Zenith is the first manufacture to create an automatic integrated column wheel movement, and promptly christened it the El Primero.
El Primero, translated from Spanish, means ‘the first’. The reason for its name is an obvious one why Zenith chose to name their chronograph movement that. First introduced in 1969, the one of a kind chronograph, has stood the test of time. And an extremely rocky one to be precise. Zenith’s El Primero has seen its good days during the 70’s and 80’s and even withstood the Quartz crisis. But it almost went bust from the notoriety it earned under the years when Thierry Nataf was CEO of Zenith (2001 to 2009). Thankfully, the brand was more rationally managed when Jean-Frédéric Dufour took helm of Zenith in 2009.
The Case and Dial
First released in 2009, the El Primero 1969 re-edition 42mm marked the 40th anniversary of the El Primero. The case shape and dial design was inspired by the original A384 El Primero. A decade ago, 38mm case was considered too small, and the 40-42mm case was the most popular. As a result, the El Primero 1969 re-edition while aesthetically very similar to the vintage model, was enlarged in case and corresponding dial, subdial with an ‘additional’ chapter ring.
This was meant to fill up the peripheral space between the 4:30 date window and the extremities of the case. In order to fill up the space on the dial, the subdials were enlarged, resulting in an overlapping of the tricolor subdials. This is symptomatic of large case small movement designs, made pertinent when watch companies used small in-house movements of the 70s with to fit modern cases. Big names in the industry like Patek Philippe still practice this in the entry level Calatrava models.
The stainless steel case is iconic in design and well-treated in finishing. The case is a mixture of brushed and polished textures and sharp angles. it is further brought to live with a polished chamfered ring that runs along the edge of the case.
2009 was the early days of homage re-editions and the Zenith El Primero 1969 was a fascinating offering for fans of the brand and in particular the A384. The watch is fit on a leather strap with deployment buckle and is also fit with a see-through caseback.
As we had mentioned, the Zenith El Primero which premiered in 1969 is the world’s first self-winding integrated column wheel chronograph. Nearly five decades have passed since its launch, and with all that time the movement has seen its fair share of tweaks and improvements. Performing at the high beat rate of 36,000 vph, the movement is well known for its reliability and time keeping accuracy. The activation of the chronograph is smooth. Higher beat movements usually consume more power, but the El Primero still manages a 50 hour power reserve, a 10-20 hour supplement relative to other column wheel chronograph movements available today.
The tricolor, the A384 chunky case with pump pushers is the definitive Zenith design spanning the past 50 years. The 2009 42 mm model has several practical benefits over the vintage, or the 2019 re-edition model. It is possibly more legible for the far-sighted, and perhaps more fitting for those with larger wrists; that said, the 2019 model in 38 mm is more subtle, balanced and historically accurate. Both of which are excellent value proposition timepieces, not just because of the design, but also for the movement. A high-beat column wheel chronograph, in-house and historical… it ticks many boxes in its category.