Zenith is best known as the creator of the El Primero – an integrated, automatic chronograph movement that has earned a place in the pantheon of historic calibers. Today, the brand is also known and appreciated for offering classically styled timepieces and excellent value. Here are five Zenith watches* that we can recommend for new collectors.
Pilot Type 20 Extra Special
Zenith timepieces accompanied aviators during several early, historic flights. One went with Louis Blériot in July 1909 when he made the first flight across the English Channel in an airplane he built, known as the Blériot XI. One year later, Léon Morane wore a Zenith when he became the first pilot to fly faster than 100 km/hour, also in a Blériot XI. And when the French Air Force geared up for WWII in 1939, it chose Zenith’s Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 for its aircraft instrument panels.
The modern Pilot Type 20 Extra Special captures the look of those early aviation watches. Every aspect of the dial is perfectly proportioned. The stylized Arabic numerals and the substantial cathedral hands, each wearing a generous coating of SuperLuminova, assure excellent legibility in all conditions.
The 45 mm case and oversize crown capture the essence of the early pilots’ watches, as does the oiled Nubuck leather strap with white stitching. The caseback is engraved with the elaborate Zenith Flying Instruments logo. To keep the price accessible, this watch is powered by an automatic, Swiss-made movement provided to Zenith by an outside supplier. (The remainder of our suggested watches feature Zenith manufacture calibers).
The Zenith Pilot Type 20 Extra Special is priced at $5,400.
Captain Power Reserve
Zenith’s Captain line debuted in 1952, and the current models adopt aesthetic cues from the brand’s historical models. Our featured watch, the Captain Power Reserve, also represents a step up into the world of Zenith manufacture movements.
The look is simple and elegant, with classic dauphine hands pointing to applied, faceted hour markers. We like the subtle railroad track at the dial’s edge, complete with small Roman numerals. The retrograde Réserve de Marche display at 2 o’clock tracks the mainspring’s 50-hour power reserve.
The case measures 40 mm x 9.25 mm. Zenith’s in-house caliber Elite 685 with automatic winding is visible through the sapphire caseback. This movement contains 179 components and runs in 38 jewels at 28,800 vph. An alligator strap with a pin buckle completes the package.
The Captain Power Reserve is priced at $6,500.
Pilot Big Date Special
Our final three featured watches take us into the realm of Zenith’s iconic El Primero-powered chronographs. The vintage-inspired Pilot Big Date Special provides classic good looks with a 42-mm case and rectangular pushers flanking a slightly oversize crown. The dial offers a well-balanced bi-compax layout with continuous seconds at 9 o’clock and a 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock. This look harks back to the chronographs Zenith supplied to the Italian Air Force during the 1960’s, though those watch did not have a date display at 6 o’clock.
The telemeter scale at the dial’s edge creates a technical aesthetic. The double-digit big date display at 6 o’clock really sets this watch apart. The window-filling numerals make the date display pop. All of the displays are crystal-clear, as they should be on a pilots’ chronograph.
Under the dial is the renowned El Primero 4010 automatic-winding caliber with 306 components. It famously runs at 36,000 vph in 31 jewels with a 50-hour power reserve.
The Pilot Big Date Special is priced at $7,600.
El Primero Original 1969
Our next featured watch carries a name that tells you everything you need to know about it. This new model pays tribute to the original El Primero chronograph, launched in, you guessed it, 1969. That’s the year Neil Armstrong took one small step, Woodstock rocked upstate New York, and the first communications were sent through the ARPANET.
Returning to the present day, this new model features the unmistakable design codes of the original El Primero. The 38-mm case also takes us back in time. The movement is the El Primero caliber 400 with 278 components running at 36,000 vph, or 5 Hz. This is the “magic frequency” for chronographs, because it allows events to be timed to the nearest tenth of a second. This fast rate means the escapement ticks 864,000 times per day, or 315,360,000 per year.
The El Primero Original 1969 retails for $8,600.
El Primero 36,000 VpH
If you like the classic El Primero tri-compax look but prefer a larger case, Zenith has you covered. This model offers the classic design cues of the originals – oversize, overlapping registers, bold hands, hour markers and minutes chapter, and a tachymeter scale, all in a 42-mm case designed to suit today’s tastes. The increased size results in a more balanced, symmetrical look. The hour markers at 3 and 9 are not cut off, and the enlarged date display moves to 6 o’clock.
In this iteration, the Caliber 400 El Primero movement has 326 components, and of course it still beats at 36,000 vph. The chronograph registers count 30 minutes at 3 o’clock, and 12 hours at 6 o’clock.
The El Primero 36,000 VpH is priced at $8,800.
*This article was originally published in 2014; prices are subject to change.
It’s in the name no? Zenith
You can get vintage Zeniths mainly from the 60s/70s for less than $700 from reputable dealers or auctioneers. OK they don’t come with a guarantee but if the quality is so great this could be rectified with a service. Some of these old models also have rarity value.
The Pilot Big Date Special is a very handsome piece, quite legible for a chrono, and at 42mm is within my limits. The Pilot Type 20 has an exceptionally clear and attractive dial, but as 45mm is simply too big. Bring it in a 40mm case and I could be interested. And the bulbous crown looks out of place.
it came out as a 40mm, and with a prioer Zenith movement not a Sellita, in 2013. Same size – or very close to it – as Bleriot’s watch.
I love the El Primero 36,000 VpH simply superb and classy…..
Great watches always loved Zeniths but like P/Ps no bracelets with them or even a choice,Why is this ? Am i in a minority perhaps ! D.
I love the 1969 El Primero original, the size is perfect at 38mm for my wrist. When one considers the price other Swiss watch companies who produce chronographs the price is very competitive. Add the history of the El Primero and you have a very desirable timepiece.
Sign me up!
Very nice product but let’s be real, $8800 (El Primero 36,000 vph) is not ‘affordable’ to the vast majority for luxury items like watches.
What the market will bear is true for Zenith.
I have never been one to shy away from the fact I don’t like chronographs, so the pick of the bunch for me here is by far the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Extra Special. This piece is absolutely stunning. The lume is to die for and I’d rather this than most Panerai watches which have no minute markers around the outer bezel. I prefer to see precisely where my minute and seconds hands are pointing to on the dial.
I love this brand, specially before and after the “Thierry Nataf era”, but to charge 5.4K dollars on a watch with a mass produced Sellita movement inside is just ridiculous, specially from a company that was always proud of it’s in-house movements… Zenith did not deserve this!
After making the Christopher Columbus watch (believe they did) they’ve topped ALL makers in my book. I’d buy anything from them. Sure wish the still made tv though.
Zenith is OK but as far as value is concerned, Omega has them covered in spades.
As far as being affordable for “common folk”, I do not know of any “common folk” who could or would afford $5000+ for a watch. Sure, the top 5% can, but those are hardly “common folk”.
Let’s talk affordable for, at a minimum, what 50% of the population can afford, the real “common folk”.
Watches in this segment are luxury items.
100% agree with Steve’s comments.
I must also agree with Steve’s comments.
I have always loved Zenith timepieces, as Zenith have always created fantastic watches at affordable prices for common folks.