Zenith Chronomaster OriginalJuly 27, 2022
We are incredibly excited to announce that Hodinkee has once again collaborated with Zenith on the legendary, and always evolving, Zenith El Primero. While our last creation with Zenith honored a horological deep-cut from the past, this time we’re celebrating the modern context of Zenith’s legacy as a watchmaker as we introduce the first-ever limited edition in the new Zenith Chronomaster Original lineup.
When we sat down with the team at Zenith nearly two years ago, we knew we wanted to create a watch which carefully captured everything we love about Zenith and the El Primero. The design of the Zenith Chronomaster Original Limited Edition For Hodinkee, is rooted in Zenith’s rich history.
The first El Primero was born in the late 1960s – a brash and tumultuous era for watches. Its very name means “the first,” and the El Primero has since become an enduring icon of chronograph design and engineering that has been respectfully reinterpreted over the last half-century. The original El Primero didn’t just feature the best automatic chronograph movement of its time, it also had one of the most subtle, comfortable, and well-proportioned cases of the era, and a dial design that still feels fresh.
With the Zenith Chronomaster Original Limited Edition For Hodinkee, all of this history is accounted for. It’s in the wrist-hugging comfort, the angularity of the lugs, and the classic tri-colored subdials. All of these elements come together to form a modern chronograph that pushes the storied El Primero caliber into a brand new era.
The Zenith Chronomaster Original Limited Edition for Hodinkee is a confident evolution of an unimpeachable classic. The Zenith Chronomaster Original Limited Edition For Hodinkee is available as a 300-piece limited edition for $9,500 through the HODINKEE Shop and Zenith’s own e-commerce platform.
The task of evolving a classic design is both daunting and exciting. Wee wanted to make sure that our collaboration brought out the best of Zenith, and what made us fall in love with the brand in the first place. This is where the perfectly-sized 38mm x 12.6mm case of the Chronomaster Original came in. Introduced in 2021, the Chronomaster Original instantly recalls the original Zenith A386 of 1969, but with updates that ensure both modernity and lovely fine finishing. The Chronomaster Original retains the versatility of the original El Primero’s silhouette all while feeling modern and luxurious.
We began our design process by outfitting our limited edition with a matte salmon opaline dial, providing a dynamic and warm backdrop for the classic Zenith dial configuration. Featuring a trio of overlapping, galvanic subdials awash in complementary shades of grey and silver, this latest creation looks very much the sibling to our original Zenith collaboration, replete with our usual touch of grey. The watch offers a delightfully unexpected moment of color, it’s a playful take on the A386 that ensures this latest collaboration has a unique presence.
Matching the tone of the subdials, we’ve traded the iconic red chronograph seconds hand for one in white, which nicely connects with the filled hands and indexes. In a similar fashion, the grey of the three o’clock subdial is also used for the surrounding tachymeter scale we carried the galvanic grey of the three o’clock subdial onto the 10-second track and a matching salmon base for the surrounding 1/10th of a second scale. The two measures are used together for displays this watch’s signature 1/10th of a second accuracy with ease. As the seconds hand makes one lap of the dial every ten seconds, the measure, even to a fraction of a second, is as easy to read as the movement is to use.
The 4:30 date window is an essential feature of the original El Primero design, and one that Zenith continues to this day. We preserved the date window while matching the date wheel to the color of the dial. Love it or hate it, the date window is one of the most useful features on any watch, and we took care to optimize its harmony with the dial. Easy on the eyes, functional on the wrist, and uniquely El Primero.
The case and dial are enclosed with a raised sapphire crystal that calls to mind the acrylic lenses found on vintage El Primeros like the A386. Flanked by familiar piston pushers and brushed lugs, the case is met by a tapered bracelet with polished center links, outer links with polished edges, and a folding clasp to ensure the look – and feel – of a thoroughly modern high-performance sports watch. The Zenith Chronomaster Original Limited Edition for HODINKEE combines classic style, modern proportions, and exceptional watchmaking into an approachable, distinctive, and contemporary package.
Housed inside the 38mm case, and entirely visible through the sapphire caseback, sits the Zenith El Primero Automatic Caliber 3600 movement. The Caliber 3600 shares the same high-beat rate and column-wheel design that has defined the El Primero since its inception along with modern technical enhancements that provide smooth running and reliability for today’s collectors. Its signature feature is all about getting the most from the movement’s high beat heart rate. The faster the rate, the finer the resolution of each passing second. In a delightfully uncommon manner, the chronograph seconds hand traverses the dial once every ten seconds, or six times per minute. Thanks to a reimagining of the El Primero architecture the Caliber 3600 runs the chronograph directly off of its high-tech silicon escape wheel, rather than drive the chronograph via the movement’s fourth wheel as the original caliber 400 did.
Founded in 1865 by then 22-year-old Georges Favre-Jacot, Zenith has long been a pioneer in high-end mechanical watches with a vertically integrated approach to watchmaking. This has allowed the company to innovate and create movements of lasting significance and world-class technical performance. The company’s watchmaking CV has spanned a wide array of watch types ranging from dress to chronometers to pilot’s pieces (they’re the only brand to feature the word “Pilot” on its dials) to – of course – chronographs. This last category saw its most famous contribution in 1969’s Zenith El Primero. The El Primero is one of the best-known chronographs of all time, and, as far as mechanical movements go, few if any enjoy greater name recognition.
The aptly named movement was part of a trifecta of automatic chronographs that debuted in 1969 and the El Primeo was the only one to feature a ground-up integrated movement construction and high-beat escapement, establishing the benchmark for what an automatic chronograph could be to this day. In fact, if you look around for automatic chronographs launched in 1969, the El Primero is also the only one still in production, an obvious testament to its iconic status, as well as Zenith’s willingness and ability to reimagine it throughout the years.
The Zenith El Primero, we now know, was destined for greatness. But this icon status hardly seemed guaranteed by the mid-1970s. The very future of Swiss watchmaking at large was in serious doubt. That’s because the same year that the El Primero was introduced also saw the introduction of the earliest quartz movements. While quartz lacked the obvious charm, heartbeat, and longevity of a quality mechanical watch – its precision was unrivaled. All over Switzerland, once-great companies entered a period of uncertainty today known as the Quartz Crisis. And Zenith’s owners at the time, the Zenith television company of the United States – how this acquisition came to be is a story for another day – sent down the order to kill the El Primero, a product it viewed as belonging to the past.
Were it not for the rogue Zenith employee Charles Vermot, who stashed away the El Primero’s tooling, the chronograph would have been consigned to history like many other pre-Quartz Crisis casualties. But Vermot knew better. He understood that the El Primero was the best automatic chronograph of the day and something far too wonderful to retire forever. Thanks to Vermot, this high-beat thoroughbred was positioned for a second life when the pendulum of taste and technology inevitably swung back in the early 1980s and interest in mechanical watchmaking craft returned. Ebel placed an order, and soon other big watchmakers came calling. Notably, one very big one. As a result, Zenith played an outsize role in the rebirth of the mechanical watch when the El Primero became the engine powering Rolex’s automatic Daytona for a decade.
Because the chronograph was entwined with the movement architecture and not a module added on, the El Primero could be modified without increasing its thickness. Enthusiast favorites ensued, like the Captain Winsor (an approachably priced annual calendar) and the Striking Tenth. There have been tourbillon versions of the El Primero and even minute repeaters. The best of the automatic chronographs launched before the quartz crisis, the El Primero has weathered every imaginable storm and come out on top. Among the first, it’s still the best.