Borrowed Time: Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of touring the Zenith manufacture in Le Locle, Switzerland, and afterward had the chance to speak with representatives of the brand. While the conversation was largely off the record, the gist of it was about the challenge that a brand like Zenith faces from a marketing standpoint in today’s crowded, competitive luxury watch market. Whereas many brands in its category are known for a flagship watch model — Omega for the Speedmaster, Audemars Piguet for the Royal Oak, Rolex for the Submariner, the Daytona — well, name just about any Rolex model — Zenith’s fame comes chiefly not from a model per se but from a movement — the legendary El Primero. The high-frequency chronograph caliber famously burst on the scene in 1969 — the seminal year of the Great Automatic Chronograph Race, about which much ink and pixels have already been spilled. Its odyssey is now a part of watchmaking lore: famously tucked away in an attic by a quietly insubordinate Zenith employee named Charles Vermot and thus rescued from its corporate-ordered extinction as the 1970s quartz crisis wreaked havoc on the Swiss watch industry and threatened to render such micro-mechanical wonders obsolete.

Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - Front, reclining

In the modern, post-mechanical-watch-renaissance era, Zenith has understandably focused on its prize pony, using the El Primero — in some cases, modifying and even improving upon it — in a wide range of timepieces. For the Chronomaster El Primero Full Open — the watch that I had the pleasure of wearing recently — Zenith tackled the issue of movement vs. model in a head-on fashion: what better way to call attention to your movement than by putting it on display on the front of the watch as well as the back? Here’s my take on the Chronomaster El Primero Full Open in steel.

To start with the case: The 42-mm-diameter stainless steel case has a gleaming, polished finish, except for the sharply curved and faceted lugs, which appear to be brushed on their front surfaces. The shiny surface does impart an air of luxury, though it certainly renders the case more vulnerable to fingerprints and smudges after excessive handling. The caseback, which surrounds a sapphire exhibition window, is secured by four screws. The sapphire crystal over the openworked dial is described in the press materials as “domed,” but it’s more precisely described as flat with a subtle convex slope. The steel, plunger-style chronograph pushers have a pleasant tactile feel, and the grooved winding crown — which does not screw down, partially explaining this watch’s relatively modest water resistance of 100 meters — has a relief engraving of Zenith’s star logo.

Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - case CU, Index
Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - back, movement
Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - case CU, lugs

Continuing on to the dial (such as it is): the first design element of note is one that would normally be part of the dial, but in this case is not: the “Zenith” and “El Primero” logos, both of which are printed on the surface of the sapphire crystal and hovering over the watch’s openworked front face, lending it an impressive sense of depth. Beneath the crystal, and descending downward, we find an outer flange in a sort of cobalt blue, with a 0-to-60 seconds scale printed in white, with Arabic numerals at the 5-second markers and fraction-of-a-second subdivisions. The small fractions are a visual way to call out the El Primero chronograph caliber’s ability to measure stopped times to 1/10 second, thanks to its 36,600-vph frequency — the technical breakthrough that earned the El Primero its fame in horological circles lo those many decades ago. (“El Primero,” of course, means “the first” — and this was the first chronograph movement to achieve such a frequency.)

Inside this outer ring is a silvery inner minute ring, with five-minute faceted 3D indices that look a bit like bars of silver, subdivided by thin minute markers. Peeking out from underneath we can see the outskirts of the movement’s date ring, with cutout stencil-style Arabic numerals that patiently await their turn to be framed in the date window at 6 o’clock. Floating above the inner exposed movement parts are three snailed, openworked subdials, each with a different-colored border: blue at 3 o’clock for the 30-minute chrono counter, dark gray at 6 o’clock for the 12-hour counter, light gray at 9 o’clock for the running seconds.

Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - chrono hand tip
Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - crystal, logo
Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - date, minute track

Operating the chronograph is a joy: the pushers require a firm-but-not-too-firm press to start, stop, and zero the stopwatch. Under close scrutiny, it’s obvious an impressive level of attention to detail has been paid here: the red tip of the central chronograph seconds hand lines up precisely with the tips of the seconds (and fractions-of-a-second) markers as it sweeps along. In a subtle (maybe a bit too subtle) nod to consistency, the subdial chrono-counter hands also have a red color, distinguishing their functions from those of the running seconds subdial, which is metallic-looking. Red is also used to underpin the openworked date numerals for emphasis.

Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - Date window
Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - Date window

Nevertheless, despite all these appreciated touches, the obvious needs to be stated: skeletonized watches are, as a category, not renowned for their legibility, and a skeletonized tricompax chronograph should not be expected to excel in this area. Reading elapsed minutes and hours is not the easiest thing to do at a glance, and even the date suffers a bit from the shadows cast by its window frame. However, I am relatively confident that anyone considering this watch would probably know and accept this up front: the El Primero is, in my humble opinion, not only one of the most technically impressive chronograph movements but also one of the most aesthetically beautiful, and getting to see more of it is the main draw here. If one is seeking more utilitarian, functional looks, there are plenty of other Zenith El Primero models that would fit the bill. (Interestingly, the nighttime legibility, at least for the time display if not the chronograph, is quite good: Super-LumiNova highlights the hour and minute hands and the interior flanks of the hour indices.)

On to the movement: The opposite side of the watch, with its clear sapphire caseback, offers the rear view of the El Primero, technically dubbed Caliber El Primero 400 B. The dominant element, of course, is the partially skeletonized rotor, with Zenith’s emblematic star in the center and “Zenith El primero” and “Manufacture Le Locle” flanking it on the sides. A cornucopia of the movement’s 326 components are on display, with the smooth interplay of wheels and gears, the speedy oscillations of the balance wheel, and the chronograph mechanism, which is controlled by a column wheel. The power reserve is a better-than-average 50 hours.

Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - movement, rotor
Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open - movement, wheels

The watch, Zenith says, is delivered to buyers on a calfskin leather strap — though my review model was outfitted with a more elegant alligator black alligator strap, which I thought suited it better. It fastens snugly to the wrist with an ergonomically curved triple-folding clasp that is just as meticulously polished as the case. The top surface of the buckle has a contrasting brushed finish and is punctuated by a relief Zenith star.

All in all, the El Primero chronograph caliber is done justice by this timepiece, and appears destined to achieve new heights of appreciation among a new generation of mechanical watch fans who probably think Charles Vermot is a brand of Champagne or Burgundy. A few days or weeks with this watch — which is priced at $9,600, an eminently fair ask for a Swiss-made, skeletonized in-house chronograph — is a great place for them to begin their horological history lesson.

Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Full Open - reclining
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