Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Zenith El Primero.
Imagine a time before quartz watches, when the technology of timekeeping was still springs and gears made in workshops in the Swiss mountains. While the Americans and Russians were racing to put men into space, a different sort of race was going on between watch companies sprinting toward the milestone of the first self-winding, or automatic, chronograph. The main players were a consortium of companies with mutual interests: Heuer, Buren-Hamilton, Breitling and Dubois-Depraz. In the Far East, Seiko was working on its own version. And then there was the dark horse from Le Locle: Zenith.
No matter how you frame the discussion, the debate over who created the first automatic chronograph is a heated one. One path to clearing confusion is to say that Zenith produced the very first Swiss-made, fully integrated automatic chronograph — the El Primero.
The History and the Debate
Whether or not the so-called Chrono-matic group — Hamilton-Buren, Breitling, Heuer, and Dubois-Dupraz — or Seiko actually beat the El Primero to market is not important. What’s important is this: the Zenith movement that resulted seven years after the journey began in 1962 is arguably still the best automatic chronograph in its price range decades years later.
While we would never take anything away from the innovations of Seiko and the Chrono-matic group, neither of their movements lasted very long after their 1969 debuts. The Seiko caliber 6139 went out of production in 1980; the Chrono-matic Caliber 11, due to a weak rotor and a mainspring with too much strength, needed to be upgraded within a year of its production. If you want to get technical, the El Primero went out of production in 1975, but that was due to Zenith Radio Corporation shifting its focus to quartz. The El Primero was relegated to the shelves, and Zenith watches entered a dark age.
In 1983, thanks to Ebel and Rolex, Zenith fulfilled movement orders with existing old stock. A couple of years later, the El Primero was back in production. The resurrection of the El Primero over a decade after its original release shows how far ahead of its time the watch truly was. Thanks to Zenith’s newfound independence, the brand was able to develop a handful of references powered by the El Primero.
As we’ve said, the El Primero was a watchmaking marvel of its time — and not just for one reason. For one, the watch featured a column wheel chronograph with a tri-compax layout. Most chronographs at the time (and many today) utilized a cam-actuated chronograph. There are benefits and drawbacks of using both types of chronographs, but column wheel production is more complex and labor-intensive. That Zenith chose to utilize a column wheel chronograph shows the level of end-to-end watchmaking that went into the El Primero development.
The smooth sweep of the seconds hand is much beloved by watch wearers. Today, the balance wheel in most mechanical watches beats at 28,800 vibrations per hour (vph); if you look closely, that smooth seconds hand sweep is actually eight ticks per second. The El Primero, on the other hand, is what’s known as a high-beat movement, making 10 ticks per second, or 36,000 vph. Not only does this create a smoother sweep, it also allows the chronograph function to maintain accuracy down to 1/10 of a second. High-beat movements were rare in 1969, and they’re rare today. Even Rolex slowed the El Primero down to 28,800vph for the Daytona.
With more beats per hour comes increased wear and tear on the escapement. To counter this, Zenith developed special lubricants that would keep the El Primero on the wrist more often than in a watchmaker’s hands. The other critical deficiency of a “quick tick,” though, is the tendency to lose power faster than normal. Zenith made the solution look simple: they used a mainspring capable of a 50-hour power reserve. These are the sorts of decisions that have proven Zenith is unwilling to cut corners, and they’ve paid off in spades (and by spades, we mean millions of dollars and a cult following).
The El Primero Today
Zenith’s resurgence in the luxury watch market piqued the interest of the luxury group LVMH, and in 1999, Zenith joined an LVMH portfolio of watchmakers that also included former Chrono-matic rival TAG Heuer. Since then, the El Primero has been a constant presence in the Zenith lineup, showing up in myriad variations, from time-only watches to minute repeaters. If there’s any criticism of the El Primero, it’s that in the years since its inception Zenith hasn’t strayed far enough from the original design. With the improvement of materials and production techniques, the El Primero has gotten better, but it hasn’t forgotten that its design works. You certainly won’t hear us complaining.
The El Primero has stood the test of time. Hell, it’s even withstood Mach 1 speeds from the lower stratosphere. No matter what El Primero-powered Zenith you’re talking about, it’s not only a solid watch, it’s a representative of arguably the most important automatic chronograph caliber ever created. Here’s to another 50 years of El Primero supremacy.