When at the beginning of the years 2000, we wrote in these columns that the movement El Primero was a prototype not fully operational when it was unveiled in haste to the press in January 1969, to outflank the the group Chronomatic* who was working on a similar project, Thierry Nataf, president of Zenith, took the fly. “We were the first in the world to get out for a chronograph calibre with automatic winding. And that’s all! It is for this reason that it has been named El Primero, “the first” in esperanto.”
Twenty years after, Julien Tornare, the fourth CEO of this company since that LVMH has bought out in 1999, ahead of other arguments. “In the 1960s, the Swiss and the Japanese were in competition to develop a self-winding chronograph. This has played a few months. All ratings are released almost the same year. According to documents found in our archives, when the January 10, 1969, Zenith introduced the caliber El Primero, it worked perfectly. Its strength lies in its construction, is a column-wheel movement 100 % built-in which is associated with a high frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour. Not to mention that El Primero displays a thickness of just 6.5 mm. Some have forgotten how this mechanism, with these innovations, has revolutionized the industry.”
An original plan of the class of 1969. Zenith The treasury of Charles Vermot
However, before becoming the chronograph is a favorite of Bill Clinton, Sean Connery and Sean Penn, the El Primero has experienced a crossing of the desert. His birth was long and painful. Seven years of gestation in a context agitated. In the 1960s, the quartz asian is on the point of threatening the traditional industry in switzerland, which is trying to develop mechanical watches more accurate. In 1962, Zenith delivers. Under the code name “3019PHC” hides the project of an automatic chronograph of a new genre: a calibre that would not be the result of the simple addition of a module for the chronograph to an automatic base. The brand is lagging behind, the competition in advance. In 1967, the rumor of a similar project, carried out by the group above, urges Zenith to accelerate the movement. The watchmaker manages to launch El Primero barely two months before the release of one of his playmates. Its high frequency of 36,000 alternations per hour (compared to 18.000 for a traditional movement) makes it two times more accurate than a standard chronograph. And allows him especially to be the first of its kind to measure time in 1/10 of a second. But these qualities do not benefit the Speedy Gonzales of watchmaking.
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In 1971, the brand based in le Locle, Switzerland in 1865 by a certain Favre-Jacot is sold to the Zenith Radio Corporation, originally a manufacturer of radios and televisions to Chicago… taking the destiny of the manufacture of swiss in hand, the American the break. In competition with quartz movement, the El Primero does not sell. In the mid-1970s, in the full collapse of the traditional watchmaking, order is given to Zenith to stop the production of mechanical movements and to destroy all the tooling and machinery necessary to the manufacture El Primero. It is thanks to Charles Vermot, responsible for one of the workshops that the calibre has been able to save its workings. With the help of his brother Maurice, he planque 150 stamps, plans and tools created for the famous calibre, in the attic of the factory in which they cement the front door.
Zenith is resold, in 1978, to a consortium of swiss industry, with the aim of reviving the production of the El Primero, in particular, to sell to the major brands of compatriots in quest of an automatic chronograph movement of high quality. Through the treasure of Vermot, the manufacturing can be re.
“Our goal is to build on the past to build the future. Thus, for the 50 years of the El Primero, we propose a box-edited to 50 copies with three chronographs”
In the 1980s, Ebel, Panerai, Rolex in equip their watches. El Primero has become a reference in watchmaking. To such an extent that, for years, 80 % of the production of this issue of exemption is sold to others. Zenith loses its image, El Primero, its notoriety by being encased in housings that do not bear his name. The takeover of the company by LVMH is going to change that. In 2001, the French Thierry Nataf made this class the cornerstone of his strategy and manages to make it sexy a brand that was not. He opens the dial of the watches and makes them visible to the “heart beat” of the El Primero, multiplies watchmaking complications developed on the basis of its mechanism fetish. Only, the prices rise. The purists and the industry are crying out for treason… Nataf is replaced by the Genevan Jean-Frédéric Dufour (former director of the manufacture LUC Chopard and future president of Rolex) that is committed until 2014 to put Zenith in rails to be more orthodox, with an offer to design a more peaceful and templates made much more affordable.
The three chronographs of the box the 50 th anniversary, edited in 50 copies. photomontage, “Le Figaro”
today, if between 60 and 70% of all Zenith watches are equipped with a base El Primero, its place raises a number of questions. “A movement, also known, more famous as the brand that takes as much importance, is it a weakness or a strength for Zenith ?” asked Jean-Claude Biver when he led the watch industry from LVMH. “It is a strength when, to the sides of the movement icon, brings a watch icon, meets Julien Tornare, whose company produces about 20,000 timepieces per year. Our goal is to build on the past to build the future. Thus, for the 50 years of the El Primero, we propose a box-edited to 50 copies, including three chronographs. The first is a reissue faithful to the shows from 1969, the second one is a Chronomaster classic whose movement has been optimized, the third is a Defy that measures time to 1/100 of a second. And we had in this case a fourth cushion to accommodate a next chronograph 1/1000 of a second…” In the meantime, Zenith will announce after the Basel fair in 2019 to have produced a million movements El Primero for fifty years.
* Group Chronomatic: Breitling, Hamilton-Büren, Heuer and Dubois-Dépraz.