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Old 2 February 2022, 04:53 AM   #1
Travelller
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Icon17 ​Zénith's A386 Manufacture Edition - A pictorial

​Zénith's A386 Manufacture Edition



click-the-pics for hi-res goodness


Life before El Primero
To the uninitiated, it would almost seem that Zénith, "branch of LVMH Swiss Manufactures SA" only came into existence with their uber-famous El Primero movement and watches. This is clearly not the case, the Manufacture's motto "The future of Swiss watchmaking since 1865" confirming our assumptions of a deeper history behind the name. Still, if we're asked about Zénith's accomplishments in horology prior to the El Primero, many of us will mention at most one other reference, be it the "Pilot" or that one with the cool Italian name on the dial... . And yes, that includes me too... . Hence, I thought it was high time for me to look a little deeper into Zénith's history and other accomplishments. Having recently turned my attention from Divers to Chronographs and compiling a rough timeline of all major milestones in the relatively short period of the [wristwatch] chronograph, I saw no obvious reason to [directly] associate Zénith with Chronographs prior to 1969 and the El Primero.


c/o Steve G.

Zénith was a leader, not in Chronographs, but in Chronometers. Big time. So before El Primero's savior, Charles Vermot became Zénith's great hero, there was Ephrem Jobin and the 135 Chronometer. This movement (with some fine-calibration from Zénith's Charles Fleck) received numerous Neuchâtel Observatory Chronometer Competition prizes in the 1950s. That's quite an achievement. Simultaneously, Jobin et al. also released an automatic movement, the 133 (incl. 133.8 & 71 variants). Watches using this movement are fondly referred to as a "bumper watch" as it used a variation of John Hardwood's 1928 bumper system. This was actually the first type of automatic* [wristwatch] where the oscillating weight did not completely rotate 360°, but bounced off a [base-] plate using springs. Hence, "bumper".
*In 1931, Rolex released their Oyster Perpetual, the well known 360° rotor weight that we are all very familiar with today.


c/o Steve W.

Then there's Zénith's Pilot ("Pilot's") watch. I'm not sure when the term came to be, but for Zénith, 1909 was their year as the first flight across the English Channel was accomplished by a one Louis Blériot wearing a Zénith wristwatch.* Eventually (~1928), such wristwatches would need to be large (~41mm), have large lumed numerals and lumed hands and have a large crown suitable for gloves. Zénith was one of several companies producing such watches, with (for example) Longines and Omega also in the game. In this era, there was no mention of "Pilot" on Zénith's dials, but some had the term "Special" in the lower-half of the dial (for reasons unknown to me). It was only in ~1954 that Zénith released a product line named Pilot and indeed had "Pilot" printed on their dials. They had little to do with [war-era] Pilot wristwatches but were designed with aviation fans/ travelers in mind.
*Louis Cartier's "Santos-Dumont" wristwatch was one of (if not "the") first pilot wrist-watches.

[IMHO] Zénith's real claim-to-fame in the aviation (& marine) business was not their wristwatches, but rather their cockpit clocks (as well as altimeters). In 1916, the British Royal Air Force were among Zénith's clients. They used Zénith's instruments for reconnaissance missions. Zénith also presented a cockpit clock for the French Defense's "Type 10 / B / 20" campaign, but without success. Zénith's resulting clocks were however the reason we saw the 58mm tribute "Pilot Montre d'Aéronef Type 20" released in ~2012. Powering it is the venerable 50mm 5011 movement, designed by J.-P. Gerber. In the 1960s Zénith would once again be graced with a Neuchâtel Observatory prize for the 5011! 2012 also saw the 48mm tribute "Pilot Montre d'Aéronef Type 20 GMT" which has the look of a war-era pilot watch.


c/o watchesbysjx

Zénith also offered Chronographs in their product line, but the movements were outsourced from a third-party, the [1911] Martel Watch Co. Martel was also the source of movements for Universal Watch, among other companies. Universal released their first Chronograph as early as 1917 and I imagine Zénith was not far behind. In fact, 1930 saw Martel, Universal & Zénith overseen by the same governing board. Both companies benefited from Martel during during the Chronograph's golden era, releasing well-known references like the "Compur" and "Tri-Compax". Perhaps even more popular (today) was Zénith's contribution to the military-watch segment with their Tipo CP-2 wristwatch for Italy's AMI & MM military branches, through the "A. Cairelli - Roma" distributor. This reference was powered by the 146DP*, based on Martel's 749 line of movements. Zénith's Tipo CP-2 was released not long after 1960, when Zénith made the strategic move of absorbing Martel and hence being in a perfect position to advance the development of the Chronograph. Zénith continued to provide 146DP-powered watches even after the release of the automatic chronograph. There were references with two registers just like the CP-2 and ones with three registers (146 HP). The A271 and A273 are wonderful examples of both.
*Zénith (-Martel) upgraded the 146D (renamed 146DP) with a Kif Shock, Glucydur balance-wheel and flat hairspring.


c/o Watch-Wiki


El Primero
Led by Raoul Pellaton in 1963, El Primero was Zénith's contender in a race to be the first "Automatic Chronograph". It's hard to believe that although both [wristwatch] complications had been around for at least 30 years, there was never an interest to combine them. I would venture to say that back then, thin & small were always on the requirements list for any new reference or movement. When the "interest" finally came, it was contagious. In the 1960s there were no less than three "projects" underway; the 3019 PHC (AKA El Primero) from Zénith & Movado (merging in 1969 to form "Movado-Zénith-Mondia" MZM), the consortium* behind the Caliber 11 or "Chronomatic" as well as Seiko with their caliber 6139. Amazingly, all three projects came to fruition in the same year, 1969. Worth noting is that Zénith developed the 3019 PHC from the ground up as a dedicated chronograph. Contrast this with the Chronomatic's modular construction. Conservation of (movement) space is one of the big wins here for the 3019 PHC. The El Primero was able to distinguish itself even further as it was the only competitor that beat at 36,000vph (5Hz). So while the El Primero could not be declared as the first Automatic Chronograph, Zénith was able to market it as: "The World's first high frequency, automatic, calendar-equipped chronograph"
*"Project 99" Group - Gérald Dubois & F.Berthoud of Dépraz / Hans Kocher & P. Marmier of Büren, Heuer-Léonidas & Breitling.



The basic* El Primero has gone on to have a long & prosperous life (as proven by the subject of this post) and still in use, alongside it's new progeny, the 3600. In 1985, re-classified from 3019 PHC to 40.0 and soon after to 400 (& 400Z), it's essentially remained the same with only modest updates. There was however the matter of a roughly 10-year gap thanks to the 1970s Quartz Crisis when the movement disappeared from sight ...literally. Enter the superhero who proverbially saved the day, none other than Charles Vermot. It's a fantastic story that's been recounted many times since by much better writers than myself, so I will spare you a watered-down version and suggest you Google him (should you've been hiding under a rock all this time...).
*I say "basic" because Zénith has developed numerous movements / movement variants that bare the El Primero name, such as their 2010 "Striking 10th" (4052B).



In 1969, Zénith released three different El-Primero-powered references; the tonneau-shaped A384, A385 and more classic-shaped A386. Of these three, the A386 had the most unique dial as it introduced(?) overlapping registers to create a unique and refreshing look. Furthermore, each register has a different color (light grey, dark grey & dark blue). The A386's dial has been the template for many of Zénith's contemporary releases and is now well-known among watch enthusiasts.

As to be expected, Zénith produced many references using the El Primero in the early 1970s, including the coveted A3818 "Cover Girl" and the esoteric A78x Defy chronographs. I'd be remiss not to mention the fact that Movado also took advantage of the 3019 PHC; take their Datachron (Datron) HS360 for example.




Manufacture Edition
Take the sublime 38mm, lightly-beveled-lug case of the original 1969 A386. Drop in the "basic" 400 movement, enclosed with a screw-down exhibition case and operated with a period-correct crown* and pushers. Top it off with an almost-identical dial, save for the colors of the registers, which are now all different subtle shades of blue. Add classic white-framed, black & lumed hour and minute hands. Most importantly, don't forget the red & lumed "paddle" chronograph-seconds hand. Cover it all up with a domed sapphire crystal and voilŕ, we have the Chronomaster Revival A386 Manufacture Edition.

Along with the SS A386 from the Jan. 2019 ​50th Anniversary set and the subsequent Mar. 2019 El Primero A386 Revivals, offered only in white, yellow & rose gold, the "A386ME" is as close as one can get to the original A386. Without going vintage, of course... . Not to mention the most economical variant. It does take a bit of effort (and courage) to obtain, having to go with Zénith's recently-established eCommerce platform. Zénith's pre- & post-COVID-19 plan was (will be) to sell them only to visitors of the actual Manufacture at Billodes 34, 2400 Le Locle. Who wouldn't want to visit their modern production facility, not to mention the famous attic where our aforementioned hero Vermot stashed away all the goodies needed to manufacture the movement! Alas, COVID-19 put a real damper on those plans, at least for now*... . In this sense, Zénith's online stores makes for a very helpful "plan B". As I mentioned above, it does require a bit of courage to order an expensive watch online, hoping that the financials go smoothly, that Customs won't be an issue, that the courier doesn't lose the parcel ...gasp. Assuming you and the watch get through all of that without a hitch, you then have to still pray that the watch itself has no issues, be it cosmetic or technical. Who wants to go through all of that, just to have to return it?
*Included with the eCommerce package were two tickets, signed by Julien Tornare himself, to visit the Manufacture, post-COVID!



Well I'm very pleased to say that it went very smoothly, not to mention, very quickly! The watch was shipped the day after payment was processed and arrived at my front door a few days after that. I did have a few questions prior to the purchase and I was quite satisfied with the support from their "Sales Team", having dealt with the same person from beginning to end. The watch was pristine cosmetically and provided excellent accuracy right out of the box (-1 ~ +3 average, checked in six positions). all hands are properly aligned as tested with both the 12:00 hand-alignment check as well as chronograph-hands alignment after a reset.

I'm also really impressed with Zénith's eCommerce packaging concept. the cardboard "shipping" box, sealed and wrapped with strapping bands is also akin to the "outer box" for the actual watch box as well as additional goodies. The actual watch box is designed like a hard-cover book (with an additional protective hard-cover). Apart from the warranty card, guarantee and quick-user guides, Zénith includes a little booklet depicting the story of our hero Vermot, with hand-drawn imagery. Along with that, there's an 8"x10" print of El Primero's major references, "drawn" by Zénith's own graphics/design team! Very cool.




The good, the bad and the...
With the ordering, shipping, packaging and condition covered, it's time to talk about the actual watch! The watch is a thing of beauty, from the timeless 38mm case, to the gorgeous dial and all the fixings one could want. I wouldn't say no to plexy, or the original logo on the crown but apart from that I can't think anything this reference needs. The A386ME comes with a stunning blue alligator strap lined with water-resistant rubber, complete with Zénith's star on the buckle. The original A386 was also delivered with a strap, hence a strap is the way to go. Still, I have my eye on the "ladder" bracelet that came with it's 1969 brethren, the tonneau-shaped A384 & A385. Beautiful watch, stunning strap, and one cool watch box.

There's no single watch in my humble collection that doesn't have at least one weakness. As a tool-watch, the A386ME can be a bit hard to read at times. In a dark environment (and from a minor distance) and despite the black tips, the white hands can at times blend into the background of the white dial. I find it hard to believe that the standard silver dial will fare all that much better. The lume is pretty good but not as good as my 2020 Caliber 321 Speedmaster, a drawback of the pure white "C1" SuperLuminova, which only has a 31% relative brightness yield, compared to the ivory-yellow "C3" used by the Caliber 321.

Then there's what I'd call a bit of a printing challenge with the rich blue overlapping sub-dials. Zénith has vastly improved the current production batch compared to the initial batch(es). The dial of the (assumed) prototype unit submitted to all the major press sites back in May of 2020 was a disaster. I'll let you go see for yourself. Fortunately, the problem's not really visible to the naked eye and you'll need proper lighting and a loupe (or a very accurate Smartphone) to see any potential anomalies.

Last but not least, you may have noticed that I've yet to touch upon Zénith's romantic tale of the long-lost Prototype dials... . Well, you can read more about my opinion below in the annex. Suffice it to say, you should want this watch because you find it visually appealing and for all the qualities it shares with it's 1969 roots. I think that the photos will more than whet your appetite for this reference ...!




Speaking of which ...
...remember to click-the-pics for hi-res goodness






The lumed "paddle" of the A386ME, just like the original 1969 A386...


~~~~

A column-wheel and lateral clutch operated chronograph

Note - Serial # is masked.

Racing at 36000vph / 5Hz


~~~~

Just look at that [case-] geometry...






A blue alligator strap makes for the perfect combo...


~~~~

A perfect companion as well as comparison, the 39.7mm Caliber 321 Speedmaster is barely larger in diameter...


Counting down from 42 to 41, 39.7 & 38mm...


A case study ...get it?


~~~~

...it's a bird, it's a plane, it's a book, it's a ...box!





~~~~


Annex: The Elephant in the ...Attic
If you caught any of the "Introduction" articles by the major watch-media sites or Zénith's own press release back in May of 2020, then you'll have seen the really cool imagery of the recently-discovered, long lost prototype dials with varying blue registers. It's a very touching and romantic tale indeed - what a wonderful piece of "found-treasure" such a dial makes!

A386ME-MarketingPhotos-1L (LARGE)

C/O Zénith

Let me be frank; I was longing for an A386 re-edition or "revival", as Zénith likes to label their tributes. The A386ME was the fifth such revival to be released and for me, the only obtainable (affordable) one. You may recall from above that Zénith first released a SS A386 from the Jan. 2019 ​50th Anniversary set and in Mar. 2019 El Primero A386 Revivals, offered only in white, yellow & rose gold. Cost aside, I would have opted for the SS A386 first and the WG A386 but again, not within my reach. So I was pretty excited when Zénith announced the A386ME - an affordable SS A386 "revival" and with a beautiful and special version of the original dial to boot! If I had a choice and this reference being my first and only Zénith, I would have opted for the original dial, simply because it accurately represents the original 1969 dial. That being said, this beautiful varying-blue colorway is gorgeous and just as enticing as the original colorway, if not more so. I also find the colorway goes really nicely with the traditional red seconds hand. That this dial was a prototype from the 60s (or 70s) was the proverbial cherry on top.

"Darn it, the cherry just fell off... oh well, it's still gonna be a treat!"

What am I rambling on about, you ask? This is my way of saying I still very much love the reference, despite my strong assumption that Zénith has fabricated this story of hidden dials!!! Ignorance is bliss and so was I when they released the story. It never occurred to me, not even for a second that such a prominent Manufacture might be spinning a tale purely for marketing purposes. O-M-G. No! Sigh... .

A386ME-MarketingPhotos-4L (MED)


It started when I stumbled upon a thread where everyone was saying in unison, "beautiful watch but what a BS story..." The first of the blissfully-ignorant demanding the grounds for this, only to be absolutely stunned that they didn't notice the "Swiss Made" dials. Dials that were [supposedly] printed in the 60s or early 70s, the era of Tritium and hence "T - Swiss Made - T" dials. I was also stunned but as a fan of Rolex divers I know that there was a "transition period" (at least for Rolex) where tritium-painted dials had yet to bare the "T". This was most likely due to (the usual) procrastination of the regulators that eventually made the new labeling a requirement. I nonetheless remained skeptical and started my own analysis, looking for variations between the original A386 dial and these "Prototypes". A quick inspection only revealed the lack of the "T" label but not long after it hit me; the font (typeface) used with the original dials (ALL original dials...) was "Serif" whereas these so-called "prototypes" were in "Sans-Serif" ...just like all contemporary dials... Q.E.D!

A386-Vintage-Watch-crop
~1969 A386; note the "serif" typeface (the letters have "feet")


A386ME-MarketingPhotos-1L-Crop
A crop of one of the "prototype" dials from Zénith's marketing pic (above) - note the contemporary typeface.


So here is Zénith, pulling a devious marketing stunt, and we are not amused! The only thing keeping me from making like Perezcope and shouting "SCANDAL!!!" on every Social-Networking platform is the remote possibility that despite it all, the dials did exist. It could be that Zénith did find some proof of prototype dials but as they were damaged beyond recognition, they decided to replicate aged dials for the purpose of achieving some enticing photographs. Or maybe somebody scribbled down their idea of varying-blue registers on a lunch-napkin found collecting dust in some corner of their legendary attic. It's not my primary intention to call them out on it, rather to re-affirm the point that...

...you should want this watch because you find it visually appealing and not because of some mystical tale of long-lost dials hidden in Vermot's attic... .


~~~~


p.s. ...well I'd say this qualifies as "visually appealing" ...
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Old 22 February 2022, 02:44 AM   #2
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What's this I hear...
...not enough pics? Ok then, here's another...


#BlueWatchMonday


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Old 23 February 2022, 11:28 PM   #3
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EPIC incoming post, thank you! So much information...and the photos! Very nice.

This watch is beautiful. Many congrats!
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Old 26 February 2022, 10:21 PM   #4
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Fantastic write up

Beautiful watch
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Old 2 March 2022, 12:39 AM   #5
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EPIC incoming post, thank you! So much information...and the photos! Very nice. This watch is beautiful. Many congrats!
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Fantastic write up Beautiful watch
Thanks so much to you both

I've come to the conclusion that Zénith doesn't have a big fan-base here at TRF but that's cool I wish everyone nonetheless a great #ElPrimeroDay

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Old 2 March 2022, 01:29 AM   #6
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Thanks so much to you both

I've come to the conclusion that Zénith doesn't have a big fan-base here at TRF but that's cool I wish everyone nonetheless a great #ElPrimeroDay

Well done, my friend! Your pictorials always bring the best.

Love Zenith & the El Primero!
dP
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Old 13 April 2022, 03:26 AM   #7
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Its a great looking watch but I still cant get over why Zenith continues to put a date complication on a triple sub dial chrono. It gives me the vibe of laziness as if they just pulled a movement off the shelf and slapped it in there.
Maybe im just used to the original Speedmaster or the Daytona with no date complication. The date window always looks out of place or an after thought on these triple sub dial watches.
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Old 14 April 2022, 12:01 AM   #8
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...It gives me the vibe of laziness as if they just pulled a movement off the shelf and slapped it in there...
As the owner of several Speedmasters and (nodate) Bretilings, I also tend towards pure chronographs.
However, "THE" El Primero is hardly an off-the-shelf movement now and it certainly wasn't back in 1969, when no one had a Smartphone.

So that part of your comment gets a from me

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Old 2 June 2022, 10:48 AM   #9
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#ElPrimeroDay

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Old 14 June 2022, 10:02 PM   #10
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@Traveller, this was an awesome post. And really convinced me that this will likely be my one and only chrono.
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Old 15 June 2022, 10:13 AM   #11
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@Traveller, this was an awesome post. And really convinced me that this will likely be my one and only chrono.
Much appreciated

That's great to hear this is "the one" for you - it is indeed a special reference with tremendous history

But please be sure to (have) read the Annex - so that you have the full picture of this specific reference and are content with it (as I am)
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Old 8 July 2022, 03:17 PM   #12
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Great set, thanks for sharing
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Old 14 July 2022, 07:59 AM   #13
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Great post! I have this reference as well. Mine was one of the early batches with the printing challenge. Oh well, it does give it some charm too.
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Old 14 July 2022, 11:44 AM   #14
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Great set, thanks for sharing
Glad it was of interest

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Great post! I have this reference as well. Mine was one of the early batches with the printing challenge. Oh well, it does give it some charm too.
Thx
Alas, yes, enjoy the charm, but should the day come when you need a full service, you'll have the choice to decide if you want to hold on to it or go with a "Ml II" dial...
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Old 2 August 2022, 12:08 PM   #15
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#ElPrimeroDay
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Old 6 August 2022, 11:15 AM   #16
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Appreciate the detailed write up and pics. Really like this reference.
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Old 7 August 2022, 11:08 PM   #17
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Great write up! Thanks!

There is no chance these days a Zenith AD can just order this reference and you buy it the normal old fashioned way in a brick & mortar store?
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