Zenith Chronomaster Revival El Primero A385, $7,900-$8,400
Case Diameter: 37mm
Case Depth: 12.6mm
Water Resistance: 50m
Movement: El Primero cal. 400 automatic
If you were alive in 1969, the year probably recalls significant cultural and sociopolitical events, such as Woodstock and the Vietnam War. If, however, you're a weirdo watch nut like I am, you probably also think of the race to develop the first automatic chronograph movement. (I also wasn't alive in 1969, but that's neither here nor there.)
Zenith was one of the companies at the fore of this race, hence the name of their now 52-year-old automatic caliber, the El Primero. When El Primero-based watches were first released, customers could choose from several case shapes and dial designs, among which was the tonneau-cased A384 and A385, and the more conventionally round A386. The A385 was unique, however, for its brown fumé dial, which fades in intensity from the rim to the center of the watch.
In reviving these famed references, Zenith has sought to show reverence to the original models by changing as little as possible, and has even brought back the famed "ladder" bracelet to accommodate the A385. But how does this vintage-inspired, tonneau-cased, fumé-dialed beauty stack up? Let's find out.
The A835 is absolutely a vintage throwback to the original, hence the full name: the Zenith Chronomaster Revival El Primero A385. Given its dimensions (37mm, just like its namesake), brown fumé dial and ladder bracelet, it would be tough to tell the watch apart from the original at more than a foot or two away. (There are some differences, which we'll get to in a moment.)
Who It's For
Whether you're a Zenith devotee or you simply love the watch's funky tonneau case or interesting dial, the new A835 remains an attractive proposition. At $7,900 on leather or $8,400 on a strap, it's certainly not inexpensive, but given today's luxury market and the truly special timekeeping technology powering the watch, such numbers are to be expected.
If you want to stay with a Zenith product but prefer a newer design, you could do worse than the new Chronomaster Sport ($9,500-$10,000), though you're going to pay quite a premium for a watch meant to compete with the Rolex Daytona. If you're looking for another automatic alternative closer to the A385's price, the 39mm TAG Heuer Monaco ($6,350-$6,750) comes to mind. (Originally powered by the Caliber 11, the Monaco was another of the world's first automatic chronographs). And though it's hand-wound, Omega's newest 3861-powered Speedmaster Professional (another watch first launched decades ago) is a solid alternative, especially at it's new pricing of $6,300-$7,150 on a redesigned bracelet.
The A385's resemblance to its namesake is frankly uncanny from almost any angle (with the exception of a view of its case back, which is transparent, to show the movement ticking away inside). Beginning with the steel case, it's sized like its vintage counterpart at 37mm (a wonderful size), and features a thick, radially brushed bezel with a handsome polished bevel, horizontally brushed sides that angle down sharply to accept the bracelet (or strap), and pump chronograph pushers and a signed Zenith push-pull crown. Personally, I don't need to see the relatively unadorned El Primero cal. 400 movement and would've preferred an option for a solid case back, but that's just me.
Moving onto the dial, the A835 Revival's is truly a showstopper and is difficult to tell apart from that of the original save for one detail whose relevance is questionable even to me: It's been a while since I've held a vintage example, but it seems from comparing images that the subdials on old A385s were more of a silver color, possibly with a concentric, brushed surface. The subs on the new A385 are most certainly white. If the original watch had white rather than silver subdials, than this is a spot-on recreation. However, I do have to say that the subs are the one thing that bothers me with the dial — with their flat-white color, they almost look like they were hastily printed from an inkjet, and I wish they had more dimension.
Other than this detail — which, admittedly, may very well only matter to me! — I just love the dial on this watch. The brown fumé treatment is beautiful and so different from that of most sports watches, while the unique El Primero handset only serves to further differentiate it from its contemporaries. That the modern Super-LumiNova lume has been colored on the hands and applied indices doesn't bother me in the slightest — I think it looks killer — and even that *$%^#$! date window at 4:30 doesn't kill me, simply because it's placed where the date was on the original El Primero. (Points are deducted for including it on the Chronomaster Sport, however, which was built from the ground up and doesn't need to concede to this travesty of design.) An outer tachymeter scale rounds out the look, while a domed sapphire crystal takes the place of the acrylic original.
The El Primero cal. 400, an automatic, in-house movement with 50 hours of power reserve and a hi-beat frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour, is a modernized version of the engine that powered the original A385 from 1969. Here, it too powers a three-register chronograph laid out with running seconds at 9 o'clock, a 30-minute counter at 3 o'clock and a 12-hour counter at 6 o'clock (plus the aforementioned date wheel at 4:30). It's an accurate, high-tech movement that's weekend-proof (meaning you can put it down late on a Friday night, pick it up on Monday morning and it'll still be running) and comprises nearly 300 components. The argument against hi-beat watches like this — many modern luxury watches beat closer to 28,800 times per hour — is that their increased frequency puts more friction on parts and thus requires more frequent service, so this is something to keep in mind when considering such a purchase.
One of my complaints about the new Chronomaster Sport was that Zenith didn't make its iconic ladder bracelet available as a strap option. Of course, for the sake of historicity, said bracelet is absolutely available with the A385, which I love. If you've ever held a vintage example of these bracelets, which were made by famed bracelet manufacturer Gay Freres, you can attest to the fact that they're a fun, funky design, and of course, given when they were made, somewhat janky: at the time, bracelets were made with folded metal links, rather than solid ones, and the clasps were nothing to write home about in terms of security or refinement.
If I had one gripe with the new A385, it would probably be regarding the bracelet: I love that the brand included it as an option, but to my mind, if you're going to include solid links rather than folded, then you may as well refine the clasp. Though the clasp on the new bracelet is a spitting image of that of the original, down to the placement of the branding, it's just plain old cheap-feeling — you could accidentally cut yourself on the edge of the fold-over fastener and securing the clasp itself into place isn't easy. It feels like a clasp on a $200 Seiko, not a nearly $10,000 Zenith. That being said, the solid links are excellent, and the bracelet is certainly comfortable, making for a great wearing experience. (I can't speak to the comfort of the leather strap, as I only opted to review the bracelet model.)
One of the best aspects of the original A385 and A384, to my mind, was the way in which the case shape anticipated the funkiness of 1970s design in the late 1960s: with its unique, tonneau-shaped profile, it catches your eye instantly without being overbearing or sitting on the wrist like a small dinner plate. The dial's unique look — of which that damned 4:30 date is a part — contributes further to the overall feel of the watch, as does the ladder bracelet, making for an object that's instantly recognizable from across the room.
Regardless of the angle from which you're approaching the new A385 — design, technology, horology, etc — this is one cool chronograph. Are there small improvements that would've made it simply perfect, to my mind? Sure. But the same could be said of virtually any watch, and wouldn't prevent me from buying one.