Zenith Re-Creates the Watch World’s First “Smoked” Dial with El Primero Chronomaster A385 Revival

Nostalgia has proven to be a powerful draw for watch enthusiasts in recent years, and Zenith has accordingly mined its archives for intriguing, and in some cases quite rare, timepieces to re-create for a modern audience. Last year saw the release of two historically inspired variations on Zenith’s famed El Primero from 1969, one based on the Ref. A384 (here), the other on Ref. A386. This year, Zenith revisits (you guessed it) the Ref. A385 from that same seminal year — which featured, according to the Le Locle-based manufacturer, the watch industry’s first “smoked” gradient-effect dial.

Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Revival A385 on leather strap (Ref. 03.A384.400/385.C855)

Like several of its vintage-re-edition predecessors, the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Revival A385 features a case that has been “reverse-engineered” to be as faithful as possible to its 1969 predecessor, using the latter’s original blueprints and production plans. The stainless steel case features the same 37-mm dimensions, tonneau shape, and pump-style chronograph pushers as the vintage model, which is known by connoisseurs as the model strapped to the landing gear of an Air France Boeing 707 in Zenith’s “Operation Sky” torture test in 1970. The watch famously kept ticking after being exposed to rough winds, temperature fluctuations and air pressure drops on a flight from Paris to New York. The small differences between the modern watch and the historical piece include the domed sapphire crystal, superseding the original acryclic one, and an exhibition caseback (also sapphire) rather than the solid casebacks that were de rigeur in ’69.

The watch re-creates the first watch model with a gradient dial.

The smoked brown, gradient dial with its vignette effect that blackens toward the edges for an eye-catching, faux-domed appearance, also re-creates the vintage look of the original, with silvery-white chronograph subdials at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock — to record chronograph minutes, chronograph hours, and running seconds, respectively — and a bright red central chronograph seconds hand. The date appears in the customary (for the El Primero) position at 4:30. This style of “fumé” or gradient dial is enjoying a revival of popularity today, with numerous watchmakers adding various colors and styles to their collections, but it was quite a departure from the norm when Zenith introduced it for the first time on the Ref. A385 fifty-plus years ago.

Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Revival A385 on “ladder” steel bracelet (Ref. 03.A384.400/385.M385)

Behind the sapphire caseback, Zenith’s El Primero 400 caliber beats at its breakneck frequency of 36,600 vph (5 Hz) and stores a power reserve of 50 hours. The most up-to-date version of the groundbreaking El Primero movement, which debuted in the watches that bore its name in 1969, it has been honed and fine-tuned over the course of a half century, and features automatic winding and a column-wheel chronograph mechanism that is able to measure elapsed times to the 1/10th second.

The original watch famously took part in a test called “Operation Sky.”

The Chronomaster Revival A385 completes its vintage look with two bracelet options, both of which call back the spirit of 1969. One is a steel “ladder” bracelet, a modern iteration of the “Gay Frères” bracelets found often on early El Primero watches; the other a light brown calf leather strap designed to develop its own unique patina with wear and time. The model on the leather strap is available now for $7,900; the bracelet-mounted model will be available in February 2021, price TBD.

For the story behind the Zenith El Primero caliber, click here.

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  1. Gene Bricker

    I love it on the leather strap! I’m a previous Zenith owner who regrets selling his chronograph years ago. Also, as a pilot who has flown with John Travolta, I was struck by how much the Boeing pilot resembled Travolta, who owns a Boeing 707.

  2. A great review of a very nice classic Zenith re-edition, normally I would be interested in the original models of this classic wrist watch. However this modern update is a credit to Zenith, a fine revision to the early revered classic time piece that I would definitely consider purchasing as a new watch.

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