Zenith just announced what they’re calling the successor to the A386 (the first El Primero), the Chronomaster Original. That’s quite a bold statement, since the entire modern company of Zenith is essentially framed around the success of that single watch, even if that wasn’t the only original El Primero (it was released alongside the A384 and A385, after all). To accomplish this feat, they’re releasing three new watches (two of which are available with either a strap or bracelet) with new cases and new movements. That last part might cause some concern among fans, but worry not, the Chronomaster Original is still powered by an El Primero, it’s just the next-generation of that movement.
The most popular will almost certainly be this one (ref: 03.3200.3600/69.C902) as it’s not only tied for the most affordable, it’s also the most authentic version, at least if we opt to compare it to the original A386. Present, of course, is the world-renowned tri-color dial, one of my all-time favorites, but it’s not without changes. While, at a glance, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between this and the recent Revival, upon closer inspection you’ll notice several small, but significant, modifications. Among these is the new 38mm case. Zenith recently retired the popular case design, for which I had the honor of co-designing its farewell piece, but fans of moderately-sized watches didn’t have to wait long for an all-new 38mm case to come out. In addition to the size, I rather like the new approach to the lugs, which appear to be flatter, and the almost radial brush more obvious.
One of the little details that are easily missed is the lack of a luminescent rectangle near the tip of the red chronograph seconds hand. Another difference, which I especially appreciate, is the lack of a tachymeter around the perimeter of the dial. You wouldn’t notice it, since there’s still writing (and few, if any, pay attention to tachymeters anyway), but it has been reborn as something useful: a 10-second counter for the new movement. More on that in a moment.
It also comes in this fetching new black dial with white subdials. This version seems to aim for a more vintage look, with a more understated dial and khaki luminescent accents throughout. I also appreciate that Zenith has matched the date ring so it doesn’t stick out as much as it otherwise would. This model (ref: 03.3200.3600/21.C903) is available on either a bracelet or a brown leather strap, which further brings out a sort of vintage character. The blue strap on the alternative Chronomaster Original feels much more contemporary, which is a bit ironic given that its dial really does date back to ’69.
A very similar model to the first is also available in a rose gold case (ref: 18.3200.3600/69.C901) for an unsurprising increase in price. Whereas the first two, on strap, are $8,400, this version reaches $19,100, well over twice the price of the steel. The steel Chronomaster Originals are also available on bracelet for a price increase to $9,000, but the gold version is available exclusively on strap, at least on release day. The dial is basically identical except that the hands and hour markers are now gold, suitably matching the rest of the watch.
Powering all of them is the next-generation El Primero 3600 movement. Purists shouldn’t worry, however, as the connection between this movement and the original is extremely strong. It isn’t, as you might suspect, a totally new movement that borrows the legendary name of its predecessor, but rather a more refined and updated version of the original. Among the improvements found in this version are the tenth of a second display (all El Primeros have 1/10th second precision, but few have a legible way of displaying it) which makes it easy to tell which tenth of a second, precisely, the chronograph stopped on, as well as an improved 60 hour power reserve. Perhaps most noteworthy of all is also the simplest, namely the addition of hacking.
It’s a bit predictable for me to say, Zenith being one of my two favorite watch brands (the other being Grand Seiko, of course), but I’m a huge fan of these new watches, particularly the most “authentic” of them, the steel case/tri-color dial combination. Why wouldn’t I love it; it’s a gorgeous, iconic dial, with an amazing and improved movement, in a properly-sized case. It is, quite simply, the new and improved El Primero, and if you’re already a fan of the El Primero, there’s essentially no reason not to get one. The bigger question is whether there’s enough new here to convince anyone that wasn’t already on the El Primero bandwagon. I’m not necessarily sure that there is; I think models like the new Chronomaster Sport are going to do more to win new audiences than the Chronomaster Original. Rather, the Chronomaster Original seems to be aimed at people like myself, longtime fans of the watch, and a result, it’s more a series of tweaks and refinements rather than an overhaul. So for traditionalists it’s the one to get, but for those who already have an El Primero, or perhaps were never moved by one to begin with, the Chronomaster Sport may be the way to go instead.