Within the watch world, we tend to focus on specific models that become iconic for a brand. Sometimes, though, we run across a movement that has such an impact that it develops its own gravitational pull. It is effectively inarguable that the Zenith El Primero movement is one such movement. For the collector interested in the history of the chronograph, and in a caliber that in many ways changed the landscape of chronograph production, one perfect way to add that movement to one’s collection would be to go with the reissues of watches that the movement was introduced with – the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385.
1969 was the year that the Zenith El Primero movement made its debut. At that time, it brought an amazing number of innovations to the fore, giving the world an automatic 1/10th of a second chronograph that also had calendar capabilities. To showcase this new marvel, Zenith introduced three watches – the A386 (which looks like the classic round chronograph we’re more used to seeing today) and then the angular tonneau case of the A384 and A385. While these watches do have a clear and distinctly vintage aesthetic by today’s standards, they were forward-looking for the brand, putting Zenith in a position to be ready for 70s styling. They were a little less-prepared for the quartz crisis that was about to engulf them, which resulted in the El Primero movement almost being lost in the mid-70s, if not for the efforts of Charles Vermot. That’s a story for another article, but it’s worth noting that Vermot single-handedly saved the El Primero movement, and quite possibly Zenith as a watch company.
While the original A385 and A385 predate me by a few years, the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero look to be faithful reproductions of those original watches. The starting point would of course be that iconic case, which seems to hew closer to the Defy line than we might otherwise expect. No, it doesn’t have the octagonal case, but with all of it’s straight edges, that’s where my mind places it. That blockiness of the 37mm case also places it firmly in the early 70s, making for a unique look.
The triple-register layout for the chronograph and running seconds are recognizable today. Set in the midst of those registers is something we do not see that often now – a date display at the 4:30 position (picturing where an hour hand would be pointing). It’s weird positioning, for sure. We’re used to it appearing at 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, or maybe at 4 o’clock. But 4:30? Why there? I say the simplest answer is the most reasonable – it puts the date window between the applied hour indices. This means the date window doesn’t remove – or otherwise shorten – the indice, as we see with a date window at 3 or 4 o’clock.
The main design difference between the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero models are with the dial colors. The original A384 came in a conservative panda dial (black subdials on a white dial), while the A385 was super-70s with the brown fumé embracing the earth tones coming in the years after this watch was originally introduced. It’s worth noting here that the A384 is the more scarce of the pair, being a limited edition for the North American Market. Aptly dubbed the A384 Revival Liberty, only 150 examples of this blue dial variant with a red and white chrono seconds hand were produced.
Through and through, the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero are not just inspired by the original models, they are faithful reproductions. We’ve seen some other solid dial colors come for the A384 (such as a reverse panda dial done in blue), but these watches are largely the same as their ancestors, aside from the sapphire crystals on the front and back of the watch and the non-radioactive luminous paint.
Inside both the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero is the El Primero 400 automatic caliber. Yes, it has newer technology in it than the original would have had, but it can very clearly trace its lineage back to the original El Primero 3019 PHC, right down to the 36,000 vph frequency that the movement runs at.
As viewed through the sapphire crystal on the exhibition caseback, you are able to see the Cotes de Geneve patterns applied on the movement and signed rotor, as well as more than a few of the 31 jewels used in the movement. Given how similar the movement is to the original, it’s one worth spending some time examining, as well as getting a better understanding of how the pushers interact with the movement by watching it through the caseback.
Versus The Competition
With the El Primero movement, the obvious recommendations for alternatives to these limited-edition revival watches would be, well, just about any other Zenith El Primero watch. If you like the idea of a watch rooted in the past, but prefer your watches to look more modern, Zenith has you covered. With that particular mix of requirements, I would point you to the Zenith A386 Revival. Casual watch fans will recognize the tri-color layout, and aficionados will understand what it is you have on the wrist.
On the other hand, perhaps you’re looking for that high-beat El Primero kick, but want it in a form that would be a little bit unexpected? There are a few options there as well. Perhaps the best known of these curiosities would be the Rolex Daytona. We know it today for it’s style and in-house movement, but that’s not how it started out. When the Daytona switched over from a manually-wound caliber to an automatic one, it was fitted with a (heavily) modified El Primero 400. To be fair, one of the things that Rolex did to the movement was to reduce its beat rate from 5Hz to 4Hz, in an attempt to extend service life of the movement. “Zenith Daytona” references were produced between 1988 and 2000.
Aside from actually finding an original reference in your uncle’s watch box, the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero are the best way for you to recapture that spirit of what Zenith was producing in 1969. They were flying high with their technical prowess, and looked forward to what they would be able to create in 1970s. These reissues hark back to that halcyon time before quartz grounded their flights of imagination, and threatened the industry as a whole. The case profiles ground these watches firmly in that era, and details like the chrono seconds hand not having the star counterweight and the date window in its unique position further underscore that these watches point to the start of something very special.
We tend to go after vintage watches because they scratch some itch from our past. Perhaps it was the watch that we always wanted, but could never afford, or it was a watch that someone in the family had, and it somehow disappeared before it could land on our wrist. We try to recapture a piece of our history, in other words. Vintage is a way of doing that, though you get into concerns about maintaining a, well, 50+ year old watch. A true and faithful reissue, like the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero, gives you the best of both worlds.
You can recapture that lost piece of history, while taking advantage of the benefits that modern manufacturing (things like, water resistance), materials (sapphire crystals) and just overall reliability that comes from a refined and updated movement. While the case of the A384 / A385 is undoubtedly polarizing for the modern collector, these Revival models perfectly encapsulate what Zenith was all about back in 1969.