In the world of watches, we tend to focus on specific models that become iconic to a brand. However, sometimes we encounter a movement that has such an effect that it creates its own gravitational pull. There is no doubt that the Zenith El Primero movement is one such movement. For collectors interested in the history of chronographs, and movements that have changed the landscape of chronograph production in many ways, a perfect way to add a movement to their collection is to reissue the watch paired with that movement – Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385.
1969 was the year that the Zenith El Primero movement debuted. At the time, it brought an astonishing number of innovations, bringing to the world an automatic 1/10-second chronograph that also had a calendar function. 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), then the A384 and A385 with angular tonneau cases . While these watches do have a clear and unmistakably retro aesthetic by today’s standards, they are forward-thinking to the brand, allowing Zenith to be ready for ’70s styling. They were ill-prepared for the Quartz Crisis that was about to engulf them, which caused the El Primero movement to all but be lost in the mid-70s, were it not for the efforts of Charles Vermot.
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While the original A385 and A385 predate me by a few years, the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero look like faithful replicas of these original watches. The starting point is of course that iconic case, which seems to be closer to the Defy line than we expected. No, it doesn’t have an octagonal case, but it has straight edges on all its edges, that’s what I think. This lumpiness of the 37mm case also places it firmly in the early 70s, creating a unique look.
The triple register layout of the chronograph and running seconds hand is recognizable today. Set in the middle of these registers is something we don’t see very often these days – the date display at the 4:30 position (imagine where the hour hand points). Of course, this is an odd positioning. We’re used to it coming at 3, 6 or 4 o’clock. But 4:30? Why are you there? I say the simplest answer is the most reasonable – it puts the date window between the hour indices applied. This means that the date window does not remove – or otherwise shorten – the index, as we see with the date window at the 3 or 4 o’clock position.
The main design difference between the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero models is the dial color. While the original A384 featured a conservative panda dial (black sub-dial on a white dial), the A385 was super 70s, and the brown smoky hue embraced earth tones in the years following the watch’s original launch. It is worth noting that the A384 is the rarer of the pair, a limited edition for the North American market. Aptly called the A384 Revival Liberty, only 150 of this blue dial variant with red and white chronograph seconds were produced.
The Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero not only draw inspiration from the original models, but are faithful reproductions. We’ve seen some other solid dial colors for the A384 (such as the blue reverse panda dial), but these watches are largely identical to their ancestors, save for the sapphire crystal and non-radioactive luminous paint on the front and back of the watch.
Both the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero are powered by the El Primero 400 self-winding movement. Yes, it features newer technology than the original, but it traces very clearly back to the original El Primero 3019 PHC, all the way down to the 36,000 vph frequency at which the movement operates.
Through the sapphire crystal on the exhibition caseback, you can see the Cotes de Geneve motif applied to the movement and signature rotor, as well as several of the 31 jewels used in the movement. Given how similar the movement is to the original, it’s worth taking some time to study it and see how the pushers interact with the movement through the caseback to get a better understanding of it.
With the El Primero movement, the obvious suggestion for a replacement for these limited edition revival watches would be just about every other Zenith El Primero watch. If you like the idea of watches from the past, but want yours to look more modern, Zenith has you covered. With this particular combination of needs, I would point you to the Zenith A386 Revival. Casual watch fans will recognize the three-color layout, and enthusiasts will understand what you’re wearing on your wrist.
On the other hand, maybe you’re looking for that high-paced El Primero kick, but want a slightly unexpected form? There are some options out there as well. Perhaps the most famous of these curiosities is the Rolex Daytona. We know it today because of its style and inner movement, but that’s not how it started. When the Daytona switched from a manual to an automatic movement, it came with a (massively) improved El Primero 400. To be fair, one of the things Rolex has done with the movement is to change its beat rate from 5Hz to 4Hz in hopes of extending the life of the movement. The “Zenith Daytona” reference was produced between 1988 and 2000.
Aside from actually finding the original reference in your uncle’s watch box, the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero are the best way to get you back in the spirit of what Zenith produced in 1969. They flew high with their technical prowess and looked forward to what they could create in the 1970s. These reissues date back to that quiet period before Quartz stopped their imaginations and threatened the entire industry. The case silhouette firmly laid the foundations of these watches in that era, while details such as the chronograph seconds hand without the star weight and the date window in its unique position further emphasise that these watches point to a very special beginning.
We tend to go for vintage watches because they scratch the itch from our past. Maybe it’s the watch we’ve always wanted but could never afford, or the watch someone at home owned but somehow disappeared before it landed on our wrist. In other words, we are trying to recapture a piece of our history. Vintage is one way of doing it, although you’ll worry about maintaining a watch that’s over 50 years old. Truly faithful reissues like the Zenith Chronomaster A384 and A385 Revival El Primero give you the best of both worlds.
You can recapture that lost history while taking advantage of modern manufacturing (such as water resistance, etc.), materials (sapphire crystal), and the overall reliability that comes from a refined and updated movement. While the A384/A385 cases are undeniably polarizing for the modern collector, these Revival models perfectly encapsulate what Zenith was all about in 1969. swiss luxury watches