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The Complete Buying Guide to Zenith Watches

Everything you need to know about the El Primero, pilot's watches and more.

zenith
Zenith

Tracing its inception to 1865, Zenith has long stood among historic and consequetnial watchmakers from Omega to IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and others. Operating under the umbrella of the LVMH Group, Zenith today enjoys broad collector popularity and is most recognized for its role in a legendary watchmaking milestone: the race to develop the first automatic chronograph watches.

Zenith is one of Switzerland's old-guard, historic watchmakers

Founded as G.F.J & Cie. by 22-year-old watchmaking apprentice Georges Favre-Jacot in Le Locle, Switzerland, the company began with the vision of creating the very first, fully-integrated watchmaking house. To Favre-Jacot, this meant consolidating every discipline involved with the watchmaking process under one roof, in order to rally unity and efficiency behind his products. From connected workshops to direct supply line and train station access, Favre-Jacot's approach would eventually serve as one of the earliest examples of a truly modernized watch manufacturer.

The watchmaker would then move on to debut the pocket watch movement caliber named Zenith, for which it received a Grand Prix award in 1900. As an impactful moment and movement, the brand decided to change its name to Zenith not long after, in 1911. Zenith continued to gain momentum through the early 20th century, making its debut in the aviation space alongside French pioneer Louis Blériot in his daring flight across the English channel.

This led to military applications later on — stretching from the Mark V.A altimeter and issued wristwatches seen throughout the First and Second World Wars; all the way to the A Cairelli Tipo CP-2 chronographs issued to the Italian Air Force in the early 1960s. It was these watches, and the Martel Caliber 146 movement inside, that would subsequently give way to the El Primero automatic chronograph movement.

zenith watch
Zenith

The El Primero movement is Zenith's most enduring legacy

Shortly after acquiring the Martel Watch Company in 1960, Zenith set its sights on the ambitious concept of developing the first automatic chronograph movement. With Martel's technical capabilities now tossed into the mix, Zenith was ready to join the race alongside Seiko and the combined forces of Heuer, Breitling, Buren, and Dubois-Depraz. With all three debuting their respective products in 1969, you can be certain that who crossed the finish line first has proven to be a controversial topic among watch historians.

Zenith's entrant in this race took five years of development that culminated in the El Primero 3019PHC, and it was most certainly the world’s first high-frequency, automatic chronograph with a built-in calendar and accuracy of 1/10th of a second. Much like the Seiko 6139, it was not modular and in fact proved to be so compact that Rolex would later select the Zenith El Primero as the movement of choice in its Daytona.

Sadly, like many brands during the Quartz Crisis, Zenith would eventually find itself facing financial hardships and tumult. (At one point, the special machinery and knowhow to produce the El Primero movement was even ordered destroyed but saved by a subversive Zenith engineer who heroically hid them in an attic). The company was sold off to the Zenith Radio Corporation in 1971 and eventually to LVMH in 1999. All these achievements and vicissitudes, however, have given collectors seeking both the iconic and the obscure much to discover from Zenith.

zenith watch
Zenith

Collectors love the El Primero, but that's not all

Considering its history, it should come as no surprise that there is a vibrant and enthusiastic community of El Primero collectors focused on vintage and contemporary variants. But when it comes to vintage, Zenith is just one of those brands with a near-endless selection of treasures from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Lesser-known watches like the Zenith Defy A364x and El Primero A384 come to mind, and have recently served as the inspiration behind some of Zenith's most recent catalog releases.

Outside of the vintage market, Zenith offers a healthy range from high-end, heritage-driven releases all the way to their hyper-technical and stylistically modern Defy series. Zenith refers to the latter as a "breeding ground for the future of traditional Swiss watchmaking." Let's break down their core modern collections and see if we can find the Zenith watch for you.

Zenith Watches Buying Guide

Chronomaster

Zenith's current Chronomaster collection serves as the new home for all things El Primero. Here, you can find anything from faithful recreations of the most groundbreaking originals to the more obscure El Primero-equipped models of the 60s and 70s. With such a deep focus on their key achievement, Zenith also showcases new designs flaunting the El Primero, with a modern touch. Several of which stand as formidable competitors to modern offerings from the likes of Rolex, Omega, TAG Heuer, and others.

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Zenith Chronomaster Original
$8,400.00

If you're looking for Zenith's most current and faithful recreation of the famous A386 that helped debut the El Primero, this is it. It features the unmistakable tri-color dial, the latest iteration of the El Primero movement, and a wearable 38mm case. Thankfully, Zenith has diversified the designs a bit, offering a range of dial colors along with strap and bracelet options. And for the even more ambitious collectors, the range includes several boutique exclusives and limited editions.

Diameter: 38mm
Movement
: El Primero automatic
Water Resistance: 50m
Price
: $8,400–$19,100

Zenith Chronomaster Revival
$8,400.00

With a focus on long-discontinued and lesser-known designs peppered throughout the brand's past, the Chronomaster Revival series presents a more whimsical side to Zenith. The line-up of A384 chronographs, with their angled tonneau case design, encapsulates the brand's earlier desires to bust into the 70s with a knockout design. Like the Chronomaster Original series, there's no shortage of colorways and limited editions to choose from.

Diameter: 37mm
Movement
: El Primero automatic
Water Resistance: 50m
Price
: $7,900–$10,400

Zenith Chronomaster Sport
$10,000.00

Poised to take on today's titans of modern, luxury chronograph watches, Zenith packs the Chronomaster Sport collection with designs seeking to carry on the El Primero tradition in a contemporary setting. Here, you'll find the El Primero flanked by modern materials like ceramic, and even a rose gold option. It seems like a natural progression for Zenith and showcases the brand's curiosity behind their more modern designs.

Diameter: 41mm
Movement
: El Primero automatic
Water Resistance: 100m
Price: $9,500–$21,300

Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Open
$9,000.00

For those looking for a glimpse of the famous movement or just a generally more avant-garde style, Zenith offers the El Primero Open lineup. This collection delivers a variety of models with partially-opened dials that allow the wearer to see the inner-workings of the El Primero movement. Specifically, we're taking about the high-frequency escapement operating at 5Hz — an undeniably mesmerizing sight for the nerdiest of watch nerds.

Diameter: 42mm
Movement
: El Primero automatic
Water Resistance: 100m
Price: $9,000–$19,100

Pilot's Watches

Inspired by Zenith's ties to some of the earliest days of aviation, the brand's Pilot collection presents designs that call back to their cockpit instruments and wristwatches meant for pilots. These designs highlight Zenith's position on what many collectors look for in a big, bold pilot watch. From chronograph options to bronze (and even silver) cases, this collection shows a lesser-known side of Zenith for those that aren't necessarily looking for the more typical iterations of El Primero watches.

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Zenith Pilot Type 20
$7,400.00

Based on the their historical Type 20 Montre D’Aéronef hand-wound cockpit clock, the Zenith Type 20 and Type 20 Chronograph watches deliver a broad range of options for anyone seeking modern pilot models with a twist. Boldly sized, both the time-only and chronograph watches serve up a fair bit of dial colors, case materials and straps for a look that still results in something unmistakably-Zenith.

Diameter: 45mm
Movement
: Zenith Elite (three-hand) or El Primero (chronograph) automatic
Water Resistance: 100m
Price
: $7,400–$10,000

Defy

Carbon, sapphire, brushed titanium, platinum — you name it. This is where Zenith goes to push the envelope when it comes to case materials, dials, movement technology and more. On the movement side, it should be no surprise that this collection houses Zenith's most modern takes on tourbillons, fusee & chain constant force mechanisms and what Zenith calls a "gyroscopic gravity control regulating organ module" built into a modern iteration of an El Primero. It's here where you'll find Zenith's most groundbreaking horological feats that stack up to designs from the likes of Hublot, Audemars Piguet and others.

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Zenith Defy Skyline
$8,400.00

One of the most recent designs unveiled at the start of 2022, the Defy Skyline features a time-only version of the 5Hz El Primero movement, evidenced by the 9 o'clock display doing a full lap every ten seconds. It comes in white, blue and black dial variants and sports an integrated bracelet and angular case design, evoking those heavily '70s watchmaking themes made famous by certain other brands — but which aren't as fun to hunt for in today's market.

Diameter: 41mm
Movement
: Zenith El Primero 3620 automatic
Water Resistance: 100m
Price: $8,400

Zenith Defy El Primero 21
$13,500.00

Bringing a high-frequency, standalone 50Hz timekeeping module to the El Primero family, the Defy 21 series shows off Zenith's most comprehensive range of watches that measure time to a hundredth of a second. These modern iterations of the El Primero offer the greatest diversity in terms of case material, strap/bracelet options and dial colors. So whether it's a matte white ceramic case with pink, orange and green accents or a hulking 44mm titanium case with diamonds, this collection has got it.

Diameter: 44mm
Movement
: Zenith El Primero 21 automatic
Water Resistance: 100m
Price
: $12,500–$47,300

Zenith Defy Extreme
$18,000.00

Like the Defy 21, the Defy Extreme collection comes with the same El Primero 21 movement but in a larger case size. These models come in at some of the largest sizes available in the Defy lineup, but with easy-wearing titanium cases and rubber strap options for added comfort. It's an undeniably aggressive look that represents Zenith’s move forward into more stoic, modern designs powered by a version of their cornerstone movement.

Diameter: 45mm
Movement
: Zenith El Primero 21 automatic
Water Resistance: 200m
Price
: $18,000–$27,100

Zenith Defy Zero G
$102,800.00

For the collector who finds something like a regular old tourbillon too passé, Zenith's got you with the Defy Zero G. It's here where we find the brand turning to features like open-worked dials with meteorite and Aventurine; and sapphire, gold and brushed titanium cases. The star of the collection is Zenith's gyroscopic module, which works much like the escapement of a 19th century marine chronometer — emulating the effects of the watch being mounted within a stabilized, multi-axial carriage.

Diameter: 44mm or 46mm
Movement
: Zenith El Primero 8812 SK hand-wound
Water Resistance: 100m
Price
: $102,800–$159,700

Elite

In what almost seems like a callback to the traditional design set forth by the Zenith caliber pocket watch back in 1900, the Elite collection highlights a more classic, subdued side of the Zenith catalog. Here you'll find more modest, mid-20th-century-inspired designs with basic calendars, time-only displays and beautifully-executed moon phase complications. If there's anything that serves as an antidote to the brash designs of the Defy lineup, you'll find it tastefully nestled within the Elite collection.

Zenith Elite Classic
$6,000.00

Available in 36mm and 40mm case sizes, the Elite Classic and Moonphase models show off Zenith's take on a classic dress watch. The sunray-patterned dials, slim proportions and moonphase displays come in an array of combinations that'll work for a diverse set of enthusiasts. Above all, a fully in-house movement powers each variant — crafted with the same focus behind accurate timekeeping seen in Zenith's El Primero range.

Diameter: 36mm or 40mm
Movement: Zenith Elite automatic
Price: $6,000–$17,000

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