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Buying Guide

6 Recent Zenith Watches Showcasing the Versatility of the El Primero Calibre

Premiering in 1969, the El Primero was a pivotal movement in Zenith’s history and for watchmaking in general... The High-Beat goes on!

| By Robin Nooy | 12 min read |
Zenith Chronomaster Sport 2021

El Primero, the first one. A name that is forever cemented in horological history for being the very first automatic chronograph movement to be presented to the public, all the way back in January 1969. The iconic powerhouse chronograph has stood the test of time, literally, and is more alive than ever. Zenith has logically embraced this calibre and uses it for a wide array of chronograph watches, ranging from true-to-the-original styles to more edgy and contemporary interpretations. All the more reason to celebrate this legendary movement through six watches Zenith introduced in 2021, using the El Primero platform.

Zenith El Primero 1969 trilogy A384 A385 A386 watches
The Zenith El Primero 1969 trilogy, with the A384, A385 and A386 watches

Although chronograph wristwatches had been around for decades before the El Primero took to the stage, they have always relied on hand-wound movements. That is until the year 1969, when not one but three movements were introduced to change the landscape of mechanical chronographs. The compact construction of Zenith’s El Primero uses a column wheel for a smoother operation of the chronograph, and a horizontal clutch to connect the timekeeping gear with the chronograph complication. And of course, a rarity then and now, it runs at a higher frequency for greater precision (36,000vph or 5Hz).

Despite seemingly insurmountable challenges like the quartz crisis and an owner of the Zenith brand that stopped manufacturing during the 1970s, the El Primero made a comeback in the 1980s and has been in continuous production since. And yes, it has been upgraded several times during all those years, but the backbone of the calibre is still very much the same as the 1969 blueprint. Updates included incorporating newer, more efficient materials to improve the movement’s performance. Over the years we’ve covered the El Primero extensively, including a more in-depth explanation of the history behind it.

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In 2021, the brand revamped almost entirely its collection, presenting multiple watches all paying tribute, in their own way, to the legend that is this calibre. We’ve selected six watches introduced by Zenith this year that perfectly showcase the versatility of the El Primero.

zenith chronomaster sport white dial

The All-rounder – Zenith Chronomaster Sport

Kicking off this Buying Guide is perhaps one of the best sports chronographs on today’s market. The Zenith Chronomaster Sport is quite literally the most all-terrain of all the El Primero powered watches Zenith currently has on offer. While it maintains the overall look and feel of an early El Primero, with a very legible dial and signature overlapping chronograph and small seconds sub-dials in blue, grey, and silver, it adds some very sporty elements into the mix.

zenith chronomaster sport

The Zenith Chronomaster Sport, like others in the collection, makes full use of the updated El Primero 3600 calibre, which was presented in 2019. The El Primero 3600 uses fewer components and modern materials for greater efficiency. When activated, the central chronograph seconds hand whizzes over the dial once every ten seconds, thanks to the movement’s 5Hz frequency, making full use of its 1/10th of a second capacities. The manufacture calibre is packed in a modern, stainless steel case with a 41mm diameter, topped with a ceramic bezel in black. The dial can either be black or white, which is the best-looking one according to us.

A couple of months after the initial launch of the Chronomaster Sport, Zenith introduced a more luxurious gold model. However handsome it may be, we would still go for the steel and white dial Chronomaster Sport as it comes closest to the spirit of the original El Primero A386 out of all available Chronomaster Sport models… The Zenith Chronomaster Sport is part of the permanent collection of Zenith and retails for CHF 9,400 on a rubber strap and CHF 9,900 on a steel bracelet. The rose gold Chronomaster Sport has a sticker price of about double that.

Zenith Chronomaster Sport Rose Gold 18.3100.3600/69.C920

Quick Facts – 41mm diameter x 13.6mm height – stainless steel case (gold also available), brushed and polished – ceramic bezel – sapphire crystal on both sides – white or black dial with tri-colour overlapping sub-dials in blue, grey and silver –El Primero 3600, in-house – automatic, integrated high-frequency chronograph – column wheel and horizontal coupling – 35 jewels – 5Hz frequency – 60h power reserve – stainless steel bracelet or rubber strap – CHF 9,400 (rubber strap), CHF 9,900 (steel bracelet), CHF 19,900 (rose gold, leather strap)

The Vintage One – Zenith Chronomaster Revival A385

After all those years of loyal service, the El Primero calibre lets Zenith honour it with a “throwback” watch, a fitting celebration of key models from the past. One of the funkiest ones to date is the Zenith Chronomaster Revival A385. The A385 reference was part of the trilogy of watches launched in 1969, with the A386 being the most classically styled one and obviously the most famous one of the three.

Zenith Chronomaster Revival A385 El Primero

The Chronomaster Revival A385 is a very close reissue of the original A385, as we’ve explained in our in-depth review, complete with a funky, smoky brown dial. A dial that Zenith claims was the first of its kind, by the way, although this is something we’ve not managed to verify. But, for now, we’ll take the brand’s word for it.

The Zenith Chronomaster Revival A385 has a distinctly shaped barrel – or tonneau-shaped case – something quite popular back in the day and perfectly fitting for a revival watch. The vintage proportions, at 37mm across and 12.6mm in height. The dial has a quite unconventional brown gradient finishing, paired with white sub-dials. Looking at it side by side with an original 1969 A385, it’s uncanny how close it is, even down to the ladder bracelet. But then again, with Zenith’s El Primero being in continuous production since 1969 virtually unchanged, you are pretty much obliged to come this close. The price for the Zenith Chronomaster Revival A385 is EUR 7,800 on a leather strap or EUR 8,300 on the ladder-style steel bracelet.

Zenith Chronomaster Revival A385 El Primero

Quick Facts – 37mm diameter x 12.6mm height – stainless steel, tonneau-shaped case with brushed and polished surfaces – classic pump-style pushers – box sapphire crystal – screwed sapphire caseback – smoked brown gradient dial – white sub-dials – rhodium-plated hands and indices – El Primero 400 calibre, in-house – automatic winding – 278 components – 36,000vph (5Hz) – 50h power reserve – ladder-style steel bracelet (leather strap available as well) – from EUR 7,800

The Original One – Zenith Chronomaster Original

The El Primero was introduced in 1969 through three different references, the A384, the A385 and the A386. While we’ve just gone through the A385 with its unique dial, the more traditional A386 is without a doubt the most famous of the trio. In the current day and age, it is a highly sought-after vintage piece, but Zenith has a solution for people not being able to source one: the Zenith Chronomaster Original.

2021 Zenith Chronomaster Original 38mm

Where the outgoing classic 38mm Chronomaster was more of a tribute to the A386, this new Zenith Chronomaster Original is an almost exact one to one recreation of that legendary El Primero – at least visually. It comes in a vintage-sized 38mm large steel case, with a height of approximately 13mm, and sharp faceted lugs and features a very close to original dial. Zenith has taken some liberties with the mechanics of the Chronomaster Original, as it uses the modern El Primero 3600 movement, which has a slightly different layout and finishing. It is perhaps the perfect blend of those classical styling elements, compact dimensions, and present-day materials and technology.

2021 Zenith Chronomaster Original 38mm

Presented in five references, the white dial one is surely the most attractive as it is the closest you can get to the inaugural El Primero watches. It’s available on leather strap or a steel bracelet, or even in a gold case (with a leather strap) if you feel like splurging a little more. Prices start at CHF 8,400.

Quick Facts – 38mm diameter x approx. 13mm – stainless steel or gold case, brushed and polished – faceted lugs – boxed sapphire crystal, with sapphire crystal caseback – silver dial with tri-colour sub-dials or black dial with silver sub-dials – El Primero 3600, in-house – automatic, integrated high-frequency chronograph – column wheel and horizontal coupling – 35 jewels – 5Hz frequency – 60h power reserve – stainless steel bracelet or leather straps – CHF 8,400 (steel, leather), CHF 8,900 (steel, steel) or CHF 18,900 (gold)

The Geeky One – Zenith Chronomaster Original E-Commerce

First off, we don’t really like the E-Commerce designation for this Zenith Chronomaster variant. But anyway, this watch is, without a doubt, a very handsome interpretation. It should have been named Zenith Chronomaster Original “Tricolori” for a bit more fun…

Zenith Chronomaster Original E-commerce Tri-Colour

Now that’s out of the way, let’s elaborate on this Zenith Chronomaster Original E-Commerce and explain why to us, this is the Geeky One. As you probably all know, the Zenith El Primero A386 from 1969 featured a tri-colour 3/6/9 layout for the two chronograph counters and the small seconds sub-dial. This distinct feature has been a profound source of inspiration for many El Primero powered watches by Zenith ever since. The classical blue-grey-silver registers, partly overlapping one another, gives the watch its iconic look.

Zenith Chronomaster Original E-commerce Tri-Colour

So why is this the Geeky One? For the simple fact that it pushed the tri-colour philosophy the furthest of all Chronomasters. If you look closely at the dial you can see the 1/10th central chronograph seconds scale is divided into three coloured sections, matching the tone of each sub-dial. This concept is extended to the grey calfskin leather strap which features minimal blue and silver stitching. All the rest relies on the familiar look and feel of the Chronomaster Original.

All in all, it’s not something groundbreaking, but to enthusiasts and collectors, it might offer something different whilst remaining classical in appearance at the same time. With this, there’s no need to go overboard with a Defy 21 or Defy Extreme if you don’t want to. You could, but it’s not like there’s no alternative. It’s sold exclusively through Zenith’s online boutique and retails for EUR 8,300.

Zenith Chronomaster Original E-commerce Tri-Colour

Quick Facts – 38mm diameter x approx. 13mm height – brushed and polished steel case – domed sapphire crystal, sapphire caseback – 50m water-resistance – silver dial with tri-colour sub-dials and 1/10th chronograph seconds scale – faceted and applied indices – El Primero 3600 calibre – automatic, integrated high-frequency chronograph – column wheel and horizontal coupling – 35 jewels – 5Hz frequency – 60h power reserve  -grey calfskin leather strap with special stitching and folding clasp – EUR 8,300

The Trendy One – Zenith Defy 21 Urban Jungle

Some green, more green and then some more green. That pretty much sums up the Zenith Defy 21 Urban Jungle. Despite the very on-trend look of the watch, with green watches being introduced left, right, and centre, this shouldn’t distract you from the fact this is a very capable chronograph watch. And if the all-green Zenith Defy 21 doesn’t cut it for you, there are plenty of alternative combinations of colour and material available. Regardless of its colour, it is a very modern, more edgy looking watch, with an openworked dial revealing the complex mechanics on the inside.

Zenith Defy 21 Urban Jungle

The Defy 21 collection is pretty much the El Primero turned up to 11. It uses the blueprints of the regular El Primero movement series but it’s extensively reworked into a twin-regulator high-performance chronograph movement. The secondary regulator is solely used when the chronograph function is running and has an incredible 50Hz frequency. The benefit of this complex system is that the Defy 21 series of watches can time events to 1/100th of a second instead of the already impressive 1/10th of a second for the Calibre El Primero 3600.

Prices vary depending on the execution of the Defy 21, this Urban jungle, with its green ceramic case and bezel retails for EUR 14,400.

Zenith Defy 21 Urban Jungle

Quick Facts – 44mm diameter x 14.50mm height – micro-blasted matte green ceramic case and bezel – sapphire crystal front and back – 100m water-resistance – openworked green coated dial with black and silver chronograph registers – El Primero 9004 calibre, in-house – automatic winding with star-shaped rotor in green – 53 jewels – dual regulating organ (5Hz for timekeeping, 50Hz for chronograph) – central chronograph seconds accurate to 1/100th of a second – 50h power reserve – black rubber strap with green Cordura effect – EUR 14,400

The Warrior One – Zenith Defy Extreme

If you thought the Zenith Defy 21 was already a bit extravagant, the Zenith Defy Extreme is, well, even more extreme. Very much living up to its name, this is a Zenith Defy fit for big wrists only. It comes in a 45mm wide, very angular and masculine shaped titanium case. Setting it apart from the Defy 21, other than its size, are the rugged, shrouded pushers and the large crown. Secondly, a 12-sided ring underneath the bezel gives it an even more standout look. For those looking to push the envelope a little bit further, it also comes in a dark grey finish for the case and bracelet, or even a version with gold elements.

Zenith Defy Extreme collection 2021

It uses the El Primero 9004 calibre, the same base as in the Defy 21 series. A lightly tinted sapphire dial reveals the futuristic high-frequency chronograph movement, which can also be seen through the sapphire caseback. The titanium version has the same signature blue-grey-and-silver chronograph and small seconds sub-dials as in most other El Primero powered watches. The hands are far more pronounced, however, emphasizing the extreme look of the collection.

Like it or not, there’s no denying the Zenith Defy Extreme is an impressive looking thing. It is the most futuristic, most edgy looking interpretation of a chronograph watch according to Zenith, especially powered with that mesmerizing high-paced movement. The Zenith Defy Extreme starts at a price of EUR 17,600.

Zenith Defy Extreme collection 2021

Quick Facts – 45mm diameter x 15.4mm height – titanium case with or without coating, polished, sandblasted and brushed – 12-sided insert under the bezel in black titanium or gold – sapphire crystal on both sides – shrouded pushers flanking a large crown – 200m water-resistance – sapphire crystal dial with applied subdials – large hour and minute hands – El Primero 9004 calibre, in-house – automatic winding with star-shaped rotor in green – 53 jewels – dual regulating organ (5Hz for timekeeping, 50Hz for chronograph) – central chronograph seconds accurate to 1/100th of a second – 50h power reserve – integrated titanium bracelet or rubber strap – from EUR 17,600

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1 response

  1. You ignored the Chronomaster at 42mm with, most importantly, the date at 6.


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