The Zenith Chronomaster Sport promises to take the iconic Zenith El Primero into battle against the most revered chronograph of recent years: the Rolex Daytona. However, is this new Zenith truly a competitor or does overstep the mark of pure emulation?
Amongst luxury chronographs, the Zenith El Primero represents an oddball. Sandwiched between the Omega Speedmaster Professional and Rolex Daytona whilst also competing for attention with lesser-known but eminently respectable chronographs from Breguet to Breitling, El Primero has never been an obvious purchase.
In spite of this, Zenith’s remarkable movement at the core of El Primero not only was the first fully-integrated, Swiss automatic chronograph but was radically ahead of its time with a high-beat, 36,000 vph beat rate. In fact, in a modified form, this very movement powered the Rolex Daytona. Surely, therefore, El Primero (and the associated Zenith Chronomaster) should be a household name?
Of course, it is yet, in spite of countless vintage remakes, the standard El Primero range appears to seldom redirect the path of a potential Rolex Daytona buyer. It is for this market that Zenith has launched the El Primero 36000 Chronomaster Sport: a mechanical and cosmetic reimagining of their signature watch.
For some, this new Zenith will seem suspiciously similar to a watch released to celebrate the semicentenary of the original, 1969 watch. You see, Zenith presented the option of a box set including a retro-reincarnation of an original El Primero and a modern, Defy El Primero model. Between these two, however, was a watch housing the movement used by today’s launch: a 1/10th second chronograph based upon the classic, high-beat Zenith movement.
Why are this Zenith Chronomaster Sport and its El Primero calibre 3600 important?
Here at Watch Chronicler, I do not believe in simply writing about any new watch. Quite honestly, there are far too many to be able to give any meaningful description of them all. However, a new watch occasionally comes along which might just present a new dawn for a brand.
Before leaping to conclusions, though, it’s rather important to consider the El Primero collection in recent years. Irrespective of the obvious prestige of the name both historically and, more widely, to horology, the Zenith brand name isn’t exactly a hard one. Displayed in plenty of dealers’ windows, the brand name never has attracted the same attention as Breitling or IWC, leave alone Rolex or Omega.
Of course, this may strike you as odd given that the El Primero cal. 400 is widely regarded as one of the finest pieces of movement engineering. Nevertheless, allow me to ask you a question: can you name a modern, standard production Zenith release? Neither can I. Fundamentally, Zenith has been unable to offer a watch with either the exclusivity and permanence of a Rolex or the ‘specialness’ of an Omega special edition – the two most recent ways to guarantee selling power. Instead, modern iterations of El Primero have either been nondescript, poorly-named and innumerable versions of the same watch or extreme versions (such as the Zenith Stratos Flyback Striking 10th) with, as a consequence, limited appeal.
The standard resolution which Zenith put into motion was the recreation of vintage models as, in a rare and strange twist of fate, the lack of development of their basic cal. 400 high-beat, automatic chronograph movement has enabled them to truly reissue former models. Let’s be clear, however, a vintage-recreation is no serious way to keep a collection relevant.
The real answer is, of course, a modern watch which not only represents the brand (and, crucially, its ethos) but which is a serious counterpart to the names which more easily slide off a customer’s tongue (think Daytona, Speedmaster or Navitimer). This is, I reckon, what Zenith has created with the new Zenith Chronomaster Sport.
Now, rather plainly, Zenith have not learned to stick to a simple name but, in light of the product, I’m sure that such a transgression can be forgiven. The key to this new chronograph is that, with the key exception of its movement, it is a very versatile watch which ticks an awful lot of boxes.
Launched with a black or white dial, sharply-bevelled, 41mm case in stainless steel, the Zenith Chronomaster Sport isn’t a design to challenge the buyer but to fit very nicely within accepted stylistic norms. Of course, this isn’t to say that these watches are not distinctive as with a pointed crown, the grey and blue El Primero sub-dials and a recognisable profile, this remains a Zenith to the core.
A New Generation of Movement
Speaking of the core, this watch truly is nothing without the movement at its centre. Of course, this watch uses a descendant of the original cal. 400 released in late 1969. As such, this movement follows 1960s norms with a column wheel, lateral clutch and a more ornate appearance than we are now accustomed to. It also inherits the very same automatic winding to which Zenith’s success could be reasonably attributed.
At face value, therefore, you could see this as no match for the most recent calibres from Rolex and Omega. After all, both have come on in force with extended power reserves, new materials (silicon, etc.) and very modern architectures. Even so, there’s more development here than first meets the eye. The calibre 3600 is the product of several generations’ development including, as its party-piece, a central second hand whose tip orbits the dial every ten seconds to utilise the movement’s high beat rate to display 10th of seconds.
First shown in the previous calibre 4057B, this complication was mated to a flyback function for the Zenith El Primero Striking 10th in 2011 – the watch worn by Felix Baumgartner for his historic jump in 2012. Stripped of its flyback function, this movement became the calibre 3600 for the 2019 Zenith Chronomaster 2 El Primero which extended the power reserve to 60 hours and added a quickset date. Reappearing in this standard-production watch, the date has moved from an obtrusive 6 o’clock position to 4:30 for legibility. Of course, this is no replacement for the aforementioned technologies introduced by the more prominent luxury chronograph names yet, I feel, makes for a more interesting and exciting movement.
Zenith Chronomaster Sport & Rolex Daytona: Too Close for Comfort?
There is, however, a sizeable elephant quietly edging its way into what seems to be a very promising room: the uncanny resemblance to a modern Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. Priced at £8,300 on a bracelet, this Zenith El Primero is plainly no direct competitor for the £10,500 Rolex Daytona yet you have to applaud Zenith for offering a product which, at least on paper, makes the Rolex rather difficult to justify. With its frameless ceramic bezel (here used to enhance the chronograph’s legibility and not as a tachymetre), 100-metre water resistance and simple dial in black or white, the similarity is as uncanny as the intent is obvious. Put crudely, Zenith intends to poach prospective Rolex customers.
In the spirit of giving credit where it is deserved, I hope that Zenith is able to use the popularity of the Daytona – a watch which, due to its own merit or the popularity of Rolex, has become the benchmark for luxury chronographs – to bring the El Primero name back to the fore. Nevertheless, I would like to make a prediction: this Zenith will not draw from those seriously prepared to buy a Rolex Daytona for its ‘real’ price but will draw in customers it would not have accessed in the past. Perhaps, in reality, it is Omega, Grand Seiko, IWC and Breitling which need worry.