‘Cover Girl’ A3818 Zenith El Primero
I’ll just say it, people who don’t appreciate vintage Zenith are philistines. Zenith were wildly experimental with case design and developed the most technically proficient automatic chronograph movement of the decade, still in use today. And yet, everyone still conflates them with 90s televisions. But don’t take it from me. So good was the 3019 PHC that in ’88 Rolex said, ‘Screw the Valjoux 72, we’ll have 350,000 of those, please’; It even got the largest nod possible from the coronet. But if the first-ever El Primero A386 is just too mainstream, here’s the answer to your prayers.
This ref. A3818 is about as niche as Zenith collecting gets, with the possible exception of the A3817. I can only imagine Manfred Rossler chose the A3818 to star on the cover of Zenith: Swiss Watch Manufacture Since 1865 for its sheer beauty, but the dial is more function than form. Released in ’71 with the harshly angular and very 70s 37.5mm case, the A3818’s dial embraced the 36000 vph beat rate by demarcating 300 fine marks accurate to one-fifth of a second, in line with the 5Hz pulse. The beautiful shark’s tooth seconds track pattern you see here is a result of practically seeking to visually display the granularity this movement was capable of measuring as easily as possible. Its contrast-interval subdials, well, they add a wealth of character and legibility. But actually, it’s not so. It’s the petroley blue. When asked why he chose the A3818 for his cover, Rossler simply stated ‘The beautiful blue colour led to this decision. I like blue dials.’ As do we, Rossler. As do we.
Total production stopped at 1000 examples, as confirmed by Zenith SA. That makes this both one of the rarest and highly-collected Zeniths of all time. It holds joint first place with the comparably niche A3817 (tricolor dial in this case), also made in 1000 examples. For context, the first El Primero, or as I like to call it the El Primero^2, A386 is estimated around 2500 examples. Phillips sold a Cover Girl at 17.7K USD in ’20 at Hong Kong, Christie’s at 12.5K (slightly worse condition) in ’21. But this isn’t the sort of chronograph that usually goes to auction anyway, great examples traded around 25-30K at the height of the last few years and today have settled around 20K (under without GF bracelet and over with it). It’s a not-totally-unattainable chronograph and one with much pedigree to covet. Rolex might’ve had to give it a makeover legally, but there was clearly no makeup needed.
This example is very very clean. The dial has no damage, light patina, and warmed cream tritium, matched on all hands. It should be noted clearly that this is a restored case, professionally done and lovely, with true edges and upper brushing where it should be, but restored nonetheless. For example, I believe the caseback serial has been lost. It’s also slightly strange in the bezel, I can’t quite tell if it’s a service or hasn’t been installed properly and is just rotated 90 degrees. However, it is priced right where it should be with that in mind. It has its big logo crown as well, and comes as watch only from a well-regarded London retailer.