50 Years Later, The Zenith Chronomaster Original Is One Of This Year’s Best Releases
It’s been more than a week since the new Zenith Chronomaster Original dropped. I took some time to gather my thoughts on what has quickly become one of my favorite 2021 releases. Do I have any reservations? Let’s see!
So, a person walks into the local Omega AD or boutique. He or she casually browses the display cases, but, meanwhile, this person knows exactly what they want. The Speedmaster Professional is the watch that will find its way to this buyer’s wrist. A ritual like this has been going on since the late 1960s because this is the legendary watch most associate with Omega.
The A386 came…and went
Now, shift to Zenith, and while space exploration isn’t a part of the brand’s backstory, taking part in the race to make the first automatic chronograph is perhaps the most notable topic. In 1969, Zenith introduced its high beat (36,000vph) El Primero chronograph and put it into three distinct models. All are revered, but one model stands above the rest. The A386 shown above contained gray and blue sub-registers that have since become a telltale Zenith sign. People love this watch. So, just imagine that Zenith pulled the plug forever after a few short years and around 4,500 watches. Aside from some limited editions and modern takes, people haven’t been able to buy the most iconic Zenith of them all for almost 50 years. Finally, this all changes with the new Zenith Chronomaster Original.
The Zenith Chronomaster Original is finally here
It took over 50 years, but finally, yes finally, we get a nearly spot-on modern A386. The Zenith Chronomaster Original line is here and not a moment too soon in my view. We really didn’t know this was coming. Before the release, Zenith teased us a bit on their Instagram account. We knew something was coming to replace its Chronomaster El Primero 1969, but would it be a faithful reissue of the original models? I debated this with friends because Zenith had just wrapped up several years of limited-edition A386 anniversary tributes. Plus, in steel (shown above on the right) and with the original dial colors, only 50 were made as part of a three-watch set for CHF 50k. Would Zenith risk angering those loyal customers with a serial production copy? Thankfully, Zenith did just enough to differentiate.
Differences from the original A386
First glances at the Zenith Chronomaster Original translate to an exact copy of the original A386. All the right dimensions are here and that means a 38mm stainless or rose gold case with 50 meters of water resistance and a domed, albeit sapphire, crystal. Thickness is a reasonable 12.6mm, lug width is faithful to the original at 19mm and lug to lug is somewhere around 47mm. In replacing the El Primero 1969, Zenith chose to go back to more traditional capped pushers and they’ve thankfully brought back the script “El Primero.” The hallmark date window at 4:30 with its little scale also makes the cut. The differences are here, though. Notably, the red central hand lacks a rectangular lumed pip. This results in an overall look that’s just a tad less sporty. In addition to the return of the script work, the verbiage is also a bit different on the dial. Understandably, the frequency receives top billing.
The El Primero 3600 movement
Now, a word about the movement because this is where things become demonstrably different from the original A386 and even the recent limited edition anniversary pieces. The Zenith Chronomaster Original uses the caliber 3600 movement that debuted, in mass production form, on the Chronomaster Sport that was released earlier this year. This is a 35 jewel automatic with 60 hours of power reserve that has a bit of a party trick in its bag. Firing up the chronograph causes the red central hand to traverse the dial every 10 seconds. This also forces another visual distinction. If you’re used to seeing a tachymeter scale on the periphery, look again and see 1/10 of a second scale. That’s right, this watch allows you to measure down to that precise a level.
When a movement is a difference-maker for good or bad
I have to admit that I initially slipped by, or slept through, a really important detail on this watch and the aforementioned Chronomaster Sport. A closer look at those sub-registers on the Zenith Chronomaster Original reveals that they all count up to 60. Weird, huh? Well, few have made a big deal about this, but here’s the explanation. The 9 o’clock sub-dial shows running seconds. The 3 o’clock sub-dial counts seconds once the chronograph is running (you can watch it hit ten seconds when the red hand makes its way around once). The 6 o’clock dial counts elapsed minutes up to 60 minutes.
What I think has escaped the attention of most people — either because we rarely use the chronograph function or because we mostly focus on aesthetics — is that there is no hour counter. It came up in a group chat the other day and it caused one prospective buyer to walk away. For me, it’s not a massive deal because I mostly use my chronographs for tasks under an hour — usually at the bbq. However, I do enjoy timing my flights or drives on occasion. Is it a deal-breaker? For 99% of buyers, I guess not. Just know that it’s a very different complication versus a Daytona or Speedmaster.
Three versions of the Zenith Chronomaster Original
The Zenith Chronomaster Original comes in three different flavors. There’s the classic color combination in either steel or 18K rose gold. Also, Zenith decided to pull a fast one with a reverse panda that uses a bit of aged Super-LumiNova. The steel versions can be had on leather with a folding buckle or an Oyster-style bracelet with a flip-lock clasp. The gold version only comes on a leather strap at this stage. My heart definitely belongs to either of the customary-colored models, but I am warming up to the black version. Due to the overall design, this is a watch that could look great in a lot of combinations. Is there a missed opportunity here? Well, I’d love to see at least the option of a ladder bracelet because it’s also iconic. Then again, I’m not sure how popular it would be after an initial surge.
Wearing an El Primero with this case
I own the A386 at the top of this article and it is one of my favorite watches to pull out and view. As far as wearing, it’s a deceptive watch. The mid-case is rather thin, yet the case back is quite tall. Even though the lugs drop down, the case back is what sits on your wrist. Depending on your anatomy, the watch actually perches a bit on the wrist. It’s not uncomfortable, but more than once, I’ve wondered what my watch would be like with a properly slim manual wind movement (gasp!). From pictures I’ve seen and videos I’ve watched, the new Zenith Chronomaster Original has the same proportions. The bottom line is that it won’t likely cause an issue, but it’s probably worth trying before buying.
Final thoughts on this Zenith trio
This new lineup of Zenith Chronomaster Original watches was so overdue that it almost feels surreal that they’re here. These watches are Zenith in the truest sense and that has always meant and still means a movement that’s slightly different from the competition. Yes, these are vintage-inspired, but I love the fact that there are technical differences that separate them from earlier releases. At €8,800 for steel on the bracelet (€500 less on the strap) and €18,600 in gold, I think that Zenith has a proper hit on their hands (early sales also prove this). With these pieces and the Sport, Zenith now offers seriously compelling alternatives to the other large brands. It only took about 50 years — better late than never.
Visit Zenith for more information on the Zenith Chronomaster Original models.