You are here
The world's most famous chronograph movement is 50
IF not for Charles Vermot, the El Primero may not be celebrating its 50th birthday this year.
The world's first automatic movement is also one of the watch movements with the longest production run - and is still running. It's the first integrated chronograph with a full rotor and the first running at 36,000 beats per hour, allowing the chronograph to measure time to a tenth of a second.
When the Quartz Crisis was putting Swiss mechanical watchmakers out of business in the 1970s, Zenith, which launched the El Primero in 1969, was told by its US owner to stop production of the movement and destroy all things related to it. Instead of carrying out the order, Charles Vermot, a watchmaker who had worked on the El Primero, hid away everything that's needed to revive the movement later: the blueprint, parts and the tools needed to make it.
Fast foward to 1984 when the Quartz Crisis was finally ending. Zenith, now Swiss-owned, had become a supplier of movements to prominent brands. Rolex was one of its customers looking for newer movements to rejuvenate its Daytona chronograph.
When Charles Vermot was summoned to help recreate the El Primero, he simply retrieved the plan, parts and tools he had concealed. So, thanks to him, Zenith was able to re-start production of what's been regarded as the best and most accurate chronograph movement - capable of measuring one-tenth of a second.
Rolex's Daytona Cosmograph was powered by the El Primero from 1988 till 2000, when the brand with the crown launched its own chronograph movement. Also, by 1999, Zenith was acquired by LVMH, which decided to keep the El Pimero for the brand.
In 2017, Zenith rolled out the El Primero 21 that took the movement up a notch, offering accuracy of up to one-hundredth of a second. This was quickly followed by the Defy Lab, which is equipped with an extra-thin mono crystalline silicon oscillator that's unaffected by magnets, gravity and changes of temperature. The El Primero Zero G appeared in 2018. This scoffed at the laws of gravity with a gyroscope module that further cancels the effects of gravity.
On its 50th anniversary, Zenith has introduced a number of new El Primero watch models to mark the occasion. They include a near-remake of the original El Primero chronograph in three models - the A384, A385 and A386.
While all three shared the same movement, the A384 reflected the typical style of the 1970s - it features a cushion-shaped case and black-on-white "panda" dial. The A386 has a round case and overlapping, tri-colour chronograph counters - features that make it the most sought-after of the three original models today.
Except for an updated movement, the display back and the sapphire crystals on the front and back, the re-issued El Primero A384 Revival is virtually identical with the original A384, right down to its 37 millimetres wide stainless steel case.
The golden trio - a white, rose and yellow gold timepiece - in the El Primero A386 Revival also retain most of the characteristics of the first A386. Each of the model is limited to 50 pieces with a 50-year guarantee. The A384 Revival is part of Zenith's regular collection.
Also in a limited edition of 50 pieces in carbon is the Defy El Primero Fusee Tourbillon, which is a modern take on the fusee and chain constant force mechanism, traditionally employed by watchmakers to maintain unfaltering performance in the timekeeping of a watch.
The fusee and chain mechanisn is paired with a gravity-defying tourbillon to convey the message that the watch, also in a platinum 10-piece limited edition, is mainly about precision in timekeeping. Then there's the Defy El Primero Double Tourbillon which has two tourbillons - a first for Zenith. One Tourbillon serves to ensure that the chronograph in the watch is capable of measuring time accurate to one-hundredth of a second. The other's job is to maintain the precision of the watch. The Defy El Primero Double Tourbillon is available in two limited editions: a 10-piece platinum version and a 50-piece carbon interpretation.