In horological history, the release of the Zenith El Primero in the late 60 stands out as one of the more defining moments. Dubbed the first-ever automatic chronograph to be made in production, the El Primero to this day remains largely unchanged and truly an icon.
The thing with vintage El Primeros and all of its variants is just how rare they are. I still think that they are incredibly underrated based on production numbers, it’s a unique design and the historical significance. For instance, this watch, the Ref. A 385, was only made in 2,400 examples.
Speaking of design, even though it is the movement that is historically iconic, the design language Zenith used for their El Primero perhaps deserves just as much recognition. This A385 features one of the funkier dial designs from the model line up, with a brown fume dial that really adds depth to the overall look. The signature red chronograph paddle hand is there as is the outer tachymeter scale, completing the distinctive El Primero aesthetic.
Not to mention, while the more popular A 386 is housed in a more traditional circular case, this A 385 has a muscular tonneau-shaped, Spillman produced case. I have to admit, in photos, I could not warm to the idea of wearing such an odd-shaped watch but the minute I strapped it on my wrist, I was sold. Trust me, it sits unexpectedly attractively on the wrist. The angles and bevels, along with the sunburst finish on the top of the case is a work of art and one of the more unique watch designs to exist.
While there is dispute as to whether it was Zenith or the consortium led by Heuer, Seiko, Buren-Hamilton, Breitling and Dubois-Depraz that created the first self-winding chronograph, there is no contest in regards to the quality of the Zenith Cal. 3019 PHC compared to the latter’s Calibre 11. most notably, the way the hi-beat movement allows the chronograph seconds hand to move around the dial so smoothly is a joy to watch. Similarly, resetting the chronograph hand, it jumps straight back to 0 without much backlash or hand quivering. You just know this is pure quality.