A New Black Dial for the Chronomaster Original
In 2021, Zenith brought back the original El Primero A386 in stainless steel as the Chronomaster Original. With a silver tri-color dial, 38mm diameter, 4:30 date window, and most importantly, its automatic El Primero caliber, the Chronomaster Original is as faithful a reinterpretation of the original El Primero as we’ve seen in Zenith’s regular catalog. It remains a fitting tribute to one of the first automatic chronographs.
A few months ago, Zenith introduced a black, tri-color dial to the El Primero for the first time. It’s the black dial “Evil” El Primero answer to the traditional silver dial, and it feels like a watch that always should’ve been. Sure, it’s “just a new dial,” but it’s also a solid update to the Chronomaster Original, and the release gave me a chance to spend some time with the El Primero and think about where it sits in the competitive chronograph landscape.
Design and Specs
The new Chronomaster Original takes the specs of the existing El Primero we know and love, simply adding a black dial with the traditional tri-color subdials. Like the original A386, the case measures 38mm in diameter, 13mm thick, and 47mm lug-to-lug. For me, the El Primero case wears flat on the wrist, giving it a strong wrist presence, perhaps a touch bigger than its diameter might suggest. The one problem is that this can quickly lead to lug overhang on the wrist, especially if it falls off-center.
The dial is a matte black, which feels true to the heritage-leaning aesthetic of the Chronomaster Original line. The black is less glossy than the lacquered black of the modern Chronomaster Sport. The three subdial colors nicely complement the black, a combination that just works and perhaps should’ve been tried before 2023. Zenith wisely matched the 4:30 date window with a black disc. We love to criticize 4:30 date windows, but the El Primero will always and forever get a pass because the date placement stays true to the A386.
The El Primero Movement
The Chronomaster Original remains powered by the El Primero 3600, an automatic caliber that Zenith introduced to regular production in the Chronomaster Sport in 2021. The tachymeter hints at what makes this watch special under the hood: It’s marked for 1/10 second increments, and the chronograph hand zooms around the dial once every 10 seconds; each tick on the tachy represents one-tenth of a second. It’s fun to play with and theoretically makes for super-accurate timing of things.
I’ve lovingly dubbed it the “Evil” El Primero because it calls to mind the black dial Universal Geneves that always complemented its white dials, most notably the Nina Rindt Compax and Evil Nina, along with the Eric Clapton and the Evil Clapton Tri-Compax. UG offered these watches alongside each other in the catalog. While Zenith never offered an Evil El Primero with tri-color subdials, this release makes it feel like it could have.
On the Wrist
The Chronomaster Original has an MSRP of $9,500 on a calfskin leather strap or $10,000 on a three-link steel bracelet. The three-link bracelet has polished middle links and wears nicely, though the clasp could especially be improved. It’s a fine bracelet that’s comfortable enough, but with a vintage-inspired watch like the Chronomaster Original, it might’ve been nice to see an equally vintage-inspired bracelet instead of one that takes clear inspiration from a large competitor.
This addition to the Chronomaster Original lineup is the Evil El Primero we never knew we wanted, and while it’s not perfect, it’s an excellent addition to Zenith’s catalog. While Zenith has taken 2023 to modernize, like with the updated Pilot’s collection, it’s nice to also see Zenith double-down on history where it works. Along with the silver tri-color and reverse panda dials that Zenith introduced in 2021, it makes for a nice core collection of El Primero options. Meanwhile, the Chronomaster Sport is the modern chronograph option that works with contemporary colors, such as the recent limited-edition Chronomaster Sport Pink benefiting the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
“I love the use of the old-style fonts, which are reminiscent of the original dials from 1969,” Jhand said. “I wish the ‘36,000 VpH’ wasn’t added as a third line. I get the desire of brands to add more text to chronograph dials to make them appear more technical, but apart from a small clique of watch nerds who’s going understated what the numbers mean?” He mentioned the Zenith x Phillips limited edition collabs from 2019 as the best modern reissue dials, in part because of the simplicity of having just “Zenith” and “El Primero” at 12 o’clock.