No, “The Return Of The Panda” is not the next animated movie being released by Dreamworks, but rather a serious trend we have seen developing lately, and not only at SIHH. In many ways, it is similar to the revival of the sector dial we also witnessed this past week, since both styles borrow design cues from the vintage world but with new interpretations. This new Zenith El Primero 36,000 vph is just that, bringing contrasting sub-registers to an El Primeo with the freshly released 42mm black ceramicised aluminum case.
Since 1969 and the release of the very first model, the El Primero chronograph has held a prominent role within Zenith’s portfolio. It makes total sense too, since this automatic high-beat chronograph caliber represented a crucial step in watchmaking history, achieving, after many years of research, what was deemed almost impossible. The very same year Seiko and a Swiss conglomerate also released an automatic chronograph movement, but neither was high-beat, a characteristic which allows better measurement of the elapsed time, given the higher frequency of the caliber. The El Primero was not only used by Zenith, but was also adopted by Ebel and Rolex in the 1980s and 1990s (despite almost disappearing entirely at one point). To this day, it still remains the core of Zenith, which offers the chronograph in three case sizes, the original 38mm, 42mm, and 45mm.
The two new Zenith El Primero 36,000 vph (36,000 vibrations per hour being the beat rate of the caliber), are both the middle 42mm size. Yet, the most modern feature is clearly the case material, a black ceramicised aluminum. Basically you can understand it as a fine ceramic coating over an aluminum base. Previously we’d only seen this in the El Primero Range-Rover Limited Edition, but now its going main line.
And, because you know my curiosity, I grilled the product development team on the advantages and drawbacks of such a case. Lightness is a pretty obvious characteristic, but another one I learned about was related to shocks and scratches, clearly something you never look forward to but which inevitably happens. So the vickers hardness of this material is lower than ceramic but it does not shatter on impact. Scratches can arise, but they are more likely to be deposits from the material that the case scratched against than a disappearance of the coating, so they can be buffed out at service, through sandblasting that will give a brand new finishing to the case.
Technological considerations aside, this new material works great on the reasonably slim 12.75mm-thick case for two reasons: the black finish makes it wear smaller and it lightness is super comfy, especially when it is worn on the included rubber strap. Some might denounce a “Hublot-isation” of the El Primero, but to me this modern spin gives it great looks in monochromatic color schemes while still utilizing the dial layout of the original.
The Zenith El Primero 36,000 vph is definitely related to the Range Rover LE, but presents significant differences, starting with the dial which has lost its shifting grey tones for panda and reverse panda configurations that vintage enthusiasts love. Although Zenith did offer dials like this back in the 1960s. they’re most associated with Heuer and Breitling. Focusing more closely on the dial, the Range Rover line was replaced by the El Primero moniker, and the sub-registers got a different arrangement with the hour counter layering over the minute and running seconds counters, a more traditional setting for Zenith. Similarly, the seconds hand returned to a simplified and standard form, as did the rotor on the caliber itself.
These black and white El Primeros are definitely eye-catching, and quite a smart move for Zenith. They do bring a bit of modernity to the line, while offering a different option than the open dials of the Chronomaster, and a more overstated overall look. Choosing panda (white dial/ black registers) and reverse panda (black dial/white registers) was a safe bet for Zenith given the popularity that those two currently enjoy in the vintage world. In any case, kudos to the brand for listening to the watch-loving community and understanding that getting vintage enthusiasts interested in modern watches is tough but important.
There is one important question I still have not addressed: Which of the two dials would I go for? It is the same debate than many have with the new Daytona (all other comparisons put aside), and there is obviously no perfect answer, just personal preferences. I would go for the panda configuration, since I found the combination of the black sub-registers and the silvery dial the most interesting, but that is just me.
On the wrist, the date disc did not disturb me on either model either. I actually saw it as necessary to balance the high positioning of the counters around the center of the dial, given the size discrepancy between the 42mm case and the 30mm 400B caliber (which offers a 50-hour power reserve). And I really enjoyed the rubber strap with its titanium-coated folding clasp. It clearly improved the wearability of a piece nearing the high boundary of what I feel comfortable having on the wrist, given my inclination for smaller vintage wristwatches.
Official release date and pricing has not yet been set, but we’re told the watches should come in a bit below $8,000, meaning there will be roughly a $1,000 premium over the existing stainless steel 42mm El Primero. For reference, the Range-Rover LE was priced at $7,700. To learn more, visit Zenith online.