Zenith A386

Zenith A386

Zenith A386 Introduction

The Zenith A386, announced in January 1969, introduced the El Primero movement, the first automatic chronograph in production with an incorporated automatic chronograph movement. For details on the race to build the first automatic chronograph, read about Project 99 at OnTheDash.

Per Manfred Rossler in the catalog El Primero – The Chronograph (available in German only) from 2014, Zenith noted production of approximately 4,500 pieces. This updates previous estimates of no more than 2,000 Zenith A386s per Hodinkee, and 2,500 in Rossler’s original book Zenith. Production is estimated to have been between 1969 and 1972, with dates are based on serial numbers plus information from the Extracts from the Zenith Registers, and combined with information from original owners.

Special shout-out to LouS on OF. Thanks!

Zenith A386 Case Number Project

Here is my attempt to aggregate all of the Zenith A386s I have seen.
If you see any errors, or know of other Zenith A386s to add, please drop me a note with links or information.

For watches where the case number is not known (A386s do not have serial numbers on the movement), I have identified it by any portion of the case number known, plus a post date. Each line is not unique, rather a single A386 may appear on multiple lines as images are added over time. I have done this to both track pricing over time, if applicable, and track if the watch changes, such as whether hands or a crown is replaced, the case is polished, etc.

Caveats:

Description of case, hands, dial, tachy, and crown are based on images found on the internet, and often are guesses for images where the part is not clearly shown. In some cases, there is no image but posts have referenced an A386, and I use the information provided by posters.
The price is most often the asking price (converted to USD as of the date posted/seen), and the only “true” prices in this table are for auctions where the purchase price as known.

As with the rest of this Website, the following table, and data contained therein, is subject to Alpha Hands LLC Terms and Conditions


The above table, and data contained therein, is subject to Alpha Hands LLC Terms and Conditions

Zenith A386 Case and Mark

When referring to case numbers, note that the number is only engraved on the caseback. Numbers are not engraved on the case, such as between the lugs, or on the movement.

There are three different production batches (generally know as “Marks”) that are referenced when discussing Zenith A386s, based upon grouping of case numbers (see Zenith A386 Casebacks and Interiors section). Each A386, if correct, has a specific combination of case, sub-register hands, caseback and crown. You may see cases paired with incorrect casebacks, so if you try to identify solely based on case(back) number, that may lead to believe it is a believe the watch is from a different production.

The Mk 1 case is generally recognized as being the most rare, with estimates at <500 pieces in total, though not confirmed by Zenith. The final production batch, known as Mk 3, may be sub-divided into three other groups, for a total of five production batches. References are generally made to Mk 1-3, instead of Mk 1-5, as the watches produced in the final three production batches were all the same in combination of design of case and caseback. All cases are 38mm with 19mm lugs. The Mark 1 and Mark 2 are 9mm, plus 2mm for the plexi (11mm in total), and the Mark 3 is 10mm (1mm thicker due to different caseback with star), plus 2mm for plexi (12mm in total). The Mark 1 stands out versus the later product batches in that there is no groove in the case where the lugs merge into the body, it is a seamless transition to the flat top (see image below). Both the Mark 2 and Mark 3 feature this groove. The difference between the Mk 2 and Mk 3 batches are the caseback, with the Mk 3 featuring the “NATO” star, such as with the others from this period, the A384 and A385, and the A3817 and A3818. Other Zenith wathces with the flat caseback include the A787 and A788. ‘sempervivens’ posted a nice overview of the stainless steel Zenith El Primeros from 1969-1975.

There are bezels only at the top outside edges of the lugs. Bevels on the top inside of the lugs are due to polishing, and are not original to the watch.

The watch has tritium in the handset, chronograph seconds hand, and index hour marks.

Zenith A386 Case Design
The three production cases for the Zenith A386
Zenith A386 Casebacks
The four casebacks found on the Zenith A386

There is a Zenith A386-like watch that you may see that make you look twice. [Alert, alert! Correction ahead! Thanks OmegaForum crew!] Claimed as movement 3019 PHC, reference number WH 40801 from 1969, this can be seen in Roseller’s book, and made in 10 pieces. While I had first assumed it to be made-up like his “Unicorn”, images of similar watches appear in Zenith catalogs. Roseller’s book does not have an image, rather a reference number (other images can be found for the watch in gold, as well as in white gold with diamond bezel).

10 of them?!
Zenith A386 Caseback

Zenith A386s had one of three different caseback styles depending on batch of production.

There were two designs with plain caseback and a third with “NATO” star. All three versions had different stamping on the inside of the caseback.
The case number for the watch is located on the caseback exterior only, and features a set of numbers with a single letter, in the pattern ###X###. Note that the etching for the case number isn’t overly deep and wide for each number/letter, and if you see this it is generally a forgery.

The first caseback, associated with the Mk1 case, features a plain back and caseback interior with centered text:
ZENITH
SWISS MADE
ACIER
INOXYDABLE
(note that there is no SP number on this caseback)
Case numbers: 538Dxxx – 539Dxxx

The second caseback batch, known as Mk 2, again has a plain back, but with centered text:
SP
1205
ZENITH
SWISS MADE
ACIER
INOXYDABLE
Case numbers: 706Dxxx – 708Dxxx

The final caseback batch, Mk 3, has the Zenith star on back, with text in a circular pattern around the outside edge of the interior of the caseback. There are, however, two different casebacks that can be found in this set.
The first group has the following text:
Zenith at 12 o’clock
SWISS MADE at 3 o’clock
SP 1205 at 6 o’clock
ACIER INOXYDABLE at 9 o’clock

And groups into case numbers:
861Dxxx – 862Dxxx
922Dxxx – 923Dxxx

The second group has the following text:
Logo with M over Z inside a diamond at 12 o’clock
SWISS MADE at 3 o’clock
SP 1205 at 6 o’clock (with a slight gap between the 12 and the 05)
ACIER INOXYDABLE at 9 o’clock

This text may be found in group:
230Exxx – 233Exxx

Zenith A386 Casebacks
The four casebacks found on the Zenith A386

“SP” indicates Spillman, the case manufacturer for the Zenith A386 as well as other models, with “1205” as the caseback for this model. You may also see other incorrect casebacks such as those with “SP 1301”, indicating the caseback was original to a different Zenith model, either a A3817 or A3818.

Zenith A386 Dial

There are three different dials that are found on Zenith A386s.

Original dials come in one of two slightly different formats: “A under H” and “A offset to H” (see images below).
Details:
– The “A under H” dial features the first A in “AUTOMATIC” aligned below the first H in “CHRONOGRAPH”. These dials are found in Mk 1 (538D-539D), Mk 2 (706D-708D) and Mk 3 (861D-862D, 922D-923D) production batches. Outside of the Mk 1, we see this dial paired with the thick register hands.
– The “A offset to H” dial features the first A in “AUTOMATIC” offset, skewed to be aligned toward the space H and R in “CHRONOGRAPH”, and also features a bit more space in between the letters in ZENITH, see images below. These dials are found in the Mk 2 (706D high serials to 708D) and Mk 3 (861D-862D, 922D-923D, 230E-233E). One curiosity is that the Mk 3s with “offset” dials often have non-thick register hands (either thin or pointed).

It almost seems as if there were two production lines for dials/hands that started in late Mk 2 and extended through Mk3: one that was a standard line (“under” dial always paired with thick hands), and another with the “offset” dial that used different hands.

Zenith A386 Dials
The three dials found on the Zenith A386

Both of these dials feature thicker line connections between the registers at 3, 6 and 9 and the seconds track, and the bottom will read “T SWISS MADE T”, or “- SWISS MADE – T”. Original Zenith A386 dials should not read only “SWISS MADE”.

These dials are both original to the Zenith A386, and seemingly come from different dies within the same dial supplier.

The third dial commonly seen on Zenith A386s is a replacement service dial. The easiest way to spot this dial is that the different script, with the “El Primero” featuring an extended loop after the “o”.

There are no known Zenith A386s with jeweler co-branded dials, such as the TIFFANY & CO. Rolex dials.

Related, a similar dial can be found on the Zenith A3817, with the most notable difference being the blue text and lines in the running seconds register (paired with a blue hand), and the pyramid-shape of the 1/5 second mark in the minute track (the tip of the pyramid aligning with the even-numbered seconds).

Zenith A386 Main Hands

There are slight differences between the main hour and minute hands on the Zenith A386 between the production batches, though they can be difficult to tell unless you are looking at the different versions at the same time.

The Mk 1 hands are of one type, and the Mk 2 and Mk 3 (including all production batches) are another.

There are two differences that set Mk 1 hands apart from Mk 2 and Mk 3:

1. The rectangular section of lume in both hour and minute hands are as wide as the black painted rectangles at the tips of the hand. On the Mk 2/Mk 3, if you extended the sides of the lume rectangle to the black painted section, you can see that the lume section is more narrow. [pictures to come]

2. There is a smaller gap between the rectangular lume section on the hands and the black painted section on the Mk 1 than on the Mk 2/Mk 3, which has more of a gap.

Both versions appear to be the same length, with the tip of the hour hand crossing just over the tip of the minute marks.

Compared to service hands, the rectangular area of lume in the hands has a softer edge on original hands. Likewise the tips of the original hands will appear to have softer edges than service hands. Service hands will often appear much whiter in color as well.

Zenith A386 Register Hands

There are three types of Zenith register hands.

Register hands that were original to the Zenith A386 are white with flat ends, with a hole at the center to attach to the wheel (you’ll see some replacement or painted hands that are solid white at the center). The hands can be either “thin” or “thick”, but regardless of type, all three register hands should be consistent in shape (not one or two of a different size/design), and all should extend to the end of the second/minute/hour marks. The thin hands were found on Mk 1 cases, and thick hands on both Mk 2 and Mk 3.

The third type of register hand we see has a pointed end. These pointed register hands are used for service replacements, although we also see them appear in the last of the Mk 3 production (231E1+) pieces. My working assumption is that Zenith ran out of the original thick hands and began to use these pointed service hands on the final few hundred pieces of production, as I find it difficult to believe this type of design change would be intended at the tail end of production, even more so with no other changes made. Hopefully marketing material or advertisements will be found from this period in order to more conclusively say.

As an aside, when there are possibilities as to what is “original” to a watch, I generally take the conservative route and purchase those with all components commonly accepted as original to the watch, which can make it easier to sell if needed.

Zenith A386 Register Hands
Three types of register hands commonly found on the Zenith A386
Zenith A386 Tachymetre Scale

There are two common tachy scales for the A386, but only one that is original to these watches.

The easiest way the difference between the two:
the original tachymetre has an elongated “C”, whereas a service tachymetre scale has a rounded “C” (more shaped like a circle).

Zenith A386 Tachymetres
Zenith A386 Original and Service Tachymetres
Zenith A386 Crown

You will generally find one of three crowns on the Zenith A386.

The “large circle” crown design has Zenith star surrounded by a large circle close to the edge of the crown. This crown is an original crown available on Zenith A386s until 1972.

There is also the “small circle” crown, with a smaller Zenith star surrounded by a correspondingly smaller circle, set off from the edge of the crown. When we see this crown, it is virtually always on Mark 3 cases, though the “large circle” crown continued to be used during this period. I believe this crown can be original to all three production batches of Mark 3 cases, and was used as a service crown for Mark 1 and Mark 2.

The third crown commonly seen is the “inverted star”, a logo Zenith introduced in 1973. This square logo did not overlap with production of the Zenith A386, so these crowns are not original to the watch.

All other crowns you see on the Zenith A386 are not original. That includes the 5-pointed star (with top of crown flat), which was introduced in 2000, and unsigned crowns (those with no logo).

Four commonly seen crowns on the Zenith A386
Zenith A386 El Primero Movement

The Movement
The A386 uses the El Primero 3019 PHC high-beat movement, with 36,000 vibrations per hour (5 hz) permitting measurements to the tenth of a second, which at time of release (1969) compared to the competing Caliber 11 at 19,800 and Seiko 6139 at 21,600, and the standard 18,000 vph (2.5 hz, measuring to a fifth of a second).

Higher frequency brings greater precision, with fewer variations in rate due to external factors. Zenith compensated for the watch losing power more rapidly due to its high beat by incorporating a mainspring with 50-hour power reserve.

The movement contains additional letters stamped on the plate of some pieces, though I haven’t been able to discern a pattern. Letters may appear both above ‘SWISS MADE’ on the plate (A, B or C), and then also just to the left as (A, B or C); the letters do not need to match, though they may. If a letter appears above ‘SWISS MADE’, it does not mean that a letter will necessarily appear to its left. Likewise if there is a letter to the left, it does not mean there will be a letter above ‘SWISS MADE’, though it is quite rare that one would not (far more rare than a letter appearing above ‘SWISS MADE’, yet not to its left).

I am not sure what the code for these are (please let me know if you have any information.

[images to come]

The Rotor
There are two different rotors that were used across the different production batches.
In both Mk 1 (538Dxxx-539Dxxx) and Mk 2 (706Dxxx-708Dxxx) we see the most common rotor, with two lines of text, reading ‘ZENITH’ on the top line, and then ’31 JEWELS’ and ‘SWISS MADE’ on the second line.

Once we reach Mk 3 (861Dxxx-862Dxxx, 922Dxxx-923Dxxx, 230Exxx-233Exxx) we start to see increasing use of different rotor stamping with each of the batches. The late rotor stamping is seen rarely on the first batch of the Mk 3 (very late pieces only), but on a reasonable percentage (around 1/4) of the second batch, and then more of (around 1/2) of the last batch.

Zenith A386 Rotors
The two rotor designs found on the Zenith A386. The first in Mk 1, Mk 2 and Mk3, and the second in Mk 3 only.
Zenith A386 Bracelet and Strap

The Gay Freres bracelet, an optional purchase for the Zenith A386, has a slight taper from 18mm to 16mm, and uses 19mm ZJ endlinks (which cost an insane amount of money).

These “ladder” bracelets, as they are known, had ZENITH stamped on the outside of the buckle. On the inside, BREVETE GF STEELINOX SWISS MADE, and the quarter of bracelet production, with quarter shown as one digit above the year shown as 2 digits, is stamped. “GF” was shown with as the Gay Freres logo, with an image of a ram’s head between “G” and “F”. The quarter of bracelet production did not necessarily coincide with that of the A386 case production. Watches with a Gay Freres bracelet were delivered in a cylindrical box.

There are some bracelets, believed to be from early Zenith A386s, that do not have a date stamp.

The standard option for the Zenith A386 was a black leather strap with Zenith buckle, delivered with the watch in a thin square box.

If you are curious about the right endlinks for Zenith timepiece, check out this great Guide To Zenith Gay Freres Endpieces by…who else…LouS!

Zenith A386 boxes
Zenith A386 boxes
Zenith A386 Price Trends

The below price trend chart helps us understand what is happening in the market.

Caveats:
– The price points are often *asking* prices from dealers and forums, when final prices are not known (so often can be 20% or more above the final sale price)
– There are some clear outliers that have no grounding in reality, such as the Zenith A386 that sold at Phillips in 2018 for nearly $40k.
– Condition and originality will greatly impact the value of the piece. For example, A386s that have had their original hands replaced with service versions, or likewise the tachy and crown, can easily have their value in the market reduced by half.

The filters in the table will drive both what is displayed in the table, as well as in the price trends chart.

Unfortunately, the plugin used to generate the chart below may cause the chart to squished horizontally. As a workaround, if you adjust your browser window size slightly, the chart with adjust to proper full width.

As with the rest of this Website, the following table, and data contained therein, is subject to Alpha Hands LLC Terms and Conditions