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Zenith - 30 facts about the Zenith El Primero chronograph

Zenith 30 facts about the Zenith El Primero chronograph

The Zenith El Primero chronograph was saved from extinction by the defiance of one man. But there are many other fascinating facts related to this 50 year-old watch collection.

The Zenith El Primero chronograph celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The story of the world’s first automatic chronograph movement is a remarkable one and gives a cross-section of the watch industry’s development over the past half a century. Here is a succinct summary of the history of this watch, distilled into 30 snippets.

1. The idea of launching an automatic chronograph germinated at Zenith in 1962 as a means of celebrating the company’s 100th anniversary. At the time there was no automatic chronograph on the market.

2. Between 1966 and 1967, Zenith’s Chronometry Department (which prepared watches for the observatory competitions) started working on a high-frequency movement beating at 36,000 vibrations per hour for use in this new watch.

 3. Before the El Primero, Zenith had “chronograph winders”, who were responsible for filing all the chronograph parts so that they would match the tolerances of the basic watch movement. 

4. To help prevent wear of the components in its high-frequency calibre, Zenith was the first watch brand to use molybdenum disulphide as a surface coating. It was applied to the pallets to improve the co-efficient of sliding friction in these watches.

5. Zenith was not the only watch brand working on an automatic chronograph at the time. Seiko and the Chronomatic group (Hamilton-Buren, Breitling, Heuer and Dubois-Dépraz) were all competing to be the first to present the next major milestone in the watch industry. 

6. The El Primero was announced as the world’s first automatic chronograph in a press release dated 10th January 1969. It was presented at the Basel Fair in 1969. The Chronomatic group’s calibre 11 was presented on 3rd March 1969 and Seiko’s automatic chronograph followed in May 1969.

30 facts about the Zenith El Primero chronograph

Calibre El Primero 1969 © Zenith

7. The El Primero chronograph movement was launched by the MZM Holding – Mondia Zenith Movado, which had been created in the late 1960s.

8. The Zenith El Primero condensed the automatic chronograph with date inside a space that was smaller than conventional chronographs of the time. 

9. Two different versions of the El Primero chronograph movement were offered from the outset: a classic version with date and another with day, date, month and moon phase. 

10. A Zenith El Primero watch crossed the Atlantic fixed to the landing gear of a Boeing 707 in 1970, on the AF015 flight from Paris to New York.
 
11. In a move that would prove significant for the El Primero, Zenith was sold to the Zenith Radio Corporation of America on 28th May 1971. The MZM holding company was dissolved and the name Zenith Time SA was born on 21st June 1972.

12. In 1974 Zenith started slowing down production of the El Primero as the company’s American owners put their faith in quartz technology.

13. In 1975 management decided to cease production of mechanical movements entirely and, in 1976, to get rid of the machinery and tools required for the production of the El Primero movement. 

14. Charles Vermot, who was in charge of Workshop 4 at Zenith, wrote to the American owners: “You are wrong to believe that the automatic mechanical chronograph will die out completely.”

30 facts about the Zenith El Primero chronograph

Charles Vermot © Zenith

15. Working in the utmost secrecy, and with the help of his brother, Charles Vermot decided to defy management by hiding all 150 presses and much of the tools required to produce the El Primero movement in an attic that he subsequently had bricked up. 

16. In 1978 Zenith Radio Corporation sold Zenith Watches SA to a consortium of three Swiss brands, including Dixi, a machine tool company.
 
17. After its takeover, Zenith also became a movement supplier to third parties, one of which, Rolex, would shape the company’s future. 

18. Rolex adopted the El Primero movement for its now legendary Daytona chronograph. Under a ten-year contract, Zenith delivered the first movements in 1988 and the first El Primero-equipped Rolex Daytona watches were presented at Baselworld the same year.

19. The Zenith El Primero "De Luca" was name after Zenith's main Italian distributor and came in “panda” and “inverse panda” dial versions. They were produced from 1988 to 1996 and early variants are sought-after among collectors due to the absence of the "El Primero" on the dial and the fact that they were only made for two years (1988-89). This specific El Primero was the only one to be fitted with a plexiglass crystal and sword hands.

20. In 1991, Zenith celebrated the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation with two limited-edition chronograph-chronometer models using the El Primero movement. Although the dial of these watches was resolutely classic, the case back featured a map of the Swiss Confederation. 

21. “I would have been prepared to bet my life on the conviction that one day production of this chronograph would restart,” Charles Vermot told Swiss national television in 1991.

22. In the 1990s, the top-of-the-range ChronoMaster line showed off the El Primero movement through a transparent sapphire crystal case back. 

23. In 1997 Zenith launched an El Primero “Rainbow” model that had been designed to meet the specifications of the French Airforce, which included high resistance to g-forces and a legible dial with bright colours designed to be read in infra-red cockpits.

30 facts about the Zenith El Primero chronograph

El Primero © Zenith

24. After more than three years of development, the first tourbillon version of the El Primero was presented in the Grande ChronoMaster XXT Tourbillon. It was the world’s first high-frequency tourbillon.

25. The Grande ChronoMaster XXT Tourbillon was followed by a perpetual calendar version, the Grande ChronoMaster XXT Perpetual Calendar.

26. In 2005, a minute repeater execution was presented in the Class Traveller, which involved 30 patents. 

27. In 2007 the tourbillon and perpetual calendar complications were combined in a new model in the Academy line. 

30 facts about the Zenith El Primero chronograph

El Primero Rolling Stones © Zenith

28. On 14th October 2012 Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner entered the history books when he jumped from a helium balloon in the stratosphere. He wore a Zenith El Primero Stratos Striking 10th.

30 facts about the Zenith El Primero chronograph

Felix Baumgartner © Zenith

29. In 2017 Zenith launched the Defy El Primero 21, which was fitted with a mechanical movement operating at frequency of 50Hz that could display one hundredth of a second. 

30. In 2017 Zenith also presented the Defy LAB, which introduced a totally new conception of the oscillator responsible for beating out the time. It is a monobloc piece made of monocrystalline silicon that replaces some 30 components in a conventional regulating organ.

30 facts about the Zenith El Primero chronograph

Defy Lab © Zenith

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