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Review: Zenith Elite Chronograph Classic

Watches, despite being such small, inanimate objects, are for me at least a plentiful source of existentialism. Time is, after all, the global currency, its expenditure a terrible forfeit we all must make, and a watch is a constant reminder that it’s running out. The Zenith Elite Chronograph Classic, however, is just a very pretty watch. Let’s see if I can make it to the end without having a crisis.

The word Zenith is a very arrogant one to choose for a new brand. The Arabic origins refer to a path over one’s head, and it has since become a reference to the highest point directly above. Used in astronomy—that is, the observation of space, not the creation of vague and meaningless cookie inserts—the word has earned a connotation of being practically god-like in status, a heavenly pinnacle mere mortals can never hope to achieve.

So, naming a watch company Zenith is a pretty bold move. Naming a television manufacturer Zenith is just plain silly, but don’t worry about that for now. Time and space are intrinsically linked, yes, but for a young upstart like Zenith was in 1865, it’s the equivalent of proclaiming itself the very definition of excellence before it’s even begun. They may as well have named the brand “The Best”.

A little pre-emptive, perhaps, but not entirely inaccurate, it turns out. Hundreds of awards, inventions and achievements later, and it kinda, sorta turns out that founder Georges Favre-Jacot wasn’t too far off the money. The chronograph is what we know the brand best for, called “El Primero” or “The First”—again with the supercilious naming convention—supposedly the original purpose-built automatic movement designed from the ground up to be a chronograph.

Zenith was founded in 1865, Le Locle, Switzerland

Zenith was founded in 1865, Le Locle, Switzerland

That may have been a record steeped in semantics—a bit like being the first person to eat a can of beans on a Wednesday in the rain with a toothpick—and it may actually have been beaten by the Japanese, but what it really stood for was Zenith’s dedication to making a damn fine chronograph watch. So dedicated was the company to this pursuit that it actually spent itself into the ground. Perfection at the cost of insolvency is not really recommended as a business practice, but hey, you can’t help but admire it a little. I suppose it worked in the end.

Funny story: it was actually that television manufacturer of the same name that lifted the watchmaker from its debt-laden grave, presumably figuring that two companies having the same name was enough reason to think they could make it work. The partnership lasted only eight years, so I guess not.

The El Primero has always been a sporting watch—and these days an absolute bargain in comparison to the—yes, I’m going to say it—Rolex Daytona—but sometimes the bold lines and crisp edges of the sporting can be a little too much for the day-to-day. Beach life isn’t all jet skis and volleyball, and Zenith has made sure you know that it knows that that’s known with the Elite Chronograph Classic.

The Zenith El Primero was first introduced in 1969

The Zenith El Primero was first introduced in 1969

There are some watches out there that are pretty nice, some that are very nice, but just miss the mark—I’m looking at you, Longines—and some that are just so sweet to the eyes they’re the visual equivalent of a long, hot bath. The Classic Chronograph from Zenith is such a watch, every last detail soothing the retinae like little Swiss massages.

I don’t suppose anyone can really one-hundred-percent clarify why some design works and some doesn’t, but there’s something almost evolutionary about the way the Classic Chronograph titillates the old, grey matter. It’s not enough to say that the deep blue dial is very deep blue, or that the markers are long and slender—there are plenty of watches out there on paper that do a similar job without having the ultimate satisfaction of this watch.

It’s actually discontinued now, around for just a few years from 2015, the later blue dial model actually cheaper than the earlier silver, and it begs the question—how can a watch that looks this good be so underappreciated? Okay, so its 42mm size, standing tall at 11.8mm thick, isn’t typical of a watch of this ilk, but then a Ford GT is impossible to park and that still sold out. Despite losing the El Primero name, the movement inside very much is one, and thanks to a window through the back, you don’t have to take my word for it.

The Zenith El Primero movement could be found within the Rolex Daytona between 1988 and 2000

The Zenith El Primero movement could be found within the Rolex Daytona between 1988 and 2000

Even in the details it just feels so expertly judged. I get the sense that when the designers were refining the first drafts, they had one of those guys with white gloves who inexplicably seems to know everything that’s out of place sneering at them over their desks. Nothing is amiss. The pushers aren’t too big, the crown isn’t too small, the hands aren’t too long or too short, the lugs aren’t too spidery or too stumpy and the dial doesn’t sit too deep in the case. All these little things are the hurdles so many other watchmakers seem to trip over—still looking at you, Longines—but not Zenith—at least, not with the Elite Classic Chronograph. The brand name, with the star hovering directly above, feels well earned.

Indulge me, if you will, for my second car comparison of the day, as I turn your attention to the coupé. Graceful, elegant, swooping—these are words used to describe the best coupés of our time. And quite rightly so, because despite its impracticality, the coupé is by far and away the cream of automotive arrangement. Yet, no one actually buys them. The jack-of-all-trades Sports Utility Vehicle is the name of the game. Everyone likes a coupé … that someone else bought and is suffering the depreciation and impracticality of. You see it drive past and feel pleased that you could enjoy it for free.

This is the fate of the Elite Chronograph Classic. It is beautiful to look at, to hold, to wear—all up until the point you actually go and purchase a sports utility watch instead. Versatility, practicality, usability, these are words never used in a sentence regarding the benefits of a coupé, and the same can be said of the Chronograph Classic. You want to see one on someone else’s wrist, safe in the knowledge that you have the El Primero on yours.

I think it’s worth remembering at this point that you really will only get to see the hands on your watch go around so many times. Utility and convenience are all well and good, but if you’re like me and think our time on this planet should be spent exploring the emotions that make being a complicated ape worthwhile, then the Elite Chronograph Classic shouldn’t just be a passing glimpse on another’s wrist—it should be on yours for you to enjoy at your leisure. Existential crisis averted!

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