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To non-watch people, 1969 marks the year of the moon landing. But to those of us who live and breathe watches, 1969 was a year of revolution here on earth as well that came in the form of the first automatic chronograph movement(s). Much like the Soviets and the U.S. raced to put a man on the moon, watch brands vied against each other to be the first to produce a self-winding chronograph drivetrain. On one side of this contest was Hamilton, in concert with Heuer, Breitling, Dupois-Dupraz, and new Hamilton acquisition, Buren. In the wings of the contest sat Seiko, working diligently, if not silently, on its own distinct design. Last, but certainly not least was Zenith/Movado.
At the time of its collaboration with Movado in 1969, Zenith had already established itself as a premiere producer of chronographs. The brand used ébauches made by Martel from the 1930s until the introduction of the El Primero movement in 1969. Universal Geneve also used Martel's movements in its Compax chronographs. This relationship with Universal and Martel bore fruits such as the first chronograph with two pushers in the mid-1930s, and the first chronograph with a date in 1942. 1944 saw the introduction of the first chronograph with both day and date and a moon-phase indicator; known by most collectors as the Universal Geneve Tri-Compax, Zenith also purchased these movements from Martel as well, and the Zenith Tri-Compaxes are much scarcer than their Universal Geneve counterparts.
The El Primero was high-beat automatic chronograph movement that debuted in 1969, challenging Seiko's Reference 6139 and Project 99's Caliber 11 for the title of world's first automatic chronograph. The advent of the automatic chronograph was a huge technological feat and it changed the face of the industry, opening the door for many companies to offer their own models. But while the Caliber 11 found its way into a slew of watches, Zenith made their El Primero movements available to only a handful of other manufactures. And for good reason. Of the three movements that were released that year, only the El Primero was high-beat, offering significant added accuracy, a feature that Zenith was careful to let go of.
For many years, the words El Primero held little meaning outside of high-intensity watch enthusiast and collectors groups. But a few year ago, Zenith brought those words back into the fore with the release of their heritage piece, the El Primero Striking Tenth chronograph. The piece was a success in it's own right and got a lot of attention in industry publications. But it also marshaled the growing body of watch enthusiasts, urging them to look back at the history of the movement and the pieces produced around the legendary movement.
The Zenith A386 was the first model to be fitted with the El Primero movement and commands a hefty premium among collectors for its horological import. Subsequent to the A386 was the A385, which dawned in the mid 1970s. Where the A386 was hallmarked by its three different-colored sub-registers, the A385 was known for its fumé, or smoke, dial - a gorgeous light brown gradient coloration.
Any of these vintage Zeniths are hard to find in unmolested condition today, but good A385s are especially difficult to uncover. This particular A385 is in good overall condition, with a nicely patinated dial and the lauded Gay Freres 'Ladder' bracelet in tow.
If you've had your ear to the ground for a vintage El Primero, look no further. This one is sure to go in a flash.
Stainless steel case is approximately 35mm (excluding crown and pushers). Reference A385. Mid-1970s. Zenith El Primero Automatic Chronograph Movement.
Overall Condition: Stainless steel case is in good condition over all, with minimal signs of wear in keeping with its age, including a light scratch on the right lug and some pitting on the sides of the case. Some signs of light polishing are present, but case remains strong. Fumé dial is in very good condition with an even patina to the luminescent elements on the hour markers and hands, and a slight scratch near 5 o'clock. Zenith crown. Signed 'Star' case back bears some light scratches but is in otherwise good condition.
Includes 20mm stainless steel "Ladder" Guy Freres bracelet with signed Zenith clasp, showing some light scuffs from wear.