Zenith El Primero Chronomaster

Archives September 24, 2002 admin

The Stainless-Steel Zenith

El Primero Chronomaster

Posted by Justin Time, from Timezone forum

The first time I saw the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster, I could hardly believe my eyes: I get this incredible watch, a chronometer certificate, and a five-year warranty for less than $3,000? Though the Zenith is not sold in the US-copyright conflict with the electronic firm of the same name-it is surprisingly popular with watch-enthusiasts on TimeZone. Their praises prompted me to purchase a stainless-steel model. A year later, I still treasure the watch. I wear it often because it is so versatile. The Zenith Chronomaster strikes the right balance between a dress watch and a sports chronograph. Zenith cuts a few corners to hold the cost down-e.g., the finish is a notch below the best-making this watch one of the best values in world-class chronographs. If you are looking for a sports chronograph and a dress watch in one, this gem may be perfect for you. With the great El Primero movement, you also get a triple calendar and a moonphase, with nary a threat to your
credit-card limit.

REFERENCE: # 01 0240 410.

CASE: 38.6 mm wide, 13.5 mm thick; large exhibition window.

DIAL: month, day, date, and moonphase; three registers (8.4 mm diameter). WEIGHT: 72 grams with leather strap.


The Zenith grows on you. Instead of the crisp look of the IWC Flieger, or the sporty flair of the Rolex Daytona, the Chronomaster strives for balance and versatility, and succeeds! The style is decidedly old-fashion; the round case, dauphin hands, and plain markers are finished in polished stainless-steel; the dial is silver. While falling short of the best in legibility- the IWC Flieger and the Bell & Ross/ Sinn GMT set a tough standard here-the Chronomaster possess a quiet elegance that is endearing. The finish is a step below the very best, but still excellent. With a triple-step bezel, the Zenith cuts a trimmer figure than the Rolex Daytona which houses a similar El Primero movement.* Next to the imposing IWC Doppel Chronograph, or the mammoth Royal Oak Offshore, the Zenith Chronomaster looks more like a dress watch than a modern chronograph with its grooved lugs, flat crown, and short buttons. Too tamed for you? Take a quick peek through the huge sapphire
window: your pulse will quicken!


The El Primero calibre 410 is the heart and soul of the Chronomaster. It sings to the tune of 36,000 beats per hour, or 10 tics per seconds, or really a smooth glide. First produced in 1969, the El Primero is still considered by many the best mechanical chronograph movement. “The Zenith is a classically constructed movement where the chrono-functions are integrated and steered by a column-wheel, which again follows the steps of classic watch-making,” said the knowledgeable Hans Zbinden. The calibre 410 is thick compared to the 1994 Zenith Elite (6.5 mm vs. 3.3 mm), but thinner than the Valjoux 7750 (7.9 mm), or the Lemania 5100 (8.25 mm), two movements that drive most modern chronographs. The calibre 410 sports 31 rubies, 354 parts, a triple calendar (month, day, date), a moonphase, 50 hours of power reserve, and of course the complete chronograph functions. You half expect this watch to also brew coffee and dispense draft beer! A lot of bang for the


On my wrist, the Zenith (certified chronometer) runs +3 to +4 seconds a day with the chronograph off. Others on TimeZone reported +1 and + 2 seconds precision. Being a fairly active person, I have no trouble keeping the Zenith fully wound, but I have read complaints that this is fairly hard to do. When low on power, the watch runs slower than the chronometer rating. If you have this problem, I recommend winding the watch fully (45 to 60 seconds) before wearing to ensure consistent performance. In a casual comparison, I found the Zenith rotor more sluggish than the rotor on the IWC Flieger, and the Bell & Ross/Sinn GMT (both Valjoux 7750). Some TimeZoners also reported that the Chronomaster was very sensitive to positions when low on power. Again, I have not witnessed this behavior with my own watch.

The Zenith Chronomaster feels different from a Valjoux 7750. For one, the Zenith is hard to wind. The flat crown may be esthetically pleasing, but it digs into your fingers. I much prefer a big, fat screwed-down crown which would improve the grip, and water-resistance. To adjust the time, you pull the crown out one notch, not two like in most watches. The hands on my Chronomaster are surprisingly hard to move-too much friction on the cannon pinion? By comparison, my Girard-Perregaux GP 3900 chronograph feels effortless. What causes this difference? The design, or the poor finish on the Zenith? I will find out when I have the watch serviced. Fortunately, you don’t have to break a sweat to adjust the day and moonphase via the recessed push-buttons. I still wished that Zenith had supplied a tool. I used a tooth-pick! Not very elegant, but it worked. Another nit to pick: you cannot tell the two recessed buttons apart. So, if you mistakenly changed the day instead of the moonphase, you must complete the cycle!

I love the day, date, month and moonphase on the Chronomaster, a package that few watches offer. This alone justifies buying the Zenith for me. I don’t recall ever needing the phase of the moon, but I have an irrational love for that crescent shape on a watch. Unfortunately, my unaided eyes can read only the date. The minuscule day and month displays on the Chronomaster are a real challenge, even with the bifocal to the rescue. The Zenith weighs only 72 grams with leather strap. This light weight and the short lugs are perfect for small wrists like mine. The leather strap with the Zenith logo on the buckle is elegant and comfortable. I do not care for the Zenith SS bracelet though; it looks…ordinary. I tried the IWC bracelet on the Chronomaster; it mated perfectly with the case, but not the lugs. Pity! Stick with the leather strap.


I probably sounded more critical of the Zenith than I really am. I love this watch! It is one of the few bargains from Switzerland. It has a great movement. And if you love features, “all resistance is futile.” The styling choice robs some legibility, but more than makes up in versatility. The Chronomaster in gold with white-enamel dial fares better in legibility. To get the great Zenith movement in different guises, check out the unusual Ebel Chronograph (ref. 4134901), or the exquisite Daniel Roth sports chronograph. Unfortunately, either watch in plain stainless-steel costs three times the Zenith Chronomaster, and offers no day, month, or moonphase. At that price, you can buy a “gold” Zenith, a stainless-steel Omega Seamaster Pro Diver, and have enough spare change to service both watches. It gives you pause, doesn’t it?

Justin Time

*Rolex heavily modifies the El Primero 400 in the Daytona. Rolex buys the raw ébauches from Zenith, without the balance assembly, jewels, or plate finishing. The Daytona uses Rolex balance assembly, which includes the Glucydur balance wheel, Breguet hairspring, pallet set, and drive train wheels. With Rolex own balance assembly, the beat is changed to 28,800 bph. The Zenith ébauche is delivered to Rolex without the calendar assembly. These changes may be motivated by the need for internal consistency in servicing all Rolex, or a desire to improve quality and/or reliability, or all of the above. But this is only a guess.