Before his ascendancy to the top spot at Rolex, watch executive Jean-Frederic Dufour was the CEO of Zenith, a highly regarded if decidedly smaller manufacture with its own track record of innovation and watchmaking achievements.
The company’s most famous movement was then and remains the El Primero, among the first automatic chronograph calibers ever. In fact, it had been called upon by no less than Rolex itself, in 1988, when the Crown transitioned from the manually wound Daytona to the automatic version.
In his capacity as Zenith CEO, Dufour had a reputation for his focus on the product, and that is where his touch was most visible to those of us covering the watch industry back then. In relatively short order, he revamped and refocused Zenith on products that resonated with watch enthusiasts. There were some major hits from this time, and I was inspired enough by Dufour’s leadership that I myself purchased Zenith’s Captain Winsor, the company’s annual calendar chronograph. Dufour’s success reinvigorating Zenith can be seen as a factor that helped propel him into the top job at Rolex.
One of the early Zenith watches to come out under the Dufour banner was the Retrotimer, a continuously running monopusher flyback version of the El Primero that features a little red hash mark at eight minutes on its lone sub-dial, as can be seen in the image below. When the watch came out, I remember hearing that the Retrotimer’s red mark was there for use in the kitchen. At first, I was told this by a fellow journalist, and I recall that some digging at the time turned up a press release that offered confirmation. I recall it saying something to the effect that a designer at Zenith had put it there because of his love of pasta, though I no longer have this press release.
Nonetheless, I’ve always thought the Retrotimer, particularly the version with the carbon-fiber-like, patterned dial seen here, was a good-looking chronograph and an unusual take on the El Primero – a movement that I think every watch lover ought to experience owning in one guise or another.
I’d been giving some recent thought to this watch and found myself searching for examples and information online. This, in turn, revived my memory that the Retrotimer was designed for cooking pasta. I reached out to Zenith to see if they had images of the watch (they did) and if they still had that old release handy (they did not), though I was told the red mark is for cooking pasta. In my research, I came across a Europa Star article, “Zenith Returns To The Workbench,” by the eminent Swiss watch journalist Pierre Maillard. Within it is the following quote:
For fun, this calibre is also found in the El Primero Retrotimer, priced at 6,900 CHF, that includes 8 minutes in red in its small counter. Why 8 minutes in red? Dufour answers with a smile: “It is because I love Italian cuisine and the al dente pasta cooks for 8 minutes.” Europa Star, March 2010
Not only was the Retrotimer designed with gastronomic intent, but it seems it was Dufour’s idea. If that’s not an horological chef’s kiss, I don’t know what is.