I seem to be on a roll with my newfound love for chronographs. This ’90s El Primero chronograph might be over 20 years old, but it sure doesn’t look it. Considering the brand’s strong history and the El Primero in particular, what’s the catch? I can’t see any, so it’s no wonder that I’ve marked three of these as Chrono24 favorites. Is the mid-’90s Zenith Prime the best entry-ticket El Primero chronograph out there?

There is a caveat to this story, and that is one simple fact: chronographs and the complex El Primero movement are not cheap to service. So unless you have a very friendly watchmaker, make sure you get one that’s recently had the spa treatment. Follow that simple rule, and this particular El Primero, the Zenith Prime, is a great choice.

The Best Entry Ticket El Primero Chronograph

Image courtesy of Pluswatch.it

Is the Prime an El Primero?

Of course, it is, with a slight difference — more about that later. We are looking at the ref. 01-0010-420, a monochrome beauty with a hint of pilot’s chronograph about it. For many of us watch aficionados, the early to mid-’90s was a dip on the graph of horological greatness. But bear in mind, that this was when the Rolex Daytona was still powered by an El Primero derivative. That puts the sub-$3,000 price for one of these babies in stark perspective. You do understand that Rolex chose that movement for a reason, right? The cheapest one of these on Chrono24 is $1,900. How’s that for value?

The Best Entry Ticket El Primero Chronograph

Image courtesy of Omegaforums.net

Monochrome cool

This series of chronographs come with the quiet elegance of a black or silvery-white dial. And the size? This is a proper wrist-comfort sweetheart at 38mm with a 46mm lug-to-lug. “Goldilocks” is the word. It’s perhaps one of the sweetest iterations of the El Primero movement, being hand-wound and thin. Due to the lack of a rotor, the case is a mere 11mm thick. And, like many mid-’90s pieces, this Zenith is now back in fashion. Its case is less defined when it comes to chamfers and brushed versus polished finishes than we’re used to. Nevertheless, the 20mm lug width means it is a proper strap monster. Just imagine this on a light brown suede or a smooth Horween leather strap.

The Best Entry Ticket El Primero Chronograph

Image courtesy of Pluswatch.it

The odd logo

Let’s address the odd logo under 12 o’clock. Let’s just say this particular time in Zenith’s history was before the people realized the historic value of the El Primero name. This explains the now odd-looking square logo and the fact that the Zenith name is accompanied by Prime. But who cares? Any of the Fratelli will realize what’s inside. But what about the missing rotor? Does this make it a sub-prime Primero (sorry)? Google some old forum threads, and you’ll find that one of the reasons for its lower value lies in that missing rotor. The El Primero was debatably the first automatic chronograph movement (at least the first one that was officially announced), so what about this caliber 420? Some say it’s emasculated without its rotor. For me, the slimness of the case negates this argument, and the base caliber is still a brilliant piece of engineering. Just ask Rolex.

Image courtesy of Chrono24

A pilot’s chronograph without the name

It might resemble one, but the Zenith Prime was never marketed as a pilot’s tool. But that is the vibe I’m getting from the modern, functional numerals. A large, formal sans-serif font makes for great legibility, and the recessed registers are well proportioned with the 3 and 9 having been removed. This may seem odd, but I prefer this to them being chopped off, and it makes the dial design very balanced. A crisp tachymeter scale frames the dial, with the weirdest design detail being the date window at four-thirty. I’m OK with the placement, and the “160” tachy marking to the right of it is kind of quirky-cool. The case itself is a classic Calatrava-esque design with sweeping lugs and brushed sides, and I want one.

Should I keep my secrets to myself?

I’m actually right to publish these well-kept secrets, or I’d ruin myself. I keep selling myself on my own finds. But seriously, have a look at this search on Chrono24, and make a note of this: I’m happy to proclaim this as the best possible entry ticket to the intricate world of a chronograph classic. And with its svelte 11mm-tall case, the omission of the rotor does not make the caliber 420 any less of a treasure. A sweet-winding crown and softly oblong pushers might make you want to invest in yet more vintage chronographs, so just be careful of what you’re getting yourself into.

My Best-Kept Secrets series might as well be called the 1995-2005 Search Diaries, as this has been the focus up till now. That wasn’t the intention. There is simply a big dip in our awareness of a time before the “New Watch Interest” reared its head on Instagram. There are more to come. And how about you? Have you found any secret bargains and bought them, Fratelli? Let us know in the comments.

Find me and follow me at @thorsvaboe