marketing hype.