Zenith El Primero

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El Primero – The First. Le Premier. Der Erste.

A watch brand lives from the history that it pens itself. If Zenith would merely be just a conglomeration of anecdotes, than no story of its origins would be complete without the tale of perhaps the most famous of chronograph movements. That Zenith was capable of prevailing over Seiko and an alliance composed of Breitling, TAG Heuer, and Dubuis- Dépraz is something no one thought even remotely possible. It literally was the story of David versus Goliath and how it ended is widely known. On the 10th of January, 1969 Zenith placed the decisive blow with the presentation of its El Primero and the legendary Calibre 11.

Even though voices can still be heard grumbling about how the Seiko 6139 or even the chronomatic Calibre 11 should be paid their due, what can’t be contested is that the El Primero was the first model to be presented to the public. It was a milestone in the history of watches and it’s remarkable not only just for this feat alone, but that its construction plans were almost lost entirely to history. Here’s a shout out to the employee during the time of the Quartz Crisis that ignored all orders from his company to scrap older designs. This selfless act helped the brand make a comeback in a big way. Like a tidal wave.

In Depth – A race, which changed the entire world of watches

The El Primero was the first automatic watch movement with a chronograph complication. However, what made this invention so pioneering and unique? Well, sharp tongued critics could say that it’s just a combination of pre-existing modules and this isn’t necessarily wrong. Yet, the challenge was rather to create an automatic chronograph movement, which would also be widely accepted by customers. Back in the late 60s, it was the smaller sized and thinner timepieces that were considered the ideal dimensions for a gentlemen’s watch. Therefore, the real challenge was in the production of the most compact automatic chronograph movement that could be incorporated into a case that wasn’t all that big.

Generally, a development time of about two years isn’t all that long. Its time span marking the beginning of its manufacture until its series production is all the more remarkable and exactly what really shook up to the watch world so much. The Calibre 11, also known as the Chronomatic, had a micro-rotor built into it, which turned the base module 180 degrees. This caused the crown to be placed not on the right (which was the usual position for it), but rather on the left side. This feature is part of the myth that has sprung up around the Calibre 11 in its original form. The El Primero on the other hand was designed to be very thin, so that the watch could be equipped with a central rotor, which spread across the entire movement without making the watch too large or heavy.

While most movement components of the Calibre 11 are from several different manufacturers, the El Primero is an entirely in-house concept, whose original conception stretches back over a period of decades. The intense competition between two different work groups to create the first automatic chronograph began in 1967: two years before the movement was presented in January, 1969. At this time, Zenith wasn’t a small-sized manufacturer. Yet, it definitely was the underdog compared to the likes of TAG Heuer, Breitling, and Co. Isolated and surrounded by nay-sayers, Zenith by the skin of its neck was ultimately victorious in the competition to create the first automatic chronograph movement.

El Primero broken down into numbers – Top 5 Facts

9: The El Primero watch’s nine month journey

Today, the collection encompasses not only chronographs, but also three handed watches. Even the Flyback chronograph, along with the Tribute Felix Baumgartner model, are a part of the entire program. It took a total of nine months to create the El Primero model. According to Zenith, a total of eighteen different types of material were used and 2,500 operations were performed.

10: Ten jumps per second

The El Primero clocks 36.000 VpH (vibrations per hour). The gliding rate of the second hand is divided into ten jumps per second. The high frequency of the El Primero enables a remarkable running precision, which even today remains largely unmatched.

3: Three sub dials, in three different colours

The models in the El Primero collection with three different sub dial colours really stand out. A blue, black, and light grey colour combo are present on the dial of the El Primero Chronomaster 1969, the El Primero Original 1969, as well as the El Primero Stratos Flyback Tribute Felix Baumgartner models. They were created in a joint collaboration in light of Zenith’s sponsorship of the stratosphere base-jump.

2: Two hands

The El Primero portfolio has been expanded by three handed watches without chronograph functionality, known as the Synopsis. Next to the stop function, there’s also no second hand to be found, and so the model series has to make do with just two pointers.

14: Just like the atomic number of silizium

For some of the El Primero movements e.g. 4613 or the 4061, an escape wheel composed of silizium is used and it has a multitude of different advantages compared to stainless steel. Along with being non-magnetic, durable, and also corrosion resistant, it also has one other edge that’s beneficial to the vibration tempo of the El Primero movement. The El Primero doesn’t need any kind of lubrication, as silizium parts do not cause friction when they touch one another.