Review of Zenith El Primero HW Chronograph

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Model # 02-500-420-04-M501

Brand/Model:  Zenith El Primero HW Chronograph
Movement:  Swiss in-house hand wind chronograph
Material:  stainless steel case and bracelet
Complications:  date display, chronograph timing in one-fifth second increments up to 12-hours
Price:  MSRP:  $4,600 USD; street price NOS around $2,800 USD

Plenty of photos follow the review.  Click on the pictures to enlarge. 

Zenith.  The name evokes images of the pinnacle, the top, the best.  Zenith is a storied Swiss watch company that produces all of its movements in-house.  I wanted a Zenith for no other reason than that it’s an iconic brand amongst the Swiss watch cognoscenti and deserves a spot in my collection.  I must admit that I find most of the current Zenith models to be rather garish and overly styled and I’m not much on the ‘open-heart’ design that seems so prevalent in their newest models.  I longed for a more classic Zenith model and once I began investigating what was available in my price range, the choice was easy:  The El Primero Hand Wind Chronograph, which has been discontinued.  This model was part of the ‘Class’ Series produced for more than several years.

Along with the name Zenith, the El Primero movement is as storied as the Zenith name itself.  Produced over decades in many variations, this movement is perhaps the most iconic Swiss chronograph movement there is.  Running as a column wheel design at the high-beat frequency of 36,000 vph, this movement exhibits superior time keeping capability and a smooth second hand sweep.  Since a high-beat movement takes more energy to run, Zenith also engineered a higher power reserve for these models.  As an example, the hand wind Caliber 420Z movement in my El Primero will run nearly 57 hours on a full wind.  Impressive.

The proportions of the El Primero HW (‘HW’ for short from here on out) are nearly perfect.  Smaller than the current crop of oversized 42mm+ watches, the fully polished stainless steel HW case measures 39.8mm without the signed crown, about 42.7mm with crown.  The watch is surprisingly thin (as a hand wind there is no rotor to take up space) at 11.5mm, with 20mm lug spacing.  Classic and appropriately sized for the gentlemen amongst us.  The pushers are great rectangular shaped with rounded corners (ovalish).

The sapphire crystal is slightly domed and has anti-reflective coating on it.  The caseback is snap on (to me a disappointment at this pricepoint) with a display back to show off the snazzy Caliber 420Z movement.  The watch is factory rated at 100 meters of water resistance.

The Caliber 420Z is a 25-jewel hand winder chronograph.  Winding action is smooth and positive, the watch runs perfectly and since it does not hack, I haven’t timed it to the second, but it runs as to be expected from such a tried and true movement.  As stated previously, power reserve is lengthy at 56 hours, 50 minutes timed on my testing bench.  Chronograph functions start, stop and reset to zero properly and the sound the chrono makes when started or stopped has that classic hand-wind click or crunch to it.

The 420Z movement is suitably decorated with a few blued screws here and there but not highly decorated with Geneva stripes or perlage.  Nonetheless, it’s a joy to look at through the display back.  As a matter of curiosity, Zenith charges about $630 USD for a complete movement service on this watch.  The ‘Z’ suffix represents the latest iteration of this movement; apparently about ten years ago, Zenith replaced their original machine equipment that was being used to produce the parts for this movement and the resulting ‘Z’ suffix represents movements made with the new equipment.

The HW came in black dial and cream dial selections.  Both versions are very handsome.  The dial is convex at the edges, with the tips of the hour hand and chrono second hand curved as well to match the convex dial edge.  The dial features vintage-style lumed arabics and simple lume-filled pointer style hands in silver (but that look black in many lighting situations).  Same for the hands on the chronograph subdials, they look black but are actually silver.  Lume quality is good.

The subdial at 9 is the watch seconds hand.  The subdial at 6 is the chronograph 12-hour totalizer and the subdial at 3 is the chronograph 30-minute totalizer.  The main center second hand is the chronograph’s second hand, which is silver with a very subtle red tip.  A tachymeter scale runs around the perimeter of the dial.  The shade of cream that my HW dial exhibits is very pleasing, not too creamy, but not white, either.  I think it adds to the vintage style look of this watch.

The quickset date is located at the 4:30 mark and here are two interesting facts about this function.  Look closely and you’ll see that Zenith continued the seconds markings from the dial on the inside edge of the date window.  Pretty slick.  Also, this quickset date is set by pulling the crown out to the second position instead of the first position as with most quickset mechanisms.  The time is set at the first position.

The stainless steel bracelet is polished and brushed, with a five-link arrangement reminiscent of a jubilee design.  The end links are solid, but for some reason, Zenith elected not to use standard spring bars to secure the bracelet to the case.  Instead, they drilled the lugs and use a push-pin design that results in the push pin not seating fully flush with the drilled lug holes.  This is cheap in my opinion and gets demerits from me.  The bracelet links are suitably thick, and almost seem a tad too thick for the svelte case dimensions and overall thickness of the watch itself.

The bracelet is continuous length with a pushbutton butterfly clasp that is signed, polished and machined, but still looks and feels somewhat cheap.  The bracelet measures 20mm at the lugs and tapers to 17mm at the clasp.  If there’s any place this watch disappoints, it would be the bracelet, it just doesn’t seem to measure up to the vaunted quality that Zenith is known for.

Presentation is very nice, with a two-piece offset outer box and a low-profile inner box with removable gold tone Zenith emblem.  The instruction manual resembles a brochure.

Overall, the El Primero HW is a watch you buy because of its movement, plain and simple.  The watch itself has great proportions and if you want a true in-house movement from a storied and well-respected Swiss watchmaker, this Zenith won’t disappoint.  Most HWs on the market are used, as this model was discontinued several years ago, although supplies of NOS (new old stock) pieces can be found if you look hard enough.  A worthy quest, as this watch is worth its value on its name alone.

Pros:  storied in-house El Primero movement, storied Zenith name, 36,000 vph frequency, long power reserve, appropriate dimensions

Cons:  non-hacking movement, bracelet seems cheap in some regards, push pins instead of spring bars to secure bracelet to case, snap on caseback

Verdict:  if you want to get a watch with a real in-house movement without breaking the bank that also has true Swiss lineage and cache, the Zenith El Primero HW is your pick.  Nothing frivolous here, which is exactly the point.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the pictures.

Excelsior!

-Marc

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