The Beckertime Rivalry Series: The Rolex Daytona Versus the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Sport
For this edition of our ‘Rivalry’ series, we take a look at two watches that manage to be fierce competitors while also sharing a vital bond in each others narratives.
The history of the Rolex Daytona and its incredible success hinges massively on the technological breakthrough Zenith made with their El Primero.
For anyone in the dark, when Rolex launched their first production chronograph in 1963 it was the closest that giant of a brand had come to experiencing out-and-out failure.
There was nothing at all wrong with the watch. It was an excellent, handsome and beautifully engineered piece, as you would expect from the manufacture which had already just brought out the Explorer, Submariner, GMT-Master, Day-Date and Milgauss all within the space of six or seven years.
Rolex was on a high and fully expected their racer’s stopwatch to carry on their single-minded rise to the top of the industry.
Yet when the Daytona hit the shelves, it was met with a great shrug of indifference. Its image was hampered by its manually winding caliber—something of an irony seeing as it was made by the marque which had produced the first workable automatic movement.
But that was in the 1930s and by the time the Daytona was released the world was into the burgeoning Space Age, and not only were self-winding watches par for the course, but the first rumblings of quartz technology were starting to be heard. A watch you had to remember to wind yourself everyday seemed positively archaic and to make matters worse, if a buyer wanted a manually-wound chronograph, Omega had already cornered the market with their Speedmaster, soon to be named NASA’s official timepiece for all space missions.
So the Daytona lagged behind massively and would continue to do so until someone came along and invented an automatic chronograph movement, seen as the last holy grail of mechanical watchmaking at the time.
In 1962, they decided to address the challenge, teaming up with fellow countrymen, Movado and setting to work. However, they weren’t alone. In Japan, Seiko had also set their minds to the project, as had a consortium of other Swiss brands (Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton-Buren and Dubois Depraz) known as the Chronomatic Group.
The three-way race ended in 1969 with three different and variously successful movements. Seiko brought us the 6139. The Chronomatic Group had made the Caliber 11. And Zenith’s effort was the El Primero.
The Zenith Daytona
Unfortunately, due to the quartz crisis, Zenith went out of business soon after before they were able to put their new engine into serious production. It would take until 1978 before they started up again (which is a whole other story you’d probably enjoy reading: Google ‘Charles Vermot’).
With Ebel buying up all the surplus El Primeros made before Zenith declared bankruptcy, much needed funds flooded back into the brand’s coffers and made them a viable concern once again.
That was enough for Rolex to approach in 1986 and sign a 10-year deal for the brand to supply their caliber to go inside the second generation Daytona. After performing their own extensive modifications (slowing the frequency down to 28,800vph from the original 36,000vph and removing the date function among them) Rolex unveiled the new iteration in 1988—and kicked off the watch’s rise to becoming perhaps the most important sports model of all time.
While that movement, renamed the Cal. 4030 by the time Rolex’s engineers had finished tinkering with it, was itself replaced with the brand’s own in-house mechanism in 2000, the so-called Zenith Daytonas remain a highly sought after collection on the preowned and vintage market.
So in many ways, we have Zenith to thank for the success of the Daytona, and Rolex to thank for providing Zenith’s working capital at a crucial time, but that hasn’t stopped a competitive rivalry between the two manufactures.
Rolex Daytona versus the Zenith Chronomaster Sport: Basic Details
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the modern day versions of both watches and their important fundamentals:
The Rolex Daytona ref. 116500LN
|Materials||904L Stainless Steel|
|Functions||Time with Running Seconds. Chronograph|
|Bezel||Black Cerachrom Fixed Bezel w/Tachymeter Scale|
|Movement||Rolex Manufacture Cal. 4130|
|Bracelet||Three-Link Oyster Bracelet. 904L Steel|
The Zenith Chronomaster Sport
|Materials||316L Stainless Steel/Rose Gold|
|Functions||Time with Running Seconds. Chronograph. Date Display|
|Bezel||Black/Tri-color Ceramic Fixed Bezel w/Tachymeter Scale|
|Movement||Zenith Manufacture El Primero|
|Bracelet||Three-Link Steel Bracelet/Leather or Rubber Strap|
As you can see, while there are plenty of different versions of each watch, and the Daytona in particular, we are going to stick with the entry level, stainless steel examples of both.
First things first, these are two utterly beautiful watches to look at. Either one will grab attention and offers up plenty of wrist presence. But there is something of an elephant in the room.
When Zenith launched the Chronomaster is 2021, it was immediately flagged up for its resemblance to the Rolex. However, was all the criticism fair?
Let’s examine each one in turn.
The Daytona has long been one of the most handsome luxury chronographs on the market. In the iconic stakes, it is only really Omega’s Moonwatch that can claim the same sort of instant recognition and admiration. The neatly compact 40mm case, the intelligently designed dial furniture, the subtly understated color schemes offering exceptional contrast without overbearing. It is all so very…Rolex. There is a robust tastefulness behind the watch, one which has drawn on the lessons of its lengthy history and early disappointments. It is now a triumph of industrial design, but one which doesn’t feel the need to shout it from the rooftops. A class act, in other words.
With the Zenith, while there is certainly a likeness (and if you’re going to make a chronograph which looks like another chronograph, why wouldn’t you choose the Daytona?) if you examine more closely, there are virtually no elements on the Chronomaster which are the same.
The case is larger, only by 1mm in diameter but about 1.5mm in thickness at 13.6mm. The lugs are far sharper and there’s no crown guard. Similarly, the handset is wider, the indexes a different shape and the all-important sub dials are set out differently.
That tricolor, overlapping arrangement is vintage Zenith, first appearing on the El Primero A386 from 1969. It not only gives a key visual but allows the totalizers to be larger and more readable.
Really the only part of the two watches that do share a genuine likeness is the bezel, and that is down to them both being ceramic. That muted gloss finish is unmistakable, but take a look at the scales on both. The Daytona has its time-honored tachymeter while the Chronomaster has gradations for reading off tenths and hundredths of a second—just a little clue to what is ticking away under the hood.
As mentioned, the Daytona family is a well stocked one. In fact, it is the most abundantly supplied series out of the whole of Rolex’s Professional Collection.
There are, however, only two steel examples these days, both fitted with Cerachrom bezels, one with a black dial and the other with white. The completely monochrome faces are only broken up by the Daytona signature itself, picked out in red above the 6 o’clock counter to add a pop of color.
As for the bracelet, there is the choice of the three-link Oyster or nothing, while many of the precious metal pieces come with the option of Rolex’s Oysterflex rubber strap to up the sporty quotient.
With Zenith, their Chronomaster is also available with either a black or white dial, but there is now a ‘Boutique Edition’ (limited edition to you and me) with a grey dial and a stunning tricolor bezel mirroring the sub dials. Furthermore, along with the three-link steel bracelet, you can have your model on a rubber strap of its own; black on the black dialed piece and blue on the white dial.
Functions & Movements
Both of these watches do what they do extremely well.
The Daytona is powered by Rolex’s own Cal. 4130, the replacement for the Cal. 4030, (the El Primero by another name), the last movement the brand has ever used supplied by a third party.
The Cal. 4130 has been in service since 2000, a relatively long time for a Rolex caliber, but it is still considered one of the best chronograph mechanisms ever made. It also has the fewest parts of any modern chrono engine, just 201 components, a 60% drop on the El Primero.
In true Rolex fashion, their engineers have gotten the most performance out of the fewest constituents, draining every last ounce of efficiency out of each one.
For example, where the old Cal. 4030 had two separate modules controlling the minute and hour sub dials, on the Cal. 4130 they have been combined into one. It means the entire chrono unit can now be regulated with a single screw as opposed to the previous five. In addition, there is now a longer mainspring, raising the power reserve from 50 to 72-hours, and the Daytona was the watch that introduced not only ceramic ball bearings in the self-winding system but also Rolex’s Parachrom hairspring, with all its shock, heat and magnetic resisting goodness.
And, of course, the Cal. 4130’s chronograph utilizes a vertical clutch rather than a horizontal one, increasing its timekeeping precision and eliminating any backlash on the central chrono hand.
The Zenith Chronomaster is driven by the second generation of the El Primero 3600. And that name is an important one. Unlike the Daytona’s movement, which has a frequency of 28,800vph (the standard for all Rolex calibers) the Zenith has a frequency of 36,000vph, allowing its chronograph to measure increments down to 1/10th second. To this day, there are a mere handful of watches—from the likes of TAG Heuer, Breguet and Grand Seiko mainly—able to do it.
The movement itself has a foudroyante complication, otherwise known as a Flying Seconds function. It means that the central chrono hand completes its rotation of the dial in 10 seconds, giving the ability—coupled with the 1/10th seconds scale on the bezel—to better measure fractions of a second.
There are other differences as well, both good and bad. The 3600 uses a lateral clutch and has a lower power reserve than the Daytona of 65-hours. Its chrono buttons are push pieces while the Rolex’s are screw down. Rolex also has a screw down crown which the Zenith does not.
But the Chronomaster has a date display tucked away at the four o’clock and it benefits from an exhibition case back to let you see what’s going on inside.
Here we go!
‘Technically’ the price of Rolex’s Daytona ref. 116500LN is $13,150. Which is actually something of a bargain, considering the watch’s talents, heritage and bloodline.
However, unless you have an extremely close relationship with your AD, or possess massive amounts of patience, chances are you won’t be getting yours for that price. The situation is reportedly improving, but not so long ago, the Daytona was among the least accessible watches in the game. Waiting lists running into years were common, as were exceedingly frustrated patrons.
Even today, you are likely in for a long delay before you get your hands on one through official channels, leading many to turn to the preowned market. And that, of course, puts premiums on the ‘as new’ models.
Just a quick look now and the cheapest example I can see online for a 2022 watch is (wait for it) about $45,000!
This is not the case with the Zenith. The retail price starts at $9,500 and finishes at $10,000, depending on whether you want yours on rubber or steel.
Yes, but how much will you actually have to pay? That’s easy. It’s either $9,500 or $10,000.
No jumping through hoops, no 350% mark ups. Just wander into a Zenith dealer and either take one home there and then or wait for about three months tops.
It’s all so jolly civilized!
Of course, the very obvious upswing of buying the Daytona is, if you do in fact manage to get one at retail, you are going to make a serious profit if you ever decide to sell it on.
So there we have our rundown of the Rolex Daytona versus the Zenith Chronomaster Sport. Perhaps the main takeaway is that both are beautifully executed and highly capable luxury chronographs. Beyond that, you could argue that the Zenith is the less obvious choice and, ironically, the more exclusive.
But countering that is the Rolex’s unavoidably superior performance as a financial asset in the future.
While we would never recommend basing your decision on money alone, it is always something to consider.
Yet, whichever you choose, you are taking possession of perhaps the best watches of their type currently available.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.