For a long time, Zenith had a watch named the El Primero 38mm in its collection, a sort of direct descendant to the classic A386 watch, despite not being entirely true to the original design. Recurring readers of MONOCHROME certainly know my love for classic-looking, historical chronographs with compact dimensions, and that specific Zenith had long been on my personal wishlist… until the brand discontinued it. In 2021, the brand showed impressive creativity in the field of El Primero-based watches, mainly with the introduction of the praised Chronomaster Sport. Objectively, it is a great watch that most of our team considered a home run. But it’s not a watch for me. The watch that really did it for me last year was the smaller, more retro-styled Zenith Chronomaster Original. And I had the opportunity to spend some time with it on the wrist.
The A386 connection
Without doing the entire story of the El Primero again – the story of its creation, discontinuation and revival can be read here – we can’t escape the topic of 1969 when talking about the Chronomaster Original. The whole idea behind this modern watch is to be the closest (visually, at least) to what’s probably the most famous watch in the entire history of Zenith, the reference A386, or the inaugural three-colour El Primero watch.
This A386 is the most iconic model in the trilogy introduced in 1969, the three watches created by Zenith to feature its newly developed and innovative movement, the El Primero calibre, regarded as one of the earliest automatic chronograph movements. This trilogy comprised the A384, a tonneau-shaped panda-dial model, the A385, featuring the same case but with an original gradient brown dial (possibly the first of its kind) and the A386, the most classical of the three models, with a round case but also the watch that first showed the signature tri-colour sub-counters, something that has become a hallmark of Zenith.
In addition to its high collectability and historical importance (the latter being shared with the two other watches in the inaugural trilogy), the A386 is also a watch that had an immense influence on the brand and a source of profound inspiration for Zenith over the years. As said, the brand had a watch in its portfolio that could be regarded as a tribute to this vintage model, the classic 38mm Chronomaster with silver dial, three-colour counters, bezel-less case and calibre El Primero 400, the closest you could get to the original 1969 movement. In early 2021, however, Zenith discontinued this model, leaving space to the Chronomaster Sport first, and then to the watch that is the central topic of today’s article, the Zenith Chronomaster Original.
Spending Time with the Zenith Chronomaster Original
As explained above, the previous version of the Chronomaster 38mm was relatively faithful to the A386 mechanically, thanks to its El Primero calibre 400. Yet, the design was slightly altered with (subtle) updates and concessions to modernity. With the recently introduced Zenith Chronomaster Original, we somehow have a reversed recipe. The design, although using a few modern parts to make it compatible with today’s expectations, is all about faithfulness to the emblematic 1969 watch. On the other hand, the movement that ticks inside its historically relevant case is all about bringing the signature El Primero base calibre into the 21st century. And being someone with a passion for historical watches but also a deep interest in mechanical innovation, I can say that this recipe was, on paper, the promise of a great meal. And, in the end, not only on paper…
When Zenith launched the superbly received Chronomaster Sport, I was certainly impressed by the looks, the specs and the overall quality of Zenith’s proposition. Objectively, there’s a lot to be loved in this watch. Yet, due to the sportiness of the case and its size – despite being very reasonable – I was still waiting for something more in the vein of the very (too) limited 50th anniversary model of 2019. This arrived in mid-2021 and it didn’t disappoint. The beauty of the Zenith Chronomaster Original lies, to me at least, in its design, its compactness and its relevance. The case is modelled after the A386 and reuses the shape found on Revival editions, meaning that it has been designed following digital scans of the original 1969 watch.
The Chronomaster Original is not only about proportions, it’s also about the shapes. At 38mm in diameter, its case might be a bit on the small side for a modern watch, and it will probably discourage a few potential enthusiasts – for those, look at the Sport. For me, this is the sweet spot and being faithful to the original watch, I’m not complaining. The thickness is totally acceptable too, at 12.9mm. Remember that it’s an automatic chronograph and then, it features a raised and domed sapphire crystal (a first concession to modernity) that accounts for at least 1.5mm of the total height of the case. As such, the caseband appears thinner than what the specification sheet indicates.
Second, in addition to respecting the dimensions, Zenith has also been working on faithfully reproducing the design of the A386. It means a round, bezel-less stainless steel case with the signature sharp and sloped profile, pump-style chronograph pushers, faceted lugs, and a mix of radial brushed and polished surfaces – all almost identical to the 1969 model. Surprisingly, the design remains modern enough and does not feel outdated at all. Instead of calling it a vintage watch, I’d tend to use the word timeless. Being a slightly more elegant version of the Chronomaster El Primero, this Original version has a water-resistance of 50 metres, which is more than sufficient for me. And the other concession to modernity is to be seen on the back, with a sapphire crystal to observe the newly developed movement. Again, this feels right to me, as the movement has a lot to show.
The most distinctive design element of the A386 was, without a doubt, its dial with the now-emblematic three-colour chronograph registers in shades of grey and blue, the trapezoid date window at 04:30 and the red chronograph seconds hand. All these elements are back in the Zenith Chronomaster Original, giving this watch its true personality. Yes, some will complain about the way the registers overlap, but here again, I think this quirky design element contributes to the uniqueness of this model as well as its charm. The historical connection continues with the fonts and logos, as well as the hours/minutes hands that are executed in white with black and lume inserts. Also faithful are the applied, faceted and rhodium-plated hour markers with SLN and the succession of white and black tracks on the periphery of the slightly gained silvery-white dial.
However, sharp-eyed readers will have noticed something of importance in the display, which gives an indication of the evolution of the El Primero movement. While being a 5Hz watch and having a super-smooth central seconds hand, the A386 still used a classic tri-counter display with small seconds, 30-minute and 12-hour registers. The Zenith Chronomaster Original looks identical at first, but in fact, its display is fairly different. First of all, the central red hand doesn’t rotate around the dial in 60 seconds but in 10 seconds, and it takes full advantage of the 5Hz technology by displaying, with the track on the white, angled flange, the 1/10th of a second – substituting the tachymeter scale. Second, the sub-registers are different since you’ll find a classic small seconds counter (light grey), but also a 60-second register (blue) and a 60-minute register (dark grey).
Turning the watch over you’ll discover the modern calibre El Primero 3600, shared with the Chronomaster Sport. This is where the concept of “best of both worlds” comes to life. While the habillage of the Chronomaster Original is all about the late 1960s, the movement is true to the concept of innovation behind Zenith. Still using the same base as the historic movement, it has been radically updated to meet modern standards. Taking full advantage of the 36,000 vibrations/hour regulation, it can display the 1/10th of a second precisely, but it has also been made more efficient, as the power reserve has been increased to 60 hours. It retains its column wheel and horizontal coupling architecture. The decoration and design of the movement are also more modern and more technical, with more opened bridges decorated with a radial brushed pattern, revealing a blue column wheel and open rotor with the five-pointed Zenith star.
The Zenith Chronomaster Original 38mm has been presented as a collection of five watches. The present silver/three-colour dial is available either on a blue leather strap or a stainless steel bracelet – both with a folding clasp. There’s also a black-and-silver edition, also available on leather or steel. Finally, there’s a gold model with a three-colour dial on a leather strap. To me, the version you see here in this article is the one to choose – but that’s personal, of course.
With its blend of historical look and modern technical content, the Zenith Chronomaster Original is everything I love in a watch. While I love the look of vintage watches, I’m not so much into wearing them. Having a watch that combines practicality and ease-of-use together with a design that is faithful to its roots is typically my kind of watch. On that front, Zenith has succeeded. Mechanically, the calibre 3600 is also a great evolution of the El Primero, making it more reliable, with more comfort due to the extended power reserve but also interesting thanks to the full use of the 5Hz frequency.
On the wrist, this 38mm Chronomaster Original is a great companion, with enough character to be noticeable while also being compact and discreet enough to be used as a daily wearer. I’d just change the strap for something even more vintage-ish without the folding clasp – I prefer an ardillon buckle… For the rest, nothing to complain about, only some love for this watch.
Availability & Price
The Zenith Chronomaster Original is now available from retailers, Zenith boutiques and the brand’s online boutique. The present model, reference 03.3200.3600/69.C902, retails for EUR 8,300, CHF 8,400 or USD 8,400. The stainless steel bracelet requires an extra 500 (whatever the currency). For more details and orders, please visit www.zenith-watches.com.