Most watch enthusiasts will no doubt have noticed the surge in popularity of the classic Rolex Explorer over the last few years. Whilst this model has been around since the mid-1950s, it wasn’t perhaps until as recently as two years ago that the popularity surge took place, in turn effecting a marked increase in the price asked for NIB examples. Likewise, the price for vintage Explorers (the 1016 model) has risen to the degree where they have become out of reach of many people who like them for their simplicity and functionality rather than their kudos factor.
It would seem therefore that there is or would be a gap in the marketplace for lower priced watches which offer a lot towards the original Explorer experience but without the not inconsiderable investment required. Enter the likes of the Sandoz ‘Explorer’, the Rotary ‘Explorer’ and, the subject of this review – the Zeno ‘Explorer’. Why the Zeno over the others? Well, quite simply I already own the Zeno 300m Diver and have thus far been extremely impressed with it in terms of ruggedness, accuracy and value. Therefore I felt that hopefully the ‘Explorer’ would offer the same degree of satisfaction for relatively limited outlay. In short, I am one of those who likes the concept of the original Explorer but who find it hard to see the actual value in it. When I say ‘original’ Explorer, I am referring to the early acrylic crystal examples such as the 1016. I am a lover of matt black dials and acrylic crystals; I am also a lover of Japanese watches. The Zeno offers the dial I like, the crystal I like and as an added bonus for me – a Japanese movement. Luckily for me I can order a Zeno and have it the next day, so I sent GBP80.00 to the ever helpful Eddie Platts (see below for contact details) and bought a new car with what I’d saved over a vintage 1016. The watch arrived in flawless condition, superbly packed. This review is based on four weeks of ownership.
I have had many people e-mail me after reading other watch reviews that I have written asking about the packaging/box that the watch came in. I have to say that I put no store whatsoever on the quality of boxes, pillows, booklets and the like. Providing the watch is protected well in transit and the booklets/guarantee are present and correct, I am happy. For this review however, here is the low-down: The watch arrived in a plastic Zeno padded zip up pouch with a clip over band holding the watch on one side and a pocket for the guarantee on the other. Simple as that; adequate and protective enough. I do believe that some Zenos come in rather nice wooden boxes with all the trimmings. The guarantee card was present and correct but I have a feeling that I won’t be needing it anyway if the first four weeks are anything to go by.
The case style looks very familiar in basic design – as no doubt it is meant to. It is all stainless steel with finely
brushed lugs; regarding this brushed finish, it is pleasant to see that this goes in the ‘right’ direction. That is to say, the brushed effect follows the curve of the bezel when viewed from above. The brushing is also very even. I was impressed. The rest of the case is polished to a high and even standard; this includes the plain bezel which isn’t as sharply angled as the ‘original’. Case dimensions are 35mm across the bezel and 13mm thick including the crystal. Lug spacing is 20mm on this one and I believe that
the early Explorers were in fact 19mm. I am happy with 20mm however as in my opinion this watch cries out for a NATO strap; indeed it cried out so much for a NATO strap that I gave in after two weeks and fitted one!
Whilst it is difficult to analyse in depth what is inherently such a basic design, it is possible to comment on how closely this watch resembles the one upon which it is based. In this respect I immediately look at the profile and curvature of the case. The original Explorer case and indeed the current cases from that stable are renowned for their beautiful profile with curves that are in my opinion just wonderful. I don’t even mind the sharp lugs that some people complain of. So, when viewed from the side, it has to be said that the Zeno does not have the same curvature as the Rolex. Suffice to say, this not a slab sided case design, the curves are most definitely there but not quite to the same degree. This is of course being highly critical if critical is the right word – perhaps being highly analytical. For those who dislike sharp lugs then you have nothing to fear from the Zeno. The case sides are not slab sided either when viewed from say the 6 o’clock end which is good and does add some nice shape to the watch.
The back of the case is very cleverly executed for this price point featuring a polished outer section with a brushed centre. The monogram at centre tells us who makes the watch, the model number and the fact that the watch is rated to 50 meters water resistant. To remove the caseback a Rolex type tool is required. This certainly adds to the theme of the watch but doesn’t make life easy for those who enjoy a bit of self-regulation and only possess a standard caseback opener. Finally, the unsigned crown is screw down. This adds a real sense of toughness to the watch and there is a lot of thread on this one. It really is very substantial and screws down very smoothly. Not much else to say aside from I am sure if one were so inclined then the watch would be capable of a depth greater than 50 meters.
Dial, hands and crystal
For me, the dial and crystal really make this watch what it is – a taste of the old! As stated earlier, the dial is a matt black which tends to look like an extremely dark grey in bright light. The good news is of course that there is no glare from the dial itself in strong sunlight. Personally, I have never understood the trend towards shiny dials; particularly on sports watches. Like its stablemate, the Diver 300, the dial is extremely legible with a good treatment of light activated luminous on all the batons and numerals. It seems to glow well at night; losing luminosity relatively rapidly at first but on the odd occasion when I have woken up in the early hours of the morning I could most definitely see the time. The minute hashes are perhaps a little longer than usual but for me this doesn’t detract in any way from the overall effect of the dial. It is a superb example of legible efficiency. Regarding the script on the dial, the Zeno tells us who makes it, that it is automatic and above the 6, that it is ‘super precision’. Well, even if the latter claim might be perhaps a little ambitious, at least the dial isn’t filled with volumes of unnecessary depth ratings, number of jewels, type of crystal and so on. The other good point here is that the script is small, even the ZENO WATCH script at top.
Whilst on the subject of the dial, this one is quite obviously based on the original Explorer; I have often heard it said of watches such as this Zeno that they are a ‘copy’ or a ‘fake’, at its best, a homage to Rolex. I can understand these opinions of course; but looking at it logically, this is actually a very logical dial design for a no nonsense watch which indicates very clearly the time (!) with references every 3 hours. On to the hands and I am sure there are very few people who wouldn’t recognise this style. In the case of the Zeno they have a very slight ‘fold’ down the centre. I had heard of this before I had bought the watch and wasn’t quite sure whether it might put me off when I bought an example of my own. It is in fact hardly noticeable and is actually quite attractive when you do notice it. I am sure that these hands are not white gold as per the current ‘real’ Explorer specification; that being said, the finish of the hands is quite exceptional – the silvering is even and very bright. Full marks. The seconds hand features the usual luminous dot just over half way towards its tip and there is no circular ‘counterbalance’ as one might expect at the other end. The luminosity of the hands matches the dial well and all in all, the dial/hand combination is extremely well executed for the outlay.
The Zeno’s crystal is true to the purpose of the whole watch in my opinion. It is domed acrylic with a dome typical of the 1960’s. Certainly not over the top and liable to unnecessary damage but at the same time very pleasing. Personally, I think a flat crystal of any sort (including sapphire) would spoil the whole effect. Of course, polishing is easy when scratches do occur.
This aspect of the Zeno is perhaps the one that might cause a little concern with some potential purchasers. First things first, it is a Japanese Miyota movement. Zeno may be a Swiss company and produce many styles utilising ETA movements, however they also produce many styles utilising Japanese movements – and this is one of them. Is the fact that this is a Miyota equipped watch a problem? I think the real purist might prefer something with a ‘Swiss’ movement. I believe that this watch is actually manufactured in Japan; therefore is a Japanese movement not more appropriate? I stated earlier in this article that a Japanese movement was a bonus for me with regard to this watch. Why might that be? Quite simply in my experience and that of many people with whom I have discussed watch reliability – Japanese watches in automatic form have performed for longer, with less ‘trouble’ and less servicing required than many of their more expensive Swiss counterparts. This is no way meant as a derogatory statement toward Swiss watch movements. Just relaying of experience which has nurtured an interest in, and respect for Japanese watches and associated calibres. Sermon over, the Miyota 82** series movement used in the Zeno is automatic with 21 jewels, beating at a relatively leisurely 21,600 bph with winding in one direction of the centrally mounted, ball-bearing rotor. The movement is shock protected and to my best knowledge, utilises Citizen’s ‘parashock’ system. Manual winding is possible though hacking is not. The central seconds hand is indirectly driven. Dimensions are 25.6mm in diameter and healthy 5.32mm in height. The claimed power reserve for these movements is something in the region of 45 hrs from full wind.The burning question given that this movement probably costs no more than US$10.00 to manufacture – how accurate is it? Compared to a Citizen automatic I owned in 1994, the Zeno isn’t very accurate – so far it has managed plus 5 seconds per day!! My Citizen was plus 1! The ’94 Citizen is still running strongly on a relative’s wrist apparently. I think these figures prove my point to a certain degree. I have not removed the back of the watch but can safely assume on anyone’s behalf that there is no decoration on that movement! It is a simple workhorse produced in very large quantities. Proven (introduced in 1977) and reliable.
The style of bracelet attached to the Zeno is perhaps quite predictable. This one features solid links all the way through with push pins for link removal. The clasp is a plain folding clasp with no logo and no safety mechanism. Links are brushed to a good standard and the sides are polished. The bracelet tapers from 20mm at the lugs to 16mm once the removable links start. Endpieces are hollow. Overall, the bracelet is of a good quality for this level of watch though I am not personally a lover of bracelets in general. Thus, in my usual fashion I decided that this watch just had to be worn on my old favourite, the NATO strap.
The results of this can be seen from the pictures; I make no apologies for having removed the bracelet!
Personally I think that the Zeno suits the strap very well – most people might put it the other way round but I am usually loathe to buy a watch unless it has at least a small chance of looking good on a NATO! For USA readers, the person to get your NATO straps from is Howard Marx; I thoroughly recommend him having dealt with him on countless occasions since 1996. Contact details below.
In brief conclusion, I consider that the Zeno Explorer was money well spent. For anyone who wants that look or for me more importantly that practicality and functionality on a budget then I don’t think they will be wasting their money.
This represents another hark back into what watches were like maybe thirty years ago and for me this is a big attraction.
I have every faith in the Miyota movement, the watch is well finished, looks good on my favourite strap, I can swim in it, the crystal isn’t going to shatter and of course – I’m enjoying my new car with all that money I’ve ‘saved’!
2014 update: In the UK, Zeno watches are represented and sold by TIME-DESIGN who offer a great selection combined with most importantly – great service: ZENO at TIME-DESIGN