Zenith Chronomaster Open

I’ve struggled to write this review because I’ve struggled to find flaws with the Zenith Chronomaster Open. Not that there aren’t critiques, and not that a review can’t be a full-on gushfest. I’m just so accustomed to watches—at every price point and of every type—having some shortcomings, and while the Chronomaster Open may not be for everyone, in my estimation, it seems to do everything it’s doing very well. There’s a very minor nit I’ll pick later, but overall, my time with this watch was one of being impressed every time I put it on. While I never had the pleasure of experiencing the previous iteration of the Chronomaster Open, it seems to me that Zenith has gone right ahead and knocked it out of the park with this updated version and its smaller case and new movement.

The original Chronomaster Open was released in 2003 and has been in continuous production since, with a number of variants and special editions (like this Rolling Stones version). While the preceding iterations weren’t without their fans (it took home a GPHG prize in 2004), after 20 years (its longevity alone is testament to its popularity—at least insofar as it wasn’t a financial dud for the company), the model line was in need of a meaningful update. The result of Zenith’s redesign isn’t a complete makeover that’s resulted in an unrecognizable watch that simply shares its forebear’s name, though. These are subtle but meaningful changes: a more refined dial aperture, the newest El Primero caliber, and a case that reflects modern sizing preferences.

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The new case sees the Zenith Chronomaster Open reduced to a much more manageable 39.5mm, with a 13.1mm thickness, quite good for an automatic chronograph and thinner than comparable offerings from TAG and Omega. The case design is similar to that of other modern Chronomasters, with a gently curving profile that sees its sides polished and top brushed. The chamfer between the two is also polished and has been widened a bit from the previous generation. The entirety of the bezel, too, is polished. Frankly, for a sports watch—all chronographs may not be sports watches, but the Chronomaster collection certainly is—this one is a bit heavy on the shininess, which constantly gave me pause when it was on the wrist. Heck, even the pushers and branded crown are polished! In any case, the experience on the wrist is one that I truly enjoyed. The proportions, including the 45.2mm lug-to-lug, were simply perfect (for my 7-inch wrist), and the curvature of the lugs and the fitted bracelet made the transition to my wrist seamless. I also love the oblique ends of the lugs, which slope away from the case.

A few other notes on the case. The box sapphire that Zenith uses means that it has a slight vintage edge despite the rest of the design being decidedly modern; it also means that if they had gone with a flat sapphire, the watch likely would’ve clocked in under 13mm. Not a complaint, just an observation. The bracelet shares the dual finishing of the case, but in a more balanced way with brushed outer links and polished center links; the edges of the likes, too, are polished. The clasp regrettably lacks a built-in micro-adjustment mechanism, which is disappointing nowadays, with TAG, Rolex, and Omega all offering such tech. That said, once adjusted, the bracelet and its flip-lock closure were plenty comfortable.

The dial is really where the magic happens, though. You’ve got these lovely polished, dimensional applied indices (in fact, all the metal on the dial is polished). And you’ve got this white dial with a subtle luster. And of course, you’ve got the tricolor azurage (that’s the radial grooving) subdials, a nod to the original A386 El Primero. But wait—those aren’t how they normally look! That’s right, here we encounter the “Open” of the Chronomaster Open. The running second register at 9 o’clock has been replaced by a clear hesalite disc, while two other circles (overlapping like the registers) emerge from it to show the silicon escape wheel and the balance, swinging at a dizzying 10 beats per second. This is a serious aesthetic upgrade from the past iterations, which had a polished frame secured by dial-side blued screws and gave a far less attractive look at the inner workings. Now, though, the running seconds is usable, you get the colorful light show from the silicon escape wheel, and the mesmerizing swing of the balance. On top of that, Zenith opted to switch the bridge finishing to the same azurage seen on the subdials, creating greater cohesion within the dial.

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Of course, fitting the watch with the 1/10 chronograph Caliber 3600 may not have necessitated changing what the chronograph shows, but Zenith would be foolish not to put it out there. So, instead of a traditional chronograph hand and tachymeter ring, you get a horological whirling dervish of a hand whipping around the dial 10 times in a second and a scale to match (when it debuted the 3600 in the Chronomaster Original, the brand had the audacity to try to cram both tachymeter and 1/10 seconds scales in). The subdials are accordingly adjusted, from the original’s 60-minute at 3 and 12-hour counter at 9 to 60-second and 60-minute counters, respectively. For my part, I welcome a change. It’s more exciting for those very rare times when I’d actually use a chronograph (I’ve never “gone to the track”), and I feel that a one-hour register is far more practical than a 12-hour one. One other touch, I was quite fond of was the black fill on the tails of the back ends and tips of the hands, which bookend the lume (which is also on the indices, and adequate for a chronograph). I also like the offset logo, necessitated by the dial apertures. But perhaps most of all, I am gleeful for the lack of date. You can argue that it’s not a true El Primero without the wide-set, trapezoidal date window. And you’d be right. But I’d argue that historicity notwithstanding, 4:30 date windows are almost always terrible, and the El Primero’s has always struck me as especially egregious.

Seen through a sapphire caseback is the latest iteration of the El Primero movement, the Calibre 3604, a dateless variant of the modern Calibre 3600. Taking over for the legendary Calibre 400 that reigned supreme for decades (including in the Rolex Daytona), the 3600 series brought a slew of improvements to the El Primero. By linking the chronograph drive to the escape wheel itself (rather than the fourth wheel, as did the Calibre 400), the 3600 is able to time to the nearest 1/10 second. While the end of the gear train typically has the least amount of driving power left for such a task, Zenith employs a silicon star-spoked escape wheel and unique gear design to mitigate this issue and ensure that both the chronograph and the balance still receive sufficient energy.  The 3600 series maintains the El Primero’s hallmark 5hz rate (36,000vph) but sees the power reserve increased from 50 to 60 hours. And while this is not the most beautiful movement to look at, the custom rotor and blued column wheel of the chronograph mechanism offer a few treats, and the cutout base plate that allows for the dial aperture means you could, in theory, spy on someone through the caseback.

The Zenith Chronomaster Open is a superb example of how brands should revise a model: maintain the essence and general design but make meaningful improvements (not just changes) where you can and where it’s appropriate. As I said, I struggled to find things I didn’t like about this watch. More than just not being bad, by removing the date, it solved the main issue I’ve always had with the El Primero. On top of that, you get a clean, wonderfully executed dial aperture that sacrifices no functionality or legibility (alright, maybe the running seconds suffers, but who cares?), and a show-your-friends level of fun with the 1/10 seconds chrono hand. And it all comes in a much more manageable package! Really, what’s not to like here? The Zenith Chronomaster Open is priced at $10,000 USD and is available directly from brand boutiques or authorized dealers. For the same price, you can also opt for a black dial, or for $21,300, you can grab a solid 18k rose gold case with a blue strap. For more information, please visit the brand’s website.

Necessary Information:
Brand: Zenith
Model: Chronomaster Open (Ref 03.3300.3604/69.M3300)
Price: $10,000 USD
Size: 39.5mm-wide, 13.1mm-thick, 45.2mm lug-to-lug distance, 20mm lugs
When reviewer would personally wear it: I can’t think of a time not to wear this watch. Maybe any activity with significant damage potential, or water sports. But any other time, I’d be happy with this on the wrist.
Friend we’d recommend it to first: My best friend. And your best friend.
Best characteristic of watch: Execution of the open dial.
Worst characteristic of watch: Mediocre lume, I guess, but you know… whatever.

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