The Zenith El Primero Revival G381 Limited Edition
The history of the automatic chronograph has never looked better.
Originally published by Logan Baker on HODINKEE, January 31st, 2020
It’s been exactly one month since we said farewell to 2019, and with it, the year-long celebration for the 50th anniversary of the world’s first automatic chronograph movement. There were countless articles dedicated to the significance of the anniversary, a number of heritage-focused watch releases to recognize the occasion, and more celebratory events than anyone could possibly track.
And the HODINKEE Shop was in the thick of it. We worked with Zenith last year to introduce a tribute piece to an El Primero model from the inaugural year of 1969. While looking over Zenith’s archives, we realized there was a missing watch within the brand’s planned anniversary releases, reference G381, and we knew that was the watch we wanted to reissue as an H Shop exclusive. The Zenith El Primero Revival G381 is a piece-by-piece resurrection of one of the brand’s less-heralded El Primero references, and it’s a watch we strongly believe deserves a second chance in the limelight. Luckily, the El Primero’s 50th anniversary provided the perfect opportunity.
A Personal Perspective
The original Zenith El Primero releases from 1969, particularly the A386, are watches that have always held a close place to my heart for their irreplaceable position in horological history, their almost unbelievable tale of survival, and their generally striking looks. The chance to spend some time with a laser-accurate re-edition, utilizing the same El Primero movement, 50 years on, was a chance I couldn’t pass up when we started discussing the focus of the first “Shop Spotlight” post.
For a point of reference before we dive in, I wore the El Primero Revival G381 for about two weeks around the office, and I substituted the stock alligator strap fairly early on for an Unlined HODINKEE Black Shell Cordovan Strap. And just for propriety’s sake, I’ll state this now and won’t repeat it until the very end of my review: The Zenith El Primero Revival G381 is a limited edition of 50 pieces, is available exclusively in the HODINKEE Shop for $19,200 (click here), and it comes with a 50-year warranty courtesy of Zenith, with an added year from the H Shop, resulting in 51 years of total coverage. Sound good to you? Let’s take a closer look.
Five Decades Of History, One Automatic Movement
If there’s one aspect of Zenith’s 155-year heritage that doesn’t need introducing to the modern watch enthusiast, it’s the history of the El Primero movement. A prototype of this automatic chronograph caliber was introduced to the world on January 10, 1969, earning it the very specific distinction of being the world’s first announced self-winding chronograph caliber. And unlike the Chrono-Matic movement that would be introduced in August of that year, from the consortium of Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton-Buren, and Dubois-Dépraz, the El Primero 3019PHC (its original reference number) was a fully integrated design, equipped with a central rotor. And compared to the Seiko 6139 movement, which was released to the Japanese market in May of 1969, Zenith’s El Primero included a date indicator as well as an elapsed hour register and small seconds display. It’s safe to say that the El Primero 3019PHC had the most mechanically sophisticated movement construction of the three – a fact confirmed by the presence of today’s review watch, still powered by what is basically an interchangeable movement to the original, 50 years later.
The Zenith El Primero G381 was introduced alongside the A386 at the Baselworld fair in April of 1969. Unlike the stainless steel and tonneau-shaped Zenith A384, also introduced that year, the G381 shared an identical case design with the A386, featuring a 38mm diameter, a smooth bezel, pump pushers, and angular lugs. While the G381 and A386 could have passed for twins from a construction standpoint, the pair couldn’t have been more different aesthetically. Where the A386 was made of stainless steel and had a reflective dial with overlapping, tri-color registers, the G381 had a warm yellow gold case that amplified the contrast between the classic black-on-white, “panda”-style dial orientation.
The two references also shared a similar production run, from 1969 to 1972, but the actual number of watches that were produced during that period were worlds apart. Where there were estimated to be 2,500 examples of the A386 made, the G381 is understood to have been substantially less – with only 700 known examples, almost one-fourth of the volume of A386. It’s a considerable difference to say the least.
And it’s because of its relative scarcity that the G381 was the perfect watch to bring back to life in the El Primero’s anniversary year. As fantastic as the A386 is – and it’s truly an icon of the industry – Zenith has been iterating on the watch’s polychromatic design for years, which is exactly why we wanted to work with the Swiss brand on something new, something that represented the company’s vast heritage but highlighted its value in a different light, something like the G381.
Warming Up To Gold
Gold can be a tricky proposition for some collectors and enthusiasts. Without even mentioning the obvious premium associated with gold, a metal like stainless steel is more durable, more readily accessible, and comes with zero pretense. But gold is not without its benefits. When used in the right circumstances, the metal can have undeniable visual appeal, and the diversity of warm tones found in its various alloys is remarkable. And to be completely honest, at the end of the day, there’s really no substitute for gold. The heart wants what the heart wants.
Although the majority of my personal collection is equipped with utilitarian stainless steel, I’ve long held a soft spot for rose gold and its close relatives. But – and this is more of a personal obstacle – yellow gold has never been much on my radar. I could appreciate it from afar, I could write about its various benefits, but I never shared the emotional connection with yellow gold that many collectors, especially those that are more vintage-minded, have. So it’s fair to say that I wasn’t prepared for the Zenith El Primero Revival G381 to alter my established indifference to the case metal. But it did, and I think I know why.
Most yellow gold watches are dress pieces, and the general profile and finish of a dress watch – with many, many exceptions of course – places a priority on slimness, thinness, and ample polishing, in order to really make the color sing. What the G381 does differently, thanks to its angular case design, is the use of a variety of finishes with a substantial mix of sharp lines and smooth beveled edges, creating an interesting silhouette that is both incredibly distinctive to look at, but nearly nondescript on the wrist. The round bezel of the case is exceptionally smooth and polished, and it leads directly to the lugs, which feature a noticeable brushed finish. A simple bevel extends from the central portions of the case, slowly flaring as it runs along the outer fringe of each lug. Both sides of the case are polished, as is the caseback and chronograph pushers, and the crown is fluted for easy gripping.
The mix of finishes has a tremendous effect on the appearance of the G381. In darker lights, the watch appears to have some red notes, but generally the resulting look is less of the saturated tone that is common with polished yellow gold, and more of a natural matte color with an understated vibrance.
One of the trademark features of the A386 is its overlapping, tri-color sub-dials, a look that Zenith has replicated time and time again in countless modern El Primero designs. While I’ll always appreciate that watch’s distinct retro vibe, there’s something to be said for the clarity and legibility afforded by the G381’s panda dial. The main part of the dial and the outer tachymeter scale are coated in a white lacquer. On the inside of the tachymeter flange is a black decimal scale with golden brown numbers and dashes counting up to 100. Most contemporary El Primeros, even ones that lean on vintage influence like the Chronomaster, don’t include a decimal scale, but it was featured in this subtle position in both the original A386 and G381. A decimal scale is a fairly intuitive, if unconventional, way of measuring elapsed time. The dial is divided into 100 units starting at 12 o’clock, and it allows you to calculate how much time has passed to the tenth of a minute, rather than to the sixtieth. Its use is more associated with scientific purposes than racing, like the more common tachymeter, but it adds a definite bit of individuality to the G381’s authentic vintage style.
The main timekeeping and chronograph functions take place in the center of the watch. The constant seconds display is located at nine o’clock; a 30-minute counter is at three o’clock; and the 12-hour register, which is slightly smaller than the other two registers, is at six o’clock. The sub-dials are separated from one another – unlike on the A386 – and are slightly sunken into the dial itself. Each sub-dial is black with subtle concentric snailing and dark golden brown numerals and dashes. The date display, at its traditional 4:30 position courtesy the El Primero movement, is positioned in a stepped aperture that adds depth to the overall dial layout. While that date location might come at the annoyance of modern watch enthusiasts, its positioning was intentional, in order for it not to protrude into any of the timing registers. While I agree with most enthusiasts that this placement typically comes at the lack of symmetry, it’s a part of the movement’s charm, and I wouldn’t want my El Primero to come without it.
Each applied hour marker – save for the missing three, six, and nine o’clock indices – is made of yellow gold and features a stripe of green luminescent material (Super-LumiNova here, for the sake of modernity). The hour and minute hands are yellow gold with Super-LumiNova lined in their interior as well. The central chronograph seconds hand is done in a paddle style and has a bold red color. This design is one of my favorite details on the original references, and its appearance has transitioned beautifully to today. For pure performance purposes, it would have been great to see the hands on the chronograph minute and hour sub-dials in a matching red tone, in order to keep the elapsed timing functionality consistent, but alas, the original G381 had white sub-dial hands, so it’s re-edition needs to match. Points for consistency.
One final note on the dial. It may be obvious, as the Revival G381 is identical to the 1969 release in almost every single way, but thank goodness the vintage fonts and numerals have all been preserved. Everything from the kerning and spacing of the central branding, the cursive script of El Primero, and the abrupt and expressive font of “TACHYMETRE” near one o’clock (Just look at the shape of that “Y”!) exudes late ’60s charm.
When it comes to an El Primero, you can expect a few things. Most importantly is the high-frequency escapement, which has beaten at a pulse-pounding 36,000 vibrations per hour, or 5Hz, a figure that allows tracking of elapsed time up to 1/10th of a second, since 1969. The actual movement inside the G381 Revival is the El Primero 400, the closest modern incarnation to the original El Primero 3019PHC. It was first released in 1987, with minor improvements to the original design that included Incabloc shock protection and updates to the quick-set date functionality. It consists of 278 components, has a column wheel, and features running autonomy of up to 50 hours.
Another one of the very few changes in the modern G381 Revival compared to the 1969 version is the presence of an exhibition caseback made of sapphire crystal, a choice intended to put the movement finishing on full display. The central rotor is substantially decorated with Côtes de Genève and has been openworked to feature the brand’s recognizable star logo. Underneath the rotor, circular graining, perlage, and heat-blued screws are all visible.
On The Wrist
Watches powered by the El Primero have always been surprisingly slim – its innate thinness is one of the reasons Rolex began using the movement inside the Daytona after all – but in combination with the weight of the solid yellow gold case, the G381 Revival has a remarkable, almost unexpected, wrist presence. With dimensions authentic to the original G381 (38mm diameter; 13mm thickness), the G381 Revival is immensely wearable. It even fit underneath the sleeves and cuffs of every single shirt and jacket I wore it with, an impressive feat for an automatic chronograph, but one to be appreciated considering the watch’s obvious potential as a dress watch.
While a black alligator strap is what comes as the stock option for the G381 Revival, I switched it out with an Unlined HODINKEE Black Shell Cordovan Strap almost immediately, which ended up being an excellent choice. The rich blackness and smooth texture of the strap really helped amplify the case’s warm gold tone and helped highlight the contrasting nature of the dial. With a lug width of 19mm, finding your perfect strap might be a bit more difficult, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit. The G381 comes with a matching yellow gold pin buckle with the brand’s star insignia.
After wearing the G381 for over a week, I can imagine an older, more discriminating version of myself selecting this watch as the dressier half of an ideal two-watch collection. I picture myself pairing it with some sort of upscale dive watch, or really anything in stainless steel with a matching bracelet, to be covered for all occasions. The yellow gold used in the G381 isn’t showy at all, and with the right amount of discretion, it could easily work as a potential daily driver during the work week, while occasions like relaxing at home or doing yard work would call for switching it out with its stainless steel partner.
Breaking It Down
Reproduction pieces can be hit or miss among collectors – but in my opinion the Zenith El Primero Revival G381 strikes all the right notes. It’s faithful to the size and case design, has the original dial orientation (and who doesn’t love a panda dial?), and there isn’t a drop of “fauxtina” in sight. For a yellow gold watch, it’s surprisingly subtle, only calling attention to itself through the excellent contrast of the black-on-white dial.
The Zenith El Primero Revival G381 is a limited edition of 50 total watches worldwide, and it’s exclusively available in the HODINKEE Shop for $19,200. As a tribute to the watch’s five decades of history, Zenith is offering an unheard of 50-year warranty with the purchase of the watch, and just like with all modern watches sold in the HODINKEE Shop, we’re adding an extra year warranty on top of it, meaning 51 years of repairs and service are covered right off the bat. Zenith recommends having its El Primero movements looked at every five years by a qualified watchmaker, meaning at the very least, your next 10 services will be included with the purchase price.
There’s an oft-repeated mantra among watch collectors that you don’t only buy a watch for yourself, but you invest in it for future generations to appreciate as well. And it’s true. With regular service and repair, any mechanical watch can run indefinitely, but the cost of that service and repair can be prohibitive. That’s why it’s significant that Zenith is willing to stake its name on the past, present, and future quality of its El Primero caliber. Because, hey, it’s been running effectively for the last 50 years, what’s 50 more?
You can learn more about the Zenith El Primero Revival G381 Limited Edition right here.