Zenith El Primero, The World’s First Automatic Chronograph Movement, Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary

In 2019, Swiss luxury watch maker Zenith is celebrating 50th anniversary of its legendary El Primero movement that was launched on 10th January 1969 after a full seven years of gestation.

At the dawn of the 1960s, the watch making context was no longer favourable to hand-wound chronographs as they were conceived at the time. Customers no longer wanted to operate a crown every – morning to be sure of knowing the exact time, having become accustomed to self-winding movements which meant that all they needed to keep accurate step with time was live, move and work with their timepiece on their wrists. Winding a crown was regarded as an outdated move, whereas modernity called for efficiency.

In 1962, at Zenith, the idea of launching an automatic chronograph to celebrate the centenary of the Manufacture took root. There was no automatic chronograph on the market at the time and it would thus be a first. Nonetheless, there was no question of choosing the easy path by taking an existing calibre and merely adding an additional module: Zenith wanted to use its know-how in the field of research and development.

Between 1966 and 1967 Zenith’s management decided to develop a high-frequency movement oscillating at a rate of 36,000 vibrations per hour. It was the Zenith Chronometry Department, which prepared the parts for the chronometry observatory competitions, that was responsible for this research. The topic of high frequency was clearly in sync with the times, since it was associated with the idea of precision and often discussed at congresses of chronometry societies, and particularly the Swiss Chronometry Society. The challenge that the Manufacture set for itself was to create the first ultra-thin, high-frequency integrated automatic chronograph calibre, beating at 36,000 vibrations per hour and thus able to measure one-tenth of a second.

In designing the El Primero, Zenith completely rethought the entire structure of the chronograph and the way it was produced. This movement marked the beginning of totally innovative production methods. Before that, watchmakers were dependent on chronograph winders, who received the different movement components and whose job was to file them before assembling the chronograph. This was because the press tools used at the time implied certain tolerances and they had to be corrected.

The El Primero was designed from the outset so that watchmakers could work in a modern fashion: the presses were more precise and made it possible to reduce tolerances to a minimum, in order to produce parts ready for assembly in series. High frequency contributes to accuracy: at 36,000 vibrations per hour, ten per second, potential shocks are much less likely to have an impact on the movement of the watch. This was a very high frequency, and to avoid premature wear of certain components, Zenith used a special surface treatment: molybdenum disulfide. Already used in some mechanical industries, but not in watchmaking, this innovative surface treatment is a surface layer that is applied to the lever-wheel platform that distributes energy to the balance wheel and improves the coefficient of sliding friction.

El Primero’s development took place within an extremely competitive environment. Several watchmaking companies, including Zenith-Movado, Seiko and the Chronomatic group, composed of the – Hamilton-Buren, Breitling, Heuer and Dubois Dépraz brands, were in the running to launch the first self-winding chronograph.

Zenith was the first manufacturer to publicly launch its own automatic chronograph. On January 10th 1969, at a press conference held in Le Locle, it announced the birth of El Primero, with its heart beating still does – at 36,000 vibrations per hour. The movement was launched under the name of MZM Holding, Mondia Zenith Movado, a consortium created in the late 1960s. Thanks to its high frequency, the El Primero balance could split the second into ten equal parts, allowing the large seconds hand to display 1/10th of a second.

Zenith and Movado not only succeeded in this extraordinary feat, but also managed to accommodate the entire automatic chronograph mechanism complete with a date inside a space smaller than that required by a conventional chronograph. The movement thickness is a mere 6.50 mm, a truly incredible performance. Taking the challenge a step further, watchmakers offered two different versions of the calibre from the outset: a classic variation with a simple calendar, and another with additional day of the week, month and moon phase functions.

The Zenith management now knew that their Le Locle-based Manufacture would win the race and would be the first to launch its automatic chronograph. But what name should it be given? After a few brainstorming sessions, the name ‘El Primero’ was chosen. Meaning ‘the first’ in Spanish, it is a melodious word with a dynamic intonation that resonates well in all languages and is easily understood. So El Primero it was.

El Primero was publicly presented at the Basel Fair in 1969. The Chronomatic group’s Calibre11 was presented to the press on 3rd March 1969 and Seiko launched its first automatic chronograph in May 1969, but none surpassed El Primero in the collective consciousness. It is undoubtedly one of the only movements whose name is known throughout the world.

To understand the destiny of the El Primero movement in the 1970s implies making the effort of recalling a date 11 years before its birth.

In 1958, Gérard Bauer was appointed President of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. While his background was not in the watch industry, he had a vision and was convinced that electronics, which began to develop in 1948 in the United States, would play a decisive role in the watchmaking world. He thus succeeded in convincing Swiss watchmakers to join forces and create the Centre Electronique Horloger, the same year that the American brand Bulova launched the Accutron, the first electronic watch equipped with a 360 Hz vibrating tuning fork and acting as a regulating body. The Centre was created on January 20th 1962 with a man from General Electrics at its head: Roger Wellinger.

Quartz research was conducted in the strictest secrecy: the project, called “Beta“, was completed in August 1967. In November of the same year, ten «Beta 2» models took part in the Chronometer Competition held by the Neuchâtel Observatory and won the first ten places, ahead of Seiko models. Yet the Japanese company pipped the Swiss to the post with the market launch of the Astron-35 SQ, the first quartz watch, at Christmas 1969, a few months after that of the El Primero chronograph. In 1970, 16 Swiss brands created a consortium of market quartz watches equipped with the Beta 21 movement. Zenith was part of the adventure. The Swiss were quickly joined by the Americans – Motorola, Texas Instruments, and National Semiconductor – but none caught up with the Japanese Seiko and Citizen.

The greatest danger for the El Primero was to come from within. On May 28th 1971, the company was sold to Zenith Radio Corporation, originally a radio and then television manufacturer based in Chicago. The holding company MZM (Mondia Zenith Movado) was dissolved and, at the close of the general meeting of June 21st 1972, was named Zenith Time SA. From that moment on, the future of Zenith was entirely in the hands of the American administrators.

During this period, the El Primero movement still appeared in the manufacturer’s catalogues, but that does not mean it sold well. It was competing with quartz and automatic mechanisms no longer got top billing. As a result, surprising Zenith watches with the El Primero movement were emerging, featuring oversized cases strangely similar to those equipped with the Beta 21 calibre. The first quartz movements were bulky and had to be housed in a large case, while trying to hide their shape by means of the design. Inspired by an electronic watch case, Zenith found an appropriate response.

The design of the time challenged the functionalist aesthetics that had prevailed in previous decades. In the 1970s, form no longer necessarily followed function. This explains why these watches, equipped with the El Primero movement, whose size has remained unchanged, have a larger case than the engine they house. Their form is futuristic, spatial.

The 1970s saw the emergence of “Pop Design“, encouraged by the rise of new technologies that made it possible to create other possible shapes. We began to see the appearance of round, thick forms, such as the El Primero case bearing reference number AH 781, in particular, closely followed by an El Primero with an unusual design reminiscent of television screens. It is worth recalling that during this period, the role of television in the home was becoming increasingly important: when El Primero was launched, there was only one channel and it broadcast in black and white.

The year 1974 marked the start of a complete break: Zenith began slowing its production and there were no longer any new El Primero designs in the catalogues of the time. The American administrators no longer believed in the future of mechanical watchmaking, but they had faith in quartz. In 1975, in the midst of the watchmaking crisis, they decided to cease production of mechanical movements and then, in 1976, to dispose of the stocks of tooling and machinery required to manufacture the movement. The El Primero was sold off cheaply and orders were given to scrap everything that could be recovered. Enter the man who saved the El Primero movement, and with it the entire Manufacture Zenith. His name was Charles Vermot.

Charles Vermot was in charge of Workshop 4, and despite the crisis, despite the fact that jobs in the watchmaking sector had been halved, he still believed in the future of mechanical watchmaking. He was so convinced of this that he decided to write to the American management in order to convince them to change their mind. He asked for permission to maintain a small workshop whereall the tools necessary for the manufacture of El Primero would be kept. His request remained unanswered.

Against all expectations, and against management orders, the person in charge of
Workshop 4 decided to safeguard the tools necessary for the manufacture of El Primero in the greatest secrecy. He was driven by a much greater fear than that of losing his place: he wanted at all costs to avoid the disappearance of unique watchmaking expertise. He was aided and abetted in this task by his elder brother Maurice Vermot, a Zenith employee responsible for the manufacture of presses. The first step was to find a safe place for discreet storage of what Charles Vermot regarded a treasure: all the presses, cams, operating plans, cutting tools and manufacturing plans necessary for the creation of the El Primero movement. The Manufacture Zenith had 18 buildings, only one of which was not connected to the others, making it the ideal choice.

Because he was violating hierarchical orders, Charles Vermot could under no circumstances be caught red-handed in his rescue operation. He therefore had to pass the tools through a deserted passage at the back of the building, and to act at night, something unthinkable today due to contemporary security systems. In all, he managed to save about 150 presses along with many small tools and cams. Without these presses, it would be impossible to produce El Primero. Indeed, the tools had been specially designed for this movement and were part of the trade secrets.

The lifespan of a press is as long as the life of the component: anything from 20 to 30 years, if maintained. A press was worth about 40,000 francs at the time. If this tooling had been thrown away, as the Americans had ordered; if this manufacturing know-how had been lost, the investment necessary to reconstitute all the parts that Charles Vermot had hidden would have amounted to seven million francs. However, no one would have invested such a sum to revive the production of a movement and Zenith would no longer exist to this day. After storing all the tools, Charles Vermot had this part of the attic walled up, so that no one would discover its secret. Entirely dedicated to his role, overruling considerations of his own safety, he firmly believed in El Primero’s future, even if that future were to be written without him.

By 1976, Zenith was no more than the shadow of the factory it once was. Staff were few and far between and watches produced in the workshops were equipped with ETA or Citizen quartz movements. The rare mechanical movements in use were also sourced from ETA. The company was no longer profitable, and the Americans wanted to get rid of it, so in 1978, Zenith Radio Corporation sold Zenith Watches SA to a consortium of three Swiss manufacturers, including Paul Castella, the owner of Dixi, a company specialising in the machine tool and watchmaking sector. Paul Castella was a legendary figure in Le Locle, exceptionally humane and keenly concerned with preserving jobs in this stricken region. Zenith was not yet saved, but it was finally in the hands of a man who knew and loved the industry. His goal was to save a Manufacture that belonged to the Swiss industrial and watchmaking heritage.

The story of El Primero’s rebirth is so beautiful that you might think it was invented. It is the stuff of legends, with all the necessary ingredients: adversity, justice, correctness, disobedience, as well as a hero, a happy end and a touch of magic.

In 1976, when Charles Vermot made the decision to hide the tools needed to manufacture the El Primero calibre, this foreman of Workshop 4 showed extraordinary bravery and vision. You become aware of the power of his intuitions his certainties when you visit the famous attic, which has remained in its original state. Most of the parts resting on the shelves are historical calibres. And if the more than 150 presses he had hidden are no longer there, it is simply because one day, after about ten years of oblivion, they were able to emerge from hiding and find their place in broad daylight.

After the takeover by Dixi in 1978, Zenith was saved, but its nature changed: the company also became a movement supplier to certain major brands. Two of them played a decisive role in the renaissance of the Manufacture: Ebel and Rolex. Despite the quartz race and notwithstanding the much-heralded Swatch, Pierre-Alain Blum, Ebel’s boss, wanted to have an automatic chronograph with an exemplary movement to offer in his 1981 catalogue. He therefore bought up some of Zenith’s stocks of El Primero calibres. But that was not yet enough for Zenith to take the risk of restarting production of the calibre.

Enter Rolex. The brand with the crown logo was convinced of the renewed interest in automatic chronographs. It wanted to modernise its Daytona model and equip it with an El Primero calibre. The latter was a reliable movement, apparently the best automatic chronograph caliber on the market, which perfectly matched the face of the watch with its 3, 6 and 9 o’clock counter configuration. If high frequency was a concern, it could simply be downscaled to 4 Hz, corresponding to customary 28,800 vibrations per hour movements used by Rolex. Talks with Zenith began.

There was a problem, however, since Rolex needed a reliable ‘motor’ in large quantities, but that was back in 1984, when a press cost about 40,000 Swiss francs and more than 150 francs were needed to manufacture El Primero, which would involve around seven million francs.

Zenith could not afford to invest that kind of money. It was then that Charles Vermot’s act of resistance was remembered. During the rescue, some of his colleagues had mocked him and his attachment to this movement, to the brand’s watchmaking past. The time had come to acknowledge that his move had saved the day and much more besides…

The engineers then turned to the “saviour“and asked him to bring all the tooling back out. The stubborn and discreet hero was overwhelmed: everything he had imagined had suddenly come true. He had labelled all the press, all the tools, he had kept and fled all the dossiers and instructions useful for its restart.

Thanks to Charles Vermot, the production of the El Primero calibre could resume. A ten-year contract was signed with Rolex. The first movements were delivered in 1988 and the first – Daytona watches equipped with a Zenith movement were presented at the Basel Fair that same year.

Moreover, the favourable wind blowing across the Manufacture apparently gave it a desire to take to the open sea. In parallel with the first deliveries for Rolex, Zenith relaunched production to equip its own models and chronographs with its own in-house calibre, thus fully restoring its status as a Manufacture.

Know-how was not enough however; the fact had to be made known and the product had to find buyers. In 1920, Zenith had been living up its name and selling watches all over the world. The crisis had cast it into oblivion… Enabling the Manufacture to regain its place on the Swiss watchmaking scene meant entirely rebuilding the brand image and ensuring its continuity through powerful new designs, preparing it for a return to the spotlight.

Zenith had relaunched production of its El Primero movement following the contract with Rolex. But it was time for the Manufacture to regain its lustre and fully embrace its know-how by relaunching watches equipped with the famous miraculous movement while bearing the name of Zenith on their dial. This began with new chronograph models to support the company’s flagship lines: Academy and Cosmopolitan. For the first time, the Manufacture revealed through the back of its models the calibre that was its pride and joy.

Then came a line entirely dedicated to chronographs: the De Luca line, launched in 1988. Its models were inspired by the successful aesthetic codes of the time, evoking the design of the Daytona, of which the first models equipped with the El Primero had just been released in Basel. With the De Luca, Zenith entered the 1990s.

In 1991, one year after its 125th anniversary, the Manufacture chose to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation with two exclusive models equipped with the two variations of the relaunched El Primero: a chronograph-chronometer with a simple date, issued in a 900-piece limited edition; and a chronograph-chronometer with day, month and moon phase, in a 250-piece edition, all housed within a yellow gold case. The catalogue accompanying these two models provided a reminder to anyone who might have forgotten this legendary movement. Confident in the quality of its movement, the Manufacture offers a five-year guarantee to purchasers of its timepieces.

The first appearances of the El Primero through a sapphire case-back, which remained fairly timid in the 1980s, were fully highlighted in the 1990s with the top-of-the-range ChronoMaster line, which proudly displayed its flagship movement through the transparent back of these models in the catalogue.

Since this time the idea was to highlight watchmaking artistry and not merely industrial know-how, Zenith created a timepiece with a very classic design, inspired by the pocket chronometers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The goal was to create a truly archetypal watch.

The ChronoMaster served to reposition the El Primero. The 1997 advertisement dedicated to it shows a man’s hand resting on the belly of an expectant mother, with these words: “When worn, this Zenith watch will work for a lifetime – or even longer“. This powerful advertising message thus strongly implied that this was an object made to be passed on across generations.

The marketing department also had a brilliant idea: engraving on the calibre a number visible through the sapphire back and serving as an identifying mark. Customers acquiring a ChronoMaster received a coupon to be returned to the Manufacture and ensure their names were entered in the ChronoMaster collection register.

This approach was further strengthened two years later when El Primero – which had been constantly improved yet featured the same functions – was equipped with the new Flyback function specially dedicated to aviation enthusiasts and enriching the Rainbow Flyback models launched in 1997.

When LVMH bought up the company in 1999, a takeover that came into effect in 2001, the history of Zenith and the El Primero movement took a new direction: an upward path that would rise to the stars. At the end of the 1990s, luxury groups understood the importance of developing a watchmaking branch, of wagering on mechanical watchmaking which was enjoying renewed interest from a public of enthusiasts, and of buying up brands with high added value.

Zenith was one of those companies brimming with assets: it was a full-fledged Manufacture with a production facility capable of creating its own movements, a magnificent history, several flagship movements with their own legends, and a phenomenal development potential in the eyes of the new leaders. Several groups were keen to acquire the Manufacture, but LVMH won the day.

LVMH intended to set off to reconquer the world with Zenith, and in particular the American market. However, it found itself in conflict across the Atlantic with one of the previous owners: the Zenith Radio Corporation, which held the rights to the name “Zenith“on American territory. After negotiation, the group obtained the right to use the brand in the United States in 2001, in exchange for which it would pay for rights to the homonymous brand. Zenith could continue taking flight.

By joining this luxury group, which was highly familiar with the rules of marketing, Zenith would have to learn to shine in the spotlight – as befitted its new destiny – and thereby justify the raison d’être of its symbol: the star.

Upon settling in at Le Locle, the new management became intensely aware of the gem in its hands and decided to position Zenith in the very top of the range. The word “Impossible“ was banished from the Manufacture: Zenith was to shine brightly in the watchmaking firmament, whatever the price to be paid.

Already legendary, the El Primero movement would now become desirable – and ever more precious. It was under the aegis of the LVMH group that El Primero welcomed ever-more sophisticated horological complications: in 2004, the movement adopted a tourbillon for a model named Grande ChronoMaster XXT Tourbillon, resulting from three and a half years of research and development. This was the first high-frequency tourbillon on the market. It was followed by a perpetual calendar, the Grande ChronoMaster XXT Perpetual Calendar; and in 2005 by a minute repeater, the Class Traveler, an exercise that required the fling of 30 patents. Finally, in 2007, Zenith combined the tourbillon and the perpetual calendar within the same timepiece belonging to the Academy line. El Primero clearly had no limits.

From 2003 onwards, the size of the caliber changed slightly and became increasingly highlighted. After being revealed through the sapphire crystal case-back, the heart of the EL Primero would appear through the front, in direct communication with its owner, through a purpose-built dial opening. Every time the owner of an El Primero watch looked at the time, he would now see the heart of his watch beating at 36,000 vibrations. The model was named ChronoMaster Open and lived up to its name.

A feminine version was released in 2004. It was called the Star Open and the opening was heart-shaped. Zenith had clearly understood that the women of the 2000s wanted a timepiece that could express who they are and not what watchmakers imagine them to be. The time had come for them to buy their own watches, a model that displays their purchasing power and power. Just as they wore boyfriend jeans, they wanted a watch that didn’t reduce them to reading the time on a pink mother-of-pearl dial lined with a bezel set with diamonds. They wanted to shine differently. Zenith gave them the opportunity to do so in 2005 with the launch of a tourbillon model specifically designed for them: Starissime.

With its seconds hand performing a full spin of the dial in ten seconds, the El Primero Striking 10th, launched in 2010, is able to display tenths of a second.

In 2017, Zenith launched the Defy El Primero 21, which was able to measure and display a mechanical value that was difficult to reach: one hundredth of a second. This is made possible by an ‘engine’ oscillating at 50 Hz, ten times faster than its legendary predecessor. The heart of the movement beats at a dazzling speed of 360,000 vibrations per hour and the central chronograph hand makes a complete turn of the dial in one second.

That same year, Zenith presented the Defy Lab, equipped with a revolutionary new monobloc oscillator made of mono-crystalline silicon. The latter replaces the balance-spring used in mechanical watchmaking since its invention in 1675 by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens. With the Defy Lab, which beats at the extremely high frequency of 18 Hz, Zenith reaped the benefits of years of studies done by the research and development division of the LVMH group.

Zenith’s future will naturally be part of this line of technological innovations that constantly push the limits of feasibility and of extreme precision. But for now, back to the present and this legendary movement which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

To celebrate El Primero’s half-century, the basic movement has been reworked and improved to facilitate its assembly. It naturally maintains all its aesthetic and technical characteristics: it is still an integrated high-frequency movement; the date indication is kept, as are the lateral clutch and column wheel. It comprises a few less components than the original model and the Manufacture has added certain elements it deemed important, notably including the stop-seconds device and a greater power reserve, which was previously to 50 hours due to the high frequency which requires a lot of energy. Its construction enables a modular approach: it will be able to beat tenths of a second while displaying it at certain times and at others not, as well as offering the flyback function.

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