One of the first nice watches I ever bought certainly the first with an in-house movement was a Zenith. At the time it felt like I was buying into true quality with some real history attached to it. When it didn’t fly completely under the radar which was just fine by me it inspired plenty of questions from friends, mostly about the defunct American television manufacturer Zenith Radio Corporation (which fun fact owned Zenith Watches for a time in the 1970s).
I imagine many people out there have a soft spot for the Zenith El Primero. Flipping over a modern watch with this movement inside takes you back to an earlier time. It’s clearly an old machine, and not necessarily a very fancy one: the name asserts primacy among automatic chronographs in order, if not in rank. For years the El Primero has been regarded as a serviceable movement that, in addition to being one of the first three automatic chronos in 1969, rocked the industry with a higher-than-average frequency of 36,000 vph. And heck, it was good enough for Rolex’s Daytona for all those years, even if the Crown did recalibrate it, scaling the frequency down to a more manageable 28,800 vph.
Years after buying my own Zenith Captain Winsor, which paired an annual calendar module (developed bythis guy) with the El Primero, I had the chance to visit Zenith and see the mid-20th-century stamping machines still used to form many of the parts for this workhorse movement, which straddles an unusual place at the crossroads of watchmaking history and current production.
The tale of how the tooling for the El Primero was stashed in an attic by the late Charles Vermot, a rogue employee who refused to follow corporate orders that would have spelled the death of this caliber, and Zenith itself, is one of the great stories in horology. HODINKEE wrote about it here.
These sentiments and memories flooded back when Jack handed me an El Primero 38 mm for my first Hands On review over here at HODINKEE. Taking the watch up I felt its weight, noted the beveling on the edges of the case, and inspected the recessed chronograph totalizers and applied indices on its dial. I noted the folding clasp attached to its lined alligator strap, as well as the price tag of $6,700. The Zenith El Primero 38 is a contemporary luxury watch crafted for watch collectors who like the idea of old good things but want something new. There are plenty of watches being sold today from a handful of horological marques that fulfill this mission, but hardly any who do it with a movement whose initial production dates from 1960s, or with a case in the original, sub-40mm diameter. Of the original three self-winding chronographs that debuted in 1969 (the others being the Seiko 6139 and the Caliber 11) only the El Primero remains in production.
Speaking of the case, it’s quite nice. That aforementioned beveling along the lugs and mixture of polished and matte surfaces suggests a level of quality, and attention to detail, that isn’t necessarily as apparent in the original El Primero of 1969, which wasn’t really even marketed as a luxury item. The piston pushers feature a prominent ribbing around them, yet somehow appear slightly out of proportion with relation to the crown, which extends out a hair further than the pushers even when it isn’t extended. The harmony of the proportions on the see-through caseback is excellent. There is absolutely no need for an obtrusive (and quite frankly ugly) spacer when you put a movement in a case the size it was designed for. Still, with the extra-thick sapphire crystal placed over the dial to give us the feeling of 60s-era plexiglass, the total thickness of this watch swells to 12.45 mm, which, for me, feels too bloated for a 38 mm watch. But I cavil. This is well-executed design.
The same can be said about about the dial on this beauty, which comes in two flavors that recall the original overlapping tri-color totalizers of the first El Primero. The layout of the dial has all of the harmony of the original and doesn’t feel forced onto the center of a too-large canvas in the way that many timepieces using old movements and 40-plus-millimeter cases do.
I’ll reserve my most severe critque for the folding clasp, which added neither comfort nor functionality to my enjoyment of this watch. I am not against a folding buckle per se, but the one supplied with this watch feels out of proportion with the 38 mm case and the strap on which it comes. But if this sounds like a quibble, I suppose it is. Were I to buy a new El Primero Chronomaster 38mm for myself, my first stop would be to a strap seller for a something a little more period appropriate and comfortable.
Regarding the movement itself, what is there really to say about the El Primero that hasn’t already been said? It’s the classic column wheel chronograph that initiated the era of the automatic chrono. It compensates for a lack of physical beauty and finishing with estimable functionality and the ability to time events to within 1/10th of a second. One could certainly do a whole lot worse with $6,700 than spending it on the El Primero Chronomaster 38mm, and I would go so far as to say that owning and experiencing a watch with this important caliber is a must for every watch lover, at one point or another.
The Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 38mm: movement, Zenith El Primero Caliber 400 chronograph, 30 mm diameter, 5Hz, running in 31 jewels. Self-winding, minimum 50 hours power reserve. Case: steel, 38 mm x 12.45 mm, water resistant to 10 ATM. Price: $6,700 as shown. See it right here atwww.zenith-watches.com.