Zenith–a true marvel in the horological world–created one of the most iconic movements in watchmaking history, the El Primero. A movement that has been used by brands such as Rolex, TAG Heuer, Ebel, DuBois et Fils and many others. While Zenith is known today as an icon, what was their origin story? Let’s take a deep but condensed dive into the origin of the Zenith El Primero.
Zenith as a brand was born in 1865 from the grand vision and ideations created by George Favre-Jacot. As a young boy, Farve-Jacot began apprenticing as a watchmaker in Le Locle, Neuchâtel, Switzerland and would later start the brand at the young age of 22. After taking first prize in the 1903 Chronometry Competition of the Observatory of Neuchâtel, Zenith would become renowned for creating the most precise timepieces. In fact, Zenith went on to win over 2300 competitions based on pocket watches and various timekeeping tools. With such rapid growth behind Zenith, the brand would start manufacturing wristwatches shortly after World War I, which had alarm and chronograph functions.
The rise of automatic watch movements in the 1940s and 1950s made it pretty clear that they were primarily designed and manufactured for standard, three-hand wristwatches. A movement with a chronograph complication had not been manufactured or even prototyped. A decade later, in 1962, Zenith began to conceptualize and develop the first automatic chronograph movement and planned to release it in 1965.
To create an automatic chronograph movement, one must figure out how to build a chronograph function or complication into an already existing calibre. However, this isn’t the route that Zenith decided to take. Instead of adding a chronograph to an already existing movement, they built an entirely new mechanism with the complication fully integrated within the mechanical workings. The issue in doing so was in creating a movement with such a complication that would have the same accuracy and consistency offered by existing calibres. Zenith extended the project for four more years.
In 1969, Zenith would finally have the opportunity to reveal their hard work by releasing their new mechanical chronograph movement under the name 3019–later changed to “El Primero.”
The name derives from the Spanish term for “the first.” While creating the El Primero, Zenith competed with Seiko and the Chronomatic group to make the first automatic movement with a chronograph complication. All three brands had prototypes released simultaneously, each with different functionalities. Still, there is no clear answer to who created the first automatic chronograph due to this race.
The first high-frequency, automatic chronograph was also the first chronograph to feature a running seconds hand and measured in at a slim 6.5mm thick. Much thinner than the traditional chronographs at the time. The first watch to feature the new movement was the El Primero reference A384 in March 1969.
Unfortunately, with the rapid development and implementation of quartz movements, this fantastic innovation was quickly overshadowed by the new and more convenient technology.
Quartz technology quickly became a massive threat to the Swiss watch industry and would force Zenith and 16 other watch brands to begin developing a Swiss quartz movement (the Beta21). Regrettably, Zenith could not compete with Seiko and Citizen in quartz movement technology, despite their efforts.
Fast forward to the 1980s and the world witnesses the slow resurrection of the mechanical timepiece. Through trials and tribulations, Zenith managed to keep their mechanical watches alive. With mechanical timekeepers on the rise again, they eventually discovered the path of recovery, and turned their back on the crisis of the quartz era.
Zenith developed mechanical chronographs containing the El Primero that would be a precursor to what we know as the Defy line, today. But it wasn’t until Ebel swooped in and bought the rest of their 1970s movement stock that the brand would fully regain traction in the horological world. Ebel featured the high-end, automatic chronograph in their 1981 product catalogue.
This development allowed Zenith to begin re-producing the El Primero when Rolex decided to update its already famous Daytona Cosmograph. While the Daytona was already mechanical with a hand-winding movement, Rolex decided to change it to an automatic chronograph movement with the El Primero in mind due to its sub-dial configuration (3, 6 and 9), which matched the already standard design of the Daytona.
Rolex would need mass quantities of the El Primero to fill orders, and Zenith was up for the challenge. A 10-year contract was signed between Zenith and Rolex, with the first batch of movements delivered in 1988. This 10-year partnership created a significant rise for the El Primero, and once the 10-year contract expired in 1998, Zenith would continue to produce watches containing the El Primero. It would later be recognized as having one of the most excellent and prolific movements in watch-making history.
About the author
Born into a family obsessed with motorsport, Tyler Frederick became enamoured with speed and beautiful cars at a young age. His love of Formula 1–and all things mechanical–eventually lead him to horology. Tyler also writes for Montres Publiques. You can follow him on Instagram.
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