Watch Snob On Why the Zenith El Primero Should Be On Your Radar

Watch Snob On Why Zenith Shouldn’t Be Overlooked

Watch Snob On Microbrand Buying, and The Lure of Zenith’s El Primero

Zenith Watches


I’ve recently been fascinated by Zenith, who  while distracted by a few showpieces — produce many incredible designs: the Defy Classic and the Chronomaster especially stand out to me. The brand’s history is impressive and their movements seem to offer a lot of value for the money. Do you think much of the brand? I’m seriously considering the Defy as the next addition to my collection.

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The history of Zenith has been quite complicated in recent years — in the early 2000s it was a company which, having just been purchased by LVMH, became an extremely odd attempt at flamboyantly extravagant high-end watchmaking under an equally flamboyantly extravagant CEO who had a penchant for posing at flamboyantly extravagant parties with a falcon on his wrist. The company has always seemed to me ever since to be torn in two separate directions — on the one hand, there are a number of watches that are still exercises in, well, flamboyant extravagance and which moreover suffer from sharing more stylistic features than is good for them, with Hublot (I admire many things about Jean-Claude Biver, without whom the modern horological landscape would look very different, but he did have a tendency in my view to repeat himself a bit when it comes to design).

On the other hand, the brand has also been a vehicle for some interesting experiments in escapement design in recent years and it also still makes a number of more sober timepieces which follow on very clearly from the original El Primero, which was one of the very first generation of selfwinding chronographs all the way back in 1969.

Nowadays as so many brands have a tendency to have a rather scattershot portfolio, I have become less doctrinaire than in former days about rejecting a brand wholesale because they have a few product families that I don’t care for; one must simply take the good and ignore the bad, and the Chronomaster El Primero 38mm, which is very much like the original El Primero watch, is as fine a watch as a fellow could want. Of the three first self-winding chronograph movements from 1969, it’s the only one still in production as well — a real piece of history.


Lemania Movements


I ride a scooter or bike to work and use also various public transportation services to my office. My intern job sometimes requires me to visit tropical forests and mountains and for that I have only relied on my daily die-hard watch, which is a Sinn EZM 1. During weekends I wear an Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch 861. I am now thinking of having another chronograph watch to substitute for my EZM 1 that I will keep in my drawer and wear less frequently, knowing of its limited production. My budget is maximum $8,000  what possible watch with a Lemania movement could I get? I do appreciate your recommendation.

I’m not entirely sure from your missive what you have in mind — if you are in fact, limiting yourself to Lemania movements and you want a modern, new watch, your choices are severely limited as Lemania no longer exists as an independent entity. It is now Manufacture Breguet, and that is what it has been called for many years; you can still get a movement from the Lemania era in, for example, the Vacheron Constantin Cornes de Vache but that is an extremely expensive watch, well over your budget.

Your choices in general if you wish an in-house chronograph movement, at that budget, are a bit limited (moreso of course if you want an automatic chronograph; there are options from Grand Seiko and Seiko, Omega, Rolex and perhaps one or two others, but in general the cost of producing a chronograph movement means that for it to be affordable at under $10,000, it has to be produced in fairly large numbers.

However, another reader this week has mentioned a watch I think is very much worth looking at, if you have not considered it already and rejected it for reasons you don’t mention. That watch is the Zenith El Primero. As I wrote back to him, the company has produced some quite out-of-character, not to say downright bizarre, watches over the last decades but the basic El Primero remains one of the most distinguished, and rightfully respected, watches and chronographs of the last fifty years.


Oak & Oscar Olmsted 38


Help me understand if the $1,500 list price of the new Oak & Oscar Olmsted 38 (steel bracelet) is worth the price. I’ve read about the ETA 2892A2 movement and that sounds like a solid choice. But is the rest of the watch worth 1/4 the cost of an Explorer? Or should this be more in the $700-800 range? It’s difficult for me to commit with no chance to handle it prior to buying.

I am not terribly familiar with the watch in question — I’ve never seen one in person so unfortunately I can’t offer an informed, first-person perspective. I will say that whomever designed it seems to have been willing to put more than the usual amount of thought, into the watch — the typefaces, use of color, and general look seem to be the result of someone who actually cares about watches, which is more than you can say for many timepieces at this price point.

The reason the watch costs what it costs is of course because that is what the owners want to charge for it, and from what I can tell, the company does reasonably well so its watches appeal to some folks. The lower production numbers relative to a larger company have something to do with the premium you’re paying, but my impression is that this is really a watch for someone who likes the design, wants something a little different, and feels a sense of connection to its aesthetics. On those criteria I don’t find the price out of line particularly — look here, I wouldn’t buy one, but I also see no reason why someone who likes the design oughtn’t to buy one.

Send the Watch Snob your questions at editorial@askmen.com or ask a question on Instagram with the #watchsnob hashtag.

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