Why I Kept It: The Zenith Port Royal

Spend enough time accumulating watches, and you eventually experience some dramatic changes in what accounts for the makeup of a collection. Everyone has a journey in this hobby, and over time it’s totally normal to experience a watch box that shifts in a clear way from one thing to another. Whether it’s vintage to modern, sports watches to dress watches, small to large, or any combination or variation on these themes and others, a collection will usually naturally cohere to a particular taste and sensibility, but it’s a mere snapshot in time for those of us in this for the long haul. 

But sometimes, there’s an outlier, or more accurately, a leftover. A watch that has survived multiple purges, and becomes a keeper almost by default. This is a watch that hangs around, is representative of a particular time in your collecting life that has almost certainly passed, but you hang on to it. Maybe it’s sentimental – it reminds you of a stage in your life that you want to remember. Or it could be that you genuinely like the watch and can’t bear to part with it, even if you have to begrudgingly admit that it no longer fits into your lifestyle. Or maybe it’s so weird that nobody else in their right mind would even want the thing. It’s not exactly the book George brings into the bathroom in that famous episode of Seinfeld, but let’s just say it would be tough to find the right buyer. More likely, it’s a combination of all these things. 


For me, it’s my vintage Zenith Port Royal that is the great survivor. The cockroach of my watch collection, the one that is sure to be the last watch standing. It wasn’t really that long ago that my collecting focus really drew me primarily to strange and avante-garde watches like this one. I still like this stuff, but have found watches that are weird in more subtle ways. Watches that are just a click or two away from the beaten path, rather than leading you in the opposite direction. 

The Port Royal line is rarely discussed and not seriously collected for the most part, but has existed for years in the Zenith catalog as a style-forward alternative to the more sport driven fare that the brand has now fully embraced. Watches under the Port Royal umbrella were made up through the middle part of the last decade, when the most common references were rectangular cased chronographs, often with a dial that was partially skeletonized. If you perform a quick search on Chrono24 for Port Royals through the years, you’ll find all kinds of interesting case shapes and unusual dial designs, and these watches almost always command far less than sportier Zenith alternatives from the same eras, even though they are likely to use the same movements and be made to the same rigid quality standards.

My Port Royal is a three-hander with a day-date complication that dates from the early days of the collection’s existence in the 1970s. And before we get too deep here, let me just say that you will be awarded zero points for getting into the comments with lines like “Wow! Is that a Photoshop effect?” or “I thought there was something wrong with my screen!” Believe it or not, I’ve heard them all before (just check my Instagram). Part of this watch’s appeal to me is a reminder that beautiful watch cases come in all shapes and sizes. A personal recommendation here: if you’re a collector, and have never experienced a case shape other than the standard circle, it’s well worth a small percentage of your collecting dollars to try something new. You never know what might click, and the risk/reward analysis works strongly in your favor. 

But back to this Port Royal, yes, to address those of you who might be confused after reading the last paragraph, I think this case easily merits the “beautiful” descriptor. The lines are curvy and elegant, and the finishing is second-to-none. Seriously, the transitions are impossibly crisp, the polishing reminds me of Grand Seiko, and the brushed surfaces have the appearance of real texture. The dial, too, has the kind of detail that can really only be appreciated upon a very close inspection, with the most subtle graining, perfectly preserved after 50 years. But hey, to each their own. Some people passed on Impressionist paintings, too. 

I used to be quite a bit more interested in vintage watches than I am now. Like a lot of collectors, I’m simply tired of poring over listings for vintage pieces that are of questionable quality, suffering from retouched dials, over polished cases, and largely unknown provenance. This watch is a reminder of a particular stage in my collecting, when I was a little more adventurous when it came to exploring forgotten vintage gems. It’s not that I’ve moved on from vintage entirely, but there are more modern watches than ever before that are capturing my interest, and vintage is currently on the outside looking in. Maybe it’ll be back at the front of mind someday. If my interest shifts, this watch will still be around as a signpost of the type of watch I collected way back when.                 

The aspects of this watch that drew me in initially still have a certain pull, and I suppose that’s the main reason I’ve hung on to it in spite of the fact that it no longer connects in a meaningful way to other watches in my collection, which has been purged of some of the unusual case shapes I used to prize as my taste has evolved. First and foremost, I like how weird it is. This is a feature, not a bug. I like that someone sat down, and drew an oval on a piece of paper rather than a circle or a square, and decided to run with it. Even more, I like that Zenith didn’t cut corners when making the thing. While it has curves that make it feel almost dressy, this Port Royal is built like a tank. It’s thick and chunky, but because of the shape it has an elegance on the wrist that a circular case of this size (it’s 43mm across at the widest point) can’t. It’s hard to explain, but everyone who has asked to try it on (ok, everyone I’ve forced to try it on) seems to agree that it’s surprisingly comfortable and nice on the wrist. 

Another underrated aspect of the Port Royal (almost any Port Royal) is that it illuminates the complicated and long history of Zenith, unquestionably one of the great Swiss watch brands. I’ve written about my affection for some of the unsung watches in Zenith’s back catalog before, but a Port Royal with a shaped case like this is a whole new level of forgotten, and as a fan of the brand I genuinely hope they understand that there are enthusiasts out there who would love to see pieces like these reinterpreted somehow through a modern lens. Almost every key Zenith release of the last few years has traded on the El Primero, and I have to wonder if Zenith is heading the way of Audemars Piguet, leaning on their iconic chronograph movement in the same way that brand has become Royal Oak, Inc. Don’t get me wrong, I love the El Primero, but Zenith is a lot more than chronographs. 

The Port Royal for me is ultimately an example of found history – proof that a brand known today primarily for one or two things actually did a whole lot more in the not too distant past. And that’s the thing I still love about vintage watches, how they are truly these little time capsules that remind us of things that are easy to forget in today’s environment of extremely deliberate multimillion dollar marketing campaigns, celebrity endorsements, and general hype. As many readers are undoubtedly aware, I tend to not get too sentimental about watches. They’re just things. Things that I enjoy a lot, but that are ultimately not something I tie a ton of emotion into. This Port Royal, though, is a little different, and it would be tough for me to part with it not only because I truly enjoy the watch and the experience of owning it, but because of what it signifies to me. 

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.