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Feature: Rolex Daytona vs Zenith Chronomaster Sport

Zenith's making big moves with the Chronomaster Sport. Big, obvious moves. There hasn’t been such a big, obvious move since Antz and A Bug’s Life came out within eight weeks of each other back in 1998, when Jeffrey Katzenberg took on the full might of Disney with his newly founded Dreamworks. But can Zenith do what Dreamworks couldn’t and take the fight to the corporate giant? Here are three reasons we think it can.

The Looks

No doubt about it, the Zenith Chronomaster Sport is a handsome watch. Now, I could have told you that without seeing it because the first thing I heard about the Chronomaster Sport is that it looks incredibly similar to another very handsome watch.

When it comes to chronographs, the Rolex Daytona is by and large the most desirable to have ever existed. It’s hard to call it the most attractive, but with its simple good looks and rugged practicality, dashed with a hint of premium feel, it’s a universal fact that it is a quintessential example of the genre. If you asked someone to draw a chronograph watch, eleven out of ten times they’d draw a Daytona.

So, if you’re looking to make a chronograph of your own and you want to maximise your chances of success, makes sense to not reinvent the wheel and take some inspiration from a known, effective entity—and I think it’s safe to say that’s exactly what Zenith’s done here. “Scoundrels!” you might be thinking, and ordinarily I’d agree—but hold on a minute, because these two have got history.

Rolex owes Zenith and owes Zenith big. Without Zenith’s El Primero chronograph calibre, the transition into what we see today would never have happened. When Rolex dropped the manually wound Valjoux 72 to catch up with the rest of the world and go automatic as late as 1988, it was Zenith, albeit in a deeply wounded state from the destruction of the quartz crisis, that stepped up to the plate.

So, think of this as Zenith collecting on that debt of just over three decades ago. Sure, the hands, straight as they are with the black stripe running through them, are almost indistinguishable, and the bezel in black ceramic with high contrast engraved lettering is like rewording someone else’s homework with the synonym tool, and the three-piece bracelet with polished centre links—including matching, but somehow much worse clasp—are differentiated only by a slight polished lip on the edge—but it’s only fair.

It’s probably safe to say that the 1988 Daytona helped turn Rolex into the absolute giant it is today, quickly amassing waiting lists several years long, and were it not for Zenith and the El Primero movement, that might never have happened. For you and I that results in a familiarly handsome watch that still carries some equally familiar traits of the original El Primero, namely the overlapping, multi-coloured sub dials and arced case—a best of both worlds, if you like.

The Movement

So, although the Daytona used the El Primero movement, supposedly the first self-winding, non-modular—that is to say, built as one, not in separate layers—chronograph in the world—or maybe just Switzerland as Seiko may have beaten Zenith to it—Rolex weren’t entirely enamoured with it.

The El Primero was built as a technical powerhouse that not only combined an automatic movement with a chronograph but did so with a high beat. Most movements in the 1960s when it first came to be ticked eight times per second or less, which, when you think about it, is kind of rubbish for a chronograph. If you want to time something to a tenth of a second—well, you couldn’t. You’d have to make do with rounding to the nearest one-and-a-quarter tenth.

Not the El Primero. That beat ten times per second for full tenth-of-a-second accuracy. So, for Rolex’s new and improved chronograph watch, it actually ditched the high beat, taking the bizarre decision to detune it back to eight beats per second. This was supposedly to increase reliability and reduce servicing; I guess Rolex knew its customer base well enough to know the chronograph would be merely decorative. It doubled down with its own follow-up in-house movement, the calibre 4130, which also only beats eight times per second.

So, if you want the full force of the El Primero movement with everything turned up to eleven, you have to go straight to the source: Zenith. The bezel of the Chronomaster Sport is quite keen to point that out, and so too is the blistering centre second hand that does one lap of the whole dial in just ten seconds. But that’s just the beginning; not only can you measure one tenth of a second, you also get other luxuries such as a date, and a crown and pushers that don’t have to be screwed down to match the Daytona’s 100m depth rating. Even with the extra two beats per second, the power reserve only loses out by ten hours for 60 hours total.

You might be forgiven for thinking the El Primero is a bit of a relic, a monument of its time but outdated in comparison to the Rolex, and perhaps you might have been right, had Zenith not given this new calibre 3600 iteration a complete overhaul. Advanced silicon materials abound, and a rethink of the gear train has reduced the parts count to make it more efficient, one of the reasons power reserve is up from previous versions. All in all, it remains the benchmark for chronograph performance.

The Buying Experience

So far the reasons given for why you might part with your hard-earned could sway a person either way. Perhaps you don’t care about those extra two beats per second. Perhaps the extra millimetre in the Zenith’s diameter at 41mm is just a pinch too much for you. Perhaps you quite simply prefer the word “Rolex” to the word “Zenith”.

Well, how about this: never mind parting with your hard-earned, how about how much of that hard-earned you have to part with in the first place? Since the Daytona’s evolution into its current ceramic-bezelled state, it’s seen its RRP creep the wrong side of £10,000. I know it’s comparing apples and oranges, but that kind of money gets you a used H. Moser or any number of incredible Jaeger-LeCoultres. It’s a price bracket that opens you up to some of the great masters too, like Blancpain, Breguet and Jacquet Droz. That little crown doesn’t come cheap.

By comparison, the Zenith Chronomaster Sport will, at £8,300, save you almost enough to get a Tudor Black Bay 58 as well. And, although the newly released Chronomaster Sport is a little tricky to get hold of right now—a sign of the positive reception it’s received—that, unlike the Daytona, won’t be the case for ever. This is a watch that you will be able to try on and buy and not feel like you should be grateful for the opportunity. Remember when the retailer was the one doing the thanking, and not the other way round? Those glory days await.

Imagine if, back in 1998 when A Bug’s Life came out, you had to show proof you’d seen Toy Story at least three times before and only then would they let you join the waiting list to see the movie. And then, to add insult to injury, the tickets cost 25% more and there weren’t any tickets left anyway because they’d only printed a handful. If that were the case, perhaps Antz would have fared a bit better.

If the Rolex is the watch you just have to have, then so be it. And in the meantime, while you wait for your number to be called, why not just get a Zenith Chronomaster Sport instead. The looks of the Daytona with a flash of Zenith brilliance and cash left in your back pocket for later—what’s not to like? And—wink wink nudge nudge—if you wait a little longer you’ll probably be able to pick one up pre-owned for even less. Alright, so that’s not exactly a win against Rolex for Zenith, but it’ll be a win for you—and that’s what really counts.

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