Zenith El Primero History: Tracking a Star

The ultimate automatic chronograph celebrates the 50-year anniversary! Setting records, evolving, disappearing and reappearing again – the essential Zenith movement has seen it all… and still keeps pushing.
The caliber 3019 powering the very first El Primero
Appearing in 1969, the calibre 3019 was a real breakthrough. Prior to that year the industry didn’t produce chronographs with automatic winding because both technologies were everything but compact, and putting them in one case seemed a rather adventurous and complicated move. Of course, Zenith wasn’t alone to the task, however unlike the competitors’ solutions the chronograph was an integrated part of the movement, not an additional module. The second advantage was the frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour, allowing to measure time with the accuracy of one-tenth of a second.
Ref. A386
The very first model was issued under the reference A386 and featured a stainless steel case and a collectors’ favorite three-color design of chrono counters. The latter even had a symbolic background: deep grey was used to indicate hours, underlining the already counted time, the light grey was given to seconds, reminding us of the transience of the moment, and finally, the blue hinted that the main objective of the piece was tracking minutes. In approximately a year the calibre 3019 will power another two important Zenith timepieces – A384 and A385.
Ref. AH 781, 1971-1972
With the so-called quartz crisis taking the industry by storm, the guys from Le Locle tried to strike back by experimenting with styles and forms. Just check the square El Primero TV Chronograph from 1974, or Zenith Pilot/Diver with the gigantic case for its era measuring 44 mm. And yet, they failed to survive. The company went bankrupt and was sold to American investors, iconically named Zenith Radio Corporation. The new management decided to seize mechanical watchmaking in favor of quartz, and sent the majority of old equipment for scrap. But one of Zenith engineers disobeyed at his own risk. His name was Charles Vermot.
Charles Vermot
Carefully documenting and describing every detail, he literary hid the disassembled machines in the warehouse where they spent the next ten years. When the company was resold again, and new management led Zenith back to its mechanical roots, Vermot was rightfully praised as a savior and as a hero. At about this time Rolex was looking for solid chronograph calibers to power the second generation Daytona. And, guess what, the El Primero seemed to be a perfect candidate. So 1986 marked not only the rebirth of the legendary Rolex collection, but some hefty financial income allowing Zenith to properly reestablish its nearly faded production. It’s symbolic that for the ease of maintenance in its corporate service centers Rolex has lowered the El Primero frequency to the standard 4 Hz.
El Primero Rainbow Flyback, 1997
Since the 1990s, Zenith was successfully reviving the legendary series first in a classical and then in a modern form. The fact that there were some quartz watches sold under the El Primero name in the 1980s was forgotten for good. One of the biggest highlights was the 1997 Rainbow Flyback powered by the caliber 400. With a case growing to 40 mm, a fundamentally new bezel, and a steel bracelet it quickly became a milestone in its own right. The main add-ons included the fly-back function, a rotating bezel and a telemeter scale for measuring the distance of an object, for example, lightning by the speed of sound. And it was called Rainbow for a reason: the colorful dial was everyones darling.
El Primero ChronoMaster, 2003
However, the next radical, albeit logical upgrade came to the series only in 2010. With just 11 additional movement elements El Primero Striking 10th was able to bring the idea of measuring tenths of a second to the absolute. The primary indication was divided into ten equal parts, while the central chronograph hand made a complete revolution around the dial six times faster than normal. Soon the piece evolved into the El Primero Stratos Fly-Back Striking 10th. The ability of a chrono second hand to make a full spin in 10 seconds was upgraded with a fly-back function, three-colored sub-dials made another remarkable comeback, but the most important part was the world record: a renowned sky diver Felix Baumgartner jumped to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere, beating the speed of sound with Stratos Fly-Back on a wrist.
El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th, 2012
A variety of the contemporary collection only emphasizes the fundamental importance of El Primero for the brand. The Chronomaster line born in the early 2000s, reimagines the familiar design, replacing one of the chrono counters with a dial-opening showing some moving parts of the caliber. There were also watches with tourbillons, and a few nice tributes to luxury cars – Range Rover and Classic Cars series. Oh, and do you remember those Rolling Stones pieces? There’s always a place for some classic rock&roll.
El Primero 410, 2014
Of course, todays movements feature quite a few hi-tech materials, all the crystals are made of sapphire but, in fact, only details have changed. For example, one of the first calibers introduced in 1969 –the El Primero 410 – is now enjoining the second life, combining the functions of automatic chronograph, triple calendar and a moon phase in several modern El Primeros. As the saying goes, if it’s not broken – don’t fix it.
Defy El Primero, 2017