It began with the ambitious dream of a young pioneer – to create the world’s most precise timepiece through groundbreaking innovation. Georges Favre-Jacot sought to transform traditional watchmaking by bringing all the skills required under one roof, enabling zenith-level quality control.
In 1865, Favre-Jacot established the Zenith factory in Le Locle, Switzerland. His vision was to vertically integrate manufacturing, from making individual components to final assembly. By having everything in one place, Zenith could uphold uncompromising standards.
The name Zenith itself reflected sky-high aspirations. It represented the summit of watchmaking artistry that Favre-Jacot knew his unified Manufacture could achieve. Over the early 20th century, Zenith cemented its reputation for unparalleled precision and chronometric performance. From national institutions to corporations, Zenith became the top choice for exacting timekeeping, supplying marine chronometers, observatory trial winners, and aeronautical instruments.
When the Quartz Crisis shook up the watch industry in the 1960s, Zenith met the challenge. Leveraging its expertise, they revolutionized mechanical watches in 1969 with the groundbreaking automatic El Primero chronograph. Its high-frequency movement was perfectly suited to realize Favre-Jacot’s original quest for utmost precision.
The Zenith El Primero chronograph holds a special place in watchmaking history as one of the most iconic, innovative, and influential automatic chronographs ever made. Since its debut in 1969, the El Primero has demonstrated unmatched precision and performance for over 50 years.
But, before we dive into the details, why is ZENITH widely recognized for its movement and not so much for its watches? What’s the big deal? I believe the hype around Zenith’s El Primero is completely justified. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest mechanical chronograph movements ever made. When it was introduced in 1969, the El Primero’s precision of up to 1/10th of a second was unheard of and revolutionary. Even today, few mechanical watches can match its accuracy. Beyond the technical merits, the backstory of the El Primero resonates with me as an enthusiast. The fact that Zenith defiantly pursued this intricate automatic movement when the industry was shifting to quartz demonstrates remarkable passion. It speaks to their uncompromising approach to watchmaking. Whenever you wear a Zenith watch with the El Primero movement, you’re bound to be reminded of the brand’s rich history and tradition of innovation. The smooth sweep of the chronograph seconds hand and the 36,000 vph rhythm, when you put it to your ear, is mesmerizing. More than just a timekeeping instrument, the El Primero is a mechanical work of art. That’s why for me and many watch enthusiasts, it holds an exalted status regardless of the Zenith watch it powers.
Origins: The Race to Make the First Automatic Chronograph
In the 1960s, a race was on between watch companies to develop the world’s first automatic chronograph movement. At the time, chronographs required manual winding and could not match the convenience of self-winding watches. Zenith sought to be a pioneer with the El Primero.
After nearly 7 years of intensive research and development, Zenith unveiled the El Primero in 1969. It was among the first automatic chronograph calibers ever introduced, tied with the Calibre 11 that Heuer-Breitling-Hamilton-Buren jointly developed. The name “El Primero” means “the first” in Esperanto, reflecting the game-changing nature of this new movement.
Early El Primero References
– El Primero Reference A385 – The original El Primero from 1969 had a tonneau-shaped case and distinctive tri-color registers. The 3019 PHC movement beat at 36,000vph.
– El Primero De Luca – Named after Zenith’s director Charles Vermot, the De Luca had a round case and refined the El Primero movement as the 3020 PHC.
– Caliber 400 – Launched in 1994, the Caliber 400 improved upon the original El Primero with a more advanced escapement and 55-hour power reserve.
– Caliber 4021 – In 2009, Zenith introduced the Caliber 4021 with a modified regulating system for better chronometric results. The frequency was lowered slightly to 36,600vph.
– Caliber 3600 – The newest generation caliber has a 60-hour power reserve and contains silicon parts for lighter weight and resistance to magnetic fields.
– El Primero Chronomaster – Zenith’s flagship El Primero model features the Caliber 400 movement in a classic round case with 1/10th second scale.
– El Primero Chronomaster Open – This skeletonized dial version showcases the El Primero movement and its column wheel and oscillating wheel.
– El Primero Synopsis – With subdials at 9, 6, and 3 o’clock, the Synopsis has a contemporary asymmetrical look.
– El Primero A386 Revival – A 50-piece limited edition recreated the original El Primero Reference A386 in rose gold and a brown dial.
– El Primero Rainbow – The vibrant Rainbow edition has a lacquered dial with 11 different colors to represent the chronograph’s precision.
– El Primero Lightweight – Zenith partnered with the Aviation Pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont to make an ultra-light chronograph using a graphene composite case.
A High-Frequency Pioneer: The El Primero Movement
At the heart of the Zenith El Primero was the 3019 PHC movement beating at an extraordinarily high frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour. This allowed the El Primero to measure time accurately to 1/10th of a second, making it more precise than any other chronograph in the world.
The high frequency (5Hz) gave El Primero’s seconds hand a signature smooth sweeping motion rather than jumpy ticking. No other chronograph could sweep as smoothly around the dial. The chronograph registers were also innovatively configured in contrasting colors of blue, grey, and white to measure tenth seconds, seconds, and minutes.
Saving the El Primero During the Quartz Crisis
During the 1970s, the rise of quartz watches threatened traditional mechanical watchmaking. When Zenith Radio Corporation purchased the brand in 1975, they decided to stop the production of mechanical movements including the El Primero. However, determined Zenith employees continued making small batches of the El Primero in secret until 1984 when the company was sold again. The El Primero was saved from discontinuation.
A Movement That Powered Luxury Watch Brands
While Zenith went through turbulent times in the 1970s, the El Primero gained recognition as a world-class movement other brands sought to use in their watches. Rolex used the El Primero to power its Daytona chronograph from 1988 to 2000. TAG Heuer, Ebel, Cartier, and Panerai also utilized the El Primero due to its performance and reliability.
Continuous Evolution With Modern Innovation
Through various company ownership changes and technological shifts, Zenith has not rested on the laurels of its 1960s innovation. They keep improving the El Primero with new materials and engineering advances. Silicon parts introduced in 2014 increased the chronograph’s precision further. New calibers like the El Primero 3600 keep the iconic movement relevant for contemporary watchmaking.
Legacy as One of Watchmaking’s Masterpieces
The story of the El Primero is one of determination and ingenuity. Its unique high-frequency design that enables 1/10th second accuracy remains impressive more than 50 years later. The dramatic tri-color chronograph registers are visually striking. For any watch enthusiast, the El Primero is an object of desire and a milestone in 20th-century horology that continues to inspire watchmaking in the 21st century.