The Problem With Hodinkee's El Primero Sale

The Zenith El Primero Original For Hodinkee Limited Edition. Photo courtesy of Hodinkee.

The Zenith El Primero Original For Hodinkee Limited Edition. Photo courtesy of Hodinkee.

Yesterday Hodinkee announced a collaboration with Zenith to produce a limited edition El Primero chronograph to be sold on the Hodinkee shop. Limited to 25 pieces, this 38mm stainless steel chronograph features a chronometer rated Caliber 4069 with each individual watch coming with the individual chronometer report from COSC.

It's a beautiful watch but I'm very concerned about the conflict of interest it creates

On the 10th of October, Hodinkee published an article about the history of the El Primero chronograph and how it was saved by Charles Vermot, a Zenith employee who went against company orders and hid parts of the El Primero manufacturing components in the companies attic. The very next day, Hodinkee released the limited edition chronograph El Primero in collaboration with Zenith. The Charles Vermot article was not a review of any El Primero chronograph and focused on the history of the movement from its cancellation in 1975 but nonetheless, it portrayed the El Primero in very good light. I'm not saying that the Charles Vermot story was explicitly published with the intent of setting the stage for the limited edition release, but unless Hodinkee explain the finer points of their arrangement with Zenith, we don't know for sure.

Over the past month, Hodinkee have published five articles which referenced Zenith: one of these was the Charles Vermot article, one was the announcement of the branded Range Rover & Zenith El Primero and three were about vintage Zenith chronographs for sale. Out of these three articles, one was a 'Bring A Loupe' piece which highlighted a Zenith El Primero Reference A386 selling on Chronotrader (With mention of a steel El Primero currently for sale) and the other two were highlighting vintage Zenith Chronographs then for sale at the Hodinkee Shop. One was a 1960's Chronograph Caliber 146HP which included the description "Zenith Chronographs are hot right now" and the other was a 1970's Zenith El Primero Ref. A386 which described the El Primero caliber as "groundbreaking". 

Both of these statements are true, Zenith chronographs are hot right now and the El Primero was groundbreaking, but given that Hodinkee now sells (or more accurately sold) a Zenith chronograph in partnership with the brand, how are we supposed to read Hodinkee's coverage of Zenith without wondering about the conflict of interest? When Hodinkee recommends a two register, vintage style chronograph, how can that not be taken as even an implicit recommendation for their own product?

The Zenith El Primero Original For Hodinkee Limited Edition. Photo courtesy of Hodinkee.

The Zenith El Primero Original For Hodinkee Limited Edition. Photo courtesy of Hodinkee.

At no point in the announcement article on Hodinkee or on the watch's listing on the Hodinkee Shop (or the shop Journal which is where they addressed the Speedmaster issue a few months back) is there any mention on any changes to Hodinkee's Editorial Policy or to their coverage of Zenith. This is a shocking lack of disclosure and there are so many questions unanswered.

  • How long this collaboration has been planned for?
  • When was the choice of releasing an El Primero chronograph made?
  • When did Zenith and Hodinkee first speak about creating a limited edition
  • How will Hodinkee's editorial coverage of Zenith change?
  • Will there be any changes to the location and frequency of Zenith advertising on Hodinkee in the future?
  • Were there any changes made to the location and frequency of Zenith advertisements on Hodinkee prior to the launch of the Limited Edition?
  • Which Hodinkee staff who have covered Zenith in the last year had influence or creative control over the design or specifications of the Zenith El Primero Original For Hodinkee?
  • Were efforts made to restrict staff who were covering Zenith products from having any involvement with the collaboration?
  • When Aldo Magada, CEO of Zenith, was interviewed by Hodinkee in February 2016, was this collaboration being discussed?
  • Will Hodinkee continue to review Zenith chronographs or Zenith watches? 

Hodinkee's editorial policy section on Commerce is very lacking and highlights just one rule, "Only make, or find, things we really love and would want to use or own ourselves, and sell them at fair prices". They acknowledge that there is going to be overlap between roles at Hodinkee and Hodinkee Shop but no effort is made to further explain how they will deal with this overlap. This is unethical and lazy, especially for a company with such command over the vintage market as Hodinkee does.

You don't need to have gone to Columbia University to know that selling a product in partnership with a company you report on is a conflict of interest.

I'm currently writing the editorial policy for Timepiece Chronicle but from the very first article, I have made it a point to declare any conflict of interest when covering a topic. I find it amusing that one of the first articles I wrote here was entitled 'My (Incredibly Biased) thoughts on Zenithas I was writing from the perspective of someone who owns a Zenith and loves it. Even then I knew that because I had emotional investment in a watch that my writing would be implicitly biased. 

Hodinkee still produces some amazing content, the recent articles on the North Greenland Expedition Tudor and enamel dial production of the Patek 2526 were both fantastic, however their editorial coverage of Zenith will suffer unless they address this conflict of interest. Within minutes the Zenith El Primero Original For Hodinkee had sold out and now there are over 150 people on the waiting list for the next one. With customers lined up with their wallets open, the coverage of brands that directly compete with Zenith will be brought into question as how can Hodinkee fairly report on products that could affect the sale of their watch?

I have no issues with Hodinkee making money on their site either by advertising on the site or through the sale of accessories and vintage watches as long as they do it right. However when you partner with a company that you report on and continue to influence the sale of vintage pieces from that company and then sell a new piece in partnership, that's no right. No matter how good looking the watch you're selling is.