The watch world’s vintage-inspiration trend may have reached a crescendo this year with multiple horological milestones of 1969 all commemorating 50-year anniversaries accompanied by watch homages of various kinds. As one of the first automatic chronographs, and an iconic movement and watch with the same name, Zenith’s El Primero is among them. The brand has marked the year with celebrations and special editions, and the latest entry in its “Revival” series is the Zenith El Primero A384 Revival. This is a faithful recreation of one of the first watches to feature the El Primero movement, and it’s the most distinctive yet.
The movement debuted in several different Zenith models in 1969, but the classic El Primero that has remained part of the brand’s modern collection is based on the A386 with its large, colorful, overlapping sub-dials and relatively modern case design. Even more historically accurate versions of the El Primero A386 were released earlier this year as a Revival limited-edition set. The A384, however, has a rather different look from the El Primero most known today, and Zenith reverse engineered a vintage model from 1969 in order to be as true to the original as possible.
The Zenith El Primero A384 has a distinctive case shape rarely seen in today’s watches but typical of the 1960s and 1970s. Its dial is more traditional, but collectors and vintage fans will approve of its “panda” colorway (white with black sub-dials). The new A384 Revival edition precisely maintains all these elements, including the original case size of 37mm. The El Primero movement is notable not only as a watchmaking first and having an unusually high frequency of 5Hz, but because it has changed relatively little since its introduction except for improvements offered by contemporary materials and production.
Interestingly, the El Primero movement itself, which forms the core of Zenith’s current brand identity and is arguably one of the most important movements ever produced, was nearly lost to history. After Zenith was sold to the American company of the same name in the 1970s, just a short few years after the debut of the El Primero in 1969, the watchmakers are engineers were ordered to destroy all the movement’s components and tooling. Quartz was the future, they insisted, and mechanical watchmaking was the past.
Thankfully, one man decided to defy his superior’s orders. Charles Vermot, a Zenith watchmaker in charge of the El Primero components and tooling, decided to hide all of the equipment, piece by piece, in one of the Zenith building’s attic in Le Locle, after he failed to convince his new bosses of the significance of the movement. He then quietly retired, never saying a word to anyone about what he did, even to his family.
Then, in the early 1980s, after Zenith had once again changed hands, Vermot was approached about the old tooling by someone who had heard rumors that it might still exist somewhere. Vermot hopped in his car, drove straight away to Le Locle, broke down the wall that he had built nearly a decade before, and there, perfectly preserved, was all the tooling.
“It’s an unbelievable story, but it’s a true story,” explained Julien Tornare, current CEO of Zenith. “At some point Charles’s wife came to Michel, Charles’s son, and asked him, ‘Michel, do you know what your father is doing? Why is he going out every night and on the weekends?’ She was becoming suspicious because he didn’t even tell his kids. This was a story that was in no book.”
Michel explains about his father Charles, with Thierry Collot, Zenith Brand Director for North America translating from his native French: “My father was one of four kids. He wasn’t educated, so he went straight to the (watchmaker’s) bench and started to work from the ground up. He ascended through the ranks in terms of skills and qualifications and so on, and he ended up in charge of all the tools and stamping equipment to make the El Primero. Initially the movement was designed in a small village very close to Le Locle, before they moved to Le Locle, which is the current location for Zenith. So it (the Quartz Crisis) was the end of the world for my father as well as for many people in the industry at the time, and it was really a disaster.”
Julien Tornare continues: “Charles’s father did it for passion for watchmaking and for the brand and for that particular movement. But he took a huge personal risk, because in those days, they were living in very small villages, everybody knew each other. Everybody knows everyone. Had he been caught and fired, he would’ve been unemployed in the industry. He wouldn’t have been able to feed his kids. He didn’t even tell his kids and his wife. ”
In 1984, production of the El Primero movement resumed, with Ebel being one of the first companies to place an order. This was followed shortly thereafter by Rolex, which placed enormous orders to power its new automatic Daytona, helping to resurrect the Zenith brand and keep them afloat during the back half of the Quartz Crisis. Today, the El Primero movement that powers the new A384 is largely unchanged from that of the original watches, released in 1969.
“There’s very little difference between the original El Primero movements from 1969 and those used today,” continues Tornare. “We reshaped some of the components, because they wanted to improve the performance, but it’s very close. We were between wanting to retain the original design to change some of the components to improve performance, and we went in-between.”
The Zenith El Primero A384 Revival for 2019 compromised very little on absolute authenticity, but it uses sapphire crystal in place of acrylic and features a case back window to display the celebrated movement. A couple more things make the A384 Revival exciting to watch fans: unlike the previous Revival models released this year, the A384 is in steel and is not a limited edition, with a price of $7,900.
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