10th January 1969 is the key date when the most famous of chronograph watches, the Zenith El Primero (‘the first’ in Spanish) made its debut as the first automatic chronograph in the world. And it achieved this feat coupled with the ability to run at the high beat of 36000vph.
Why did Zenith create the El Primero?
It was in the 1960s when the race for horology was geared towards high-frequency movements in a quest to conquer a more accurate and durable movement. Zenith’s efforts came at a time when the market was a most competitive one as, at that time, Zenith (who was in collaboration with Movado), Seiko and the Chronomatic group, comprising of Hamilton-Buren, Breitling, Heuer and Dubois Dépraz, were all competing to create the first automatic chronograph. After a fierce battle, Zenith-Movado beat the others and successfully launched the El Primero. And it did it with a chronograph that was also high-beat.
THE QUARTZ ERA AND BEYOND
In 1974, at the peak of the era of quartz watches, mechanical watches lost a lot of ground and Zenith had to slow down its production. The company slowly began to dispose of the tools and machinery for making the El Primero. However, Charles Vermot, a watchmaker at Zenith, decided to secretly save these most important of components of its production.
Indeed, this act was fortunate, as it allowed Zenith to once again, at a crucial time, produce the movements in 1988 when they received orders from them. The act alone ensured the survival of the company and we have Vermot to thank for it.
From then on, the company went from strength to strength, once again creating new Zenith El Primero watches such as the first Chronomaster in 2003 and the Zenith Defy 21 El Primero in 2017.
THE ANNIVERSARY TRIO BOX
Fast forward to 2019 and the Zenith El Primero is celebrating its 50th anniversary. For this momentous occasion, Zenith brings forth a unique anniversary trio set with three special watches inside.
Each of them come in only 50-piece limited edition runs and, upon receiving them, owners will first take note of the satin-brushed grey lid of the box with its built-in touch screen. Inside, they will spot a miniature watchmaker’s workbench and assortments such as a watch mechanism on a rest, adjustable lighting system, magnifying glass and signed screwdriver.
Also present is an actual die of the chronograph’s coupling-wheel bridge from the El Primero movement. The significance of this piece is that with it, should the lucky owners visit the Le Locle Zenith Manufacture, he or she will receive two coupling-wheel bridges which will be subsequently hand-stamped.
The owner can then bring one of these bridges home and the other will be engraved with his or her name before being left at the entrance wall of the attic of Charles Vermot. Apart from this special privilege, one will also notice that there is space left in the box to fit another watch – perhaps an indication of a future Zenith El Primero with the capability to time 1/1000th of a second.
A NEW CHRONOMASTER
First up in the set is the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 2. Possibly the best representation of a contemporary El Primero, the Chronomaster 2 exudes its own personality while retaining the essence of the original El Primero.
This model comes equipped with the Zenith 3600 movement, still beating at the impressive high rate of 36000vph and able to measure down to 1/10th of a second effortlessly. As this is actually the second version of a Chronomaster, it has been enhanced with a seconds hack function and increased power reserve over its predecessor.
Furthermore, the watch has now improved reliability and accuracy. The sporty outlook of the watch is complemented with a larger 42mm case and a graduated black ceramic bezel.
MOVEMENT Zenith El Primero 3600 automatic chronograph with 36000vph, ability to measure 1/10th of a second, date indication and 60 hours power reserve. Certified Chronometer; CASE Steel with 42mm diameter and 100m water resistance; DIAL Silver-toned sunray-patterned dial three different-coloured counters; STRAP Black rubber with red stitching and steel double folding clasp
THE NEXT STEP
To behold this anniversary set is to behold Zenith’s promising future. As such, the trilogy features a watch that personifies the future of Zenith and of the El Primero.
This watch is the Zenith Defy El Primero 21. As one would already realize, the Defy El Primero is the contemporary, ultra-modern interpretation of the original El Primero. Coming in with a more prominent 44mm titanium case, the dial of the watch has been open-worked to show off the revolutionary movement beating inside.
The 9004 movement has two escapements with one for the watch functions beating at 36000vph and the other for the chronograph mechanism at 360000vph instead. The latter allows the watch to have the astounding ability to precisely measure and display timings down to 1/100th of a second.
MOVEMENT Zenith El Primero 9004 automatic chronograph with 36000vph, ability to measure 1/100th of a second and 50 hours power reserve. Certified Chronometer; CASE Steel with 44mm diameter and 100m water resistance; DIAL Openworked with three different-coloured counters; STRAP Black rubber with black alligator leather coating and titanium double folding clasp
As we look at the storied history of Zenith, it is only appropriate that, within the 50th-anniversary box set, resides a revival of the original Zenith El Primero A386. Actually, for the first time since the arrival of that iconic original, Zenith had yet to issue a faithful recreation of it. However, eager collectors will be pleased that within the box set is a perfect re-edition of that most famous of chronographs.
To achieve the feat, the components of an original from the museum were laser-scanned. All dimensions and aesthetics have been replicated – the watch comes with the exact same 38mm steel case with curved crystal, case shape, pushers, tri-colour counters, hands and hour markers as well as the tachymeter scale and printed fonts, right down to the historically accurate leather strap.
The only differences are the installation of a sapphire case back (the original had a solid case back) and the refreshed crown logo. Of course, internally, the watch is powered by the latest version of the original El Primero column-wheel chronograph movement.
THE NEXT STEP
Apart from the A386 Revival in steel found in the set, Zenith has also created three more versions of the watch with precious metals. These are made in white, yellow and rose gold cases respectively and are not part of the said set.
While the dimensions and specifications remain similar to the steel version, these models come in 50-piece limited edition runs each and are awarded an astounding 50-year warranty by Zenith.
MOVEMENT Zenith El Primero 400 automatic chronograph with 36000vph, date indication and 50 hours power reserve; CASE Original 1969 case with 38mm diameter in steel/ yellow gold/rose gold/white gold and 100m water resistance; DIAL White lacquered dial; STRAP Alligator with protective rubber lining and matching pin buckle
Words by Kelvin Tan.