We tend to think of watch collecting as a linear path. The notion of refining your taste through a seemingly endless series of mistakes has been imprinted into all of us in one way or another. But for me, there are cycles to my watch collecting that I’ve noticed repeat themselves over time. Sure, I’ve come to have a better understanding of what I really like and value in a watch as I get deeper into the hobby, continue to learn, and experience more watches. But I also find myself experiencing deja vu from time to time. Watches, or ideas about watches, that I can’t quite quit. My recent experience with the Zenith Chronomaster Revival Shadow (which I had in for loan for review purposes) and another watch (that I’m happy to say is part of my collection) illustrate my point as it relates to a type of watch that I’ve been through the stages of the cross with several times now. This is how I learned to stop worrying and love a blacked out watch.
On a certain level I’ve always found black watches appealing. Before I was in any way a watch enthusiast, my eye would dart to blacked out watches in the Macy’s jewelry cases, and I’d always notice them when I saw them being worn out in public. They were different enough that it fascinated me to think about the thought process of someone who would choose a black coated watch over something more standard, and seemingly more versatile. But of course even in that early stage before I fully understood what it was that I was looking at, I was drawn to the sleekness of a black watch. They always seemed more fun, and youthful. And, well, I was a youth. It’s not super complicated.
The first time I plunked down serious money for a black watch, it didn’t stick. Faithful readers may remember my review of another Zenith, the Defy Classic, back in 2020. At the time I picked up that watch, I was looking for something unapologetically modern in its aesthetic, and the black ceramic case and skeletonized dial did the trick. I ultimately sold that watch not because it no longer worked for me (I have nothing but good things to say about it) but because financial realities dictate that I, unfortunately, can’t keep them all. But in my deliberation about which watch to sell to fund the next thing, I distinctly remember thinking I’d unload the Defy because it was just too niche, and opportunities to wear a black cased watch on a rubber strap might not present themselves as often as I’d thought.
Let’s put a pin in that assumption, because we’ll return to it later. As is often the case, I was pretty much wrong about everything.
We’ll turn now to the Shadow. This is a watch that’s been on my radar for quite some time, and while I’ve had the chance to try it on at watch meetups, getting the chance to live with it for an extended period of time is obviously an entirely different thing. Based on a virtually unseen prototype that Zenith built in the 70s, the Shadow uses the truly excellent A384 case as its starting point. But this one, unlike the A385 Blake reviewed awhile back that uses the same case design (I know, confusing), is crafted from micro blasted titanium and is not coated in any way.
That material is a key part of the experience of wearing the Shadow, because it makes an already easy to wear case virtually disappear into nothingness on the wrist. This may or may not be a desirable quality. Some of us, myself included, like a little heft in our watches, at least in our sports watches. If that’s important to you, the Shadow should quickly be eliminated from consideration.
But if the light weight is appealing, the Shadow is a rewarding watch to wear, despite some flaws that we’ll get to in a moment. The micro blasted titanium has an even, matte finish all over, which to me conjures the idea of a prototype that’s not quite finished or ready for public consumption, much like the watch the Shadow is based on. In more ways than one, the Shadow feels like the first draft of something. Again, that may or may not be appealing (you could hardly be blamed for wanting a watch to feel “finished” before handing over your hard earned $9,000 that Zenith is asking), but I found something charming about it.
But what’s really interesting about the case is that the color isn’t really “black” at all. As is quite clear in these photos, the tone of the case is really more of a grayish brown. This color is matched by the chronograph sub registers and the outer tachymeter scale, while the dial interior is a darker shade, approaching true black, but still not quite getting there. I like these contrasts, and enjoy that what, on the surface, is a simple “black” watch, is actually quite a bit more complex.
At 37mm, the angular, tonneau shaped case is right on the borderline of being too small for my 7.5 inch wrist. It feels especially diminutive compared to the chunky sports watches I was favoring toward the tail end of summer, and cuts a profile across the wrist that feels more like a dress watch, for me, than a sports chronograph. Still, comfort wins the day, and besides being lightweight the case is well balanced visually and quite thin in practice, giving it what I guess you can call the Ned Flanders effect. Credit should be given to Zenith here for sticking with dimensions that are true to the original versions of A384 derived watches. We’ve said it a bunch of times as Zenith has released a flurry of heritage inspired releases over the last few years, but few brands do a better job of picking their spots when it comes to staying true to the past and taking future focused design risks. The Shadow, with its vintage inspired case shape in a more contemporary feeling material, is an interesting synergy of those two ideals.
Something else that’s worth pointing out about the Shadow’s case is the way that it shows wear and tear. As you can see, my review sample has been around the block a few times, but I quite like the way this case material wears in. Because there’s no coating applied, there’s nothing to chip or wear off the case, which is commonly seen with coated watches made decades ago with less precise coating techniques and materials. I actually happen to like the way those older watches look as well, as long as the patina is even and natural, but the Shadow seems destined to take scratches in a softer and more subtle manner. I might be romanticizing a bit, but to me it reinforces the idea that this watch could have been built by a Skunk Works operation, designed for some type of top secret application that they could tell us about, but then they’d have to kill us.
With the Shadow, it will be up to each individual collector if the positives of the case outweigh what I think is a somewhat glaring flaw on the dial, and that’s the lack of a minute track. Instead, we get applied and lume filled markers at five minute intervals (except at 3, 6, and 9) and the aforementioned tachymeter scale, which at a glance looks like it might actually be the missing minute track, but of course is very much not. I’m not sure why Zenith elected to go this route with the Shadow’s dial. While it gives the dial a clean and open look (aided further by the fact that this is the rare Zenith chronograph without a date at the dreaded 4:30 position), the trade off in precision just isn’t worth it in my opinion. The impact is exacerbated by the missing applied markers at the cardinal positions, which makes setting the watch particularly difficult if you happen to be doing it over a wide swath of a given one hour period. Oh yeah, and the movement doesn’t hack, so if you’re a time.gov accuracy checker, this one will be mighty frustrating.
I’ll admit that I have a particular persnicketiness about gauging a reference time to the minute that would probably keep the Shadow out of my watch box. In a sports watch, I think that a minute track is basically essential, while its absence can be forgiven on more formal watches. But I can’t fault anyone who is perhaps better adjusted than me, and takes this lack of precision with a grain of salt and moves on with their day. The watch is objectively great looking, and it’s just one of those decision points that will be different for everyone in determining what you can and can’t live with in a watch. No watch is perfect, after all.
While details like the lack of a proper minute track are concerning to me, something that I found myself not really caring about at all with the Shadow was feeling like this watch was somehow less wearable in a variety of contexts simply because of its dark case color. As I mentioned above, a lack of versatility has been a stumbling block for me when it comes to really appreciating a black watch. But a handful of recent developments (heck, we can even call it growth) in my thought process as a watch enthusiast have led me to change my tune.
First, I fell hard for a black watch somewhat unexpectedly, and decided to pull the proverbial trigger and buy the thing even though historically I’d have shied away from the black version and gone with something more traditional. The IWC Pilot’s Chronograph 41 in Ceratanium has been on my wrist for the vast majority of the past three months, and it’s effectively cured me of any lingering black watch phobia.
The lightning bolt moment for me was when I put the IWC on an old suede strap in a heavily patinated shade of tan. It was kind of a fluke decision – the strap that shipped with my IWC was a poor fit on my wrist, so I was experimenting, looking for a way to wear it until a replacement arrived. I had always felt that black watches needed to be mounted to black straps to make any kind of sense. This is how they always come directly from the brand, and I had an idea in my head that these watches need the all black everything look. But my suede strap looked great on my new IWC, as did the aftermarket white rubber strap that arrived in the mail a few days later. Ditto for the green rubber strap. And the light gray canvas. You get the idea.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that not only were black watches surprisingly (to me) versatile, but they might actually be the most versatile, in terms of pure aesthetics. Black, after all, goes with everything. This is something I always understood to be true, but only in the back of my mind, as I wear exactly no black whatsoever in my normal day to day, so it’s just not something I give a ton of thought to.
Something else that soon occurred to me, is that the idea of versatility is overrated, and I was frankly kind of silly to put so much weight on that idea in the first place. For a variety of reasons, that IWC clicked so perfectly with me that I found myself not caring at all if the watch was “appropriate” with whatever it was I might have been wearing. When you really dig a watch, the confidence to wear it in any situation comes naturally.
As for the Shadow, I didn’t experiment with different color straps while I had it, but testing it after this newfound black watch revelation, I realized that it never felt out of place. I can’t say the same thing for the Defy Classic that I owned only a few short years ago, but I wonder if this shift in perspective would impact my thoughts on that watch too. It’s hard to say. The Defy has what is effectively an “integrated” rubber strap, which limits one’s ability to customize the look to a significant degree. Still, I have a feeling that this newly enlightened version of myself would be less inclined to dump the Defy for something else.
The Shadow, out of all the recent Zenith Chronomaster releases, is something of an oddball. That’s due to its inspiration being a watch that wasn’t commercially available, as well the strange choice to design a dial sans minute track. The color of the case, though, doesn’t strike me as odd in any way. It helps the Shadow strike exactly the tone I think Zenith set out for, and offers up a fun, satisfying alternative to would-be customers who might be a bit bored of stainless steel. While it might seem a little strange at first, this is a watch that can be pulled off almost anywhere with the right mindset. Zenith