Zenith’s El Primero movement remains one of the landmark chronograph movements in history today. First unveiled in 1969, the high-beat El Primero has pretty much remained unchanged until now. At Baselworld this year, Zenith unveiled the Defy El Primero 21, a COSC-certified chronograph capable of measuring up to a hundredth of a second. At the launch, Zenith’s interim CEO Jean-Claude Biver referred to the watch as the El Primero of the 21st century.

The open worked dial offers glimpses of the movement.

Incidentally the Defy El Primero development project was headed by Guy Semon. In his past role at TAG Heuer, Semon developed the Mikograph, a chronograph with dual escapements for timekeeping and chronograph functions that measured time up to a hundredth of a second. When unveiled in 2011, the Mikrograph was unique and featured a chronograph escapement that oscillated at 50 Hz (360,000 vph).

The new Zenith uses a 44 mm case in grade 5 titanium – inspired by the original El Primero models. It has a fluted crown and chronograph pushers, the case has short lugs and is paired with a rubber strap with a leather insert secured by a double-blade folding clasp. The inner bezel ring features a graduated scale running from 0 to 100 and swept over by a swift 100th of a second chronograph hand performing one full turn per second when the chronograph is activated.

The new Zenith (right) takes design codes from the past

It is available in a choice of two case materials – titanium and black ceramicized aluminum. There are two dial versions available as well – an open-worked one that offers glimpses of the new El Primero 9004 movement beneath it, and a solid silvered dial. Both dial types use large luminescent baton-type hands and facetted hour-markers with a star-tipped sweep-seconds hand. The chronograph counters use blue and anthracite grey like in the 1969 original.

There’s no denying the fact that this timepiece, especially the one with the openworked dial, with its square chronograph pushers and that rubber strap with leather inserts is reminiscent of what Hublot does. One way to look at it is that now with TAG Heuer’s Carrera Heuer-01, Zenith’s El Primero Defy and the Hublot’s Big Bang Unico chronograph, LVMH’s watch division has a somewhat uniform identity.  

The new El Primero movement has two escapements

The El Primero 9004 is an integrated chronograph movement. Its dual architecture means there are two independent “gear boxes”: one for the time and the other for the chronograph. Each has its own transmission and escapement system and there is no coupling clutch. As a tribute to its historical roots, the timekeeping function has an escapement oscillating at 5 Hz (36,000 vph), is COSC-certified and has a 50-hour power reserve. The chronograph’s escapement oscillates at a whopping 50 Hz (360,000 vph) allowing the chronograph to measure up to a hundredth of a second.

Both balance springs used in this movement are made of composite material injected with carbon nanotubes. This make it light and insensitive to temperature and magnetic fields. Zenith claims it can withstand magnetic fields stronger than the 15,000 Gauss standard set by Omega. The movement also features a patented chronograph-reset control mechanism composed of three heart pieces and an exclusive starter mechanism, ensuring simultaneous resetting of the seconds as well as tenths and hundredths of a second.

The shorter balance wheel oscillates at 50 Hz

The El Primero 9004 is powered by two barrels, the main barrel for the timekeeping function is powered by a self-winding movement with an attractive star-shaped rotor and has a power reserve of 50 hours. The chronograph function has a separate barrel and is hand-wound via the crown (the crown has two positions, for winding and time-setting) and is good for 50 minutes. Zenith says the Defy El Primero 21 is the start of a new line of watches that resurrects the ‘Defy’ that Zenith used for a range of sports watches in the past.