Buying Guide: The Best Zenith Watches From The 1990s
We like to talk about vintage watches a lot within the Fratello team. Though most of what we write about is primarily focused on the most recent releases and developments, for many of us, a lot of the fun can be found in the sometimes weird and often wonderful world of vintage watches. It’s a world full of history, remarkable watches, incredible stories, and quirky details. It inspired us to come up with a series of articles focusing on the best watches per decade from a select group of brands. Some of them are priceless, some of them still affordable. In this installment, we will take a look at the best Zenith watches from the 1990s.
This week we will continue our journey through watch history to find the best watches from the 1990s. As I have mentioned in the previous articles discussing the best watches from the 1980s, mechanical watches slowly started making a comeback in that decade. By the time the 1990s began, quartz was still dominating the watch industry. But you could slowly see the two finding space next to each other.
With the gradual rise in the popularity of mechanical watches, we also saw a shift in perception. Mechanical watches became a luxury statement produced by prestigious brands with centuries of watchmaking history. It set it apart from the mass-produced, cheap and quartz watches. This luxury status was further backed up by a renewed interest in watches that featured classical complications. Combining the rich history in watchmaking and the technical masterpieces set mechanical watches apart from the fast world of quartz watches for good.
Zenith in the 1990s
In the late 1980s, Zenith made a comeback kick-started by the huge Rolex order to supply the brand with El Primero movements for their new automatic Daytona. As a result, Zenith was able to start back up the production of their own watches as well. In the previous Zenith article about the best Zenith watches of the 1980s, I touched upon the fact that the brand did not release a huge number of models in the eighties, making it somewhat of a challenge to create a list of the best five watches from that decade.
In the 1990s, the popularity of Zenith slowly progressed without the brand creating the success that brands like Rolex and Omega did. Nevertheless, the brand introduced a great number of amazing models. It makes exploring Zenith watches from the 1990s a great joy as you will find beautifully designed timepieces, many of which are powered by the iconic El Primero movements. It makes it no surprise that the focus in this list is on the El Primero models. Simply because they are the most interesting and the most popular from that era. On top of the regular models, Zenith also released some amazing commemorative watches celebrating different occasions. So let’s take a look at five of the most interesting Zenith releases from the 1990s before the brand became part of LVMH.
The Entry Point — Zenith El Primero HW Chronograph ref. 02.0500.420
Let’s start this list off with a watch that is part of a remarkable series of watches. We all know the El Primero movement as one of the first automatic chronograph movements introduced in 1969. Out of the three movements introduced, my favorite is the El Primero movement. From its beautiful construction, its high operation frequency, to the combination with often great designs, I love the legacy of the El Primero watches. This first watch on the list is the Zenith El Primero HW Chronograph ref. 02.0500.420. It seems to be a great addition to that legacy of El Primero automatic chronographs. But it isn’t.
The El Primero HW Chronograph ref. 02.0500.420 is powered by a hand-wound version of the El Primero movement. It’s why you will see the “HW” letters printed on the black dial. Zenith first released a series of watches featuring hand-wound versions of the El Primero movement known as the Zenith Prime models in 1994. Funnily enough, the models don’t feature the “El Primero” wording on the dial as they were the entry-level watches for the brand and thus marketed differently. There is some This series was produced until 1998. The El Primero HW Chronograph ref. 02.0500.420 I picked is the successor to the Prime models that first showed up in catalogs in 2000. So if you allow me, I’ll cheat a little bit. But the watch is very much attached to the story of the hand-wound El Primero models from the nineties.
Two versions of the movement
The Zenith Prime models came with a 38mm case and for the El Primero HW ref. 02.0500.420, the brand decided to use a larger 40mm stainless steel case. You had the option of a leather strap or a stainless steel bracelet. My favorite is, without a doubt, the one with the bracelet. Additionally, you had the choice of a black or white dial. While I love the contrast of the black diag version with its big luminous numerals, I think the white version has a lot of charm. Zenith gave both versions a subtle color injection with the red tip of the central chronograph hand and the wording “tachymeter’ in red on the dial.
Inside the case, Zenith used two versions of the El Primero Caliber 420. There are examples powered by the Caliber 420 that was produced until 1998, and there are versions that feature the later Caliber 420Z. Because Zenith removed the self-winding system from the movement, this hand would version of the El Primero Caliber less than 10mm thick. The movement operates at 36,000vph, has 25 jewels and 55 hours of power reserve. It’s a true joy to see through the display case back. Prices for a Zenith El Primero HW model are roughly between €2.5K and €4K depending on the condition and delivery, either on a strap or bracelet. Some find a hand-wound El Primero blasphemy; I find this an affordable El Primero gem.
My pick — Zenith El Primero Rainbow Fly-Back Chronograph ref. 02.0480.405
This next pick is a Fratello team favorite and one of the most iconic chronographs Zenith has ever produced. The Zenith El Primero Rainbow Fly-Back Chronograph is one of those watches you won’t forget once you lay eyes on it. This legendary French aviator chronograph was commissioned from Zenith by the French air force in the late 1990s. While many people refer to “the Zenith Rainbow” as this watch, the first El Primero Rainbow model was introduced at Baselworld in 1992. The name “Rainbow” came from the sailing boat that took the victory in the 15th America’s Cup in 1934. It was a nice reference for Zenith to introduce the Rainbow series of waterproof sports chronographs.
The successive collection of El Primero Rainbow models featured this El Primero Rainbow Fly-Back Chronograph. It was first introduced to the public at Baselworld in 1997. However, the development of the watch started back in 1995 when the French air force was looking for a new pilot’s chronograph. The brand that would get the contract would have the deliver 1,000 watches annually for four years. For Zenith to be able to produce a watch that would fit the set requirements, the brand had to change quite a bit.
Colorful for a reason
First off, the regular El Primero Caliber 400 was equipped with a flyback function, turning it into the new Caliber 405. Additionally, the screw-down pushers were replaced with regular pushers, the bezel was equipped with irregular grooves for better grip, the minutes counter was executed with aeronautical sector colors, the first twenty minutes of the bezel insert were made red, and the central chronograph seconds hand was made bright red. Finally, Zenith used a full matt satin-brushed case and bracelet and replaced the sailing ship on the case back used for earlier models with the Zenith crest. All the modifications were done for better readability and a stealthier appearance. But when Zenith presented the first six models to the French military at the end of 1995, the government had changed, and the budget was frozen for acquiring the watches.
That’s when Zenith decided not to let the development of the watch go to waste and present it at Baselworld 1997. At 40mm and 12.6mm thick, this is not a chunky watch but a nicely sculpted creation that perfectly fits the wrist. As you look up more info on this watch, you will find versions where the red has faded, creating a full black and silver bezel insert. So these exist and are not necessarily replacement inserts. On the model pictured, you will see that the lume pip is missing, another common thing you see on vintage models. If you are looking for a Zenith El Primero Rainbow Flyback Chronograph, expect to pay roughly between €4K and €6K depending on the condition and whether you want to more normal black and white version or this colorful version. The choice is an easy one, though.
Money is no object #1 — Zenith El Primero De Luca II ref. 01.305.400
In the article about the best Zenith watches of the 1980s, I discussed the first generation of the Zenith De Luca models. As some of you will know, Zenith named the watches “De Luca” after the Italian Zenith agent at the time who created the watches. But Zenith didn’t just stick to that typical stainless steel sports chronograph with a black bezel and black or white dial from the first series. In 1990 Zenith introduced the second series that featured a stainless steel bezel, an updated dial design, and the choice of a black, silver, or blue dial. Especially this blue dial version is an absolute peach. As you will see, this “De Luca II” looks very much like a Rolex Daytona, which was no coincidence.
Zenith supplied Rolex with their El Primero movements in the late ’80s for their new Daytona. But Zenith also decided to make its version of a racing chronograph that looked like the Daytona. Next to the De Luca II models, the Zenith Bolognese El Primero Chronographs I talked about last time also resemble the Daytona. What to think of this resemblance? Honestly, I do not mind it at all. I think it has a certain charm that you can buy these chronographs at a fraction of the cost of the Daytona and enjoy the same looks, the same base movement, and buy something more unique. Because the De Luca II models were produced in low numbers, they are a lot more special. This blue dial version was only produced in a limited production run of 200 pieces in 1990.
My pick over a Daytona
The De Luca II models featured a 40mm stainless steel case. Most of them were delivered on a leather strap, and all came with a Perspex crystal and without screw-down pushers. The watches were waterproof up to 100 meters. Zenith produced the black and silver dial versions in 1990 and 1991. Approximately 695 pieces with a black dial and 335 pieces with a white dial. As mentioned, 200 pieces of the blue dial version were produced in 1990. And what a beauty it is! I usually do not favor blue dials over black dials — the Royal Oak Jumbo and the Tissot PRX are two other scarce examples. But look at the glorious blue color that Zenith used for the dial. The aged tritium combined with the dial color gives these watches a stunning presence.
The one thing I like a bit less is the white date disc. It stands out a bit too much, in my opinion. But overall, it’s a great-looking watch. Especially on the bracelet, it looks even better. Inside the case, Zenith used the El Primero Caliber 400 that operates at 36,000vph, has 31 jewels, and has a power reserve of 52 hours. Honestly, I would pick this Zenith El Primero De Luca II over any automatic Daytona and day of the week. Especially because it tends to go for a lot less money than a Daytona. Expect to pay roughly between €5K and €7K for one f you can find one for sale. A perfect example of what made Zenith such a great brand in the ’80s and ’90s.
Money is no object #2 — Zenith El Primero 125th Anniversary Chronograph ref. 30.1250.400
Next up is a really special Zenith. In 1990 the brand introduced a series of four commemorative watches to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the company. Three manual winding watches and one chronograph with an automatic El Primero movement. All four watches came with a COSC chronometer certificate. The three manual-winding models came in a limited edition run of just 300 pieces. The chronograph was produced in a limited series of 500 pieces. The limited-edition number on all of these models can be found on the case back along with the Zenith crest and on the dial. The chronograph, as you can see, has the number just below the 8 o’clock marker.
What I love about this 125th Anniversary is its looks. It has an 18K gold case with a perfectly balanced white enamel chronograph dial. The design of the dial is very well-balanced and takes after the iconic chronographs of the 1950s and ’60s. For the chronograph, Zenith used a 13-lignes El Primero Caliber 400. For the manual winding models, the brand used 11-lignes Zenith calibers with small seconds. Like the chronograph, the three other models also featured a yellow gold case and enamel dials.
Officially the collection of four models was called the Zenith 125th Anniversary Chronometer Collection. The Chronometer, however, was the odd one out. Not only because it was a chronograph, but simply because it looked the best by far, and with its 40mm yellow gold case, it is still the perfect size. A detail that had not been introduced until Zenith released the ChronoMaster collection in 1997. From that moment on, people were able to enjoy the brilliance of the El Primero movement. But in this instance, I do not really mind because the case back gives this watch that special detail, letting you know quite clearly, you have bought a special limited edition piece.
Finding one of these Zenith 125th Anniversary Chronographs is not impossible. They show up for sale regularly. The most amazing thing is that these are not very expensive limited edition timepieces like from some other famous brands. It always kind of surprises me because you can buy a brilliant yellow gold chronograph with a great movement for well under €10K. Prices for this 125th Anniversary Chronograph are roughly between €5K and €7K. Considering what you get for the money, that is a bargain, in my opinion.
Money is no object #3 — Zenith El Primero ChronoMaster ref. 17.0500.400
The last watch on this list of five Zenith watches is another limited edition. It was part of Zenith’s ChronoMaster collection that served to reposition the El Primero name. With the new ChronoMaster collection, the brand created a top-of-the-line collection that featured some amazing timepieces. Many of you will probably know the El Primero ChronoMaster Moonphase that could have been on this list. But I decided to go for a special oddball choice with the Zenith El Primero ChronoMaster ref. 17.0500.400 “São Gabriel.”
Zenith produced a total of 750 pieces of this particular reference that all came with a rose gold case. The watch was designed by Portuguese watch designer J. Borges Freitas of Portugal, who also designed the Port Royal Dual Time that we’ll get to in the best Zenith models from the 2000s. The brand produced 419 pieces with a white dial, as you see pictured. A total of 281 were produced with a black dial. Additionally, 50 pieces were produced for the Portuguese marker with a special São Gabriel caravel engraving on the case back. The engraving celebrates the five hundredth anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India. The other 700 pieces featured a display case back that shows the El Primero movement.
Old school styling
The watch features a 38mm rose gold case with a white dial that reminds of some of the best chronographs from the 1930s and ’40s. As you can see, there are multiple scales to be found on the dial, including a telemeter, tachymeter, chronometer, and snail tachymeter. It’s busy and quirky but in all the right ways. The big hour numerals make sure that you can fairly easily read the time. Zenith used the El Primero Caliber 400 inside the rose gold case, which we have discussed multiple times in this article.
As with the previous model, you will be surprised that these watches do not cost you an arm and a leg. You might have to search a bit to find one, especially since the black dial versions can be hard to find. But when you do, expect to pay roughly between €4.5K and €6.5K depending on the condition and delivery with box and papers. Again, that is not a lot of money for what you get in return. It shows that Zenith might still be an underappreciated brand when it comes to its vintage timepieces. While the trilogy of the first El Primero models goes for quite a bit of money, there are quite a few hidden gems that will get you a lot of watch for the money. And I secretly like that about Zenith and about this great timepiece.
There you have it. A list of five remarkable Zenith watches from the ’90s. Yes, all of them are El Primero models. But in all honesty, the best Zenith watches from that era are often the El Primero models. On top of that, the brand focused on strengthening the legacy of the El Primero. That’s why it makes sense to have five of them on the list.
As with all the other brands, it is important to do your homework. The world of vintage Zenith watches also suffers from fake or Franken pieces. Next, you have to remember that many vintage pieces were serviced over the decades, and parts have been replaced. That’s why it is good to do some required reading.
A lot of crucial historical info has been documented, though. Two nice books to start with are Zenith — Swiss Watch Manufacture Since 1865 and El Primero – Der Chronograph (in German), written by Manfred Rössler. On top of that, there is plenty of information available to read online. Jeff Stein’s On The Dash has a great cheat sheet for all the El Primero models with some nice links. Additionally, the Zenith forum at Watchuseek is also a great place to start. Contacting vintage experts will also help out greatly. It’s a great way to learn more about a watch and get to know some amazing people along the way.
Let us know in the comment section what your favorite Zenith from the 1990s is. Did I miss a beautiful Elite model? Let us know! We’ll be back for another installment in the series next Saturday.