Zenith Chronomaster Sport, $9,500-$10,000
Case Diameter: 41mm
Case Depth: 13mm
Water Resistance: 100m
Movement: El Primero cal. 3600
Zenith's El Primero movement family retains its position as one of the most significant horological developments ever — full stop. Since its debut in 1969 as one of the first automatic chronograph movements in the world (hence its name), it has captured the hearts of watch lovers everywhere with its smooth, column wheel-controlled action, its high frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour, and its classic tri-compax layout. Though it went out of production for roughly a decade, the El Primero was revived in the 1980s and has since provided a platform on which Zenith has innovated continuously for nearly forty years.
Following myriad vintage reissues of the original A386 and A384 watches, Zenith reimagined the El Primero as the engine within an entirely new, forward-thinking timepiece, the Chronomaster 2. The El Primero cal. 3600, which powered the watch, featured an increased power reserve of 60 hours, a hacking function and the ability to measure 1/10ths of a second. Outfitted to a skeletonized dial, it was a striking watch upon its debut in 2019, though perhaps a bit too avant-garde for the average watch buyer.
Now, however, the Chronomaster platform is being expanded upon in the form of the Chronomaster Sport — a new timepiece that both in look and feel, is poised to take on one of the world's most well-known watches: the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.
Much as I love the A384 and A386, I do feel like we've been inundated with too many vintage reissues lately. I long for fresh designs, and not just from Zenith, but from the industry as a whole. The Chronomaster Sport is certainly that — something new (though it does derive from the Chronomaster 2, of course). However, when sized up with its (assumed) purpose of posing a threat to the Daytona (perhaps "contender" is a better word, given Rolex's virtually unassailable position), it might be more accurate to say that the watch's design is new to Zenith. Indeed, it takes enough cues from the Daytona — from the bezel to the bracelet — that you'd be forgiven for dubbing it the "Zaytona," as at least one Gear Patrol employee has done.
Who It's For
Mainly two types of folks: those who want a Rolex Daytona, can't find one, but are willing to pay for something similar from another high-end brand; and those who collect Zenith specifically. Will there will be folks out there aimlessly searching for a chronograph who stumble upon the Chronomaster Sport and go: that's the one! Sure. But at $10,000, there probably won't be very many of these people. For those who simply appreciate a well-made watch with excellent finishing, a serious horophile's movement and good looks, to boot, the Chronomaster Sport also fits the bill.
Gee, I dunno — how about a watch that rhymes with "shmay-shmonah." Rolex's flagship chronograph is the obvious heavyweight champion against which the Chronomaster Sport is meant to compete. At $13,150 in steel, it's certainly more expensive than the CS, but it's got similar looks and features. (Ironically, what preceded the current caliber 4130 in the Daytona is the caliber 4030, a heavily modified version of, you guessed it, a Zenith El Primero movement.) It does not, however, feature a 1/10th-second chronograph and bezel.
The Omega Co-Axial Master Chronometer 9900 is a Speedy with a twist that both in look and price delivers something reminiscent of the Chronomaster Sport experience — though in this case, in the form of a two-register chrono. At $8,750, it lives at a similar price point to the CS and also features an in-house chronograph movement and a steel bracelet. Its distinctive racing styling is evident in an outer tachymeter scale on the bezel and upon the inner minute track.
A third alternative — and a much cheaper one — is also a solid alternative to the Daytona itself: the Black Bay Chronograph with matching steel bracelet from Tudor. At $5,225, it includes the impressive Tudor MT5813 automatic chronometer movement, a 41mm case and a black dial with bi-compax layout and date. Not bad for half the price of the Chronomaster Sport. (Though again, you're not getting that fun, 1/10th-second chronograph.)
So what do we have here? Well, we've got a really damn nice watch — we can get that part out of the way. We have something that looks a fair amount like a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona — also noted. And We have a technically sophisticated, historically significant chronograph movement — all for $10k (or $9,500 on leather).
Let's cover the "damn nice watch" part first: The Chronomaster Sport is housed in a 41mm stainless steel case with pump pushers, a signed, push-pull crown, a screw-down, sapphire case back, and a 20mm lug width. (The case back is actually held down with four screws, rather than screwed down itself.) This is a nice case — it's brushed on the sides and the tops of the lugs, but also features a wide, polished chamfer that catches the light beautifully and adds some interest.
A black ceramic bezel features a unique scale etched in white: 1/10th of a second. This means that when you depress the top chronograph pusher to start the chronograph, it hauls ass around the watch dial in ten seconds. Upon stopping it, you can read the elapsed time on the bezel in 1/10ths of a second. Pretty neat! (Probably pretty useless in 2020, but so are all mechanical watches in the age of the iPhone, so let's move past that, shall we.)
The ceramic bezel is shiny and reflects the light, adding more dynamism to the watch's look. The dial, as one typically is, is the true star of the show, however (I'm going to describe the black version, but a white is available as well): beneath the sapphire crystal is a silver rehaut with minutes/seconds executed in black, which lends the design yet more depth. The glossy black dial itself is busy, but not necessarily distracting: A nice touch is that the El Primero's classic tri-compax arrangement of three subdials in contrasting colors is maintained on the CS. These overlap each other just a touch and are executed in different shades of a cobalt-like silver tone.
Running seconds are displayed at 9 o'clock, elapsed minutes are displayed at 6 o'clock and elapsed seconds at 3 o'clock. Why the elapsed seconds display? Recall that the central chronograph seconds hand is actually displaying 1/10ths of a second (up to 10 seconds in total, as registered on the watch's bezel), so you need a separate display for seconds.
I'm of two minds about this arrangement: On the one hand, the 1/10th-second display shows off the El Primero cal. 3600's hi-beat prowess (36,000 vibrations per hour, in this case), and it's fun to watch the chronograph in action. On the other hand, who is going to be measuring 1/10ths of a second of anything with a mechanical chronograph these days? Probably no one. On the other other hand, who is measuring anything with a chronograph these days? Very few people.
On the other other other hand, if I am going to use a chronograph in 2020, I probably want one in which I can easily track elapsed seconds and not have to consult a tiny subdial, given that this function is much more useful to me than tracking 1/10ths of a second. In short, while I understand the motivation for providing such a unique function on a modern chrono, I personally would've preferred one of the more conventional variety. (On the other other other other hand, however, giving the watch a 1/10th-second stopwatch effectively differentiates it not only from the Daytona, but, to my knowledge, from any other watch. I can't think of another model with a 1/10th-second bezel, so, to that end, 10 points to Zenith for doing something different.)
But back to the dial: The interlocking, tri-color counters with their silver backgrounds and white printing are a nice touch. They recall classic El Primero models but work well on the dial of a more modern design, so I have to applaud Zenith on their use here. What I can't stand is the damn date window at 4:30. Who in their right mind still believes that this is a good idea? There are so many designs out there that have moved the thing to 6 o'clock, allowed its presence there to take a chunk out of a subdial, and all was well in the world. A 4:30 date window, however, may be the largest design travesty in the past 75 years of watchmaking. I appreciate that its background is matched to the dial for unobtrusiveness, but for God's sake, just get rid of it.
The remainder of the dial, I love. Printed on the outer edge is a 1/5th-seconds track, next to which are rectangular applied hour indices tipped with lume that catch the light beautifully. These are matched to steel, lume-tipped hands and a red-tipped seconds hand counter-balanced with the Zenith star. The subdials hands (excluding the running seconds hand) are also red-tipped for better legibility. Beyond this, the dial is badged with the Zenith star in silver, the brand wordmark, "El Primero" and "36000 VpH" (to denote the movement's hi-beat operating frequency) and "Swiss Made" at 6 o'clock.
Overall, this is a great dial. Get rid of that f*cking date window at 4:30 and it would be even better, but what are you gonna do — the people want the date.
Now, to the part of the Chronomaster Sport that irks me the most: the bracelet. This is a Rolex Oyster bracelet with Zenith branding. It's got the brushed outer links and polished inner links of a modern Oyster; it's got the fold-over clasp of an Oyster. The brand says the watch "...comes on...a steel bracelet similar to those conceived by Gay Frères, who supplied many of Zenith’s metal bracelets in the past." Fine — Gay Frères indeed made bracelets for Zenith as well as for numerous other prestigious brands, Rolex included. However, the Oyster is a Rolex design, and Rolex eventually purchased Gay Frères in 1998 and developed its own modern versions of the Oyster bracelet, of which this is simply a copy. The ladder bracelet, however, is distinctly associated with Zenith, and accompanied many of their watches beginning in 1969 with the El Primero.
So, I must ask, why on God's green earth would you not pair your new Zenith chronograph with a bracelet that is distinctly associated with Zenith? I suspect that the answer is simple enough: this watch is meant to function first and foremost as an alternative to the Daytona, and as the Daytona ships on an Oyster bracelet, the maison felt the need to offer something as similar as possible. Though I could be off the mark, here, I can't think of any other good reason why the manufacture would offer the CS on an Oyster copy instead of the ladder bracelet, and I have to say, I find this disappointing. A subtle tweak such as this would, to my mind, would have pushed the watch far enough into its own distinct territory as to render our "Zaytona" nickname unjustifiable. But as it is, many more people out there are going to chalk this watch up to a Daytona copy (albeit a very, very well-made one) instead of a distinct Zenith chronograph, and that's a shame. It's a shame because this really is a cool damn watch.
All that aside, how does it wear? It wears nicely, I must say. At 41mm wide, it's larger than most watches I wear, but I'll admit that the extra millimeter in diameter from my Submariner isn't terribly noticeable. A case depth of around 13mm (measured by myself with a ruler so please forgive me if I'm off) is noticeable compared to that of a dive watch, but certainly not outrageous for a chronograph. The bracelet, despite my feelings about it, is comfortable, and because the case's lugs angle downward to receive the bracelet, it hugs my 7" wrist well, rather than leans off the edges uncomfortably. This is a 41mm watch that, to my mind, does not feel that large, which I appreciate. And the thing just looks good. I mean, to hell with that 4:30 date, but still — this is a handsome watch.
I like the Chronomaster Sport a lot. In fact, I'm giving Zenith a hard time about it because I like it so much — what feel like small tweaks could, to my mind, truly transform this watch into a modern classic. Much as I love the A384 and A386 (and I really love those models), I'm tired of seeing them in eight gazillion different special editions. (This one's black! This one's blue! This one is a special partnership! This one changes the channel on your television!) And Zenith will have to forgive me, here, because I don't aim this criticism solely at them — I'm sick of this as an industry trend. Who decided that already, 20 years into the 21st century, that we are clean out of ideas for new watches?
I reject this idea. (Though I can easily reject it from the comfort of my armchair, to be fair, but that's beside the point.) Rather, I believe what the industry needs is more adventurousness, and Zenith has engaged upon a worthy endeavor, here, in striving to include an updated version of a seminal piece of technology in an entirely new design. However, just a tad too much of this design references that of the competition, to my mind. Switch out that faux-Oyster for a ladder, get rid of (or move) the date, and we'd have something truly special here. If I didn't need that theoretical $10k for, you know, shelter, food and clothing, I would totally sign up for one.