zenith chronomaster original 38mmOctober 20, 2021
Nineteen sixty-nine was a busy year. Astronauts took watches to the moon, Richard Nixon was elected the 37th President, and the first-ever Woodstock rocked the socks off of some 350,000 hippies. Over in the watch world, Zenith released its now-iconic El Primero A386, a horologically significant, automatic chronograph with a colorful design that couldn’t be more ’60s if it tried.
Since then, zenith chronomaster original 38mm has had something of a wild trajectory. It suffered, badly, during the quartz crisis, but was fortunately one of the brands able to emerge from the ashes. Why? Well, because it made pretty much the best self-winding chronograph caliber out there, and when you’re the best, things have a way of working themselves out. That mechanical prowess notwithstanding, Zenith’s A386 was a distinctive and flashy design that stood out in a sea of monochromatic offerings from a number of brands of the day.
As the years have gone by, zenith chronomaster original 38mm has not forgotten the importance of that reference, and has continued to iterate on it time and again. It’s made limited edition tributes to the A386, with the same case sizing and similar dial design (and coloration), but those would often feature precious metal cases, where the original was crafted from stainless steel. If the tribute releases were in steel, the sizing would come in at 40mm or above where the original was an oh-so-sweet 38mm. It became a real Goldilocks conundrum.
In June of this year, Zenith changed all of that – sort of. Instead of reissuing the A386, the brand unleashed a watch effectively identical to the original but boasting an entirely modern movement, proving that it hasn’t lost its touch in the movement department (not that any of us thought it had). In many ways, such an update, both internally, and stylistically, is the perfect tribute to a watch that, in 1969, was years ahead of its time.
I am talking about the new Chronomaster Original in the tricolor configuration with Zenith’s in-house hi-beat 5Hz chronograph movement, and 1/10th of a second timing functionality. It’s the spiritual successor to the A386, it comes in steel and, wait for it, it’s 38mm in diameter. The moment this watch was announced, I knew I had to get my hands on it and once I got my hands on it, I knew I needed to spend some time with it … a week, perhaps.
For many years, Zenith – now best-known for its production of quality in-house automatic chronograph movements – got its movement supply from an outfit called the Martel Watch Company. As has become the norm, not just in the watch world but the business world at-large, Zenith acquired Martel in 1959. From that day onward, the brand produced manufacture calibers and began years of research that would eventually lead to the release of the El Primero in 1969.
There is some conjecture in the watch world as to which brand was first with an automatic chronograph movement – with Heuer and Seiko also laying claim to the feat. But no matter how you look at it, the A386 release in 1969 marked the first automatic, integrated, hi-beat calendar chronograph to grace the horological landscape.
What made the zenith chronomaster original 38mm so special was that it was a fully integrated automatic chronograph movement as opposed to a chronograph module built atop an existing automatic caliber. Where other brands could surely claim a similar accomplishment none could match the hi-beat (and therefore more precise) specs of the Zenith.
That tri-color reference wasn’t a mass-produced watch. Only 2,000 pieces were ever made, making it something of a cult-classic –the live album from your favorite band that you spend years trying to find a bootleg of. As the quartz crisis ravaged the mechanical watch industry, taking countless brands down, so too did Zenith fall – in a way. Under new management it re-focused its efforts on quartz watchmaking, leaving the El Primero behind.
If not for the forethought of one of the movement makers, Charles Vermot (whose career dated back to the Martel days), who decided to store all of the equipment necessary to manufacture the hi-beat movement, the El Primero would have most certainly been lost to history. Zenith changed hands more than once in the 1970s. Under new ownership, it was approached about possibly supplying the famed chronograph caliber to other watchmakers. One of the brands that made the ask was Rolex.
In the early ’80s the Crown wanted to revamp the Daytona – a watch that wasn’t necessarily a top seller. The El Primero caliber 400 was the perfect choice. Due to its thinness, Rolex didn’t have to augment the Oyster case to fit the new movement. Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as taking a movement off the shelf and sticking in the watch. Rolex needed it to be more, well, Rolex. So it specified changes that amounted to modifying about 50% of the movement – excising the date, and reducing the beat rate from 36,000 vph to 28,800 vph, among a laundry list of other changes.
Once the Rolex Daytona 16520 – colloquially known as the Zenith Daytona – hit the market in 1988, Zenith’s fortunes would be changed forever. The production of El Primero calibers, not watches, turned the business around. The Zenith Daytona was in production from 1988 until 2000, coinciding with LVMH’s acquisition of Zenith in 1999. Since then, Zenith has made the aesthetic design language of the original tricolor A-386 and the El Primero movement a bedrock of its branding.
Over the last 20 years or so, there have been a number of special editions showcasing the hi-beat movement, as well as a version – the Striking 10th – capable of direct read-off of 1/10 second intervals, but no watch quite evoked the essence of the original – both in terms of design and technological prowess – until this year’s release of the new Chronomaster Original in 38mm with the tri-color aesthetic.
What resonates most with me about this watch is how much the late mid-century design language comes through. Zenith seamlessly brings back retro elements from the 1969 A386 into this utterly and completely modern watch.
It’s the instantly recognizable tri-color sub registers in sunburst grey, black (really dark grey), and blue that stand out first. There are few truly iconic design elements in the watch world (with brands like Rolex, AP, Patek, and Omega each having one or two pieces that qualify) but the tri-color look of the El Primero is surely one of them.
The dial is all about contrast, and by virtue of that, legibility. The seconds rehaut is done in a thick black color displaying a 100 seconds counter that stands out against the silver dial background. It has a very Vegas roulette table vibe to it that, once I saw it, I could not unsee. If you’re betting all in on red, you’ll find that color here, as well, via the chronograph seconds hand, which has a dramatically pronounced bent end pointing down at the dial. It’s a small design flourish, but it’s all in the details and speaks to the pursuit of accuracy.
Then there’s the classic El Primero text in identical script to the original mid-century models, as well as the Zenith word mark and the applied star logo. Rolex may have done away with it, but Zenith seems steadfast in its pursuit to keep the 4:30 date window. At this point, it’s tradition.
Everyone has feelings about 4:30 date windows, and you are all entitled to feel however it is that you feel but it’s best to contextualize what sets this particular 4:30 date aperture apart. For one thing, it’s a design feature dating back to the ’69 original. I suppose Zenith could have positioned it at three o’clock from the very beginning, but it feels way more 1969-ish to have this off-kilter location of the date on such a colorful timepiece.
There’s definitely a lot going on in terms of dial layout, including two outer scales, multi-color sub registers, a variety of dial text and the date, but nothing feels cluttered. On the contrary, when looked at as a whole, the watch feels very balanced. In terms of dial text, it falls somewhere between a Speedmaster and a modern Rolex Daytona, and yet there’s nothing I would remove. The beat rate text even feels right. Sure, it’s a bit of a flex to signpost that your movement is faster and therefore more precise, but tell that to the aforementioned brands that include words like “professional” and “superlative.” On the El Primero, this isn’t hyperbole – it’s just information.
While much has been covered about the history of the zenith chronomaster original 38mm movement (in this very story!), it’s important to discuss the caliber 3600 beating away inside this watch. For one thing, it’s visible through an exhibition caseback. While it’s a brand-new movement it is effectively an updated version of the caliber 400 from 1969.
The movement itself, in step with that beat rate listed on the dial, features a central chronograph hand that makes a full rotation in 10 seconds. This is one of those things that not only sounds cool on paper, but is exceptionally cool when witnessed in person. In essence, the central hand literally races clear around the dial. I was able to compare this to one of the A386 anniversary models which didn’t have this functionality (its central hand makes its revolution in 60 seconds). To see the new Chronomaster make six turns to the Anniversary’s one turn is … well … cool.
The dial features a 60-minute counter at six o’clock; as well as a 60-second counter at three o’clock and a small seconds counter at nine o’clock. To make things even better, the movement has a power reserve of three days. This movement is the epitome of modern watchmaking at scale.
I have a confession to make. For too long, I have been falling prey to the idea that 40mm is the sweet-spot watch size. After spending a week with the Chronomaster Original, everything is different. I am firmly in the 38mm camp now. Much of that is bolstered by the classic case proportions that harken back to the original A386, as well as the relative thinness of 12.6mm.
To that point, there is something to be said about a sub-40mm watch without a bezel – chronograph or otherwise. Here the case edges are so thin that the entire case is basically all dial. Looking at the landscape of vintage-inspired timepieces from many major brands, most of the newer offerings tend to be upsized versions of the watches they pay homage to and I don’t just mean in case diameter. Often a modern watch – despite any vintage feel – will be quite thick. Which can make it feel like that the watch is wearing you when it should be the other way around. With the sharp, sporty lugs and compactness of both the crown and pushers, this watch feels vintage in all the best ways. You wear this watch – and there’s no mistaking that.
During my time with this watch, I took it with me on a drive around the New York and New Jersey area, in a red 1966 Ford Mustang. There was something very fitting about pairing a 1960s-era chronograph designed to time automobiles, with a car of the same era. The only difference here was that the engine inside the Mustang was original (and it sounded original, trust me) while the movement inside the Zenith was the most current iteration of the classic caliber 400 from ’69.
While it could be easy to mistake this entire watch for a 1969 El Primero, especially inside the Mustang convertible, it’s the dial that reminds you otherwise.
The new rehaut (the inner bezel surrounding the dial) with its 1/10th of a second scale signals that this is not a re-edition, but rather a re-imagination – the latest step in a years-long evolution which began with the A386. This is a fully functioning chronograph that can be easily operated when strapped to the wrist. A simple press of the top pusher signals the central red chronograph hand to begin its race.
The 1/10th of a second capability won’t just be something you’ll activate to enjoy by yourself. It will, no doubt, be your new party trick. Just make sure you know your audience before you start tapping people on the shoulder and asking, “you want to see something cool my watch can do?”