Zenith ‘Blue Surf’ 01.1291.380

This Zenith was purchased in 2005 as ‘new old stock’ (NOS) from West Coast Time. Although relatively inexpensive to acquire, it has some interesting features that I would like to highlight.  Please do add comments or corrections to this post – there is always something new to be learned about any timepiece!

The watch’s date of manufacture is most likely mid-1970s since between 1972 and 1973 Zenith switched from a single star to a square star logo at 12 o’clock and started to engrave ##.####.### model numbers on the caseback. These design changes were adopted following the controversial acquisition of the Zenith-Movado-Mondia partnership by the US Zenith Electronics Corporation. It should be noted that vintage Zeniths of this period possess no unique serial number; the caseback features only a model identifier, while a second caliber number appears on the movement itself.  Unfortunately, Zenith produced relatively few catalogues, making it difficult to de-code the 9-digit sequence in its entirety. If any reader can add anything to the following suggestive commentary, please post your comments! The first two integers  refer to the case material: 01 denoting stainless steel. The middle four numbers refer primarily to the case shape and dial colour. 1290 and 1291, describe barrel or tonneau shaped cases with white and blue dials respectively. In contrast, 1280 is applied to pieces with a round case and white dial, while 1250 denotes a tank-style case with a white dial. 1311 is a blue dial with curved lugs, while a 1541 has a blue dial, round case, and a date window at 3pm. In other models, dials are similarly blue if the middle series ends in one; for example 01.0011.380 (Pilot) and 01.1301.380 (Scania). The last three digits in the sequence reference the movement, 380 being the code for the 2572 PC caliber.

West Coast Time advertised this piece as a  ‘Blue Surf’ – a description commonly applied to the model. The term surf, however,  is merely an abbreviation of ‘surface stainless steel’. The case is made from molybdenum-bearing grade stainless steel (316L) and has a machined finish. Molybdenum is highly resistant to corrosion, while the ‘L’ after 316 indicates that the steel is low carbon, which renders it easier to machine and offers increased tensile strength across a wide temperature range. It is the standard grade of steel in modern watch-making. The crown is not screw-down and nor is the piece pressure tested to withstand water immersion beyond 30 metres (3 ATM, accidental splashes only). ‘Auto Sport’ is another false descriptor sometimes applied to what is a dress watch without designation.

As indicated by the model number, time is regulated by a 17 jewel in-house 2572 PC movement. This is the final iteration in the 25X2 series produced for Zenith’s three-handed mechanicals between 1958 and 1978, where X denotes the movement version. A base 25X2 is hand-wound, P (perpetual or power) signifies the watch is an automatic, and C (calendar disk) that it incorporates a date function. The dates of the series, grouped by frequency, are as follows: 2511 (1958) and 2522 PC (1958-62) are both 18,000 bph and were originally developed by the Martel company, which Zenith acquired in 1960. 2532 PC (1961-4), 2542 PC (1964-9), and 2552 PC (1969-72) are all 21,600 bph. The last two incarnations, the 2562 PC (1972-5), and 2572 PC (1975-8), operate at high-frequency 28,800 bph. Many 2572 PC’s have ‘unadjusted’ engraved on them. An unadjusted movement does not incorporate any attempts to ensure that the error rate in different orientations (for example, dial up and crown down) is minimised. A few examples have a model number which ends 382 instead of 380. These denote the slightly higher grade 2572 PC ‘E’, which incorporates kif trior shock protection.

After the mid-1970s, under the direction of its new owners, Zenith began a disastrous attempt to compete in the quartz market. American Zenith ended the Swiss branch’s capacity to produce in-house movements by ordering the destruction of equipment, selling the Martel factory, and making skilled craftsmen redundant. For several decades afterwards, ébauches were used in the company’s mechanicals. In consequence, production of the 2572 PC ceased in 1978. After exhausting left-over stock, Zenith began installing the ETA 2892 in its Port Royal model from the early 1980s. From 1985, however, in-house calibers were reintroduced, commencing with chronographs. The revival of the El Primero was aided by the survival of original tools famously saved by Charles Vermot (head of Swiss movement production) in defiance of his American masters. In 1994, the ultra-thin Elite caliber began appearing in three-hand automatics. Incredibly, after a hiatus of 36 years, in 2011 Zenith’s CEO, Jean-Frédéric Dufour, announced plans resurrect caliber 2572 following the company’s re-acquisition of movement manufacturer Martel. It now features in entry-level Port Royal models. Since the 1970s original also featured close collaboration between Zenith and Universal Genève/Martel, the reissued movement (that features a modified rotor but is otherwise essentially unchanged) springs from the same historical stable as the old.

The automatic is a tidy piece. SS case, 36mm in diameter, 11.5 mm thickness, and solid screw-on caseback. Blue dial with the Zenith logo at 12 o’clock and annotated ‘Zenith’, ‘Automatic’, and ‘Swiss Made T’. The latter initial stands for tritium (H-3) – a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that emits low-energy beta particles. When chemically bonded with phosphorous, the beta-decay electrons issued from the tritium cause the phosphorous to fluoresce. Since tritium has a half-life of 12.32 years, a watch manufactured in 1975 would in practical terms have lost most of its brightness by 2000. Steel tritium-tipped hour batons and matching baton minute and hour hands with tritium inserts. Steel sweep second hand. Two-click (non-hackable) crown signed with Zenith logo. Acrylic crystal. The piece is worn on a (non-Zenith) black leather strap and deployment clasp.

The 2572 PC improved on its predecessor in the 25X2 series in three main respects. Firstly, it incorporates a kif ultraflex anti-shock protection system rather than incabloc. Secondly, it employs a micrometer regulator (a fine-tuning screw) to adjust the poise of the balance wheel, thereby controlling the watch’s rate of oscillation. This replaced the excenter fine adjustment regulator used in both the 2552 PC and 2562 PC calibers. The excenter consisted of an off-centre pin with a screw head that, when turned clockwise or counter clockwise, engaged a fork, speeding up or slowing down the balance wheel. Thirdly, the caliber features a quick-set date capability in both directions. Characteristically, for a Zenith, the  date window is positioned between 4 and 5 o’clock. The rapidity with which the date changes is a further distinctive trait of this movement. Both the 2562 and 2572 have a power reserve of 43 hours (the re-issued 2572 PC raises this to 48 hours) and efficiency is boosted by a ball bearing rotor. A ball bearing crown wheel (introduced from the 2552 PC onwards) also reduces the force needed to wind up the movement.

Despite only light use, this watch did not wear well immediately post-purchase. The following issues are fairly typical of what vintage owners must expect to encounter, from time to time. Specks appeared on the dial, probably the result of a patina problem. The crystal picked up light scratches and the winding crown stiffened, raising concerns it might break. Initially, the piece kept time to within 5-10 seconds per day but accuracy deteriorated relatively quickly. The movement’s performance is typical of NOS where discontinued watches come on to the market after spending long periods in storage and oils dry up, necessitating a service. To resolve these issues the piece was sent for repair to the UK Zenith and Movado specialists, West Repairs. Post-service, however, water droplets appeared on the inside of the crystal despite the piece passing a condensation test. The watch was returned for further work and at the same time a decision was also taken to re-finish the dial, in view of a number of blemishes around the rim. Re-finishing is controversial and on a more valuable model it would have been preferable to retain the original version, even in a less than pristine condition. Restoration revealed that the colouring was iodised blue and no company could be sourced in the UK still using iodisation techniques. The re-finished dial is a colour-matched blue spray. It is an adequate job but the appearance is a tiny bit duller, lacking the shimmer of an iodised equivalent. The restoration also omitted the ‘T’ after ‘Swiss Made’ at 6 and has left the date window un-framed.

My experiences with the 01.1291.380 are part and parcel of vintage ownership. At some point, maintenance issues arise, requiring the attention of a sympathetic and reliable repairer. Nevertheless, I can recommend 1970s Zenith three-handers to anyone wishing to start a watch collection. These modestly-priced pieces offer interesting features and practical time-keeping. They sit well on the wrist and can be worn both professionally and in a casual setting. A note of caution, however, to would-be buyers. Presumably because of the availability of stock photos, the 01.1291.380 model features on a number of ‘replica watch’ websites. Some sellers even offer a choice of a 2572PC or an ETA 2824 movement! The images depict the genuine item but the watch you receive (if you receive anything) will be fake. Always buy from a reputable dealer and remember that if something looks too good to be true…