The History of the Zenith El Primero

When Zenith first released the El Primero watch in 1969, it was the first automatic chronograph movement available to the public. After more than half a century later, it’s regarded as the most accurate chronograph movement ever created. The timepiece remains in production as a leading name that’s synonymous with precision. Beyond its historical significance, the longevity of the El Primero speaks for itself. This automatic chronograph has proved to be of the utmost reliability over the decades. Today, the Zenith El Primero remains a symbol of performance and continues to rule the hearts of mechanical watch enthusiasts.

The Race for Innovation

Chronograph watches have existed since the dawn of the 20th century, but they were all fitted with hand-wound movements. During the 1960s, the chronograph was very popular. Several luxury watchmakers were locked in the battle for ultimate precision. The leading names of the decade identified the practicality and comfort of automatic winding as the feature that would modernize chronograph movements forever. A race presented itself within the watchmaking industry to create the first self-winding chronograph.

front view of Zenith Chronomaster El Primero watch

Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton-Buren and Dubois-Depraz undertook a joint project to create the Chronomatic. At the same time, Seiko had been developing their 6139 caliber. Meanwhile, Zenith began the development of what they codenamed the 3019 PHC caliber in 1962. 

This arms race all came to fruition in 1969. Zenith ultimately run the race and presented the new timepiece to the public. This was the first ever fully-integrated, high-frequency automatic chronograph movement. Zenith aptly named this extraordinary leap in watchmaking technology the Zenith El Primero, Spanish for “the first” while the Chronomatic and Seiko movements hit the market released later that same year.

Zenith El Primero Saved By an Act of Rebellion

While innovative and popular from the get-go, the El Primero immediately met a challenging obstacle. The 1970s was what watch industry calls the Quartz Crisis. During this period, new, accurate quartz watches at a low prices became immensely popular. This plunged even the most storied Swiss luxury watchmakers into a deep crisis. In 1971, Zenith was sold to an American company, the Zenith Radio Company. The Chicago-based company then decided to cease production of all mechanical movements in favor of quartz watches in 1975, including the Zenith El Primero. 

side view of Zenith Chronomaster El Primero watch

The passionate employees were not too happy to hear the news. They had invested so much time and effort into building Zenith. This included one Charles Vermont, who had spent his entire career at Zenith and was involved with the El Primero since its original sketches. With the help of his brother, Vermont decided to go behind management’s back and classified, inventoried, and labeled all parts, cutting tools and equipment necessary to create the El Primero. He secretly dismantled all the machines, put route sheets into binders and hid them away where nobody could find them. 

Zenith El Primero’s Journey

It took nearly a decade until the Zenith El Primero was able to rise from the ashes.

front view of Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Ref. 03.2150.400/69.C713 watch

The Ebel was the first to call upon the El Primero movement for some of its models in 1984. The ensuing success and enduring quality caught the attention of Rolex, who adopted it to replace the outdated movement of its Daytona watch with the same automatic chronograph movement. The Rolex caliber 4030 was simply an El Primero with a modified regulator ticking at 28,800 vibrations per hour, which did the brand wonders.

It didn’t take long before Panerai, Boucheron, Hublot, Bvlgari, TAG Heuer and Daniel Roth decided to jump aboard and equip their finest watches with the El Primero movement. This continued until 1999 when LVMH took over Zenith and decided that it would reserve the benefit of the movement’s singular properties exclusively for its own brands.

Zenith El Primero, From Then to Now

There are many reasons why it didn’t take long for the El Primero to become a highly desirable timepiece. High-beat wristwatches were very rare in 1969. The Zenith El Primero operated at 36,000 vibrations per hour, making it the world’s most accurate chronograph upon release. The seconds hands performs at an astonishing 10 jumps per second, which means that it has the ability to measure a tenth of a second. The timepiece sweeps smoothly which is evidence of the superb engine that’s humming inside the case.

Zenith El Primero watch on its side

This fantastic caliber was exceptionally robust and reliable, which Zenith decided to put to the test in 1970. The Zenith El Primero flew alongside the Air France AF015 flight from Paris to New York across the Atlantic. The technology was fixed to the landing gear of the Boeing 707 plane. 

Throughout its 50 years of existence, the Zenith El Primero has evolved in different directions, but the core remains the same. The well-designed chronograph still stands as one of the finest pieces of watchmaking technology on the market.

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