Sunday Morning Showdown: Revival Rivals — Breitling Vs. Zenith
In our Sunday Morning Showdown, two of our writers go head-to-head in an epic showdown for the ages. Strong opinions and hysterical hyperbole are welcome (so feel free to join in with the fun in the comments section below). And don’t forget to let us know which watches you’d like to see torn to shreds/effusively exalted next week. We’ll try and feature as many of our readers’ choices as we can. After a short break for March Mania, we’re back with today’s candidates. Each contender revives a cooky layout from its past in a modern guise. The Breitling Top Time and Zenith Chronomaster El Primero A385. Which revival riles you up?
Don’t adjust your television set. You are indeed looking at two brand new watches released within one year of each year. They may look like relics of the past, but the Breitling Top Time and Zenith El Primero are modern executions of classic designs. Breitling not only revive the style but even the name “Top Time” in 2020. The original Top Time had a relatively short model run from the mid-60s to the mid-70s but left a lasting impression. Focussing attention on youthful consumers, the Top Time was a budget-conscious everyday chronograph that let go of the pilot credentials of the Navitimer and Chronomat.
From Zenith, the mighty El Primero movement is given its pedestal within the Chronomaster A385 Revival. The fact that this movement has stood the test of time with its spiritual successor, caliber 400, ticking away within the revival is a miracle. Whereas the Breitling takes various cues of the “Bow-Tie” dial Top Time, the Zenith recreates a 1:1 copy of the original A385 with exacting precision. Both releases opt for eclectic dial styles that seem fitting for their era, but which one revs up your rose-tinted spectacles? We’ll let our writers divulge their opinion shortly, but first…
The Seiko Prospex edition
Shuffling back to a few Sundays ago, it seems the SPB143 got the best of its Prospex sibling or “Propsex,” as Mike calls it, the SPB185. The fans voted and made their voices heard to the tune of 56%. I don’t know about you, but I am getting severe Tudor Black Bay vibes with the intense popularity of the SPB143. It’s great to see a Seiko dive watch that keeps the core fans happy but ascends to the top of the wishlist for non-enthusiasts alike. It’s not too dissimilar from the Top Time contender we have for you today that also draws an overlapping Venn diagram. In one circle are the watch fanatics, while on the other are mainstream consumers on the hunt for a reliable, sturdy, and wallet-friendly top ticker.
Last time out it got a little confusing with the quantity of fax-machine-sounding Seiko references — even so much as needing late-minute captions as a guide. Hopefully, this week should be less of a problem with our aesthetically different, though spiritually similar, Breiling and Zenith contenders. However, if you recommend any changes for this series, state your suggestions in the comments below. With all that said, let’s click the start pusher on this Showdown.
Ben — Breitling Top Time
I had to double-, nay, triple-check the release of this Top Time. As it stands, this edition of Sunday Morning Showdown marks just 12-months since the unveiling of this new Top Time — give or take a few days. It’s hard to believe that only 12-months have gone by for two reasons: Firstly, the timing marries up with the initial lockdown across Europe, North America, and much of the world. It’s understandable then that a few other news stories may have buried the impact of this new Breitling, slightly delaying the reaction. Secondly, it serves as a reminder of the journey we’ve been on since the first outbreak. The usual milestones that define a year have either shifted or vanished, blurring the year into a long stretch of time.
I’d like to see Breitling recreate the Top Time from Thunderball…without the Geiger counter.
Perhaps this late response to the Top Time revival has stymied a quick succession of follow-ups. While the “Bow-Tie” or Mask of Zorro dial is a real attention-grabber, I, along with my fellow Fratelli, long for a stripped-back panda dial Top Time. Even better if we see the recreation of the Sean Connery-adorned Top Time from Thunderball (1965). Without the Geiger counter Q gadget barrel case, of course. Even so, the “Bow-Tie” was a well-received return to tradition for Breitling with a rather strict limitation of 2,000-pieces.
Getting down to the deets
The introduction made it clear this Top Time is not as faithful to the original ’60s reference. Breitling also does “capsule” collections such as the 765 AVI or Navitimer 806 that attempt to revive the past details. But the inaugural Top Time revival takes liberties with the dimensions. The reference 2003 that is the base of inspiration clocks in at around 38mm. In contrast, the 2020 re-editions scale this up to 41mm×14.73mm. Alongside this is the Breitling Calibre 23, which is essentially a Valjoux 7753 cam-operated chronograph with a lateral clutch. This type of chronograph is not as smooth as a vertical clutch/column-wheel operation but is generally more shock-resistant.
You’ll find a tachymeter scale for measuring speed over a fixed distance on the vintage model. But the new Top Time only includes the decimal scale. This type of scale converts 60-second or minute timing into 100 dashes for scientific measurements. Breitling usually features both decimal and tachymeter scales on its chronograph watches, but the Top Time revival elects to use the far less common decimal as its only other scale. Thankfully, a feature from the past to omit the date window carries through to this model allowing the black Bow-Tie layout to sit symmetrically against the silver dial.
The case in high polish
Perhaps a style that slightly alludes me is the decision to fully polish all facets of the case, including the case-back with engraving. I do prefer alternating finishing techniques, especially with bevelling of the edges, which this Breitling lacks. It brings me back to the steel Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 15202, which achieves an epic light show without a single gemstone. Even so, this Top Time excites me with its vintage tinge that stays on the fringe of being a full-blown replica. The benefits of modern construction also provide a feature that often goes overlooked in Breitling chronographs.
Take a look at the chronograph pushers, and you may notice they line up with the 2 and 4 o’clock polished indices. It’s a subtle design that may go unnoticed but showcases a level of alignment that sub-consciously exudes quality. Pairing this with the Nubuck brown strap and boxy sapphire crystal, the Top Time ties a seamless blend between classic designs and a modern finish. The crown may not be screw-down, but this is set for land-based excursions rather than aquatic escapades.
When faux goes too far
Something I appreciate about this Top Time is the reluctance to go overboard with the faux lume. The art of replicating aged hands and indices in modern watches is not a recent trend but has been more prevalent in the last five years. The idea is to commence a watch’s life with a warm golden brown tone that previously came by way of decades of passing time. Mostly it’s a stylistic choice where white or black could look too sterile and can often be very beautiful, such as the use of gold flakes on the baton indices of the JLC Reverso 1931. But some brands have taken it too far.
We accept that developing materials used in the heyday of watchmaking did not strictly maintain a pristine look. But is it the vintage watches themselves that we lust for, or is it this natural aging and the anomalies created we desire? To quote Dolly Parton, “…it costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” At least for the Top Time, “fauxtina” is kept to a minimum, with only the creamy lume plots harking back to the heyday of mechanical timepieces. The same cannot be said of Jorg’s pick for today, so let’s hear what he has to say.
Jorg — Zenith Chronomaster Revival El Primero A385
As mentioned in the intro, please don’t touch that dial. Although it might feel we’re transporting you back to the late ’60s, we’re showcasing modern watches here. Similar to Ben’s Breitling Top Time pick, the Zenith Chronomaster Revival El Primero A385 is a modern re-issue of a classic. When I say re-issue, I mean it, as it’s pretty much an exact copy of the 1969 original. So, I certainly don’t blame you for thinking we took a wrong turn into Westview, New Jersey — that’s for all you WandaVision fans out there.
The Top Time 810 is one of the cleanest and nicest chronographs ever made.
Both the Breitling Top Time and the Zenith A385 are two of my favorite vintage chronographs. But in terms of dial layout, the reference 2003 that Ben’s Breitling re-creates is not my preference. For me, the vintage Top Time 810 is more my thing with a clean dial. I’m with you that I cannot wait to see modern versions of the panda and reverse panda styles that the ’60s chronographs popularized. Even so, the revival of the Top Time name is a good start, and I have no doubt it won’t be the last we will see of it.
The power of the El Primero movement
The story of the A385 starts with Zenith’s ambition to release the first automatic, fully integrated chronograph movement. On January 10th, 1969, Zenith launched the El Primero with high-frequency 5Hz (36,000vph) and self-winding rotor. The caliber was only 6.5mm thick and was the first to feature a running seconds hand. Appropriately Zenith decided to christen it “El Primero,” or The First.
More than five decades later, many watch enthusiasts now acknowledge the race to develop an automatic chronograph: Zenith, Seiko, and the Chronomatic Group (a partnership between Heuer-Léonidas, Breitling, Hamilton-Büren, and Dubois-Dépraz), all had hats in the ring to achieve the auto chrono. In mechanical watchmaking, this was the final quest before quartz came into the picture. While each brand eventually achieved the goal, the El Primero by Zenith seemingly outlived the lifespan of all its competition. Five decades later, the El Primero is still the backbone of Zenith watches, albeit with continual improvements and adjustments. But there is more to my case for this Zenith than just the movement.
The design of the Zenith trilogy
Zenith also surprised watch fans with a glorious trio of watches along with the movement: The Zenith El Primero A384, A385, and A386 combine the El Primero movement with eye-catching designs. The A384 and A386 have gone on to become industry icons and favorites amongst vintage collectors. And it’s been great to see Zenith release several re-issues of the A386 and A384 throughout the decades. By being authentic to the dimensions and details, the 2019 re-editions were especially good at reminding us of the 1969 classics. While the A386 has become the standout that many remember as the original, I still prefer the A384. The blocky A384 case design defines the era in which it emerged.
The A385 takes it to the next level.
But what about the A385? Well, the other two references got their fair share of revivals, but the A385 was slightly left behind. The A384 provided the perfect canvas, and this year, the A385 finally had its time to shine. The Revival A384 was already a tasty piece, but the A385 takes it to the next level. Our own Tomas did an extensive review, explaining why he needs one. And coming from a vintage guy like Tomas, his final words were: “I need one, do you?” Knowing Tomas and his penchant for mostly vintage watches that is high praise indeed.
The Revival A385 is a show-stopper
With the introduction of this new Chronomaster Revival El Primero A385, Zenith completes the 1969 revival trilogy. While it may appear as a complete replication of the original El Primero A385 from 1969, there are some changes. The main differences compared to the original are the improved build quality, level of finishing, and the updated El Primero 400 movement. After seeing it in person, it’s the spectacular brown dégradé smoked dial with the staying power.
The dial is the show’s undisputed star — its color changes from a dark brown on the outer rim of the dial to a light cappuccino color in the center. However, the three sub-registers break up the creamy tones with crisp white contrast; clear but not disruptive. With a flash of red on the chronograph seconds, you have the extra ingredient to spice up the design. When I finally put the watch on my wrist, I instantly got the feeling of wearing a part of history that’s still relevant.
The Zenith A385 is worth every penny
The case dimensions of 37mm×42mm, with a 47mm lug-to-lug, may seem out of whack with modern shapes, but it still works. The modest 12.6mm height also helps keep the wearability up to standards. On a brown leather strap, the A385 Revival is €7,800 — a 60% uplift over the Top Time at €4,850. But the only way to go is the Gay Frères-style ladder bracelet at €8,300. Even though it sounds like I’m pricing myself out of contention, you have to go the whole way when it comes to owning a design classic.
And what you get in return is so much better. The overall design is more authentic, with a unique mechanism and inviting dial. You could also say the same for the Top Time, but as a complete package, the A385 sells its story way better. Perhaps I’d have a different opinion with one of the other possible Breitling Top Time layouts, but this Bow-Tie configuration is not my style. I get its historical relevance, but design-wise it doesn’t land for me.
Ben: This is still the best Top Time we have, and far better than that Deus limited edition that myself and others on the team were not keen on. This Bow Tie limited edition sets the template perfectly for follow-up editions. For now, this Breitling does the best at retaining the original DNA but making it work for modern tastes.
Jorg: I also only hope that Zenith will make the Revival El Primero A384, A385, and A386 permanent additions to the Zenith collection. Up until now, all of the releases have been limited editions. On top of that, the brand has not released an exact re-issue of the A386 in steel. We’ve only closely related designs or the 50th-anniversary models in rose, white and yellow gold. But for now, A385 gives you all the vintage cues you need in a stunning recreation and in stainless steel.
But what do our readers think? Vote now and make your voices heard in the comments below.