According to Merriam & Webster, the phrase “cover girl” is defined as “an attractive young woman whose picture appears on a magazine cover.” To the watch collecting community, there is only one watch attractive enough to earn this nickname: the Zenith El Primero reference A3818. Early in 2009, author Manfred Rössler published his book “Zenith: Swiss Watch Manufacture Since 1865.” On its cover he featured an example of the reference A3818 from his personal collection.
Asked why he chose this watch, he indicated that the attractiveness of the dial compelled him to do so. It is unclear who, exactly, first called the A3818 by its now-famous nickname. We do know that on November 29, 2009, Watchuseek forum user Gombrich posted pictures of an example that he had acquired. The subject of his post was “Cover Girl” and the first sentence of his post was: “Those of you who have the Zenith book will know what I mean.”
In early March of 2020, Zenith, in collaboration with the publications Revolution and The Rake, released the El Primero Chronomaster Revival A3818 “Cover Girl” reference 03.A3818.400/51.M3818, retailing for $8,200. The watch was produced in a limited run of 100 and sold out quickly. Zenith and their collaborators had very fortunate timing with this product launch, narrowly avoiding the pandemic “lockdown” period which began globally in mid-to-late March.
The original Cover Girl had similar serendipity. It was launched in 1971. In 1972, Zenith Radio Company acquired Zenith the watch brand. Soon thereafter, all manufacturing of mechanical watches at Zenith stopped. The estimated production run of the Cover Girl was somewhere around 1,000. Although the original Cover Girl and its reincarnation were separated by more than 35 years, they both debuted on the verge of watershed moments in Zenith’s history.
The modern Cover Girl is not an identical replica of its vintage predecessor. Let’s review the unchanged design elements. The reissue features a 37mm tonneau-style case in steel with brushwork in a sunburst pattern emanating from the edge of the crystal. The edges of the case are sharply angled. The crown and round chronograph pushers are unguarded.
Arguably the most distinguishing feature of the Cover Girl is the dial’s 300 demarcation lines encircled by the angled rehaut. This design is visually reminiscent of many patterns, including shark’s teeth, a sine wave, and pyramids. Given the high frequency of the El Primero movement (more on this later), the lines also serve a practical purpose. They allow a wearer to time an event to within 1/5th of a second. The rehaut itself has a double function. There is a pulsations scale, which is particularly helpful for health care providers taking vital signs. There is also a tachymeter scale, which allows the wearer to calculate an object’s speed when it travels a known distance.
The blue dial on the Cover Girl has vertical “Superman” brushing punctuated by three subdials: running seconds, accumulated minutes, and accumulated hours. Each are embellished by engraved concentric circles. Encircling each of the subdials is a track colored in an alternating dark blue and light blue pattern. There is a trapezoidal date window at 4:30. The chronograph seconds hand sports a bright red color which pops against the blue background. Chronograph seconds are readable in dim conditions thanks to a rectangular lume plot.
Implementation of lume is perhaps the most distinct difference between the original and modern Cover Girl. All hands are rhodium-plated and embellished by lume in the modern edition, including the fine subdial hands. The pedestal-shaped rhodium-plated hour indicators are likewise luminous. The modern dial offers an over-the-top glow through the execution of luminous material on the 300 time demarcations, the pulsometer track, the tachymeter track, and the Arabic numerals on the subdials. A domed sapphire crystal with double coating of anti-reflective material covers the dial.
The second significant update in the modern Cover Girl is the display case back, also in sapphire. There, a collector will encounter fine finishing details such as the skeletonized rotor with “Côtes de Genève” striping. On full display is the in-house El Primero 400 caliber movement running at a frequency of 36,000 vph. This comparatively high cadence provides more reliability and accuracy in timekeeping. The El Primero movement has a long and distinguished legacy. It dates to the first year of the automatic mechanical chronograph: 1969 (we will not wade into the heated debate over which automatic chronograph movement was first). The history of this movement is now an epic tale in the chronicle of Swiss watchmaking.
When Zenith Radio Company scrapped mechanical watch production in 1975, the existing designs, parts and tooling were thrown away. A senior engineer employed at the manufacturer’s Ponts-de-Martel facility defied management directives and carefully hid disassembled equipment in the attic. Many years later this horological treasure was uncovered by the brand and the El Primero was resurrected. Rolex would go on to use the El Primero reference in its Cosmograph Daytonas from roughly 1987 through 2000 (the Rolex caliber 4030 is based upon the El Primero).
The modern El Primero caliber 400 has the same frequency as the vintage Cover Girl caliber 3019 PHC. They also have a column wheel chronograph mechanism in common. This design is often preferred by collectors due to its reputation for bringing a crisper feel to the chronograph functions. A 50-hour power reserve and date complication are offered in both editions of the Cover Girl.
A standout feature of the Cover Girl, then and now, is the “Gay Frères” ladder bracelet. It is made in steel and is visually similar to Rolex’ Oyster bracelet, for good reason. Bracelet manufacturer Gay Frères supplied that design to Rolex and ultimately was acquired by the brand in 1998. The ladder style bracelet is akin to an Oyster bracelet with spaces between the center links. This arguably provides more breathability to the bracelet, a welcome characteristic during warmer months or during a strenuous activity.
In the El Primero Chronomaster Revival A3818 “Cover Girl” reference 03.A3818.400/51.M3818, Zenith introduced an authentic update to its highly desirable vintage predecessor. With roots in the earliest origins of automatic chronographs and a legacy of narrowly surviving the quartz crisis, it is no surprise that collectors find the modern Cover Girl equally, if not more, attractive as its antecedent. Given the limited production volume of the modern Cover Girl, it is likely that there will be many buyers for each example that is available for sale in the near future.