“The time has come for the first quartz watch with hands and digital readout. And we’ve got it,” says Zenith in a mid-1970s print ad. As an ’80s kid, I love everything with a digital display in it. When it is integrated into a classic watch design, I am doubly excited. The Zenith Defy Quartz TimeCommand is one hell of an interesting watch that looks like it was just pulled from a cyberpunk movie.

I found it about four years ago on eBay. I had never seen it before, and I had no clue how it worked. At the moment of purchase, I didn’t even know how many functions it had. I just saw an LED display and two classic pushers on the right side. Since there were two decently integrated pin pushers on the opposite side as well, I suspected it could be smarter than it looked.

It fires up!

To my great surprise, the watch came fully functional. When I started reading forums, I realized how happy I was to have scored a working example. My favorite source on various electric watches says that the LED module is totally overengineered, so even the slightest issue within one of the assemblies results in complete malfunction.

Cracking the Zenith Defy TimeCommand without a manual

When you press the button at 4 o’clock, it displays the seconds. When you press the button at two o’clock, it displays the date. Did you notice a mysterious red dot at the bottom of the digital display? I could not figure out what it was there for. It only shows if you press the button for the date. And back then, I did not realize that while it sometimes pops up on right side of the display, sometimes it will light up on the other side. All became clear when I found pictures of other Zenith TimeCommand watches with “AM” and “PM” printed on the sides of the LED display. A red dot on the left means AM, while a dot at the right means PM.

Changing the date was easy. You push the upper date button and set the right date by pressing or holding the seconds button. Each push the hidden recessed button at 10 o’clock makes the watch advance by one hour. To move the minute hand, you have to press and hold the hidden pusher at 8 o’clock. Now comes the tricky but sophisticated part.

Zenith TimeCommand ad

A surprising moment

I set up my watch like that twice. When I checked my wrist after a few minutes, though, I realized that the watch wasn’t working. It surprised me. Growing up in the ’80s on super cheap quartz watches, we always adjusted the time on the go. The watch was always running; we just set it forward or backward when needed. But my hit-and-miss approach helped me understand that the Zenith TimeCommand can actually be turned off. Why is that?

When I found a manual, it suggested to set the watch one minute ahead of the current time. This means that if it is 3:29 PM, you should set the watch for 3:30. Once you do that, the watch is set and stopped. Then you wait for a radio time signal. When you press the hidden minute corrector, the watch starts running again and is perfectly synchronized to the second. Well, now even the TimeCommand name makes a bit more sense.

Two things to add

This on/off functionality can be tricky, and some people may mistakenly think the watch is malfunctioning, so be careful. If you are a bit younger than I am and you’re puzzled about what the heck a radio time signal is, I invite you to read one of my most favorite stories about my Mido Radiotime.


The Zenith Defy TimeCommand is quite a statement watch, and I will explain what I mean by that. It is no shaggy or cheap vintage watch. It has everything to make you feel it is a serious timepiece. The tonneau-shaped case makes it undeniably Zenith, giving it a bit of an El Primero A384 look. The fluted bezel adds a bit of a premium touch, as we all know from legendary Rolex models. If only it weren’t chromed… A few bits and pieces of naked brass showing through are the only visual faults I identified that really bother me. Without them, it would be eternally flawless.

The silver dial is rather classy. It has no numerals of any sort, neither for the hours nor the minutes. It’s an ultimate dresser. The only a slightly sporty element is the style of the hands. Their central black stripe makes them perfectly legible against the silver dial, even though I found the minute hand a bit shorter than I would expect.

Zenith Defy TimeCommand

Perfect LED

The LED display is slightly bigger than a standard date window. It even sits in a typical date position at 6 o’clock. What I like the most is the style of the numbers it displays, their size, and the color. The numbers are surgically thin and shine so strikingly that you feel you are looking at a laser beam. The on-demand seconds are perhaps a bit useless, but a date you can light up anytime you want is a real charm. I guess all the purists who love their dials perfectly clean should love this system.

The best vintage bracelet

I mentioned how serious this watch feels, and I guess the bracelet has a lot to do with that. Its sharp-edged links are incredibly tight in their tolerances, and look how nicely integrated into the case they are. What overwhelmed me the most is how massive the bracelet is. It is super thick and heavy. This is one of the heaviest bracelets I’ve ever had on a vintage watch, and I love it. Zenith’s signed clasp with the brand’s old logo is the cherry on the cake.

Zenith Defy TimeCommand

Look inside

The source I mentioned before features some unique pictures of the inside modules and an explanation of how they work: “It’s difficult to say if the ‘Time Command’ was an inhouse invention by Zenith as the modules were made in Korea, probably by AMI (despite being advertised as Swiss Made). The modules seem to be standard analog quartz movements but without a typical gear train. The mechanical assembly is limited to three gears ‘kicked’ directly by the large stepping motor that produces an impulse once per minute. An intelligent concept has been applied by removing a typical minute wheel. The cannon pinion and hour wheel rotate on an elliptical path, thus limiting the number of parts.”

Last thoughts on the Zenith Defy TimeCommand

If you are looking for something unusual, I believe the Zenith Defy TimeCommand has several talking points. It is a perfect watch for someone who is not entirely into mechanical watches or finds pre-1970s designs a bit too old. On the other hand, if most quartz watches are way too simple, the Zenith Defy TimeCommand comes with a bit of a twist. Not to mention, the wrist presence is remarkable. Happy hunting!