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Clock Gears

MANUFACTURE AND MOVEMENTS: THE ZENITH EL PRIMERO

A Complicated Start: 1960s Zenith


A pivotal day in the watch world, January 10th 1969, when Zenith unveiled the groundbreaking El Primero movement, heralding the dawn of a new era in watchmaking. With its name translating to "The First" in Esperanto, Zenith's automatic chronograph set the stage for a revolution that would shape the industry for decades to come.


However, the road to success was not without its challenges. Despite the grand announcement, Zenith faced setbacks in bringing their creation to market. While competitors like Breitling, Heuer, and Hamilton showcased a range of available watches at the Spring Basel Watch Fair, Zenith lagged behind with only a prototype to present. Unbeknown to them, Seiko had already launched their 6139 Speedtimer chronograph in Japanese retailers, further intensifying the competition.


Ultimately, Zenith overcame these hurdles, delivering the first El Primero watches to customers in October 1969. The A386 model, distinguished by its traditional round case and thin bezel, is often regarded as the epitome of the El Primero legacy. Featuring a unique decimal dial ring and striking subdials in contrasting colours, the A386 exemplified Zenith's commitment to innovation and design excellence.


Zenith El Primero Chronograph advert from the 1960s

At its core, the El Primero movement was a marvel of engineering prowess. It boasted a high frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour, surpassing the competition in accuracy and precision. Moreover, it was the first fully integrated automatic chronograph with a running seconds hand, all while maintaining a remarkably slim profile of only 6.5mm.


Despite its groundbreaking technology, the El Primero faced challenges in production and maintenance, leading Zenith Radio Corporation, the majority shareholder of Zenith Watch Company, to cease production in 1975. However, this hiatus only added to the allure of the El Primero, making surviving examples cherished treasures among collectors.


With an estimated 32,000 El Primero watches produced between 1969 and 1975, each model represents a piece of horological history. Among them, the A386 stands out as a rare and coveted gem, with only 2,500 examples ever made.



Revival: Vermot, Rolex and LVMH


Few stories are as captivating as that of Charles Vermot, the Zenith watchmaker who defied management and risked his career to preserve the legacy of the iconic El Primero movement. At the heart of this tale lies a daring act of courage and determination that ensured the survival of one of the most celebrated movements in watchmaking history.


In the face of management's decision to sell off the equipment and tools necessary for producing the El Primero, Vermot stood firm in his belief that mechanical watchmaking still had a future. Alongside his brother Maurice, he clandestinely hid all the essential presses, cams, and manufacturing plans needed to create the El Primero movement within the confines of Manufacture Zenith.


Under the cover of darkness, Vermot meticulously transported the heavy equipment through hidden passages and up 52 flights of stairs to a secluded storage space on the top floor of the facility. Despite the risks and challenges, Vermot's unwavering dedication ensured the preservation of invaluable trade secrets that would prove instrumental in the future revival of the El Primero.


The opportunity for resurgence came when Rolex sought to update its Daytona chronograph with an automatic movement. Recognising the technical superiority of the El Primero and its ideal counter configuration for the Daytona, Rolex entered into a ten-year contract with Zenith in 1984. Vermot's audacious actions had laid the groundwork for Zenith's revival, allowing production of the El Primero to resume and cement its place in horological history.


Black and white photo of Charles Vermot at his workshop

In the years that followed, Zenith continued to push the boundaries of watchmaking innovation with the El Primero at its core. The introduction of the CHRONOMASTER Open in 2003 marked a groundbreaking moment, showcasing the high-frequency beating heart of the El Primero through a partially open dial.


In 2004, Zenith further demonstrated its mastery of the El Primero with the release of the world's first high-frequency tourbillon watch, showcasing the versatility of the iconic movement. Over the years, Zenith has continued to innovate, introducing additional complications such as the minute repeater, dual-time, and perpetual calendar, further solidifying the El Primero's status as a horological marvel.


Today, two decades on, Zenith continues to captivate enthusiasts with its flagship movement. The recent unveiling of the DEFY Skyline Chronograph at Watches and Wonders serves as a testament to Zenith's enduring commitment to pushing the boundaries of watchmaking excellence, with the El Primero at the helm.

 

Available Now


The Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Open Silver Dial Watch (Reference: 03.2040.4061/69.C) is a modern masterpiece that epitomises the brand's heritage of precision and innovation. At its core lies the legendary El Primero EP4061 automatic high-frequency chronograph calibre, a testament to Zenith's commitment to excellence. This upgraded version features a silicon escape wheel and pallet lever, eliminating the need for lubrication and ensuring exceptional precision and durability. With a power reserve of 50 hours, this movement delivers reliable performance, while the open case back allows enthusiasts to admire the intricate mechanics in motion. Purchase now for free UK delivery.



Zenith El Primero Open Heart Watch on box cushion against grey background

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