50 Years of El Primero – Zenith celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the legendary chronograph with a special box

Three special watches (plus a future piece) in an anniversary box

EL PRIMERO 1969 Dial detail
EL PRIMERO 1969 Dial detail
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Zenith celebrates these days one of the most important chronographs of modern times – the mighty El Primero. Zenith El Primero was announced in January of 1969, three months before what is now Baselworld. The first watches were later on available on the market, in October. To mark the occasion, Zenith launched an anniversary box, the Grey Palette, containing three watches and an empty slot for a fourth piece – a future 1/1000th of a second chronograph. Reviews of the individual pieces will follow.

Zenith El Primero Grey Palette
Zenith El Primero Grey Palette – the anniversary box with the three available pieces and a fourth slot available for the 1/1000th of a second chronograph

Fifty years of ups and downs – a short history of El Primero

It seems hard to believe, but at the beginning of the sixties, there were no automatic chronographs. Several brands were interested in the concept. One of them was Zenith – it was 1962.

A few years later, in the period 1966-1967, the brand’s management decided to bring to the market an ultra-thin automatic chronograph. The watch should operate a high frequency – 5Hz, or 36000vph. These numbers correspond to 1/10 of a second interval. On January 10th 1969, at a press conference held in Le Locle, Zenith announced the new El Primero. It was the first brand that launched publicly this combination of complications.

But Zenith was not the only brand in the quest of the automatic chronograph. Heuer, Breitling, Büren (and later Hamilton) along with movement makers Dubois-Depraz were developing, together, the “Project 99”. The result was the “Chronomatic” – a micro-rotor automatic chronograph. The Chronomatic was announced in March, during the Basel fair.  This movement was used in several pieces of the brands that put the effort.

Another brand in the race of automatic chronographs was Seiko. Their first chronograph with the automatic movement was the Speedtimer. The watch was launched in the same great year – 1969, in May.

But the joy will be short. The brand will be sold in 1971 to the Zenith Radio Corporation. The American administrator was firmly convinced that the future will lay in the quartz technology. When the quartz crisis was on the peak, the production of mechanical movements was ceased. In 1975, the management decided that all tooling and machinery used to produce the El Primero movement to be disposed.

In 1976, Charles Vermot hid in the attic 150 presses along with many small tools and cams used to produce the movement.

Charles Vermot
Charles Vermot in 1980

At the beginning of the ’80s, the quartz crisis relaxed and Zenith became a mechanical movements supplier for several brands. When Rolex decided in ’84 to use El Primero calibre in their Daytona model, Zenith resumed the production of El Primero calibre using the Vermot’s saved tools.

From now on, the Zenith El Primero will only rise:

  • 1995 – El  Primero was fit with a sapphire case-back
  • 1997 – El Primero was equipped with a Flyback function
  • 1999 – The new owner of Zenith, LVMH, decided to invest in the future of El Primero
  • 2003 – El Primero received a dial opening to see part of the escapement and balance wheel
  • 2004 – the first El Primero Tourbillon
  • 2010 – the El Primero Striking 10TH is able to display tenths of a second
  • 2017 – the Defy El Primero 21 is capable of measuring one-hundredth of a second.
  • coming soon, maybe at Baselworld 2019, the El Primero capable to measure 1/1000th of a second.

On Sunday October 14th, for the first time in history, a man broke the speed sound in a freefall, accompanied by Zenith’s El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10TH, which thus became the first watch to break the sound barrier on the very edge of space.

The Grey Palette and the watches within

I have seen the Grey Palette during the days of SIHH2019. I was impressed by the box’s combination of modern and “vintage”. The look is like it’s been released from the ’60s. Only the digital screen and the LED lights keeps it anchored in the present.

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Each issued in a 50-piece limited edition, the three El Primero anniversary watches, as well as the empty cushion designed to accommodate a future 1/1000th of a second chronograph, are presented in a boxed set that also symbolises Zenith’s evolution and future in the field of high frequency. Subtle nuances of grey, leather touches, contemporary woodwork: the presentation box combines watchmaking tradition with innovation in performance and precision. Adorned with the anniversary logo, the satin-brushed grey lid with built-in touch screen opens to reveal a reproduction of a miniature watchmaker’s workbench, complete with a watch mechanism on a rest, adjustable lighting system, magnifying glass and screwdriver. The screw-locked lower part of the box contains a drawer in which the three El Primero chronographs are nestled. In a nod to the past, the box contains an actual die of the chronograph’s coupling-wheel bridge (one of the emblematic components of the El Primero movement). This die is an invitation to purchasers to come and visit the Manufacture in Le Locle and to hand-stamp two coupling-wheel bridges. One will leave with the purchaser in his box, and the other, engraved with his name, will be placed as historical testimony on the entrance wall of the famous attic chosen by Charles Vermot, the Zenith watchmaker who – in the midst of the quartz crisis in the early 1970s – saved the elements essential to the production of the El Primero calibre from destruction by secretly keeping them in that same attic and thus enabled its renaissance in 1984. – Official Press Release

Zenith El Primero 1969 – Original Version

I will not go in the details of the watches since a hands-on review will follow. The text used is part of the official press release.

While El Primero has constantly evolved since its invention, inspiring new creations to the point of becoming an archetypal model prized by connoisseurs, Zenith had never yet offered a reissue faithful to the original model. This has now been done, since the anniversary boxed set, in a 50-piece limited edition, includes in its first compartment a perfect reiteration of the 1969 El Primero chronograph. A historical first that endows this vintage watch with a special aura and potent symbolism. The 38 mm steel case, curved glass with magnifying effect, tricolour counters, tachymeter scale, font, the shapes of the hands and hour-markers, as well as the leather strap: all the original codes are resolutely present. Likewise, the shape of the lugs and mushroom pushers are exactly reproduced on this pure “revival” watch. To give a new lease on life to the spirit and the original attributes of its illustrious predecessor, Zenith’s engineers and designers carried out a reverse engineering process: an authentic copy of the brand’s museum was entirely laser-scanned to restore each component. The only liberties that have been taken are the fact that the initially solid back now reveals the movement without hindrance and that the crown logo has been updated. As for the ‘engine’, it’s the current version of the El Primero column-wheel chronograph movement, beating at a rate of 36,000 vibrations per hour and delivering 1/10th of a second precision as well as a 50-hour power reserve. Like the original, it displays the hours, minutes and small seconds, chronograph, tachymeter and date functions, the latter appearing between 4 and 5 o’clock. – Official Press Release

View to the El Primero 400 Automatic
View to the El Primero 400 Automatic
EL PRIMERO 1969 Dial detail
EL PRIMERO 1969 – dial detail
The buckle used for the El Primero 1969
The buckle used for the El Primero 1969
Zenith El Primero 1969 on the wrist
Zenith El Primero 1969 on the wrist

Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 2.0

As mentioned before, a full review will follow.

Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 2.0
Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 2.0

A direct descendant of El Primero, the Zenith Chronomaster is its most emblematic contemporary embodiment. A Chronomaster is recognisable at first sight. Its imposing stature, iconic design and high-frequency mechanism are embedded in the Manufacture’s DNA. Therefore, to celebrate the legendary model from which it originated, the second watch in the case is a Chronomaster, equipped with a new-generation El Primero engine and a new black ceramic bezel. Renamed El Primero 3600, its movement is presented in an optimised version, an update conducted in accordance with the architecture and proven performance of the legendary El Primero. This high-frequency calibre, beating at 36,000 vibrations per hour, achieves the feat of accurately measuring one tenth of a second and offering direct readings on the dial and bezel. In other words, the chronograph hand makes one dial turn in 10 seconds, indicating at each jump the tenth of a second on a scale graduated from 1 to 100. With this 2.0 version, the original construction of the El Primero chronograph, consisting of a column wheel and a lever-operated lateral clutch, is visually highlighted and redesigned to enhance its reliability and precision. The most obvious results are the integration of a stop-seconds device for time-setting and a power reserve increased to 60 hours. In addition to its maximised assets, the new Chronomaster has a sportier and more modern look than its contemporaries, featuring a 42 mm steel case topped by a graduated black ceramic bezel, a star-shaped oscillating weight and a rubber strap with contrasting stitching. – Official Press Release

The dial of Chronomaster 2.0
The dial of Chronomaster 2.0
View of the calibre El Primero 3600
View of the calibre El Primero 3600
Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 2.0 on the wrist
Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 2.0 on the wrist

Defy El primero 21

Zenith Defy El Primero 21
Zenith Defy El Primero 21

The last element of this trilogy, the Defy El Primero 21 chronograph, heralds the watchmaking of the future. A future that holds exceptional achievements in store, as suggested by the fourth cushion of the case, deliberately left empty to accommodate Zenith’s next feats in the field of extreme high frequency. But for now, it’s time for the present, with the Defy El Primero, the ultra-modern embodiment of the legendary El Primero. Beating inside its imposing 44 mm titanium case is a revolutionary mechanical movement. Oscillating at a frequency of 360,000 vibrations per hour (50 Hz), ten times higher than its predecessor, it measures and displays one hundredth of a second on a scale from 1 to 100. Its exclusive dynamic signature – the lightning-quick hand making a full turn of the dial in one second – reflects the exceptional precision and performance of this engine stemming from modern engineering with two independent “gearboxes” on board: one for the time and the other for the chronograph. Its skeleton dial features three solid counters in the original colours – the common denominator of this “tribute” edition – and its contemporary lines, formed by a large fluted crown, flat pushpieces and short lugs, merge seamlessly onto the wrist by means of a black rubber strap covered with black alligator leather. – Official Press Release

Defy El Primero 21 dial
Defy El Primero 21 dial
The view to the calibre El Primero 9004
The view of the calibre El Primero 9004
Zenith Defy El Primero 21 on the wrist
Zenith Defy El Primero 21 on the wrist

The “modern” versions of El Primero are fitted with a nice deployant clasp.

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Zenith El Primero 50 Years Anniversary Technical Specification

EL PRIMERO A386 REVIVAL

Reference: 03.A386. 400/69.C815

Zenith El Primero 03.A386.400.69.C815
Zenith El Primero 03.A386.400.69.C815

KEY POINTS

Original Revival of the 1969 Reference A386:

The first ever El Primero Model

Original 1969 case with 38 mm diameter

Automatic El Primero column-wheel chronograph

MOVEMENT

El Primero 400, Automatic

Calibre: 13“` (Diameter: 30 mm)

Movement thickness: 6.6.mm

Components: 278

Jewels: 31

Frequency: 36,000 VpH (5 Hz)

Power-reserve: min. 50 hours

Finishes: Oscillating weight with “Côtes de Genève”. motif

FUNCTIONS

Hours and minutes in the centre

Small seconds at 9 o’clock

Chronograph:

– Central chronograph hand

– 12-hour counter at 6 o’clock

– 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock

Tachymetric scale

Date indication at 4:30

CASE, DIAL & HANDS

Diameter: 38 mm

Diameter opening: 33.05 mm

Thickness: 12.60 mm

Crystal: Domed sapphire crystal with anti-reflective treatment on both sides

Case-back: Transparent sapphire crystal

Material: Stainless steel

Water-resistance: 10 ATM

Dial: White-lacquered dial with three different-coloured counters

Hour-markers: Rhodium-plated, faceted and coated with Super-LumiNova SLN C3

Hands: White, faceted and coated with Super-LumiNova SLN C3

STRAP & BUCKLE

Black alligator leather strap with protective rubber lining

Stainless steel pin buckle

 

CHRONOMASTER 2 EL PRIMERO

Reference: 03.3001.3600/69.C816

Zenith Chronomaster 2.0 El Primero 03.3001.3600.69.C816
Zenith Chronomaster 2.0 El Primero 03.3001.3600.69.C816

KEY POINTS

Entirely redesigned movement to pay tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the legendary El Primero movement

Automatic El Primero column-wheel chronograph able to measure and display the 1/10th of a second

1/10th of a second indication on the ceramic bezel

Increased power reserve of 60 hours

Stop second mechanism

Certified Chronometer

MOVEMENT

El Primero 3600, Automatic

Calibre: 13¼“` (Diameter: 30 mm)

Frequency: 36,000 VpH (5 Hz)

Power-reserve: approx. 60 hours

Finishes: New star-shaped oscillating weight with satined finishings

FUNCTIONS

Hours and minutes in the centre

Small seconds at 9 o’clock

1/10th of a second Chronograph:

– Central chronograph hand that makes one turn in 10 seconds

– 30-minute counter at 6 o’clock

– 60-second counter at 3 o’clock

Date indication at 6 o’clock

CASE, DIAL & HANDS

Diameter: 42 mm

Diameter opening: 37.1 mm

Thickness: 12.75 mm

Crystal: Domed sapphire crystal with anti-reflective treatment on both sides

Case-back: Transparent sapphire crystal

Material: Stainless steel

Water-resistance: 10 ATM

Dial: Silver-toned sunray-patterned dial three different-coloured

Hour-markers: Rhodium-plated, faceted and coated with Super-LumiNova SLN C1

Hands: Rhodium-plated, faceted and coated with Super-LumiNova SLN C1

STRAP & BUCKLE

Black rubber with red stitchings

Steel double folding clasp

 

DEFY EL PRIMERO 21

Reference: 95.9012.9004/69.R582

Zenith Defy El Primero 21 95.9012.9004.69.R582
Zenith Defy El Primero 21 95.9012.9004.69.R582

KEY POINTS

1/100th of a second Chronograph movement

Exclusive dynamic signature of one rotation per second

1 escapement for the Watch (36,000 VpH – 5 Hz) ;

1 escapement for the Chronograph (360,000 VpH – 50Hz)

Certified Chronometer

MOVEMENT

El Primero 9004, Automatic

Calibre: 14½“` (Diameter: 32 mm)

Movement thickness: 7.9 mm

Components: 293

Jewels: 53

Frequency: 36,000 VpH (5 Hz)

Power-reserve: min. 50 hours

Finishes: Special oscillating weight with satined finishings

FUNCTIONS

Hours and minutes in the centre

Small seconds at 9 o’clock

1/100th of a second Chronograph:

– Central chronograph hand

– 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock

– 60-second counter at 6 o’clock

– Chronograph power-reserve indication at 12 o’clock

CASE, DIAL & HANDS

Diameter: 44 mm

Diameter opening: 35.5 mm

Thickness: 14.50 mm

Crystal: Domed sapphire crystal with anti-reflective treatment on both sides

Case-back: Transparent sapphire crystal

Material: Brushed titanium

Water-resistance: 10 ATM

Dial: Openworked with three different-coloured counters

Hour-markers: Rhodium-plated, faceted and coated with Super-LumiNova SLN C1

Hands: Rhodium-plated, faceted and coated with Super-LumiNova SLN C1

STRAP & BUCKLE

Black Rubber with black alligator leather coating

Titanium double folding clasp

Original Zenith media:

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Zenith El Primero images taken during the SIHH 2019 days

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For more information please visit:

  • the Zenith Official Website
  • the 50 Years Anniversary History Website
  • the 50 Years Anniversary Set Webpage

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