A Classic Mechanical Chronograph Returns, Better Than Ever

The new Zenith El Primero can measure time to a hundredth of a second.


When it was launched in 1969, the high-beat El Primero, the first automatic chronograph (arguably), was one of the most advanced mechanical movements of its time. It has since become a mainstay in Zenith’s lineup and has been used in various chronographs — some good, some questionable. But for 50 years, the El Primero calibre remained largely unchanged.

Until now. The new Defy El Primero 21 is built on the standard El Primero platform but takes the movement’s high-frequency roots to a new level. The watch now has two escapements, one for the time and the other for the chronograph function. While the former retains the standard watch’s 36,000 bph operating frequency, the latter runs at a dizzying 360,000 bph, making it capable of recording times to the nearest hundredth of a second.

The movement rests inside a 44mm case reminiscent of the original El Primero’s; customers have the option of either a titanium case with closed or open-worked dials or “ceramicized aluminum” (used on Range Rover editions of the El Primero) with the open-worked dial. The watch will start at $9,600 for the titanium case and closed dial, topping out at $11,600 for the open-worked, ceramicized aluminum option.

According to Zenith, the project was a priority for new acting CEO Jean-Claude Biver. It was brought from concept to fruition in just six months. While Zenith has gotten flak for resting on its laurels before, it’s a good sign that under Biver’s direction, the brand is once again attempting to push boundaries.

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