Though Zenith celebrated the 50th anniversary of its iconic chronograph movement in 2019, it took a while longer for the long-awaited successor to the original El Primero.
Looking like yet another remake on the surface – the design is almost a dead ringer for the A386 of 1969 – the retro styling of the new Chronomaster Original belies the latest-generation El Primero, the all-new cal. 3600 that boasts a lightning seconds hand.
The Chronomaster Original essentially repackages the vintage A386, preserving the distinctive design while installing a modern movement. As a result, the watch is familiar and appealing in broad strokes, but has a few surprises in its details.
Take the dials for instance, which are offered in two guises. One is the traditional “tri-colour” from 1969, while the other is an unusual and gorgeous “panda” dial that stands out from its counterparts. Ironically, the black-and-silver dial looks more retro, in part due to the faux-vintage lume, despite not having the original colour palette.
The case is a compact 38 mm, identical to the vintage original. It’s heartening – but surprising – to see the return of the 38 mm case, which was ostensibly retired not too long ago. The move back to the 38 mm case makes sense, since it accommodates enthusiasts who prefer a size true to the vintage original, as well as catering to prevailing fad for classical, elegant style.
Despite the case being the same diameter as it was in 1969, the movement is brand new, both technically and functionally. The highlight of the new El Primero 3600 is a central chronograph seconds that flies around the dial six times a minute, allowing it to measure elapsed times with an accuracy of 1/10th of a second.
The new movement, however, doesn’t change Zenith’s usually accessible pricing. Starting at US$8,400 for the steel version on strap, the Chronomaster Original is priced at a small but reasonable premium over the brand’s other chronographs with the original El Primero movement.
In short, the Chronomaster Original manages to be substantially new where it matters, while keeping much else reassuringly the same.
The biggest practical difference between the new and old El Primero movements is reading the chronograph seconds. Constant seconds remains in the sub-dial at nine o’clock, but elapsed seconds migrates from its conventional central hand to the register at three o’clock.
The loss in legibility in reading the seconds is more than made up for by the lightning seconds in the centre, which still ticks 10 times a second as in the original El Primero movement but in an amplified manner.
To allow pinpoint reading of 1/10th of a second, the outermost scale on the dial has been enlarged to have 100 hashmarks. The 100 hashmarks add up to 10 seconds, or 100 segments of 1/10th of a second, explaining the numerical scale. It goes along with the central seconds hand that speeds around the dial once every 10 seconds, or six times a minute.
The double seconds indications for the chronograph require a pair of independent gear trains that perform opposite roles.
To drive a central seconds travelling that fast, a secondary gear train is added on top of the escape wheel. The secondary train has a gear ratio that increases sixfold the rate of rotation of the chronograph seconds wheel.
But the conventional chronograph seconds (within the register at three o’clock) has to move at the normal rate of once a minute, which requires another gear train coupled to the central chronograph wheel, this time to reduce the rate of rotation to one revolution per minute for the conventional seconds.
It’s worth pointing out the two sets of additional gear trains are a simple solution, but result in an extra load on the escape wheel, itself already the fastest turning wheel in a conventional movement.
More wear and tear might result from this set up – driving the chronograph with a slower-turning wheel, such as the fourth wheel, might induce less wear – but only time will tell how the second-generation El Primero movement performs over time.
Key facts and price
Zenith Chronomaster Original
Ref. 03.3200.3600/69.M3200 (steel, white dial, bracelet)
Ref.03.3200.3600/69.C902 (steel, white dial, strap)
Ref. 03.3200.3600/21.M3200 (steel, black dial, bracelet)
Ref. 03.3200.3600/21.C903 (steel, black dial, strap)
Ref. 18.3200.3600/69.C901 (gold, white dial, strap)
Diameter: 38 mm
Material: Stainless steel or 18k rose gold
Water resistance: 50 m
Movement: El Primero 3600
Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds, date, and chronograph with lightning seconds
Frequency: 36,000 beats per hour (5 Hz)
Power reserve: 60 hours
Strap: Bracelet or calfskin strap
Limited edition: No
Availability: At Zenith boutiques and online shop, as well as authorised retailers
Steel on strap – US$8,400
Steel on bracelet – US$9,000
18k gold on strap – CHF19,100
For more, visit Zenith-watches.com.
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