Review: The Zenith A385 Revival

Review: The Zenith A385 Revival

Prior to the big reveal of their all-new Chronomaster Sport, Zenith quietly revealed the A385, the third reference of the Revival series, joining the A384 and A386. The trio pays homage to the original references of the same names first released in 1969, featuring Zenith’s El Primero in the push to release the first automatic chronograph alongside Seiko and Heuer/Buren/Brietling/et al. The A385 was perhaps the most dramatic of the bunch, boasting a smoked brown gradient dial under pure white registers. The A384 and A386 weren’t short on drama, either, but the A385 hit differently, embracing its era with confidence. 

The Revival series kicked off in 2019 with Zentih celebrating the 50th anniversary of the El Primero, beginning with the A386. This watch uses a more traditional round case with the iconic tri-tone overlapping registers dominating the dial. The Revival was true to the original in its form, and each additional model has followed suit, including the A384 which also came in 2019. It’s worth noting that none of these employed the use of any faux aging, rather they’ve been produced as they would have looked when produced in 1969. 

Following additional dial options and a few Limited Editions, finally the A385 was revealed just this year, a little late for the anniversary, but a welcome release nonetheless. I’ll just come right out and say it, I found this dial stunning when I first saw the images. In person, it is somehow even better. While the watch is not without fault, the recreation of this dial creates a pretty big blind spot in recognizing them.

$ 7900

Review: The Zenith A385 Revival

Case

Stainless Steel

Movement

El Primero 400

Dial

Brown Fume

Lume

Beige SuperLuminova

Lens

Sapphire

Strap

Brown Leather, Steel Ladder

Water Resistance

5 ATM

Dimensions

37 x 42mm

Thickness

12.6mm

Lug Width

19mm

Crown

Push Down

Warranty

2 years

Price

$ 7900

History

Zenith A385 from 1972. Credit: Andy K via Omega Forums

There’s plenty in the way of history attached to the El Primero movement, as you may have heard. It was the first of its kind in many respects, namely a thin, high frequency, integrated chronograph with automatic winding that could accurately measure down to a tenth of a second. An impressive feat even by today’s standards. Other features of the movement, such as the dry lubrication and instant date changes, made the El Primero the most technically impressive of the three automatic chronographs released in 1969. While Zenith was the first to introduce theirs in January of that year, both Seiko and the Chronomatic lot beat them to market. 

By 1975 Zenith was eager to shift resources toward the emergence of quartz technology to power their watches, and very nearly ditched the El Primero altogether in the process. One of the watchmakers who developed the El Primero, Charles Vermot, stashed away the technical drawings of the moving along with some of the special tooling to produce it in a sealed off area of the manufacturer. That the modern El Primero exists at all is a credit to his efforts to preserve the movement against the wishes of the company. 

Vintage Zenith Ad

It’s a good thing he did, as the El Primero was resurrected about a decade later, eventually finding its way into the venerable Rolex Daytona in 1988, on its way to serving as the very foundation of Zenith as we know it today.  The movement itself has evolved over the years, but the El Primero is still as tech forward as ever, as we’ve seen in watches like the Defy 21, and even within the new Chronomaster Sport (in 3600 form). And so it is in the Revival series, sporting the El Primero 400 calibers, looking like they just stepped out of a time machine from 1969, bringing that history full circle.

The A385 Revival

This brings us to the A385 Revival, with brown fume dial, offered on a ladder bracelet, feeling somehow as relevant as ever. This watch fully embraces its roots, using the same 37mm squared off case we first saw in the A384, with a radial brushing on its top, just like the OG. The lug situation takes a little getting used to, especially in images, however in the flesh, thanks to the proportions of the everything, as Todd Howard says: it just works

A polished chamfer frames the case leading to the flat polished lugs which abruptly end with 90 degree angles toward the 19mm span. It’s a strange thing to look at, but on the wrist it has the effect of pushing the focal point to the top of the case and dial, so it doesn’t feel strange in use. That said, the case design won’t be for everyone. At 12.5mm in thickness, the watch rounds off neatly in all dimensions. It’s easy to forget just how small a movement this is, as it’s normally used in far larger cases, but with the A385 we’re offered a chance to truly appreciate the marvel of proportion that it is. 

The dial of the A385 is the real showstopper here, though. The fade from light to dark brown is dramatic, ditching subtlety in favor of rich color and texture. It’s a compact dial, so the transition is dramatic in the given space. This is one of those watches you’ll find yourself glancing at for the time, and realizing a moment later you never actually read the time at all. Viewed up close, the dial reveals a loose texture that looks how the noise of a record player’s needle sounds at the end of a record in a smoke filled room. I’m not sure if there is an audible nature to color and texture, but if there is, the A385 nails it.

This is a small dial, so the color and texture is somewhat compressed between the pure white registers at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. The only copy appears at 12 o’clock, with an applied Zenith star at the very top. The words “El Primero” (“the first”, refer to the history section for why) are scripted just like the original, adding that much more character to the dial. 

The hour markers are applied with a strip of lume down their center, flanked by polished bevels on either side. A similar shape appears on the hour and minute hands, with lume at their tips. A solid red timing seconds hand is a stark departure from the softness of the rest of the dial, with Zenith getting the most mileage out of the thinnest hand for maximum effect. A tachymeter sits at the darkest regions of the dials edge as the color falls off to near blackness. 

As touchy a subject as date windows can be around here, the A385 embraces the same aperture position at 4:30 as many other El Primero equipped watches, and I’d go so far as to say it gets a pass here on account of its historical accuracy. Like the Rolex ‘cyclops’, it’s a feature closely associated with the identity and I feel it would have been a mistake to offer this watch without it. 

The A385 is the spittin’ image of the original from 1969, and as such carries with it much of the style of that era. The dial alone could be considered a tome to shag carpets. However, in use the A385 Revival feels surprisingly normal appearing on the wrist today, in a new age of fume dials and funky colors and, well, weird cases. Sure, it’s odd at a glance, but it fits a modern wardrobe and stylings unashamedly well. If this were a totally new design released today from Zenith, rather than being met with confusion it’d get an unironic “right on” from me.

On The Wrist

At this point it won’t come as a surprise to hear that the A385 wears exceptionally well on the wrist. The small stature and lightweight bracelet make for a watch that absolutely disappears from your wrist when going about your day. That’s a feature I happen to enjoy quite a bit, especially when it doesn’t come at the expense of the watch feeling like it’s made of tin. 

As good as the watch is, the strap and bracelet options fall short of greatness. The standard option is a light brown leather strap. The color itself doesn’t quite match any that you’ll find on the dial, and I found that clash borderline distracting. A neutral earth tone that pushed focus to the dial would be a nice option here, and thankfully straps are an easy change, but at this price point the strap should be top notch, and the quality of this strap just doesn’t rise to the level I’d like to see. 

The steel ‘ladder’ style bracelet offered on the A385 is historically accurate to the original Gay Frères design, and I must say, looks the business on wrist. Its lightness goes a long way on the comfort scale here, and the clasp offers a huge degree of adjustment in helping to get a just right fit. I wore the bracelet a little loose as it felt right with the style of the watch, and I found nothing to complain about in terms of comfort.

A closer look will reveal some issues with the execution of the bracelet, however. Fit and finish leaves a bit to be desired here, and the stamped clasp feels less uninspired for a watch north of $ 8,000. The endlinks don’t quite jive with the quality seen in the case, either. In total, it may get a pass due to the vintage inspiration and it nails that feeling, but it certainly doesn’t rise to the modern standards you’d hope for here. I had similar thoughts regarding the bracelet seen on the Chronomaster Sport, which left me a little cold. 

Overall there’s nothing to complain about when actually wearing the watch, and for a guy who rarely wears his watches on their OEM strap/bracelet offerings, this is easy for me to brush aside. That’s not to give Zenith a pass here, and if you’re shopping around for a chronograph in this price range you should absolutely take notice.

Movement

Zenith is using their tried and true El Primero 400 movement here, and throughout the Revival series of watches (and elsewhere). The movement uses a column wheel design for chronograph operation, and offers 50 hours of reserve. Accuracy on our review units was well within 10 seconds a day, perfectly reasonable for a high beat movement like this, but probably not winning any chronometry competitions. The movement is visible through an exhibition caseback, and while it may not be beautifully finished, it’s nice enough to appreciate the view. 

The El Primero is widely considered one of the finest chronograph movements in mass production, appearing in all manner of ‘top 10 iconic chronographs!1!!’ type of lists floating around on the internet these days. It’s been around for a hot minute and has a pretty catchy name, which may account for some of that continued notoriety, but certainly not all of it. Its reputation is well earned and the fact that it survives today having changed relatively little over its tenure speaks volumes of the quality of its design. 

Right out of the gates the El Primero made its technical prowess known, with a high performance, high-speed balance wheel beating away at 36,000VpH, compared to the typical 28,800VpH you see in most other chronograph movements. This allowed the El Primero to be far more precise in its timing, to the tune of 1/10th of a second. Actually making such precise measurements accurately is a different story, but the El Primero could do it, should you be up to the task.

The faster movement allows for a greater degree of resolution in timekeeping, and while the higher level of precision doesn’t necessarily mean more accuracy, it does grant room for finer tuning when it comes to accuracy. Taken to the extreme, we have the Zentih Defy Lab shown in 2017, which featured a novel single piece oscillator instead of a balance spring, beating at a dizzying 108,000VpH. Zenith claimed accuracy to within 0.3 seconds a day with this watch. The compromise with high speed movements, as you may have guessed, is long term reliability, as a much greater degree of stress is placed on the rather delicate components within the escapement. This is why the dry molybdenum-sulfide based lubrication was so important in the original 3019PHC El Primero. 

The El Primero at its core has changed remarkably little over the generations. The escapement still uses a dry lubricant, the balance still bangs away at 5Hz, and the underlying architecture looks about the same today as it did in 1969. The fact that brands from Rolex, to Bulgari, to Panerai, to (somewhat ironically) TAG Heuer have used it in some form or another over the years is a testament to the soundness of the original design.

Conclusions

This was a difficult watch to let go of. Zenith has tapped into their sweet spot with the Revival series and the A385 feels alive as ever in its modern incarnation. That Zenith is able to so effectively pay homage to their greatest hits lends a great deal of equity to the ultra-modern watches they build alongside them. 

The A385 has a significant history that taps into one of the great stories of horological lore, laying the groundwork for some of the greatest sport watches of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Setting all that aside, the A385 Revival is a great looking watch with a high performance, in-house movement. What’s more, this is a watch that breaks from the norms of traditional case and dial design that at once evokes its past, and feels as fresh and original as ever. 

The dial is an experience to behold, and complements this case perfectly. The funky style is unique to Zenith’s heritage and never feels shy on character. For these reasons, it might not be the best candidate for a single watch collection or even every day use. On its strap, the A385 Revival is priced at $ 7,900 while the bracelet adds $ 500 to that. This is an expensive watch, but the value is certainly there with this movement. Does that make it worth more than a new Speedmaster on bracelet? Probably not, but there is a style here that places the Zenith nearly in its own category, and if that resonates with you, the price is undoubtedly worth it. And like the Speedmaster, this is a watch that’s got a hell of a story to tell. Zenith.com.

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