Now Reading: The Number One: 50 Years of the El Primero

The Number One: 50 Years of the El Primero

Following the announcement of the Zenith El Primero A384 Revival, Dubai Watch Week looks back at the highs and lows of the landmark automatic chronograph calibre behind it

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By Dubai Watch Week

08 Jul, 2019

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Under normal circumstances, news of another revival piece might not catch the imagination – the market is awash with them, after all. But when Zenith announced the El Primero A384 Revivallast month, it marked the half-century of one of the most important mechanical movements in the history of Swiss watchmaking.

Few movements, in fact scarcely any movements, can compete with El Primero for longevity and significance. In chronograph terms at least, the competitor movement that became both TAG Heuer’s Calibre 11 and Breitling’s Chronomatic in 1969, and the near ubiquitous Valjoux 7750 of 1973 are in a similar league, but because of the specifications and the story behind the El Primero, many would argue it sits apart even from those.

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To understand why, you have to go back to the early 1960s as Zenith was approaching its centenary year. In 1962, the company’s top brass decided that to celebrate they needed an automatic chronograph. This was bold, because although Zenith was by then producing automatic movements, neither it nor any other manufacturer had yet produced a chronograph with an integrated automatic winding system. This would be a world first.

Zenith’s ambitions didn’t stop there. This new automatic chronograph would also be high-frequency, delivering unrivalled precision by beating at 36,000vph, or 10 times a second, roughly double the norm of the time. It would also have a 50-hour power reserve, a centrally mounted rotor with a bi-directional winding system, a column wheel mechanism (still a quality signifier in chronographs today) and be only a little thicker than a manually wound equivalent. All this was planned for the 1965 centenary celebrations.

It proved too much. Complications and delays meant it wasn’t until 10 January 1969 that news broke of Zenith’s development. And it wasn’t until much later that year that it became commercially available. Which mattered. Because in the mean time, a consortium made up of Heuer (as was), Breitling, Dubois-Dépraz and Büren (which later merged into Hamilton) had stolen a march on Zenith and introduced their own automatic chronograph, the aforementioned Calibre 11/Chronomatic (the development of which we’ll come to another time). More than that, they’d got it to market. Theirs may have been less advanced (it was thicker, despite have a micro-rotor, and operated at a relatively quotidian 19,800vph), but still. Zenith had a rival to its status as the first.

Given the name, Zenith clearly expected El Primero to be first, but history’s uneven chronology means doubt will always hang over a declaration for either development. Fifty years on, the story is no clearer than that, and the fact Zenith doesn’t entirely own it is a blight on the management of the time.

Or is it? The ambition behind the El Primero was not just to mark the centenary. In 1962, early electronic watches were already a cause of concern for the traditional Swiss watch industry. Part of Zenith’s intention was to create a highly precise automatic chronograph that could compete with the fast-advancing new technology, but as time went by, it became less sure the sales would be there to back up its huge investment.

They had a point. By the mid-1970s, the turbulence created by the arrival of technologically superior, zeitgeisty quartz had left Zenith and the Swiss watch industry all at sea. In 1971, Zenith had been bought by the American (and unrelated) company Zenith Radio Corporation. Come 1975, some 850 of Zenith’s 1,000 staff had been laid off, and its remaining employees were told to bin all tools and parts associated with mechanical movements – including El Primero.

One Zenith watchmaker couldn’t bring himself to throw away years of research and development, and so disobeyed orders, hiding plans, parts and tools in an attic in the Zenith factory, believing the El Primero could one day return.

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His name was Charles Vermot, and he has since gone down in company and industry history as the man who saved El Primero. With the revival of traditional watchmaking, production began again in 1984, stirred by a purchase order from Ebel. A modified version of it fuelled the mighty Rolex Daytona until 2000. And it would go on to power numerous pieces made by Bulgari, TAG Heuer and Dior, sister companies in the LVMH brand stable it joined in 1999.

In more recent history, El Primero has been upgraded with precision made silicon parts and reworked so its high-frequency heart can deliver dial measurements of 1/10th and 1/100th of a second. Zenith has even said it’s working on a 1/1000th of a second version.

A long list of complications, such as alarms, minute repeaters and perpetual calendars have since been added to El Primero. Zenith says it takes nine months and 2,500 operations to make a single unit.

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It’s a movement no self-respecting watch collector would overlook. Which is why when Zenith announced the El Primero A384 Revival, a faithful, non-limited reproduction of the original tonneau-shaped piece (bar a few technical concessions to modernity), watch people sat up and took notice.

Fifty years on from its introduction, El Primero’s status and future look more secure than ever.

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