Nineteen sixty-nine was a busy year. Astronauts took watches to the moon, Richard Nixon was elected the 37th President, and the first-ever Woodstock rocked the socks off of some 350,000 hippies. Over in the watch world, Zenith released its now-iconic El Primero A386, a horologically significant, automatic chronograph with a colorful design that couldn’t be more ’60s if it tried.
Since then, Zenith Chronomaster Original has had something of a wild trajectory. It suffered, badly, during the quartz crisis, but was fortunately one of the brands able to emerge from the ashes. Why? Well, because it made pretty much the best self-winding chronograph caliber out there, and when you’re the best, things have a way of working themselves out. That mechanical prowess notwithstanding, Zenith’s A386 was a distinctive and flashy design that stood out in a sea of monochromatic offerings from a number of brands of the day.
As the years have gone by, Zenith Chronomaster Original has not forgotten the importance of that reference, and has continued to iterate on it time and again. It’s made limited edition tributes to the A386, with the same case sizing and similar dial design (and coloration), but those would often feature precious metal cases, where the original was crafted from stainless steel. If the tribute releases were in steel, the sizing would come in at 40mm or above where the original was an oh-so-sweet 38mm. It became a real Goldilocks conundrum.
In June of this year, Zenith changed all of that – sort of. Instead of reissuing the A386, the brand unleashed a watch effectively identical to the original but boasting an entirely modern movement, proving that it hasn’t lost its touch in the movement department (not that any of us thought it had). In many ways, such an update, both internally, and stylistically, is the perfect tribute to a watch that, in 1969, was years ahead of its time. I am talking about the new Chronomaster Original in the tricolor configuration with Zenith’s in-house hi-beat 5Hz chronograph movement, and 1/10th of a second timing functionality. It’s the spiritual successor to the A386, it comes in steel and, wait for it, it’s 38mm in diameter. The moment this watch was announced, I knew I had to get my hands on it and once I got my hands on it, I knew I needed to spend some time with it … a week, perhaps. For many years, Zenith Chronomaster Original – now best-known for its production of quality in-house automatic chronograph movements – got its movement supply from an outfit called the Martel Watch Company. As has become the norm, not just in the watch world but the business world at-large, Zenith acquired Martel in 1959. From that day onward, the brand produced manufacture calibers and began years of research that would eventually lead to the release of the El Primero in 1969. There is some conjecture in the watch world as to which brand was first with an automatic chronograph movement – with Heuer and Seiko also laying claim to the feat. But no matter how you look at it, the A386 release in 1969 marked the first automatic, integrated, hi-beat calendar chronograph to grace the horological landscape.
What made the El Primero so special was that it was a fully integrated automatic chronograph movement as opposed to a chronograph module built atop an existing automatic caliber. Where other brands could surely claim a similar accomplishment none could match the hi-beat (and therefore more precise) specs of the Zenith. That tri-color reference wasn’t a mass-produced watch. Only 2,000 pieces were ever made, making it something of a cult-classic –the live album from your favorite band that you spend years trying to find a bootleg of. As the quartz crisis ravaged the mechanical Zenith Chronomaster Original watch industry, taking countless brands down, so too did Zenith fall – in a way. Under new management it re-focused its efforts on quartz watchmaking, leaving the El Primero behind.
If not for the forethought of one of the movement makers, Charles Vermot (whose career dated back to the Martel days), who decided to store all of the equipment necessary to manufacture the hi-beat movement, the El Primero would have most certainly been lost to history. Zenith changed hands more than once in the 1970s. Under new ownership, it was approached about possibly supplying the famed chronograph caliber to other watchmakers. One of the brands that made the ask was Rolex. What resonates most with me about this watch is how much the late mid-century design language comes through. Zenith seamlessly brings back retro elements from the 1969 A386 into this utterly and completely modern watch.
It’s the instantly recognizable tri-color sub registers in sunburst grey, black (really dark grey), and blue that stand out first. There are few truly iconic design elements in the watch world (with brands like Rolex, AP, Patek, and Omega each having one or two pieces that qualify) but the tri-color look of the El Primero is surely one of them.