Zenith celebrates 50 years of era-defining chronograph movement with the El Primero
The Swiss luxury watchmaker is throwing a pop-up exhibition, A Star Through Time, to showcase the story of innovation and precision behind the brand’s most iconic calibre. Brought to you by Zenith
In the second half of the 20th century, industrialisation was sweeping the world, alongside a general recovery from two world wars and a global economic meltdown. A brand new generation of leaders was emerging, and tastes were changing dramatically. At the same time, there was a need for a new kind of timekeeper to keep pace with developments in science, technology and engineering.
The Swiss watchmaking industry faced these challenges with the tried-and-tested chronograph, one of the most popular features in watches. Several companies raced to create the first automatic chronograph.
The El Primero chronograph propelled Zenith into the stratosphere, and the world was introduced to an icon of precision mechanical timekeeping - the first high-frequency automatic El Primero calibre.
A HOROLOGICAL REVOLUTION
The Zenith story begins with founder Georges Favre-Jacot, who revolutionised watch production by uniting all the watchmaking professions encompassing the production of movement components as well as enamel dials and cases under one roof. In 1960, Zenith acquired chronograph specialist Martel Watch Company, which had supplied Zenith itself with chronograph movements since 1926.
Coinciding with this, work had begun in earnest on developing a self-winding chronograph calibre. The result was a horological revolution with innovative features that could record elapsed time down to 1/10th of a second.
Thanks to an insanely fast balance that oscillated at a then-unheard of 36,000 vibrations per hour (vph), or 5Hz, Zenith named this watershed movement El Primero, “The First”, code-named 3019 PHC.
On Jan 10, 1969, the El Primero was unveiled in Geneva, well ahead of its competitors in Switzerland and Japan. It was a remarkable achievement with its record-setting balance and integrated column wheel-driven chronograph. Fifty years later, it remains the only series-production chronograph wristwatch with a 5Hz balance.
TURBULENCE TO TRIUMPH
Unfortunately, El Primero’s triumphant moment came to a screeching halt as quartz timers hit the scene. Boasting a precision feature greater than the best mechanical movement, quartz watches all but killed the traditional mechanical watchmaking trade, and the Zenith El Primero did not escape unscathed.
In 1972, the American Zenith Radio Corporation orchestrated a takeover of the Swiss Zenith watch firm, which was by then fully in the grip of the quartz crisis. The new owners were big believers in the business of watches but only in battery-powered quartz timekeepers. Production of mechanical chronographs was ceased totally, and all El Primero movements, parts, as well as the machines and tools to produce the parts, were ordered to be sold, basically for scrap.
In workshop 4 at the manufacture in Le Locle, Switzerland, foreman Charles Vermot was having none of it. He organised a crew of willing accomplices, and began hiding away all the production equipment – 150 presses, weighing more than a tonne. Vermot and team had to move stealthily, evening after evening.
His act of insubordination ultimately saved the company when the revival of the mechanical watchmaking trade began in the 1980s, and Vermot continued working at Zenith well past the tenure of the American management.
Zenith’s tagline, “The future of Swiss watchmaking since 1865”, is a testament to the Swiss luxury watchmaker’s iconic El Primero calibre.
The calibre may have astonished and amazed at its debut but it did not have its heyday till it became Calibre 400 in 1986. The calibre has received many improvements over the years, but has retained the classic 36,000 vph and column wheel chronograph signatures.
El Primero is also at the heart of the firm’s innovative spirit. The new Defy Inventor is an entirely different animal but the guiding spirit behind it feels very much like the good old El Primero. You can experience some of these details, including the first Zenith El Primero chronographs and the brand’s chronometry prizes, at Zenith’s A Star Through Time immersive pop-up exhibition at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza from Aug 28 to Sept 1. Specially curated watchmaking clinics will also be conducted by Zenith watchmakers on Aug 31 and Sept 1.
Guests can register their interest for the sessions by emailing zenithmbs.singapore [at] zenith-watches.com. Confirmation will be on a first-come-first served basis. Reservations are not required to visit the exhibition.