When Zenith’s El Primero was launched in 1969, it was an industry game-changer. In the 1960s the race was on to create the first serially manufactured automatic chronograph. The winner of this accolade remains a contentious and polarising issue, with Seiko, Zenith and a developmental group comprising Hamilton-Buren, Breitling, Heuer and Dubois Depraz all staking a claim.

A Ref. A386 Zenith El Primero from 1969: Photo by Christies

Whatever the truth, Zenith achieved a PR victory of sorts by having the ingenuity and foresight to name their candidate the El Primero, Spanish for ‘The First’. Ref. A386, unveiled at the Basel fair in 1969 was the first automatic chronograph with a high-beat movement, its escapement boasted an extremely fast oscillation rate of 36,000vph (the most common frequency for modern mechanical wristwatch movements is 28,800 vph).

As well as providing arguably the most important milestone in the company’s 151-year history, the El Primero has been of huge significance in recent years. Its re-emergence as the company’s signature model has reminded the watch world of Zenith’s illustrious heritage after the first decade of the new millennium when it seemed to have strayed far from its roots.

A vintage Zenith on the left with a modern one

Amazingly, the El Primero could have vanished from the annals of horology completely had it not been for the quick thinking of long-time Zenith employee, Charles Vermont. In 1975 Zenith company bosses, convinced that mechanical watch-making was over, ordered its staff to dispose of all the tools for making its El Primero movement. Vermont stashed them in his attic and noted down the exact procedures necessary for making the movement from scratch using the tooling he had saved. Years later, when there was a shortage of high quality automatic chronograph movements, Vermont was hailed a savior when his act of defiance came to light and the tools were again put to use.

To give you an idea of how important the El Primero movement is in watch world, know this: the Rolex Caliber 4030 used in the iconic Rolex Daytona was based on the Zenith El Primero Class 400. Rolex did modify the movement, turning it into a 4 Hz movement on the Caliber 4030. The Daytona watches powered by a Zenith movements are quite sought after pieces in the vintage market. 

A Daytona with a Zenith Movement

At Baselworld 2017, 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.