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A Powerhouse Turns 50

The Zenith El Primero chronograph movement has a big birthday this year.

The El Primero 50th Anniversary set. Photos courtesy of Zenith

The chronograph complication is arguably the most practical and the one people use most often. It is simple to understand and operate, but the design and manufacture of a chronograph movement is actually complex, and only a few manufacturers can make a reliable, integrated chronograph movement.

The Zenith El Primero chronograph is the most famous chronograph in watchmaking, and for good reason. It was the first fully integrated, high frequency automatic chronograph movement, launched in 1969 and still going strong. But there was a time when El Primero was almost lost forever.

During the quartz crisis, the entire mechanical watchmaking world was scrambling, fearing that the quartz movement would take over. It was in 1975 that the Zenith Radio Corporation (the American firm that owned Zenith Le Locle then) decided to raise the white flag and stop all mechanical watchmaking, including the manufacture of the El Primero. All tools and information were ordered to be destroyed.

The El Primero had a savior in Charles Vermot, a lifelong Zenith employee who took it upon himself, with the help of his brother, to safeguard and label tools, parts, machinery, route sheets and more essential to the manufacture of the El Primero, hid them away where no one could find them.

“If Mr. Vermot would have listened to his boss, the El Primero would have disappeared, lost forever,” says Julien Tornare, CEO of Zenith. “He took a huge risk, because if he had been caught, he would have been fired, and there weren’t many jobs in the watch industry at that time. If he had destroyed the El Primero tools and information, we would not have been able to recreate it. Mr. Vermot saved the El Primero, and he saved the Zenith brand.”

From left to right: The reissue of the original 1969 El Primero, the Chronomaster El Primero and the Defy El Primero 21

This year, the El Primero turns 50 years old and to celebrate, Zenith has developed two new limited editions, one of them a box set featuring four slots for watches ($50,000, limited to 50 pieces).

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“Now our job is to bring iconic watches for this iconic movement,” Tornare says. “The El Primero has certainly been a success story. For the anniversary, we introduced the set of four watches, which is a perfect example of how to connect the past and tradition to the future. Many brands claim they are innovative, but the reality is that many brands are revisiting the past. I didn’t want to just make a replica, I wanted to show that we are using the past to craft the future. In the set are three watches, all with tricolor chronograph counters: a reissue of the original 1969 model, a Chronomaster El Primero that times to the tenth of a second, a Defy El Primero 21 that times to 1/100th of a second and the last space is empty, for the future. We will introduce a special limited edition measuring 1/1000th of a second, which owners of the set have an option to buy.” The set also includes an actual manufacturing die of the chronograph’s coupling-wheel bridge.

Zenith Defy Inventor

At Baselworld this year, Zenith is also introducing the Defy Inventor ($17,800, expected July availability), an El Primero chronograph with the new “Zenith Oscillator” control system (beating at 18 Hz, compared to 4 Hz for normal watches), which replaces the traditional regulating system with a single element—quite a revolution in mechanical watchmaking. The new system is resistant to magnetic fields and temperature variations and is highly precise.

Contact: Cellini Jewelers NYC, 212.888.050, cellinijewelers.com, zenith.com

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