Deep Dive on the Zenith El Primero and Movement

Zenith at the Helm of the Automatic Chronograph

Chronograph wristwatches have been around since the early 1900s. British watchmaker John Harwood created the first automatic wristwatch in 1923. However, these two mechanisms didn’t come together until decades later – in 1969 to be exact. The 1960s marked a technical revolution of sorts. Countries were competing in the space race, hoping to be the first to put a man on the moon. At the same time, watchmakers were partaking in a different race to produce the world’s first automatic chronograph.

There are those theorists who refute that NASA ever put a man on the moon. However, the dispute of who produced the first automatic chronograph runs far deeper. Was it Seiko with the Caliber 6139? Was it the group effort of Heuer, Breitling, Buren, and Dubois-Depraz with the Chronomatic? Or, was it Zenith with the El Primero? Zenith was the first to unveil their prototype to the world in January of that year at a press conference. Still, the El Primero wasn’t the first to actually hit the market. The argument over what constitutes a world-first is one of the great debates in watchmaking that will forever go unresolved. What’s resoundingly irrefutable is the importance of the automatic chronograph in horological history.

Of the three original automatic chronograph movements, the El Primero is the only one that remains in production today. This year, Zenith celebrates the 50th anniversary of the iconic El Primero. So, we decided to take a deeper look at this particular automatic chronograph and its crucial role in modern watchmaking.

Developing the Complex El Primero Prototype

Zenith first started working on the concept of an automatic chronograph in 1962. They hoped to create the groundbreaking movement in time for the brand’s 100th anniversary in 1965. However, development proved to be more difficult than they anticipated. The milestone came, went, and still, no automatic chronograph. Two years later, there were rumblings that a team of watchmakers had come together to work on a rival project. Zenith had to step up their game, and they did. They finally debuted the first prototype of the El Primero – “the first” – on January 10, 1969.

zenith el primero

The original El Primero had a few important qualities that set it apart from its peers. First, the movement featured a column wheel chronograph mechanism with a tri-compax layout as opposed to a cam-actuated chronograph mechanism. It’s worth noting the column wheel construction is more complicated and labor-intensive to produce. Secondly, the El Primero is a high-beat movement, meaning its oscillating wheel rotates at a higher frequency. The result is a more precise watch whose accurate timekeeping is affected less by external forces. It also allows the chronograph function to measure elapsed intervals to the nearest 1/10th of a second. In addition, the high frequency contributes to the El Primero’s impressive 50-hour power reserve.

Yet, the monumental launch of the El Primero wasn’t everything the brand had hoped for all those years. Shortly after its debut, the mechanical watch industry faced a common threat. It was the dawn of the Quartz Crisis.

Preserving the El Primero Throughout the Quartz Crisis

By 1975, Zenith had announced it would discontinue the production of all its mechanical movements, including the prized El Primero. The brand sold its machines, tools, and components for scrap. All those years of work, the history, and the very existence of the El Primero could have ended right there. Enter the man who saved the El Primero.

Charles Vermot was born and raised just miles away from Zenith’s manufacture in Le Locle, Switzerland. He spent most of his career working as an engineer for the Martel Watch Company, which Zenith acquired in 1959. Vermot had been one of the watchmakers involved in the creation of the El Primero. The news came that the brand would cease production of its mechanical movements. In response, Vermot wrote a letter urging them not to abandon the El Primero. They ignored his request, so he decided to take drastic action and take matters into his own hands. He dismantled machines, stowed away parts and cutting tools, and filed route sheets into binders. For nearly a decade, these watchmaking treasures lied in wait in the attic of the manufacturer.

Continued Expansion and Reverence of the El Primero

The El Primero miraculously returned in the 1980s, thanks to Vermot. Though Ebel was the first to revive the movement, Rolex was key in returning it to its original glory. The brand requested a whopping two hundred modifications before debuting it in the Daytona in 1989. However, they played a crucial role in re-popularizing the El Primero at large. A decade later in 1999, Zenith joined the renowned LVMH conglomerate. The El Primero has been a prominent member of the brand’s catalog ever since.

zenith el primero

Since 1969, Zenith has referenced over 70 versions of the El Primero, twenty-three since its resurgence. This marks a record for any movement. In 2019, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the treasured model, the brand has released a special set of watches. The three new models represent the past, present, and future of the El Primero. First, there’s a reissue of the original 1969 model. Next, there’s an updated variation of the Chronomaster El Primero with an all-new iteration of the movement. Finally, there’s the brand new interpretation of the Defy El Primero 21 with accuracy to 1/100th of a second.

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