Mk3 A386 Zenith El Primero
Whoever came up with idea to make the three subdial registers of the A386 tri-color is a genius. In watch design, the gold standard is being distinctive enough to be recognized from across a room or mid-distance. Most meaningful designs nail this trick, but there are surprisingly few. Why does this matter? The majority slice of watch-buyers, even if not most of us, want recognition. There are far more watchmakers and further watches than there are watches worth knowing. It is the job of the watchmaker to create a watch notable enough to be worth knowing and job of the designer to make it easily recognizable or at least ‘of the’ brand identity. For example, Richard Mille does the latter but not former (I jest, relax). Zenith definitely does both in the A386, and they nailed it right out of the gate with an elegant simplicity in light grey, dark grey, and navy registers. Why did no one do this before?
The automatic cal 3019 is just as groundbreaking as this thing is recognizable. This was the first watch to house a 3019, debut. It also happens to be a complete sleeper to the general population. Watch people get it, no one else cares. Personally, that is my ideal. I’ve jested previously that while three competitors were fiercely competing to develop the world’s first automatic chronograph, Zenith finished just behind first and then named it the ‘we did it first guys, promise.’ There’s a sliver of truth in that. If you want to make history, just write it instead. The first auto chronograph is more a case of convergent evolution, where many manufactures were locked-in on the problem. Whoever you believe to have reached the accomplishment first, there is no argument that Zenith’s approach was the most technically competent; a completely integrated 278 component, column wheel, 36000 vph, auto chronograph. That, make no mistake, was a technical masterclass.
Zenith’s recipe was audacity inside and outside here. Tri-color subdials? No one did that in the 60s, or the thick grey outer track. Angular lug design on that 38mm case to match, a bit shark-nosed. Voila, you have an icon of the last century—the A386. Although you see the A386’s influence across many other styles of Zenith chronograph, just 1500 were produced in this original tri-color flavor (according to M. Rössler). This mark 3 variety is distinguished by its case, which has a ‘NATO’ star engraved on its caseback. Not just a pretty face, but definitely that as well.
And this is the kind of example you want to chase. The case has full lugs, sharp as you like. There’s light surface wear on everything except the back, where someone has made a few botched attempts at opening it with what must’ve been a can opener (I’m joking, it’s not actually that bad). The dial is incredible though, full points for zero damage and lovely tan tritium. It comes from who I like to call the Speedmaster brothers, but their interests don’t stop there, clearly.
Find this A386 here from Roy & Sacha Davidoff for 24000 CHF.