Debuted in 1969, the history of the Zenith El Primero caliber is long and varied with more than a few interesting twists and turns along the way. Initially considered a commercial failure due to bad timing (pardon the pun), the now legendary movement celebrated its 50th anniversary in spectacular style last year. So, what makes this movement and the watch that houses it so special? And how did it manage to return from the dead to become the powerhouse we know it as today? Keep reading to find out. It’s definitely one of the more fascinating stories from the modern luxury watch industry.
The First Self-Winding Chronograph
In the 1960s, Zenith was already a well established and well respected watch manufacturer with a reputation for creating precise timekeepers. The company had been making high-quality, automatic three-hand movements since the 1940s, but the idea of developing an automatic chronograph movement was still just that – an idea. This changed in 1962, when Zenith’s watchmakers and engineers commenced development of what was supposed to be the world’s first self-winding chronograph. The goal was to launch it to the world in 1965, the year of Zenith’s 100th anniversary.
Of course, as is often the case with ambitious and innovative projects, things didn’t quite go according to plan. Rather than taking three years as expected, development of the El Primero self-winding chronograph movement required closer to seven years. The list of specifications drawn up for this new self-winding chronograph movement was ambitious to say the least.
- The chronograph needed to be fully integrated within the movement.
- It also needed to be actuated by a column wheel as opposed to a cam (the latter being more common and easier to implement, but a less precise option).
- Moreover, it aimed to be the most accurate chronograph wristwatch in the world (at the time), and capable of measuring elapsed time accurately to 1/10th of a second.
To achieve this last point, the frequency would need to be very high (36,000 vph). Finally, all of this needed to be incorporated into a caliber that was as thin as possible, yet still had room for a date display.
Are you starting to understand why it took seven years?
Almost the First…
Unfortunately for Zenith, the delay meant that two other self-winding chronograph movements came to market in the same year. First was the Seiko 6139, which was exclusively launched to the Japanese market in May 1969 (which is why it is not as widely known as the other two). Then, the Chronomatic Group debuted its first self-winding chronograph in August. However, neither of these movements could match the complexity and precision of the El Primero, which formally came to market in September 1969. It may not have been the first technically speaking (despite El Primero being Spanish for “the first”), but it was definitely the best.
At only 6.5 mm thick, it was slimmer than most manual-wound chronographs and was the only one of the three to feature a running seconds hand in addition to the chronograph seconds. Its integrated automatic chronograph movement also oscillated at the highest frequency (36,000 vibrations per hour vs. 19,800 vph for the Chronomatic and 21,600 vph for the Seiko 6139), making it the most precise by a good margin.
Initially, Zenith presented its new El Primero movement in three different models: the A384, A385, and A386. The A384 was the first model to be presented in advertisements and featured a 37-mm tonneau-shaped stainless steel case paired with a silver dial featuring black subdials and a tachymeter scale. Zenith recently released a very cool re-issue of this model as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations last year. Meanwhile, the A385 offered a cushion-shaped case – typical of watches from the late 1960s and early 1970s – and was available with two different dials in shades of khaki with silver or white subdials. This model was the least popular of the three.
The best known watch, however, is the A386. It introduced the signature dial layout we know today, featuring three overlapping registers in blue, light gray, and anthracite. It was housed in a more traditional round case with a thin bezel. This opened up the dial nicely, improving readability. Together with the tachymeter scale, it featured a decimal dial ring dividing a minute in 100 units, as well as the date between 4 and 5 o’clock. The clever use of color made it easy to quickly differentiate between the three subdials and gave the El Primero its own distinct personality. The design endures more or less unchanged to this day (with some tweaks here and there, such as moving the date window to 6 o’clock, etc.).
A Poor Performer
By all accounts, the El Primero should have been a knock-out success for Zenith, but it wasn’t. By the early 1970s, the quartz crisis was in full swing, bringing the mechanical watch industry to its knees. People didn’t want mechanical chronographs anymore, not even self-winding ones, when they could buy more accurate quartz versions for a fraction of the price. As a result, the holding company MZM (Mondia Zenith Movado) was dissolved. As of 1972, the brand operated as Zenith Time SA and was managed by American administrators.
The El Primero movement was still available, but it was not selling well. By the mid-1970s, Zenith’s US management team decided to shift its focus exclusively to quartz movements and ceased production of all mechanical movements in 1976. It is estimated that around 32,000 El Primero calibers had been produced and cased in 18 different models by that time. Only around 2,500 of them are believed to have been housed in the popular A386 model, which is why the originals are so sought after by collectors today.
That could have very easily been the end of the El Primero story, but it wasn’t thanks to a man by the name of Charles Vermot.
Hiding in Plain Sight
In the early 1970s, Mr. Vermot was the Zenith watchmaker in charge of the workshop where every El Primero chronograph movement was assembled. This was a process that required a staggering 2,500 operations. Once the decision was made to discontinue the production of all mechanical movements, he received word that the management team wanted to sell off the presses and tools required to manufacture the El Primero caliber. Quartz had become so dominant by this point that they only saw scrap value in this specialized equipment.
Vermot disagreed and tried to convince them that there was still a future for mechanical watchmaking, even though the prospects looked dismal at the time. He believed in the cyclical nature of market trends and argued that mechanical movements would come into favor again at some later point.
Unfortunately, his words fell on deaf ears. No response was received from the management team and so, in what is now the stuff of watchmaking legend, Vermot made the bold decision to hide the equipment himself. With the help of his brother, also a Zenith employee, he hid the presses, cams, operating plans, cutting tools, and manufacturing plans necessary for the creation of the El Primero movement in one of the 18 Zenith buildings.
The Second Coming of the El Primero
This, of course, would prove to be a fateful decision. Two years later, in 1978, Zenith Radio Corporation sold Zenith Watches SA to a consortium of three Swiss manufacturers. A few years after that, the mechanical watchmaking industry began to show the first signs of a resurgence. The fortunes of Zenith, along with many other brands at the time, began to turn around. Sales began to pick up and most of the old El Primero calibers the company still had in stock were sold to Ebel for its automatic chronograph in 1981.
The turning point for Zenith came a few years later, when Rolex decided it needed a self-winding chronograph movement for its under-performing Daytona collection. The El Primero caliber was chosen as the best option, though it would be extensively modified in-house by Rolex prior to its use. The “Zenith Daytona”, as it is now known, went on to be a huge success and played no small part in shaping the future of both the Daytona collection, as well as Zenith itself.
With the desirability of the El Primero caliber proven – and a 10-year contract in place with Rolex – Zenith began to focus once again on producing its own El Primero collection. A number of new lines would be introduced over the coming decades, including the De Luca, the ChronoMaster, and the Rainbow Flyback. Following the sale of Zenith to the LVMH Group in 1999, the El Primero family was enlarged even further with the addition of several highly complex models.
The classic design, with its round case and three distinctive subdials, continues to resonate with watch lovers today. It’s practical, functional, and attractive, and in a way, completely ageless. This was proven last year by Zenith with their re-issue of the A386 at Baselworld. We can safely say, it’s a watch that looks just as good now as it did when it launched in 1969.