Feature Zenith El Primero Then And Now: 50 Years On

The story of a calibre which, in many ways, mirrors that of the Swiss watch industry itself—from ingenuity to a crunch and ultimately, resurgence.

by Amish Behl

Despite our implicit understanding that the appeal of mechanical wristwatches is driven by nostalgia and aspiration more than utility, innovation in the sphere has never quite ceased. There are some watchmaking pursuits that still remain dear to the most prestigious watch houses—precision, thinness, in-house movements, complications, to name a few.

Now imagine a small company accomplishing all of those together, in its own workshop, all the way back in 1969. That’s what Zenith did with the El Primero. It was an automatic chronograph movement designed from the ground-up, and one that could measure elapsed time down to 1/10th of a second. This was all achieved mechanically and it furthered Zenith’s reputation as a powerhouse of innovation in chronometry. Fifty years since, the iconic calibre remains in production with a rather dramatic history behind it.

Rendition of the El Primero movement, part of Zenith’s 50th anniversary set.

The Origins: The Race Towards The World’s First Automatic Chronograph

El Primero, which translates into ‘the first’ in Spanish, was Zenith’s answer to calls for a self-winding chronograph wristwatch. Automatic watches were becoming quite popular in the 1950s and people wanted to see that technology adopted in chronographs too. Tool watches were at the peak of their popularity, be it for naval operations, timing races or otherwise. It was a time when manual-winding chronographs were starting to feel outdated.

Zenith decided in 1962 that they would cater to the auto-chrono demand and launch their take on it in 1965 to celebrate the brand’s centenary. This was no ordinary endeavour and it required substantial deployment of resources. Given that Zenith was still a relatively small operation in the 60s, various constraints meant that the 1965 timeline wasn’t achieved. It wasn’t until late in 1968 that Zenith was able to put together a prototype.

Zenith advertisements celebrating the launch of the El Primero

However, they weren’t alone in aspiring to be first in this race. Heuer (now, TAG Heuer), Hamilton and Breitling had come together to collectively (as Project 99) find a solution. Without much noise, at the other end of the world, Seiko in Japan was on it too. Which of the three can be considered first is the subject of a technical debate even today, but all of them—Zenith, Seiko and Project 99—brought their automatic chronographs to the market in 1969, each with their own merits and claims to fame.

To cut a long story short, Zenith was able to distinguish itself from the others by being the only chronograph that was, both, integrated and capable of timing with a precision of 1/10th of a second. The latter was achieved by virtue of the El Primero being a high-frequency movement beating at 36,000vph (vibrations per hour).

A384 – the first watch to house the El Primero movement

The first watch to house the El Primero movement in 1969 was the A384, with a panda dial and barrel-shaped case. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the El Primero, Zenith has fittingly released a facsimile reissue of the A384, and is the first 2019 celebration piece accessible to all collectors, as it isn’t a limited edition. The retro vibes are really strong on this timepiece, given that styling and dimensions remain unchanged. The 37mm case is radially brushed and a more modern El Primero movement is visible through the sapphire crystal caseback. This is like holding a piece of history in your hands.

The A386, which followed, set the standard for the aesthetic that we associate with Zenith today. The A386 is to Zenith, what a two-tone Datejust with a Jubilee bracelet is to Rolex—the first image that comes to your mind at the brand’s mention. With its overlapping, tricolour sub-dials and red chronograph seconds hand, it was a visually distinctive design that was quite adventurous for the era.

Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 38mm (Image courtesy: Hodinkee)

Of Zenith watches currently in production, the 38mm Chronomaster is the A386’s closest cousin. While available in three dial options (silver, grey and blue), the silver variant is undoubtedly the timeless classic that would appeal most to a purist. It even retains the placement of the date window between the four and five o’clock markers—one of the many nods to the original.

Getting Technical: Why The El Primero Was A True Mechanical Feat

Labelling the El Primero only as one of the first automatic chronographs in the world is hardly the full story. It is a special calibre which deserves more than that. So it is only fair to touch upon and appreciate its technical accomplishments as well. First and foremost, it was a high-frequency 5Hz movement, when the industry standard was no more than 3Hz, or 21,600vph.

For comparison, the Heuer-Breitling-Hamilton-developed Calibre 11 was 2.75Hz, whereas the Seiko 6139 was 3Hz. A higher frequency movement allows for greater accuracy as it is less affected by external disturbances. However, this also means more friction, wear and tear of parts and drain on energy. Zenith managed to keep a 50-hour power reserve despite the power demands of the oscillator, and addressed the friction issue by using a molybdenum-based dry lubricant.

Since it was designed from the ground-up as an integrated, high-frequency chronograph movement, all of these little factors were carefully thought out. The fact that it was integrated (ie a single movement designed to incorporate all the complications and indications) was an achievement in itself. Again, for comparison, the Calibre 11 was modular, which means the chronograph module was added separately on top of a regular automatic movement.

With a height of just 6.5mm, the El Primero movement was also fairly thin (Calibre 11 was almost 20 percent thicker). In fact, the sleek proportions are one of the key factors that allowed it to be chosen by no less than Rolex to power the Cosmograph Daytona from 1988 to 2000. Today, we know Rolex as the king of vertical integration, obsessive about making every single component in-house. Yet, the first time their iconic chronograph became an Oyster ‘Perpetual’, there was a Zenith-made El Primero behind it.

Rolex 16520 Daytona with a Zenith movement (Image courtesy: Phillips)

You can tell that a different kind of excellence was on Zenith’s mind. That the movement is still in production 50 years later says something about its design, reliability, effectiveness, and it tells us just how complete it was. Except it was very nearly consigned to history in the 1970s.

Charles Vermot: Zenith’s Hero Forever

Just a few years after the launch of the El Primero, Zenith was sold to an American company called the Zenith Radio Corporation. These were the early 1970s and the ‘quartz crisis’ was knocking on the doors of the Swiss watch industry. The reactionary tactic of most manufacturers was to shift focus to making quartz watches and Zenith was asked to do the same by its new owners. By 1975, it was decided that all tools and machinery pertaining to the El Primero and other production calibres were to be disposed of.

Charles Vermot – the man who saved the El Primero

This is when engineer Charles Vermot, who was a key part of the movement development team, took a stand. He was convinced that the El Primero was something special and needed to be preserved. In complete secrecy and against company orders, he moved all production equipment to the attic of a closed-down building unit, complete with detailed records, notes and instructions. This was perhaps an emotional response, but he was a man on a mission.

For years, those machines sat idle, but Vermot’s efforts paid off in the 1980s. This was the real turning point in Zenith’s revival, as Swiss mechanical watches started to make a comeback too, vindicating Charles Vermot’s rebellion. Zenith was under Swiss ownership again by now and they started supplying El Primero movements first to Ebel and then, finally, to Rolex. The contract with Rolex brought financial stability back to Zenith and different iterations of the El Primero started to be seen again.

The fabled Zenith attic

Many of these are quite different from the sporty models the calibre started its life with. Take the Elite chronograph, for example. This watch has a pared-down dial which lends it a dressy character. It does away with the date display and one sub-dial for a clean look, which allows the sunburst blue to take centre stage. The watch comes in a 42mm size and is powered, of course, by the El Primero, calibre.

Zenith Elite Chronograph Classic 42mm in blue (Image courtesy: Hodinkee)

Similarly, some of Zenith’s Pilot watches have also been equipped with the El Primero, such as the Cronometro Tipo CP-2 in bronze, which also integrates a flyback function. It is inspired by a famous 1960s Zenith chronograph that was supplied to the Italian Air Force and called the ‘Cairelli’, after the Roman retailer who sold these watches to the forces. The original Cairelli was a substantial 43mm (which has been carried over to the current model), but used a hand-wound movement and predated the introduction of the El Primero. Now it’s only fair that the watch is fitted with the calibre which has defined the brand in so many ways.

Zenith Cronometro Tipo CP-2 ‘Cairelli’ in bronze (Image courtesy: Ethos Watches)

The expression of the El Primero in the Pilot watches doesn’t end there. This is because Zenith was actually quite renowned for its aviation timepieces in the first half of the 20th century. Given that its repute in the latter half came from chronographs, bringing the classic Pilot together with an El Primero was almost inevitable. Interestingly, Zenith is the only watch company that can use the term Pilot on a dial, as it has been trademarked by them. The Type 20 has bold Arabic numerals on the dial, as legibility is paramount for aviators. Other signature elements are the cathedral-style hands, oversized crown and, of course, the Pilot marking. The 45mm stainless steel case has been given an aged look through a PVD treatment, making for a rugged appearance that is decidedly old-school.

For all that we’re seeing from Zenith today with the spirit of the El Primero, it’s safe to say there is only one man to thank.

Zenith Pilot Type 20 Chronograph (Image courtesy: Ethos Watches)

Going Back To Its Roots As An Innovator Par Excellence

Over its illustrious history, Zenith has been known for an innovative streak. Some would argue that the brand was losing sight of that in recent times, being too focused on iterating the El Primero without writing its next chapter. All that changed when, under the guidance of industry legend Jean-Claude Biver, the brand introduced the Defy El Primero 21 in 2017.

The Defy 21 is a chronograph that can measure 1/100th of a second (you read that right), achieved by a new movement that has a separate mainspring and balance wheel for the 1/100th of a second timer. This balance oscillates at a staggering 50Hz or 3,60,000vph! The astounding visual treat of this watch is seeing the central hand complete a rotation every second when the chronograph is activated, making 100 stops along the way, which the human eye is unable to discern.

Zenith El Primero Defy 21 (Image Courtesy: Sarat Bhogavalli)

The watch is constructed using titanium and has a 44mm angular case shape with a 70s flavour. Another special aspect of the Defy 21 is that the balance springs are made from a patented composite called carbon-matrix carbon nanotubes. This material allows for much greater resistance to magnetism and changes in temperature. While the dial is skeletonised, there are some very clever design elements and accents that make the watch unmistakably reminiscent of the tricolour original.

The Defy 21 is proudly forward looking and incidentally, 21 signifies ‘21st century’, making it the El Primero for this century. This means there is still more to the tale of this storied brand and its most iconic calibre. The truly special thing about the Defy 21 is that it looks ahead by looking back, taking tradition, heritage and DNA in its stride to better what has been done before. And isn’t that exactly what we love about watchmaking?

This article was first published on The Watch Guide by Ethos.

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