: Zenith Chronomaster Revival El Primero A385
TEXT & PHOTOS Francis Cheung

While the traditional watch fairs still facing the challenges of restricted international travel and social distancing, the LVMH watch brands smoothly transitioned their 2021 horology novelties into a semi-virtual format, or “phygital” presentations (as the current en vogue term), similar in format though and timing as their inaugural Watch Week event held in Dubai last year, with Bulgari, Hublot, Zenith and TAG Heuer in attendance.


With a quick stroll through the internet, it is easy to notice out of all Zenith novelties, the contemporary look of the Chronomaster Sport drew the spotlight and made it a rather popular watch, one which has even generated some waiting lists at retailers around the world. But the new Chronomaster Revival El Primero A385 is also an equally notable watch, for the place it represents in the chronometric history of Zenith, which explains why the maison has intentionally positioned this tribute so close to its original reference.


Before there was specialised stress testing equipment to ensure the reliability of a watch, Zenith found a way to show the public how confident they were with their watches. Most notably in 1970, the original reference A385 was strapped onto the landing gear of an Air France Boeing 707, and flew from Paris to New York, exposing the watch to extreme conditions such as drastic temperature changes, air pressure and shock and vibrations during take-off and landing. The watch was undamaged and functioned normally after the flight, consequently making a rather convincing advertisement at the time.


Other than its build quality, the movement is also Zenith’s greatest pride. During the 1960s, several manufacturers were in a race to develop the world’s first automatic chronograph movement. Although Zenith would not be the first to introduce such a calibre, the maison introduced the El Primero A385 and calibre 3019 PHC, which featured an integrated date, and a high frequency escapement of 36,000 vibrations per hour, allowing a measurement as precise as one-tenth of a second, an incredible achievement at the time and one that few have matched, even today. The El Primero line up went strong until the Swiss watchmaking industry was hit by the quartz crisis during the mid-1970s, in turn ceasing the production of both the watch and the calibre.


It would not be until the mid-1980s that Zenith resurrect the same movement and renamed it Calibre 400, although this was only possible because of a gentleman named Charles Vermot, who was also a watchmaker in Zenith and going against the grain, decided to save (and hide) the toolings and plans of the El Primero, when all of them were going to be scrapped when the maison was acquired by Zenith Radio Corporation, steering the helm away from mechanical and betting on quartz. Although the Calibre 400 would remain architecturally the same, the movement has undergone improvements with the introduction of better materials and manufacturing technologies, improving its reliability and longevity. Given how dependable it was at the time, the movement was often seen as a great option to develop other ébauche variants, as seen in watches from other reputable horology maisons, most distinguishable for its emblematic three sub-registers at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, just as it appears on this new El Primero. Until today, the calibre 400 is still in production and remains one of the most successful Zenith movements.


In terms of appearance, the Revival A385 looks faithfully identical to the original reference. By employing the same details such as the compact 37mm case, the red chronograph hand, to the vignetting gradient on the dial, it seems Zenith is aligned with the collector’s community on recreating the vintage aesthetic, including as an option the ladder bracelet famously designed by Gay Frères, which further finesses the ambience of the original reference. The only notable changes on the watch would be replacing plexiglass with sapphire crystal and the addition of a display case back, while still retaining a nostalgic domal contour as seen in the picture. 


As the final revival out of all three original El Primero (A384, A385, A386) from 1969, this is again a straightforward yet candid recreation that lives up to the expectations of watch enthusiasts. On both the technical and aesthetic aspects, the emphasis is placed on the historical aspect of the relationship between the watch and the brand, which is perhaps the A385’s greatest allure to anyone that enjoys the memories contained within a timepiece.