Just Because: The Movado Datron HS360, A More Budget-Friendly El Primero

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One of the most fascinating and important milestones in wristwatch history was the race to manufacture the world’s first self-winding chronograph. This race culminated in 1969 with three factions crossing the finish line with competing claims to the prize – the Project 99 group of Heuer, Hamilton-Buren, Dubois-Depraz and Breitling, Seiko, and Zenith. And while we’re not going to go into the nuances of each party’s claims here (Jeff Stein does an excellent job of that already), suffice it to say, any one of these early automatic chronographs is a special one to own. But with the exception of some Seiko 6139 chronos, the early Chrono-matics and especially Zenith El Primeros come with fairly high price tags, which is why the Movado Datron HS360 is such an appealing option.

Of the three seminal self-winders, the El Primero was, and still is, perhaps the most appealing, at least visually. The Chrono-matics of Heuer, Hamilton, and Breitling were modular movements, layering the auto-winding timekeeping bits on top of the chronograph module, making for a thicker case and an awkward left-side crown. The Seiko 6139 has a polarizing design, with a single chronograph counter and often dated color schemes. But the first Zenith El Primero, reference A386, had good proportions, a colorful tri-compax dial layout and integrated auto-winding, high-beat movement – all features Zenith leverages to this day in its modern chronos. Finding a vintage one in good shape these days will set you back a fair sum; there were rumored to be only about 2,000 produced.

Watch pricing is often as much about the name on the dial as it is the movement inside, as evidenced by so many of the Venus/Valjoux 72-driven chronos of the ’60s, whose prices vary wildly. Even among the early Chrono-matics, the Hamiltons are much more affordable than their Heuer equivalents.

Over on the El Primero side, it is the Movado Datron that provides a similar example. Movado suffers nowadays from a reputation it earned from selling so many ghastly quartz dress watches in the 1980s, so vintage examples tend to be less desirable. But back in the 1960s and ’70s, Movado was in partnership with Zenith and sold some fantastic watches. The Datron HS360 is one of them.

The 3019PHC El Primero movement (image courtesy Calibre 11)The 3019PHC El Primero movement (image courtesy Calibre 11)

The 3019PHC El Primero movement (image courtesy Calibre 11)

The Datron HS360, which first appeared in late 1969 or early ’70 with the name “Datachron HS360,” had much of the same DNA as the Zenith, and of course that fantastic 3019PHC El Primero movement, beating along at 36,000 vibrations per hour and capable of tracking elapsed time down to 1/10th of a second. But while the El Primero movement in Zenith’s watches bristled with 31 jewels, most Movados got stripped down to 17 to reduce import duties based on jewel counts, and to provide a more accessible watch to American consumers.

The 38 mm, tonneau-shaped case is still a good fit and look for modern wrists and the sub dials don’t overlap on the dial like its Zenith brethren, making it a more readable chronograph. The Datron HS360 was available in a steel or gold case, with white or black dials and a bracelet option. Most sported “panda” contrasting sub dials, either black on white or white on black, and there was even a 42 mm dive version made with a rotating bezel called the Datron HS360 Sub Sea.

These Movado Datrons can be found on sales forums and auction sites regularly and are relatively affordable (under $3,000), incredibly wearable, and a legitimate piece of history. Servicing them can be tricky, so it’s important to find a watchmaker experienced with El Primeros. (But seeing as Zenith is still making a version of this same movement, that shouldn’t be difficult.) All of this raises the question: what would you rather own – a mass-produced modern chronograph with an off-the-shelf ETA movement in it, or one of the original high-beat, self-winding chronographs for the same price or less? We know what we’d choose.