Hands-On Review: Zenith Chronomaster Original Triple Calendar in Dark Green

Hands-On Review: Zenith Chronomaster Original Triple Calendar in Dark Green

Good things tend to come in threes. Turning a triple play in baseball, hitting a trifecta in horse racing, three of a kind in poker — all of these are cause for celebration for those who achieve them. Nailing a clutch three-pointer in basketball can send a home crowd into euphoria, and “third time’s the charm” is the motivating mantra for every budding success story battling obstacles and doubts. In horological terms, one of the most desirable trilogies can be found in the so-called “Triple Calendar,” a style of timepiece that occupies the sweet spot between the simplest of calendar complications — your date and day-date functions — and the higher and accordingly pricier echelons represented by annual and perpetual calendars. 

The Triple (also known as the “Complete”) is the simplest type of full-calendar function in that it displays all the information a wearer could need to determine the exact date — month of the year, day of the week, and date of the month— but also requires adjustment at the end of any month shorter than 31 days. (An annual calendar will make this adjustment for you in every month except February, while a perpetual calendar will adjust for every month all the way up until the year 2100 — always assuming, of course, that you, or whomever you pass the watch on to, keeps it wound all those years.) As I also point out in my guide to watch complications, these calendar indications are often, but not always, accompanied by a moon-phase, which would actually make the watch a “quadruple calendar,” I suppose, and in some of the most complex iterations, by additional functions like a chronograph.

In 2023, Zenith added a Triple Calendar to its lineup of Chronomaster Original models, which are descended from some of the earliest watches made with Zenith’s signature milestone innovation, the high-frequency El Primero caliber. In keeping with the Swiss manufacture’s mission statement of “reaching for stars,” the watch is more than just a triple calendar with a moon-phase, which would have been impressive enough for most; it’s also a chronograph capable of measuring 1/10-second intervals on its flange-mounted scale, courtesy of the newly revamped El Primero movement inside. The fact that Zenith packs all of this functionality into such a historically appropriate, compact package is a bonus.

The History:

As many of us know by now (and if you’re one of us who doesn’t, please check out this article for a primer), the Chronomaster Original series is based on a handful of watches that were released beginning in 1969. These watches were not called “Chronomasters” at the time but were instead named for the movement inside them: El Primero. Many of us are aware of what makes the El Primero special, and why it is one of the world’s most desirable automatic chronograph movements even today (again, if you don’t, here’s an article that explains it). What has recently come to light, in the wake of this new model’s launch, is that the original El Primero caliber was designed from the beginning to accommodate additional complications such as a “complete calendar” and a moon-phase.

For whatever reasons — probably the looming Quartz Crisis and the El Primero caliber’s subsequent near-extinction had something to do with it — Zenith never really followed through on that possibility in a big way. However, the company did produce a very small series (25 pieces) of “proof of concept” prototypes in 1970, using the established A386 case and adding the aforementioned calendar functions to the El Primero’s already-impressive chronograph capabilities. In the decade that followed, Zenith did release some El Primero watches with triple calendar functions, most famously the so-called Espada model (pictured above, via Matthew Bain) in a more avant-garde, tonneau case style, more resembling the brand’s Defy models than the El Primero-slash-Chronomaster. It is those original, round-cased prototypes, however, that have provided the template for this new generation of Triple Calendar watches, which join Zenith’s Chronomaster Original family, available in several iterations — including my review watch in a dark green colorway with a high-contrast dial that I (not Zenith) have nicknamed “British Racing Panda.”

The Case:

As alluded to above, the stainless steel case of the Zenith Chronomaster Original Triple Calendar is a model of understated modesty: 38mm in diameter, spanning 46mm from lug to lug. The case’s thickness of 14mm — just 1mm thicker than the core Chronomaster Original, despite all those extra calendar functions inside — is noticeable when you look at the watch from the side, but less so when you actually wear it on the wrist. The lugs are sharply angled, with a vertical-brushed finish on their surfaces and polishing on the sides, with subtle polished facets. Zenith refers to this model as having a “bezel-less” design but there is actually a bezel in the front, albeit a very narrow one, also polished, which frames the domed sapphire crystal above the dial. This construction allows the dial to truly dominate the front of the watch, unencumbered by the type of wide bezel, often hosting a tachymeter scale, that is nowadays so common on chronographs. 

The right side of the case is far more weighted than the left side, with a fluted screw-down crown in the middle and vintage pump-style pushers on either side of it. The crown is topped with a relief star, evoking Zenith’s logo, and the heads of the pushers are smoothly polished. On the right side are two inset pushers that are used to set and reset the calendar functions. The caseback consists of two stacked bezels, one round, the other 12-sided, the latter ring framing the sapphire pane in the caseback. And while this construction does render the watch (as mentioned) somewhat thick, it appears to be necessary: the rotor of the movement looks like it’s swinging right up against the sapphire window with little room to spare. According to Zenith, this case is not just a faithful homage to the original A386 case; it actually was built using the blueprints for it.

The Dial:

The design brilliance of the Chronomaster Original is manifest in the fact that at first glance, one might think that this is just another version of the chronograph. The dial’s layout is familiar, and appropriately evocative of its vintage forebear: two concentric scales on the outer rim in contrasting colors, one in dark green for the 1/10-second chronograph scale, the other inner scale in silvery white, divided into 1/100th second increments. On the main dial, which carries on the dark green tone of the outer scale, a classical arrangement of silver-toned subdials at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. At 4:30, the familiar date window; in the center, a pair of straight-sided, blunt-tipped hands for the hour and minute, accompanied by a thin, javelin-like seconds hand. 

But a closer look reveals what sets this watch apart: small rectangular apertures with curved ends, parallel to each other and abutting the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock indexes, revealing the month and weekday, respectively; and a cutout in the subdial above 6 o’clock, with a polished rose-gold moon disk against a metallic blue sky, dappled with five-pointed stars (yet another callout to Zenith’s logo and “Time to Reach Your Star” motto). Attention to detail abounds: the subdials are recessed and sport a snailed texture, the hands and applied hour markers are rose-gold-plated and luminous-treated, and the month, day, and date are all executed in a tone-on-tone style — white text on dark green background — that imparts to the timepiece a very harmonious look overall.

Putting all of this complexity in a 38mm case does, of course, come with some downsides from a sheer legibility standpoint. The text in the month and day windows is very hard to read in normal lighting, and the latter indication can be obscured entirely every time the minute hand passes over to indicate 10 minutes after the hour. 

What do all these buttons, pushers, and the crown do? The crown pulls out to two positions, the first intermediate one to advance the date; the second, outermost position to set the hour and minute hand. The inset pushers on the left side, which need to be activated with the firm push of a sharp-tipped object, are dedicated to adjusting the day and moon-phase display. The lower pusher controls the day display at 10 o’clock; curiously, it moves backwards rather than forwards in time (i.e, Monday to Sunday to Saturday). The upper pusher moves the moon disk forward in small increments. I have met very few watch enthusiasts who obsess much about the moon-phase being as accurate as the date, but if you’re one of them (like I am), the site moongiant.com can be helpful in setting this indication. 

The pump-style pushers on the right side play their traditional role in starting and stopping the chronograph and returning it to zero. A click of the top pusher sends the central seconds hand skipping briskly around the dial, traversing it once every 10 seconds (rather than the comparatively sluggish 60-second trip of most other chronographs). The small hands on the 3 o’clock and 6 o’clock subdials spring to action along with it: the former makes a complete rotation around its 60-second scale every minute, while the latter tallies up a maximum of one recorded hour of time on its 60-minute scale. Stop the central hand with another press of the top pusher to read the exact readout down to the 1/10 second, and a subsequent press on the lower pusher returns all the chronograph hands back to their starting positions; all the while the hand on the 9 o’clock subdial keeps tracking the running seconds, uninterrupted, in real time.

The dial has a sunburst finish, even though in most lighting situations it appears matte. The gold details somehow work, even with the large silvered areas that one would think might clash with them. At some point, probably not too long from now, Zenith will give us this exact dial colorway but in a rose-gold case, and that should really bring the house down, at least for the more moneyed enthusiasts.

The Movement: 

The multitasking engine inside the watch is Zenith’s El Primero 3610, a recent variation on the base Caliber 3600 which is the first Zenith in-house movement to combine the 1/10-second chronograph capability with the complete calendar functions plus moon-phase. Like all El Primero movements, it’s a wonder to behold visually as well as a marvel of high-tech horology.

The heavy oscillating weight is skeletonized and features in its center a cutout version of the Zenith star emblem. As it swings to supply the movement with its 60-hour power reserve (that's 10 hours longer than its predecessor in the El Primero series, Caliber 400), it passes over a labyrinthine construction of bridges and wheels, including a blued column wheel at bottom center to drive the stopwatch functions and the lateral clutch, with its patented two-wheel architecture, that interacts with it. The balance performs its rhythmic ballet in the upper right, beating at a lightning-quick 36,600 vph, or 5 Hz, which can be seen in the rapid rotation of the chronograph seconds hand around the dial. 

The Strap:

While it is the bracelet versions of the triple Calendar that have received probably the most critical attention, the green, softly grained calfskin leather strap on this model is worthy of praise. Enhanced with tone-on-tone green stitching and coming to a slight taper, it’s a perfect complement to the predominant colors of the dial and gives the watch a luxurious air. Securing it to the wrist is a double-folding clasp that opens with e push of two small side buttons mounted on the buckle; like the inset pushers on the case, a firm touch is required here, or at least it was on my loaner watch. Putting the watch on for the first time might take some fiddling; you have to find two proper holes in the strap in order to adjust it to the right wrist size: one for the buckle tongue, the other for the small peg that protrudes from the bottom of the buckle. Once these positions are secured, however, you’re good to go.

In actual wearing conditions, the Zenith Chronomaster Original Triple Calendar is a watch that exudes elegance despite its very utilitarian array of functions. On the steel bracelet that is also available on this model, I’d expect it would look a bit bolder and less understated, but that 38mm case is certainly more conducive to being subtly tucked under a shirt cuff than would something larger, like the 41mm case of the Chronomaster Sport. All of which, of course, begs an intriguing question: Now that Zenith has fulfilled the initial promise of its 55-year-old El Primero, as the base for both a chronograph and a triple calendar, where might we see the movement used next? Other colorways of the Chronomaster Original are probably inevitable, but it’s very tantalizing to imagine it adapted to the design language of a Chronomaster Sport or even a Defy model. Perhaps even a revival of the cult-classic Espada is not off the table. 

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