Reviewed: The Zenith El Primero 38

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Collections evolve and tastes change over time. I have always been drawn to the idea of chronographs. The second automatic watch I added to my collection was a chronograph. Despite the allure, my collection has always been very dive watch heavy. Bezel action, the utility of a dive or timing bezel, and durability have been cornerstones of what I look for in a watch. I have always been a tool watch guy. Many of you know the analysis paralysis that can go into adding a piece to your collection. There were some dive watches that were contenders, ones that I have had my eye on for a while, but becoming one dimensional as a collector was something I wanted to avoid, at least for now. I have a friend who describes the evolution of his collection as a way to experience more watches. Some reshuffling of the deck took place, and in came the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 38mm. 

For those of you who are less familiar with this watch, it is not a new model having been released several years ago. There are three dial variants, the silver (which is what I added) as well as darker grey, and a navy blue dial. The watch comes on a three link stainless steel bracelet with a butterfly clasp, but can also be had on a leather strap. I always opt for the bracelet version as it is rare that purchasing the bracelet after the watch can ever be done as affordably as just buying the watch on the bracelet in the first place. Plus, there are a wide variety of leather straps that this watch will look amazing on, despite the difficulty of 19mm lugs.

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Inside the watch is a movement that needs no introduction, as it responsible for the name itself: the El Primero caliber 400. This movement has ties to the original automatic chronograph arms race of the late 1960s. What sets this movement apart, as we all know, is the hi-beat frequency of 36,000 vph. The smooth sweep of both the chronograph hand and small seconds at nine o’clock is truly something to behold. Being a column wheel chronograph, the pusher action is utterly amazing. Having only owned a Valjoux 7753 to this point, I now understand Spangler’s obsession with column wheel chronographs. The feel alone is worth the price of admission.

While Zenith has had watches with this dial color combination and overall aesthetic in their catalogue for quite some time, what drew me to this version was the size of the case. At 38mm, the proportions are akin to the original A386 El Primeros released in the late 1960s. While there are slight dial variations between this model, the original A386s, and the newly released A386 revival limited editions, the overall look and feel is of a watch that is both old and new at the same time. The proportions of this watch are more 1960s than they are 2020 (despite recent sizing trends). This is only my second foray into a sub 40mm watch, with the first, a Rado Diastar 50th anniversary edition, also having roots in the 1960s. 

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The size is, in my opinion, perfect. It is comfortable on the wrist and has good presence despite being sub-40mm. The watch is just under 12.5mm thick. For an automatic chronograph, this is simply superb. Also superb is the 100m water resistance rating, impressive numbers for a chronograph with non-screw down pushers. The various polished and brushed surfaces give the watch a sporty vibe that can be dressed up or down depending on the strap or bracelet combination. The bracelet is comfortable and adds to the sporty vibe with polished center links. Most importantly, the bracelet has two half links as micro-adjust is rarely seen on butterfly closures. The lugs are 19mm in width, and while that makes finding additional straps a challenge, it is not impossible. The colors on the dial allow for a myriad of strap choices, which will keep me entertained for the foreseeable future.

While comfort and balance on wrist are impressive, the dial is the showstopper. The silver dial has a modest sunray finish that provides a stark contrast to the black minute track and darker chronograph sub-dials. For a long time, I had always thought that the color combinations weren’t for me. That this dial would be too busy. Seeing it in person, I was very wrong. Despite being a smaller size, the dial is legible enough to easily discern the chronograph elapsed time. The navy blue, dark grey, and light grey sub-dials provide enough contrast to not blend in to the silver dial. The finer details on the dial are my favorite part of this watch. There is a subtle snailing on the sub-dials which I only recently noticed. The polished hour markers help them pop off the dial. The red seconds hand is the bright color that a watch in all greys and silvers really needs, but my favorite detail is the sub-dial hand set. They chronograph hands have a red accent in the middle that matches the chronograph seconds hand while the running seconds has a black accent to match the black on the hour and minute hand. This detail is perfect for discerning which sub-dial has which function. 

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Overall fit and finish of the watch are on par with what you would expect for a watch with an MSRP north of $8,000. The breaks from polished to brushed surfaces are crisp and well executed. The watch feels substantial on the wrist, sturdy enough to fit right into the sports watch category with water resistance to match. While this watch is very sporty, it can be dressed up with the right leather strap. While I am not a one watch guy, and do not see myself as ever being one, I do think that for the right person this could be a one watch collection. Excellent proportions, comfortable on wrist, gorgeous dial, at home in any setting, and the utility of a chronograph. Oh, and it has horological history and legend on its side. What took me so long?

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