The 2021 Zenith Chronomaster Sport is here, and I’m ready to discuss the most controversial new watch of 2021.
Make no mistake, from the moment press photos of this machine hit the web, the name of a famous Geneva-built chronograph was on the lips of every watch collector, pundit, and journalist in the business. But only firsthand experience merits credence, and I’ve had a chance to see, examine, operate, and wear the most significant new Zenith watch since late 2017’s Defy Inventor.
Does the new Zenith sports chronograph trade too heavily on its borrowed style, or is it a class-leading product in its own right? That depends on how much one values the Zenith-exclusive qualities of this watch, and those need to be sorted from the distinct Cosmograph-inflection of the dial side.
At face value, the Zenith Chronomaster Sport – I examined white dial reference 03.3100.3600/21.M3100 – is a 41mm stainless steel El Primero chronograph with styling features that parallel the Rolex Daytona. Launched in late January, the 2021 Chronomaster Sport immediately inspired comparisons to Rolex’s red-hot stainless steel and ceramic reference 116500LN. With a steel case, a ceramic bezel, an Oyster-like bracelet and clasp, and either a white or a black dial, the new Zenith offers neither apologies nor subterfuge regarding its source material.
From the case’s side profile or a three-quarter perspective of the lugs, the Chronomaster Sport looks more like a Zenith than a Rolex.
From a head-on perspective of the dial, the resemblance is harder to avoid. However, I also had a moment to examine the black dial version of the new Zenith, and I believe that the black-dial Chronomaster looks less like the corresponding Rolex than its white-dial counterpart even when viewed dead-ahead. The black dial model also reads as a larger watch due the seamless flow of black surfacing from dial to bezel; if you want the more distinctly “Zenith” execution of the Sport, choose the black dial.
Zenith’s new bracelet is well made, but it bears a close intentional resemblance to the Rolex Oyster bracelet found on the Daytona. A deployant clasp with a single folding hinge and a clamshell lock immediately recalls a similar component built by Rolex, but it lacks both the “Easylink” quick adjustment system and the secondary lift-lock trigger that keeps the Oyster secure even when the clamshell is displaced.
Moreover, Zenith’s clasp feels comparable to a 1990s Rolex clasp in metal gauge and solidity. Several divots have been drilled into the clasp to allow adjustment of the bracelet’s anchor point, but unlike those on the Rolex, these divots have been drilled clear through the clasp body, and they resemble the strap-tool holes on Oyster clasps of previous generations. To be fair, the $10,000 Zenith costs $3,150 less than a 2021 Daytona. Of course, for a $500 discount, the Chronomaster Sport can be purchased on a strap, but the full-bracelet model is the best value and the most visually cohesive option.
On the dial, Zenith’s well known overlapping chronograph registers break with the Rolex references. Tri-tone dial counters further depart from Geneva practice and clearly are products of Le Locle. The Chronomaster Sport incorporates a traditional Zenith date window at 4:30 on its dial, and that furthers its departure from the no-date Daytona.
A redesigned El Primero chronograph caliber ensures that the Chronomaster is as mechanically distinct as possible from its aesthetic precursor. Unlike the Daytona, the Chronomaster includes a sapphire display caseback. A push-down crown secures the case, but it matches the 100-meter water resistance of the Cosmograph. Pump pushers control the chronograph functions, and their lack of any screw-down or crown guard hardware distinguishes this facet of Zenith’s watch from the 116500LN.
Inside, the El Primero caliber 3600 continues the legacy of Zenith’s most famous product, but significant upgrades have been made compared to the older caliber 400. First seen in 2019 on the 50th anniversary Chronomaster 2.0, the Zenith 3600 increases the El Primero’s power reserve from 50 to 60 hours and adds a hacking seconds function. Chronograph operation continues to rely on a tandem of column wheel actuation and horizontal clutch engagement. Jewel count increases from the prior 31 to 35, and the 36,000 VpH escapement endures in unlubricated silicon.
Caliber 3600 also incorporates the Zenith “Striking 10th” foudroyant first showcased in 2010.
Thanks to this mechanism, the chronograph’s 1/10th of a second resolution can be read with greater ease by means of a chronograph seconds hand that traverses the full 360-degree main dial every ten seconds. The ceramic bezel has been calibrated so that each second of chronograph operation sees the seconds hand traverse six seconds’ worth of distance around the dial. By spreading the fractions of a second over 36 degrees of angular sweep, Zenith allows its user to more easily read partial seconds. This is a tremendous improvement over conventional displays of chronograph hash marks. Moreover, the Zenith Striking 10th system visually is spectacular.
Despite the protests of many Zenith fans and their claims to the contrary, this design is a clear nod to Rolex’s dominant Daytona, and Zenith is making a straightforward pitch to waitlisted Rolex buyers. Intriguingly, limited allotments of the new Zenith are being shipped to dealers, so it appears that Zenith is attempting to balance supply and demand in a familiar fashion that would make Hans Wilsdorf proud.
Many well-loved Zenith designs of the past including the Rainbows, De Lucas, the Cronometro Tipo CP-2 pilot’s chronograph, and the 1970s El Primero “TV Screen” have drawn heavily on the style of successful competitors. Past is prologue, and the newest addition to Zenith’s catalog combines a proven Rolex aesthetic with modicum of original cues and a brand-defining movement of class-leading quality.
This is a watch for those who understand Zenith history, can make peace with the derived design, and revere the importance of the movement over all other qualities of the watch. The 2021 Zenith Chronomaster Sport is a substantial product that is worth the $10,000 price of admission for an example on full bracelet. In a nutshell, I was impressed.