January 21, 2021
by Bilal Khan
Just released by Zenith is the brand new Chronomaster Sport, launching as a duo of ceramic bezel chronographs that feature the newly updated El Primero 3600 calibre. What we have with the Zenith Chronomaster Sport is a luxury chronograph with an attractive mainstream design but a movement that will impress even the most jaded or seasoned watch enthusiast. Equipped with a modern version of its “Striking 10th” movement, which allows the user to measure time down to 1/10th of a second, the Chronomaster Sport leans into what makes the high-beat El Primero so special.
As of late, the Zenith El Primero has been lacking options that land somewhere between the vintage-inspired Chronomaster Revival pieces and the highly contemporary, stylized Defy El Primero collection. Bearing a likeness to a distant cousin in the Rolex Daytona, these two debut Chronomaster Sport pieces are all Zenith once you take a closer look and appreciate the watchmaking prowess behind it. Though it draws inspiration from classic El Primeros, as well as the under-appreciated Zenith De Luca, the Chronomaster Sport does not go too far with the vintage theme, fortunately. Rather, we get an El Primero twist on the panda and reverse-panda dial chronograph with a new ceramic bezel and a thoroughly modern movement at a starting price right around $9,500.
The El Primero 3600 Calibre is not entirely 100% new, as a version of it was released (let’s call it a soft launch) in the limited-edition Chronomaster 2 El Primero Striking Tenth from 2019 (the 50th anniversary of the El Primero, in case you forgot), but it is now being rolled out as a standard production calibre after some refinements.
A little background first, in case you’re unfamiliar with the “Striking Tenth” AKA foudroyante parlance that dates back to about 2010 (though Zenith first patented it in 2002) with the introduction of the calibre 4052. The high-frequency precision of the 36,000 vph El Primero has always theoretically allowed for measurements of time down to 1/10th of a second, but the issue was always how to realistically measure such a small increment of time on a watch. For the 4052, Zenith used a 100-tooth silicon wheel that would accelerate the chronograph hand to complete a rotation in 10 seconds instead of 60. By doing this, the one-second mark is where the ten-second mark would be on an ordinary chronograph. If you’ll recall back in 2012, Felix Baumgartner broke the sound barrier in free-fall when he jumped 38,969.4 meters while wearing a Zenith Stratos Flyback Striking 10th that was outfitted with the 4052.
The El Primero 3600 Calibre operates at 36,000 vph (5 Hz) and has several upgrades and modifications from the well-used El Primero 400 calibre. There are actually fewer parts at 314 compared to 326, which is due to technological developments as well as the fact that Zenith has optimized and streamlined its manufacturing process so as to reduce the variety of jewels, screws, and other components that go into assembly. Some major features that are immediately of note are the addition of a hacking seconds, quick-set date function, and a longer power reserve of 60 hours, up from 50.
The lateral clutch and enlarged column wheel are updated from the El Primero 400, and Zenith did a magnificent job of creating an unobstructed view of these parts engaging with one another. The lateral clutch has a patented system with two intermediate wheels instead of just one, with the escapement wheel powering the chronograph. Also, all the wheels have been individually improved and optimized down to the tooth to ensure proper torque. With blued screws and a blued, fully exposed column wheel, the El Primero 3600 Calibre also has a new satin-finished star-shaped rotor. A horological icon of a movement, the new refinements and finishings make it truly worthy of an exhibition caseback (which is high praise from me).
The stainless steel case of the new Chronomaster Sport measures 41mm-wide, 13.6mm-thick, and has a lug-to-lug height of just around 46.2mm, according to my calipers. For the sake of comparison, the Rolex Daytona is 40mm-wide, 12.5mm-thick with a 46.6mm lug-to-lug height, and the new Omega Speedmaster Professional is 42mm-wide, 13.2mm-thick with a 47mm lug-to-lug height. Available in either a black lacquer or white matte dial, the Chronomaster sport has 100M of water resistance
The case is nicely finished with beveled edges that extend past the lugs and down the brushed end-links of the bracelet. The new ceramic bezel is really the focus of attention, and it is finished on par with peers and some pricier alternatives. According to Zenith, this is the first time a 1/10 of a second display has been etched onto a ceramic bezel, and I’m fairly certain this holds true.
Leaning into the high-frequency El Primero movement is exactly the right move from Zenith. I would venture to say that most people buy luxury chronographs for reasons that have nothing to do with the functionality of that complication in measuring hour-long+ increments of time, so why not show off in a way nobody else can? It really is a sight to see the chronograph hand do a lap around the dial in just 10 seconds, and once we can socialize in person again, I have a feeling this will be a neat party trick at the next Redbar meetup. (I did record this with the intention of creating a gif, but an unfortunate technical issue got in the way. Sorry!)
Each of the three counters is finished with a guilloché outer ring and center with nice, long lumed hands. In the past, I have found the overlap of counters on El Primeros to be too much like a Venn diagram, and thankfully, they just barely graze over one another here. The El Primero color scheme shakes things up from the typical panda/reverse-panda dial, with the running seconds at 6 o’clock in gray, 60-minute counter at 6 o’clock in a darker slate, and the 60-second counter at 3 o’clock in blue. Note that the two chronograph registers have red-tipped hands.
The few limited-edition pieces that used the early El Primero 3600 calibre had the date indicator at 6 o’clock, which has been moved to 4:30 now. The date window matches the respective dial color, and though the same parts are used, Zenith reworked and optimized the date-disk to allow for easier variety and customization. The chronograph pushers are nice and solid, which is something that anyone who has operated an El Primero is familiar with. The unique and quirky mechanism allows the nerdy appeal of the El Primero to truly shine. In a sea of luxury chronographs, it’s not easy to stand out, but there is wonder and child-like joy in seeing that central chronograph hand do a full rotation around the dial in 10 seconds.
The bracelet is quite nice, though I really hope a micro-adjust becomes a standard feature in watches at this price point. This is an integrated bracelet that takes some inspiration from the Gay Fréres bracelets but keeps the polished central links much closer together. I think going full-Fréres wouldn’t have made sense, as that’s more for the revival pieces. The brushed end-links have polished beveling, which is a nice touch. Finally, the Zenith star adorns the folding clasp.
There is also a Cordura-effect rubber strap with steel deployant buckle option, though I only handled the bracelet models.
There are tons of luxury chronographs out there (Breitling comes to mind) but the new Speedy and the Daytona are top of mind. Starting with the former, right now there are over 400 Rolex Daytona 116500LN (with the ceramic bezel) pieces on Chrono24 and the cheapest s going for $25,799 with most well exceeding $30,000. Yes, that is both insane and inane. Honestly, even if you can get one for the $13,100 retail, I wouldn’t necessarily say the $3,000 premium over the Chronomaster Sport is a no-brainer.
As for the Speedy, here is how I see it: For any watch buyer with a love for space travel, the Omega Speedmaster is a category unto itself. Unfortunately, this still remains true for anyone whose passion for space travel tops off at “that’s pretty cool” and drops down to “hate.” ( I don’t know, maybe an astronaut rear-ended you. It’s a crazy world.) It’s fair to say that for anyone with basic knowledge of watches, or a regular watch blog reader when you buy a Speedmaster, you’re also buying space memorabilia. For someone like me, that feels inauthentic. And yes, I know the Speedy is an amazing watch quite apart from anything having to do with the moon, but the identities are far too tightly bonded for my taste.
I think Zenith nailed it here by pairing a classically great-looking watch with not just a quirky new take on the El Primero, but one that really shows off what this high-precision movement can do. The Zenith Chronomaster Sport is priced at $9,500 on strap and $10,000 on steel bracelet. You can learn more at zenith-watches.com.