In its defense, that is probably how it should be. The El Primero deserves respect as the reliable, high-performance engine does in a 911, and not as a screamer from a low-mileage, scarcely used, fragile hypercar. It is no joke that the chronograph belongs with the royalty among mechanical complications – the key difference, though, is that while tourbillons, chiming watches, and most others are widely (and deservedly) considered to be rather fragile and delicate, a mechanical stopwatch remains a tool. You press on the pusher, and you expect to hear a reassuring click and see the seconds hand start every single time, with the same precision and reliability. Pair that with a price point that is actually not out of this world, and what you should end up with is a visually appealing, reliable, refined movement – like the Zenith El Primero 400.
Okay, thus far, we have established that the movement has its novel features and pairs impressive aesthetics with solid reliability – so what about the rest of the package? The Zenith El Primero Original 1969 comes in a 38mm-wide stainless steel case (100M water resistant), with proportions that, over the couple of weeks I have spent with this watch on the wrist, never failed to disappoint. It truly is rare for a watch to look good (Good? Stunning!) with any outfit, in any lighting, under any circumstance I paired it with – and this one is among those few. There is no way around it: the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 looks as though it is much, much more expensive than it actually is. Over the last few months, I have reviewed watches up to 20 times the price of this and – while from a professional point of view this may be negligible, it is worth mentioning, nonetheless – for those who only judge a watch by the way it looks on the wrist, the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 fooled many into believing it to be much more expensive than its actual price.
Don’t get me wrong, the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 is not cheap by any stretch of imagination. So, let’s see how it works if you’re looking for one watch to rule them all – one to reward yourself with, and only one to wear under most all circumstances (perhaps pro-level sports notwithstanding). Well, what is for sure is that you would have to be able to appreciate the more modest size of 38mm – when I strapped it around my 6.75″ wrist, the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 displayed some genuinely terrific proportions: it was that timeless, ever-green, never-fading perfect size, that you know will not fade with fashion and trends, nor will it look ridiculously big or small 3, 5, 10, or 20 years from now.
The dial, exposed under a raised (and amply AR-coated) sapphire crystal of the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 remains visually similar to that of the original – although it is true that some changes have been made. The triple sub-dial chronograph layout is the same, and so is the presence of the date at 04:30 – gone, though, is the 100 unit scale on the periphery of the dial, the Zenith El Primero designation at 12 is a bit different and, perhaps most noticeably, the way the three sub-dials overlap is the other way around now. That means that while on the Zenith El Primero A386 from 1969, the running seconds at 9 and the chronograph 30-minute counter at 3 were “on top” of the 12-hour counter at 6, for the new “Original 1969,” that is the other way around.
Legibility remains excellent thanks to the large, faceted hands which reflect light beautifully, sport some luminescent material (nothing to write home about but sufficient), and contrast well against the colorful backdrop which the high-quality dial provides. Everything on the dial screams quality, there are no loopholes like on the movement: the applied indices reflect light in a constantly changing and diverse way, the hands look fantastic, and the red chronograph seconds in the center just makes the whole thing pop. The dark-grey, light-grey, and blue sub-dials make the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 easy to pair with nearly any outfit – you can rock this thing with some colorful NATO straps just as well as you can on the beautiful brown leather strap.
Wearing comfort is, of course, excellent as the 38mm-wide, 12.45mm thick case sits tall, but is never too thick on the wrist, while the brown alligator with the Zenith folding clasp is the icing on the cake. You really can tell Zenith simply couldn’t afford to make a mistake with this piece: it is as much of an extremely important flagship model in their collection as it is a beautiful watch with plenty of historical importance to boot. As such, the strap complements the overall design well and ensures that straight out of the box, the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 will look right at home on the wrist, regardless of whether you decide to pair it with jeans and Converse, or a suit and handmade brogues.
The primary reason why the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 stands out from the absolute majority of other chronograph watches in this sub-$10,000 price segment is because it is such a complete package: timeless, iconic design meets unique in-house movement and wonderful, versatile everyday wearability. While you may perhaps find alternatives matching or beating the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 in one of these aspects, you will certainly find it very difficult indeed to pick something that works as such a strong and complete package. Last but not least, if you are looking for a watch to actually wear and keep for a long time – as your only watch, or one of many – you will want to consider that the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 will stay on top of fading fashion trends: its looks will always make it a tasteful, beautiful watch (arguably on the dressier end of the spectrum), while its movement will never be anything else but a technical marvel with historical significance.
Price for the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 is $8,600 on the leather strap and there is also a version on the steel bracelet available at $9,100. zenith-watches.com
>Model: El Primero Original 1969
>Price: $8,600 as reviewed
>Size: 38mm wide
>Would reviewer personally wear it: Yes
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: People looking for a classical looking, versatile chronograph, and are willing to pay the premium for the in-house movement
>Best characteristic of watch: Genuinely beautiful proportions, timeless design
>Worst characteristic of watch: Changes made to sub-dial overlay seem unreasonable; no hacking seconds.