Hands-On With The Zenith Chronomaster Revival El Primero A385
For the purposes of this article, I counted all the vintage and modern timepieces in my collection. I never realized that the latter represents less than 3% in my three-digit plus collection. Well, that number is going to increase slightly. Blame the Zenith Revival El Primero A385.
In the pictures, I liked everything about the Revival El Primero A385. The case size, shape and finishing, the dial, and color mix. The question was would I enjoy the movement, proportions, and a bit of that 1970s flair as much live on my wrist? Let’s take it step-by-step.
The Revival El Primero A385 vs. the Chronomaster Sport
A quick warm-up. Have you seen Mike’s recent TwoForTuesday article featuring the two new El Primero chronographs side-by-side? The new A385 suffered a shattering defeat, with the all-new Chronomaster Sport stealing 70% of the vote. My emotions toggled between being slightly outraged and completely disappointed. I would have excepted a 49% defeat. But only three out of ten votes for the A385, that really surprised me.
Must have hands-on
The Revival El Primero A385 hit my sweet spot within two seconds of finding the press release announcing it early this year. I tried to hide from it for a few weeks, but when another later Zenith release came, my lingering lust crept out from the shadows and I asked Zenith for a sample. I believe the new El Primero A385 deserves a deeper, more hands-on examination. Just like you deserve a chance to help me soften the huge voting gap discussed above.
The A385 was one of the three original stainless steel chronographs housing one of the world’s first automatic chronographs. The year was 1969, just two years before the company was sold to Zenith Radio Corporation as a result of Japanese quartz watches conquering the world. This also explains the pretty low production volumes of the original three and their steeply rising value. No wonder they have been rediscovered recently. While the Caliber 11 registers 19,800 vibrations per hour and the Seiko 21,600, the El Primero 3019 PHC movement with its 36,000 vibrations per hour will forever carry the title of the world’s first high-frequency automatic chronograph.
First impressions of the El Primero A385
The last interesting dial gradient that stuck with me was the 2019 limited edition of the Zodiac Super Sea Wolf 68. Both have a similar structure that reminds me of a sandblasted surface. But the new A385 surprises me with its variety of tones and their intensity. You can see a whole range of colors from yellow, gold, beige, brass, dark mocha, caramel, to a warm brown.
In darker conditions, there are khaki tones with bits of grey and dark green. The span of colors is fascinating and covers both warm and cold tones. The dial is a pure magnet. I’ve never thought about who achieved this effect first before, but Zenith claims that the OG A385 was possibly the first “smoked” dial ever to be made in the watch industry. Another fun fact to throw around at friends in the pub while showing off your watch.
A385 pictures can’t speak
The three subregisters are set independently, not touching one another. The hour counter is notably smaller, exactly like in the original A385. Technically speaking, they’re not original or innovative. Yet their white background is completely mesmerizing in a way I can’t explain. It’s not a typical sub-dial that you hardly notice. The divine-white flat surfaces come up from the dial as objects and transform the otherwise three subtle sub-registers into a premium timing gadget. With no over-exaggeration, the new A385 features one of the most legible chronograph dials I’ve personally ever encountered.
I need to repeat that. Reading the chronograph on the A385 is way better than on my Omega Speedmaster Ultraman or the 60th Anniversary. This is especially true of the hours sub-counter. That sharp contrast and super-fine hand make reading the elapsed time a cinch. The contrast of the chronograph to the dial is just perfect. At the risk of repeating myself, I have to add that the time reading is also exquisite.
Some of you might feel annoyed when spotting the difference between the lume on the indexes and the hands. The hand lume is darker — quite apparently so. I think it would be an issue for me if the dial was monochromatic, but on such a vivid gradient it doesn’t bother me at all. And I think it will never will.
The date problem
That’s my problem. Or that was my problem. My OCD has not allowed me to buy the El Primero or any other vintage watch featuring a date at 4:30. I found it ugly, off-putting, and just downright bad. And I was so wrong. All this coming from someone who loves and needs the date. After a week with the Revival A385, not only can I live with the date at 4:30, I am starting to like it.
It took me some time to fully discover the tonneau-shaped steel case. With more and more watches featuring a tonneau-shaped case in my collection, I am starting to really appreciate the flat and “intimate“ way they sit on the wrist. To name a few that we have featured recently, see the Tissot PRC-516 or a selection of skin divers with the legendary 62MAS on top of that list.
No need to beat around the bush, it’s a fact that a tonneau-shaped case looks slightly fat, chunky, dull, and cumbersome by definition. The amount of steel-fat around the lugs determines just how authentically ’70s it feels. “What an ugly watch,” said my wife when I brought it home. I looked at the perfectly sharp edges, the exemplary sunburst finishing on the flat top, and then back at my wife. I have so much love in me for both of them. how is it possible they could not see eye-to-eye?
The El Primero A385 Experience
The El Primero 400 is a fine-tuned contemporary version of the original 3019 PHC launched in 1969. I have not had any personal experience of the original, but I’ve heard these were quite fragile, contrary to Valjoux movements for example that you could wear for all-day drilling. The El Primero 400 has all the durability standards you require from a modern chronograph watch. And keeping the basic skeleton and core structure allows preserving a bit of the original movement characteristics.
Operating the chronograph on the El Primero is like closing the door on a BMW 7 Series. Okay, a BMW 5 Series, at least.
And I will tell you, the movement is something. If you press the pusher, you feel a full and beefy click. The experience is similar to the confident aristocratic Excelsior Park EP 40-68 mostly found in vintage Gallet chronographs. Pushers on cheaper chronographs often feel wobbly, imprecise, and like the organism below is too simple or too functionally minded. Stripped down to the only necessary parts, it steals from you the beauty of the experience. I used to be an automotive editor 20 years ago. I remember closing the door on an old Dacia where you felt the mass of bare metal hitting the metal frame. Each door shut hurt and sometimes you had to do it twice to actually close the door.
Operating the chronograph on the El Primero is like closing the door on a BMW 7 Series. Okay, a BMW 5 Series, at least. You can do it all the time on repeat. It’s smooth and each press reassures you that there is complex, sophisticated, and reliable technology behind it.
The central red seconds hand feels sporty enough. As I come from a post-communist country, the specific star symbol on the crown and the dial has many levels of interpretation for me, but this one so, so good. El Primero is one hell of a product name. I fully realized it only after turning it around in my head for seven consecutive days and looking at it on my wrist. And that font is legendary! The 37mm case of the A385 is practically identical to the original. With a premium, you can get the remake of the original ladder bracelet, which is really comfy. I didn’t have it for this hands-on, but I believe I would go with the light brown calf leather strap myself.
I need one. Do you?
More product information here.