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Watches Zenith El Primero, The World’s First Automatic Chronograph Turns 50

Zenith El Primero, The World’s First Automatic Chronograph Turns 50

Zenith El Primero, The World’s First Automatic Chronograph Turns 50
By Terence Lim
By Terence Lim
August 19, 2019
Tatler Focus
How has the Zenith El Primero, the world’s first automatic chronograph, endured the test of time?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the famed Zenith El Primero chronograph movement. The story behind the world’s first automatic chronograph movement is a remarkable one. Here are eight interesting facts that you may not be aware of:

1/8 When It All Began

Rumblings of introducing an automatic chronograph at Zenith began in 1962. The brand’s executives wanted to create a product or innovation to mark its 100th anniversary, while there was no automatic chronograph in the market then. Between 1966 and 1967, Zenith’s chronometry department—it focused on designing highly accurate watches used in observatory competitions—started work on a high-frequency movement.

2/8 Fierce Competition

Zenith was not the only watchmaker in the race to create the world’s pioneer automatic chronograph. Seiko and the Chronomatic Group, which was made up of Hamilton-Buren, Breitling, Heuer and Dubois-Dépraz, were also pushing to launch the next big horological milestone. 

(Related: Face to Watch: Zenith El Primero Chronomaster 1969)

3/8 Chequered Flag

Winning the race was Zenith but it pipped its rivals by merely two months, which was an extremely short time in those days when watchmaking technology was not very advanced. Zenith unveiled its El Primero on 10 January 1969 at the Basel watch fair, while the Chronomatic group’s calibre 11 was launched on 3 March the same year. Seiko’s automatic movement debuted two months later.

4/8 Making A Difference

What made the El Primero movement different from conventional chronographs then was it was self-winding, much smaller and even boasted a date function. In fact, Zenith—then part of MZM, a holding company made up of Mondia, Zenith and Movado—offered two versions of the El Primero, a classic, simple version with date; and another with day, date, month and moonphase.

5/8 The Making Of A Legend

Charles Vermot
Charles Vermot

Following the brand’s sale to Zenith Radio Corporation of America in 1971, Zenith started slowing down the production of El Primero due to its American owners’ faith in and the world’s shift towards quartz technology. In 1975, the management ceased production completely and even made the call to destroy all machinery and tools linked with the El Primero. Watchmaker Charles Vermot, now a Zenith legend, went against the owners’ instructions and hid the El Primero equipment and tools in an attic in the manufacture. His famous note to the management read: “You are wrong to believe that the automatic mechanical chronograph will die out completely.”

6/8 Trusted Name

Zenith Watches was sold by its American watches in 1978 and it became a movement supplier. One of its most illustrious partners was Rolex, which adopted the El Primero movement for its Daytona chronograph. The first El Primero-equipped Rolex Daytona was presented at Baselworld in 1988.

Zenith Grande ChronoMaster XXT Tourbillon
Zenith Grande ChronoMaster XXT Tourbillon

7/8 The New Era

The modern-day history of Zenith began when the LVMH group acquired the brand in 1999 and started aggressively pushing it and its El Primero movement during the early 2000s. In 2004, Zenith announced the launch of the Grande ChronoMaster XXT Tourbillon, making it the world’s first high-frequency tourbillon.

(Related: Face To Watch: Zenith El Primero Lightweight)

8/8 Defy All Odds

The Zenith Defy El Primero 21, which is equipped with the El Primero 9004 calibre

In 2017, Zenith pushed the innovation envelope once more with the introduction of the El Primero 9004, a mechanical chronograph movement operating at a frequency of 50Hz that can display one hundredth of a second. The same year, Zenith presented the Defy Lab timepiece that was equipped with a monobloc oscillator that replaced the conventional balance spring. The movement beats at an extremely high frequency of 15Hz. Following up on the Defy Lab is the Defy Inventor launched in 2019. An improved spin-off of its predecessor, it has been made ready for serial production.

Watch the video below to know more about the legendary Zenith El Primero movement:


A Star Through Time

Zenith will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the brand’s most iconic and legendary calibre, the El Primero, with A Star Through Time, a pop-up exhibition at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza fromAugust 28 to September 1. The illustrious and interesting history behind the El Primero will be presented through an interactive showcase that highlights the movement’s story of innovation and precision. Horlophiles can view vintage El Primero pieces and other exclusive timepieces flown in for the exhibition to better illustrate the Zenith manufacture's heritage and evolution.

Specially curated watchmaking clinics will be conducted by Zenith watchmakers on August 31 and September 1, 2019. To register your interest, email: Confirmation will be on a “first come, first served” basis. 


Watches el primero zenith defy luxury watches


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