Hands-On Review – Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Revival Liberty Limited Edition

The Skinny

Diameter: 37 mm
Thickness: 12.6 mm
Movement: El Primero
Water Resistance: 50 M
Limited to: 150 pieces for North America
Price: $8,700

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The Story of El Primero

The first automatic chronograph story is familiar to many watch enthusiasts. Zenith had the first prototype in January 1969 and named it “El Primero” (in case there was any doubt who was first) but ended up being the last to launch in September. Chronomatic by Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton/Buren, and Dubois Dupraz had a number of prototypes at Baselworld that year. They managed to launch by August with a lot more marketing dollars and fanfare, staking their claim to be the first automatic chronograph. Seiko, unbeknownst to the Swiss, had already launched with the 6139 automatic chronograph in Japan by May. The automatic Lemania 1340/Omega 1040 chronograph came three years later in 1972. The first automatic chronograph using computer aided design came in the form of the Valjoux 7750 in 1974.

The quartz crisis hit the Swiss watch industry like a ton of bricks in the 1970’s and most of the automatic chronograph makers shut down production. Lemania had evolved their 1340 into the cheap, robust, thick (8.2 mm) 5100 which saw widespread military use but eventually died off in the early 2000’s. The Chronomatic (7.7 mm thick), with its finicky mechanism of a micro-rotor built into a modular cam operated chronograph, spawned no offspring. The 6139 (7.1 mm) and successors were a victim of Seiko’s own quartz obsession and went out of production. The cheap, cam switched Valjoux 7750 went into hiding but thanks to Edmond Capt eventually emerged to take its place in the sun with its current, somewhat tiresome ubiquity. It is a hulking beast at 7.9 mm thick and is responsible for many of the chunky chronographs that we are familiar with today.

One part of the story that you may not be familiar with is that El Primero was developed by a movement maker called Martel. Martel had been a key supplier of chronograph movements to both Universal Geneve (including the Tri-compax) and Zenith since the 1930’s. In 1958 Zenith bought Martel and used their expertise in automatic and chronograph movements to develop the El Primero over a five year span. Martel rewarded Zenith by developing a high beat (36,000), integrated, column wheel, slim (6.5 mm) chronograph movement with bidirectional automatic winding using a central rotor. Compare this to the 20% thicker, cam switched, slower beat (21,600), unidirectional winding Valjoux 7750 and it is obvious that El Primero was meant to be a premium caliber and just plain sexy as hell. After almost meeting an untimely demise after a bizarre acquisition of the company by the American Zenith radio company, the El Primero tiptoed into production again with Ebel and Movado. This was after a stint in the Zenith attic where Charles Vermot (like Edmond Capt) hid the El Primero equipment and blueprints from the electronic barbarians at the gate who sought to destroy the mechanical heritage and go pure quartz. Thanks to his audacity, Zenith was able to revive El Primero quickly in the 1980’s and eventually made its way into the first automatic Rolex Daytona, paving the way for their current success.

What’s a “Chronomaster Revival Liberty”? Decoding Zenith’s Lineup

Zenith has four categories of watches, or “collections.” There is “Defy”, which are innovation focused watches due to either movement features or skeletonization. These also feature ultra high beat El Primero movements. The “Pilot” collection are 1940’s watches with big crowns with cathedral hands and have two register no date El Primero movements. “Elite” are dress watches without El Primero. This watch falls into the “Chronomaster” collection which consists of El Primero three register chronographs. A subcategory of Chronomaster is “Revival.” This is a vintage line which in contrast to most Chronomaster watches features the 37 mm tonneau style case and has non-overlapping subdials with non-skeletonized dials. A North American exclusive, the “Liberty” has a red, white, and blue color scheme that is meant to celebrate Zenith’s period of American ownership. This is somewhat ironic since the American ownership is what almost killed off El Primero in the first place but I like fun colors so I’ll give the conceptual irony a pass.

The Liberty has a striking blue gradient dial. The surface is navy in low light but attracts light and appears to almost glow. There is an outer white tachymeter track with a typical ⅕ of second marking inner minute track. I would like it if the minute track had 1/10 of a second markings because the high beat 36,000 vph movement makes it accurate to that degree. This was notably done with the “shark tooth” track in the A3818 “Cover Girl.” The 4:30 trapezoidal date window has a white background with a red date which matches the seconds hand. One thoughtful design feature is that the ⅕ second hash marks are extended at the outer edge of the date window so that it retains some continuity despite the interruption. The domed sapphire crystal give some vintage like distortions at the edges of the dial which I enjoy. There are rectangular hour markers at each site except for 3, 6, and 9. These have a 1970’s vintage feel with an inner lume strip. The subdials are matte white and flat and are divided into an inner and outer ring by an indentation around the edge. One of my only complaints is that some of the numbers or marks on the subdials bleed over from the outer ring to the inner ring (e.g. 3 on the 6 o’clock subdial or the hash marks at 9). Although this was a feature on the vintage watches it would feel cleaner to me to either remove the demarcation between the inner and outer ring on the subdial or keep the hash marks on the outside ring only. There is an applied star at 12 with the Zenith logo underneath. The hour and minute hands are vintage style batons with lume strips on the outer third which match the hour markers well. The seconds hand is a special feature as it is painted candy stripe red and white. It features a lume rectangle near the tip, melding well with the other hands and the hour markers. The lume is Super-LumiNova SLN C1 which is white in light and green in the dark.

The case has the typical “Revival” style tonneau shape. The shape is rather more angular than a typical 1970’s tonneau and reminds me of the manual wind Rolex Viceroy cases. I think this is why I keep forgetting that this is an automatic movement. The front of the case calls back to the 1970’s with a sunburst finish. High polished lugs and a facet on the edge lead to brushed sides and a high polished back. There is a screw down sapphire caseback showing off the nicely decorated El Primero movement with blued column wheel and typical skeletonized Zenith rotor. There is a nicely sized Zenith branded crown which allows for comfortable manual winding when needed. The pump pushers have a satisfying click and decisive starting, stopping, and reset functions as would be expected from the El Primero.

The watch comes on a blue strap with red stitch accents. When I first felt the strap I thought it was rubber but it is actually a Cordura (canvas) type top over a leather back. There is a branded pin buckle. The strap is sporty and quite comfortable and complements the look of the watch well.

The watch wears comfortably. The case is true to the vintage size and feels great on the wrist. The relatively long lug to lug distance of 47 mm for a tonneau shape case gives it more wrist presence than the 37 mm width would suggest. I love the candy stripe seconds hand and left it running with no discernable ill-effects on the timekeeping over a two day period. The colors really pop in the sunlight and the quality of the movement makes activating the chronograph function addictive.

Other versions of the Chronomaster Revival series are the “A384” Panda with ladder bracelet or strap, or the “Shadow” which features a black dial and gray bead blasted titanium case. The “Liberty” version reviewed here is not the first limited edition blue dial. There is the sought after limited edition Zenith X Revolution X The Rake A3818 “Cover Girl” which also featured a blue dial. This also had a ladder bracelet, more complex subdials, more lume, and a 1/10 seconds “shark tooth” track. There was also the Bamford and Mr. Porter “Edge of Space” limited edition which had a blue dial, Codura type strap, and a titanium case. I don’t count the Bamford/Mr. Porter “Solar Blue” as being in the same category since it was a round case although it was certainly a predecessor to these limited blue editions.

Overall I love this piece. I don’t miss the ladder bracelet since the strap is well integrated into the design. The glowing blue dial combined with the pop of red and white on the seconds hand and date window feel very 1970’s to me. The date window being matched to the seconds hand with its red date and white background really helps to integrate that 4:30 position into the overall design and is unique to this version. I appreciate that although this watch draws on vintage design language ,it is not a 1:1 copy of any specific watch in the Zenith vault. This is my favorite out of the Chronomaster Revival series that I have seen. There is a wealth of neglected distinctive 1970’s design language which is ready to be revived by the major watch companies and I hope Zenith continues to lean into this area.

Check out the watch on Zenith’s website here

For more information on the relationship between Zenith, Universal Geneve, and Martel click here.