Brands often speak of a “hero product”. For Zenith, it’s not a watch but a movement — in fact, the El Primero is so synonymous with the brand as to be all-consuming. Launched 50 years ago as the most ambitious of three efforts to produce an automatic chronograph, it is the only one still in production — although Zenith has had by far the most turbulent journey in the interim. Today, the superiority of the El Primero remains both Zenith’s strength and weakness: successive CEOs have wrestled with the implications for marketing coherent collections, and the incumbent Julien Tornare is no different. But as the movement marks its golden anniversary, Zenith is proving adept at playing the hand it has been dealt, with the most significant overhaul to the calibre in its history unveiled at Baselworld 2019.

It’s actually somewhat surprising that Zenith entered the race for the automatic chronograph at all. It had produced chronographs before, working closely with Universal (later Universal Genève) and their joint supplier Martel, but they never made up a huge percentage of Zenith’s output or its marketing. According to Tornare, the brand was imbued with a trailblazing spirit and, buoyed up by recent successes elsewhere, decided to enter the race: “The Martel story played a big role, but there were also all the prizes we won in chronometry, and a real obsession for precision. Many brands were thinking about going for one-tenth of second. That was a big part of the watchmaking culture at the time.”

As it was gunning for not one, but two watchmaking firsts, titling its resulting movement “The First” (from Esperanto) must have seemed like a pretty clever move, if just a tiny bit self-congratulatory. History doesn’t record who made the decision to give the calibre such an evocative name — it was either CEO Leonardo Butscher or one of his senior team — but in doing so, they unwittingly set Zenith on a path, both blessing and curse, of having a movement more famous than any of the watches it powered. Talk about an Espada, a Port Royal, an Epervier (French for “sparrowhawk”) or a Clipper to all but the most passionate Zenith collector today, and the chances are you’ll be met with blank looks.

Zenith El Primero A384 1969
The very first El Primero: reference A384, shown here on its "ladder" bracelet
Zenith

From the beginning, El Primero movements were used in an enormous variety of cases and designs (round with integrated lugs; tortoise, TV-screen and tonneau shapes; gem-set models with integrated “tree-bark” gold bracelets). Colour and shape were embraced at Zenith as they were everywhere else in the Seventies, and crucially the only common element beyond the brand name was “El Primero” on the dial (on all but very few designs). There were reference numbers but they didn’t stick; as Tornare says: “If we called it the A386, people thought it was an airplane from Airbus.” Ironically, with the reissue this year of both the circular A386 and its tonneau-shaped sibling the A384, watch fans are finding the reference numbers finally slipping into regular parlance.

The design of the El Primero calibre is often cited as an explanation for its longevity. Some accidents of history notwithstanding, it is an extremely versatile movement, and although it would be a misconception that it has remained unchanged for 50 years — it has been upgraded many times, not least to bring it into line with modern production techniques and tolerances — the modern movement is so similar to its 50-year-old ancestor (Calibre 3019 PHC) that you can repair a 1969 original with components straight off yesterday’s production line.

It was conceived in the early Sixties, shortly after Zenith acquired Martel in 1962, and from the outset the brief had something of an uncompromising feel to it: it was to be an integrated chronograph movement design — taking its timekeeping from the fourth wheel rather than the seconds wheel, as a modular chronograph does — with a column wheel and a power reserve north of 50 hours. Originally intended to launch for the brand’s 100th anniversary in 1965, the decision halfway through its development to simultaneously make it the first high-frequency wristwatch chronograph delayed the project until 1969.

Zenith El Primero Calibre 3019C Design Drawing
A design drawing for the El Primero 3019 C calibre
Zenith

To manage the high frequency escapement, Zenith had to recalculate the gear train ratios, and for better performance and longevity, used a molybdenum disulphide-based dry lubricant in favour of traditional oils. The difficulties involved with bringing such an ambitious watch to market — with all the reliability that implies — may explain why it took Zenith until October 1969 to deliver the El Primero watches, despite having held the first press conference of the automatic chronograph contenders in January. The movement’s construction favoured elegance over practicality, preferring multiple smaller bridges and plates to larger ones, and resisting the opportunity to integrate parts together. Its integrated design resulted in a movement that was only 6.5mm thick (the Chronomatic project’s modular Calibre 11, by contrast, measured 7.7mm), meaning that it could comfortably take additional complications without the case thickness ballooning, but it required an expert hand to service and maintain.

From 1969 to 1986, Zenith produced the El Primero in two variants — 3019 PHC and 3019 PHF, the latter denoting the addition of a full calendar — spanning some 44 references. The 3019 PHC was by far the most common, accounting for 37,200 watches compared with 2,720 with the full calendar. From 1986 onwards, the El Primero was reclassified as Calibre 400, at which point it underwent a number of technical and aesthetic upgrades. But before we get to that, we are in danger of glossing over one of the key moments — maybe the key moment — in the mythology of the El Primero.

In 1972, the Chicago-based Zenith Radio Corporation, then the largest US electronics manufacturer, became the majority shareholder in Zenith watches. The workforce was reduced to its bare bones and within two years the instruction came to cease mechanical watch production altogether. In a tragic irony, the El Primero may have contributed to the decision, although the quartz crisis was coming, one way or another.

As Tornare says: “The way [the El Primero] was made was very costly and very difficult, and it probably didn’t help. When the American owner came to look at it, there was already a strong wind telling everyone quartz was the only future, and then they looked at the finances and it didn’t make much sense.”

Zenith - Charles Vermot
Charles Vermot, the watchmaker who hid - and saved - the El Primero
Zenith

What happened next is one of the best-known stories in watchmaking; its passage into legend strengthening the hold the El Primero has over Zenith. A watchmaker named Charles Vermot, probably with a few colleagues, disobeyed orders to scrap the machinery and ébauches used to make the El Primero, instead storing them undetected in the factory. In the meantime, Zenith continued to produce watches; some quartz, some based on third-party mechanical movements and some housing the remaining El Primero 3019 PHC calibres. Many were sold in America and named “Waldan International”, “Ekegren”, “Jurgensen” and “Waldan”.

In 1975, El Primero production halted, although it seems some TV-screen El Primeros were made until 1978, when, tired of their failing investment and crippled by the low cost of digital watches, Zenith’s owners could barely give the company away. A caretaker consortium from Le Locle stepped in to keep the company running, driven as much by nostalgia as any optimism for the future. Not until the early Eighties would Zenith’s fortunes rise again, and when they did, it was thanks to the El Primero. As the story goes, Vermot kept his hidden machinery, tooling, plans and ébauches secret until 1981, when he felt confident enough in the company’s leadership to come clean, with impeccable timing.

“What really helped the brand to take off again after the quartz crisis, was not Zenith itself, but Pierre-Alain Blum from Ebel, who placed a big order for movements in 1984,” Tornare says. “And then obviously Rolex; as everyone knows, they placed a big order for the Daytona. In a way we had a clear weakness, that we still have a little of today, in that we were seen more as a movement producer than a watch brand.”

By the mid-Eighties, Rolex hadn’t produced chronographs for some years; having seen the renewed enthusiasm for Zenith’s El Primero, it decided to modernise the Daytona (which even in the Seventies, had been an anachronism for Rolex, as it was neither automatic nor waterproof like its other watches), and in 1986 it approached Zenith to discuss bulk orders for movements.

Zenith El Primero Parts and Equipment
El Primero tooling parts, as preserved by Vermot
Zenith

Following the Ebel orders, Zenith restarted production, but it wasn’t until 1986 that it was given any improvements: Kif shock-protection was replaced by Incabloc; the interlocking date mechanism was tweaked and minor dimensions changed. This was now known as Calibre 400, and from 1986 to 2000, Zenith supplied more than 200,000 ébauches to Rolex, which demanded numerous changes. Notably, the movement was slowed to 4Hz to improve longevity; the date was removed, the hairspring replaced with a Breguet overcoil and improvements made to the finishing (reportedly 80 per cent of Rolex’s stipulations were aesthetic, rather than technical). Rolex’s custom, and the overall revival of luxury watches, gave Zenith the freedom to develop the El Primero like never before.

The Calibre 400 family has to date spawned more than a dozen descendants of varying complexity: from simple modifications such as moving the date to 6 o’clock (400B); adding a power reserve (4021) or big date (4010) to incorporating more serious complications. The El Primero has received pretty much every complication going, including an annual calendar (4054), minute repeater (4043), flyback (405B) and tourbillon (4035 D), as well as — in the over-the-top cult favourite Pilot Doublematic — an alarm, worldtimer, big date and power reserve (Calibre 4046).

Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Rainbow 1997
One of the most characterful editions of the El Primero, the Stratos Flyback "Rainbow" from 1997
Zenith

There have been deletions, too. Calibres 4061, 4062 and 4069 do without the date indicator, hours subdial or both, respectively, and in 1993, Zenith even removed the El Primero’s raison d’être, creating the hand-wound Calibre 420. More recently, the El Primero was stripped of its chronograph functions altogether in the short-lived El Primero Synopsis. In 1997, the El Primero was first regulated to COSC levels of accuracy with the launch of the first ChronoMaster; in the intervening decades, the importance of COSC certification has declined, and today while less than 15 per cent of all Zenith's watches are certified chronometers, all El Primeros are regulated to a higher standard of daily accuracy (–3/+5 seconds) as a matter of course.

It’s indisputable that the orders placed by Ebel, Rolex and the others that followed (during the Eighties and Nineties, Zenith supplied El Primero movements to major brands such as Panerai, Boucheron and Parmigiani, smaller independents like Concord, Daniel Roth, Dubois et Fils, and even one-time watch brands like Dunhill and Tommy Hilfiger), saved Zenith financially. The success only burnished the halo of Charles Vermot; as Tornare says, “when he saved the movement, he saved the brand as well.”

Zenith El Primero Reference 781
A reference 781 from 1971 with oversized hour indexes and red dial
Zenith

Could things have been different? Tornare admits, that, had Vermot not acted as he did, the watchmakers who remained after the quartz crisis could have summoned that innovative spirit of the Sixties once more, and steered Zenith in quite a different direction as the industry fought its way back to life in the early Nighties, and we could be looking at a brand today for which the El Primero would be but a chapter. And maybe it would have a recognisable “hero” watch. But without the movement orders, perhaps Zenith would have faltered for good (and maybe, been re-born in the Noughties as so many other brands were). It’s impossible to know for sure, but given the choice I’d take Zenith as it is, rather than as it could have been.

However you may view the influence of the El Primero on the place Zenith enjoys in today’s market, it is heartening to see the brand celebrate its 50th with such gusto. As part of a limited edition box set of watches (containing three pieces, with space for a fourth to come) revealed in January, Zenith is debuting Calibre 3600, something that head of products Romain Marietta speaks of as “El Primero 2, the biggest change to the El Primero since the beginning.”

Zenith El Primero Calibre 3600
The new El Primero, housing the Calibre 3600
Zenith

Visually very similar — and fitting into the same 6.6mm x 30mm footprint — the calibre has had a thorough reworking to bring it into the 21st century, while keeping as much of the basic design the same as possible. The number of parts has been reduced, the gear train tweaked and the power reserve increased, to around 65 hours. Setting will be easier, and for the first time it will incorporate a stop-seconds function. But the main change is one that will sound surprising to purists: the development of a modular construction. As Marietta explains, “It remains an integrated chronograph, but the idea here was to simplify where appropriate, and create something fit for 2019 not 1969. Modularity was the priority, so that now when designing new watches I can say, ‘I want three counters with date and flyback. Or maybe two counters without date but with flyback. Or three counters, date at 4.30 and striking tenth’.

Zenith El Primero 50th Anniversary Box Set
The limited edition box set produced for the 50th anniversary of the El Primero
Zenith

“Previously, every different configuration required a new movement variation. And this will let us do things we haven’t done before: for one, we will directly display the tenths of a second — something we never did, except for the Striking Tenth limited edition in 2011,” says Marietta.

It is fitting, perhaps, that a movement which began life with more ambition than its rivals should be showing the same spirit 50 years on. And for Zenith, if it is to remain forever “the El Primero brand”, it is doing the right thing in committing to it so wholeheartedly.


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