Hands-On Zenith Defy Revival A3642, Predecessor to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

The Skinny

  • 37mm
  • In-house Elite 670 auto winding movement
  • $7000

Three Years Before The Royal Oak

I asked to review this watch because it looked different and funky. That was the point of the original A3642 released in 1969, purportedly as a rally cry against the ascendant, yet aesthetically uninspired, electronic quartz watches wreaking havoc on the Swiss mechanical watch industry at the time. The Zenith Defy Collection of 1969 didn’t save the mechanical watch, but when we consider that the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak came out in 1972, one has to wonder if the Defy Collection didn’t have an impact on the future of the luxury steel sports watch.

Image: Allen Farmelo

The Royal Oak wrongly gets all the credit for launching the genre known as the luxury steel sports watch. This likely has to do with the fact that Audemars Piguet was, up until 1972, a fussy old member of the conservative Holy Trinity, along with Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. So the Royal Oak made a big splash. Consider that by 1965 loads of folk musicians had gone electric, but when Bob Dylan whipped out his Fender Stratocaster the world assumed history just suddenly happened. Audemars Piguet, Dylan: these two were not supposed to break the rules of tradition. We now draw a line in 1972 after which the luxury steel sports appears to have emerged.

But just look at this Defy Revival. It’s a 1-to-1 recreation of the 1969 Zenith model: waterproof to 300m; all steel; integrated bracelet; octagonal case. This watch was disco before the Bee Gees were disco, and it was redefining sporty luxury watches three years ahead of the Royal Oak. The big stories of history are so often oversimplified, and Zenith Defy Revival A3642 helps add nuance and clarity to the historical record.

Fifty Years After The Royal Oak

Now that you can’t get any of the big luxury steel sports watches from Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe or even Vacheron Constantin, there’s a good reason for Zenith to have quietly asserted themselves in the retro-lux-steel watch market, and not by riffing loudly on the El Primero. I say quietly asserted, because this is a limited edition of just 250 pieces, which I take to mean that Zenith is testing the waters and, should the A3642 do well, I would think we will see more watches like it.

This, of course, leads us to ask whether the A3642 is even remotely comparable to any modern luxury steel sports watch, and I contend that it’s not only comparable, but maybe way ahead of many staples. Consider that smaller watches are increasingly popular. Consider that retro-styles are increasingly popular. Consider the popularity of the arguably bizarre designs of BVLGARI’s Octo Finissimo, of Laurent Ferrier’s Grand Sport, of Moser’s Streamliner, and it’s easy to see how and why the A3642 makes sense right now. People want luxury steel sports watches that don’t just imitate the Royal Oak / Nautilus / Overseas triumvirate (of which there are plenty); people want original and interesting alternatives.

Oddly, Not that Odd

Sitting on my desk, the A3642 looks pretty strange. The case is especially odd, with an oblong octagonal outer case up against a 14-sided bezel, brushed and polished surfaces flashing at seemingly random positions as you move around it. The polished steel markers blind your and then disappear. The ladder bracelet is totally weird.

Yet, once I put the watch on, I was surprised to see how normal it looked and felt. For whatever reason, all the odd case shapes are less distracting when seen straight on, and much of the distracting strangeness of the design is just a nice sparkle when against skin and next to fabric. This watch blends in nicely with myriad outfits. I loved it with black denim and a cashmere turtleneck, for example, and felt all Bee Gees in that get-up. But it looked great with a flannel and jeans, too, which I didn’t see coming. I’d wear it to a wedding. I’d wear it to the beach.

Part of why it’s so natural to wear is the 37mm case. But, also, the steel and faded gray dial are just close enough in tone to appear calm. Legibility is perfectly fine on this watch, but there isn’t a ton of bold contrast to pull too much attention to your wrist – thus the unexpected quietness and versatility.

Is The Price Right?

At first, I was thinking no, this price was too high. But let’s do a little comparison to viable alternatives.

I think a Grand Seiko steel watch is comparable in quality, performance, features and, roughly, price. Or consider a Rolex Oyster Perpetual or Datejust, if you can get one, for a little more. Omega, Panerai, Heuer, Breitling – these brands have comparably priced alternatives. But these alternatives offer neither historical accuracy nor the pre-Royal Oak octagonal goodness you get with the Defy Revival A3642.

If you scratch the octagonal itch, you’re talking about the Royal Oak / Nautilus / Offshore triumvirate you likely can’t get and which cost multiples the price of the A3642, or you’re talking about imitations of that triumvirate like the Chopard Alpine Eagle, Girard Peregaux Laureto, Hublot Big Bang, which are also expensive.

All this to say that, while the luxury steel sports watch category is currently jammed with on-trend options, there’s not much out there that really competes with the Zenith Defy Revival A3642, and certainly not at this price point.

But that doesn’t make the price feel exactly right, either. I say this because I’m not entirely convinced that the movement is special enough to really warrant the price.

Yes, it’s in-house, but with brands like Tudor, Grand Seiko, and Oris now offering in-house calibers in the sub $4000 range with longer power reserves (the 670 offers 50-hours), we’re in what really is a new era for mechanical in-house movements. Which leads us to a broader conclusion about Swiss luxury watches in general: they are all overpriced, but some are even overpriced among the overpriced. I’d say the Zenith Defy Revival A3642 qualifies as a little overpriced.

However, because the A3642 manages to bring such easy-yet-funky style, proper dive-watch waterproofing, and stylistic individuality within a very crowded category full of imitations, this watch may just be worth the extra cash. There’s really nothing quite like it at any price.