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Musings on Zenith and the El Primero

What comes after being first?
by Chester Lau on September 24, 2016
Watches

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. Zenith is the first manufacture to create an automatic integrated column wheel movement, and promptly christened it the El Primero. More recently, its increasing staple of well-priced and attractive watches with reliable in house movements makes Zenith one of our favourite watch brands. 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. Dufour went on to be CEO of Rolex in 2014, and the direction set is continued on by current CEO Aldo Magada.

 

zenith-academy-fuseechain2

The Zenith Academy Georges Favre-Jacot. A stellar example of Zenith’s latest achievements, a high beat fusée chain movement with constant force.

The Zenith El Primero. Probably one of the most iconic pieces in the Zenith lineup.

The Zenith El Primero 410. An annual calendar chronograph and an icon of the brand.

 

Robust movement with a long history

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 famous El Primero high beat movement with column wheel chronograph. Beating at 36,000 bph, the movement is time tested and proven reliable.

The famous El Primero high beat movement with column wheel chronograph. Beating at 36,000 bph, the movement is time tested and proven reliable.

 

Strong base movement to build upon

 

Zenith Academy Minute Repeater. As mentioned earlier, Zenith is embarking on haute horlogerie. It may not be their forte at the moment, but do keep a look out. We certainly have high hopes for them.

Zenith Academy Minute Repeater. Complete with cylindrical gongs and a unique cut out dial to view the hammers from the dial side.

 

Apart from its staple chronograph movement, the El Primero has also several complications added to the base calibre. Famous calibres like the 410 annual calendar movement, with the iconic date window at 4:30, is just one such example. More recently, interesting complications like the striking 10th, which showcases the chronograph’s ability to time up to 1/10th of a second, as well as higher complications like Zenith Academy Minute Repeater and the Zenith Academy Georges Favre Jacot have been produced with the El Primero at its heart. To have a movement capable of such modifications shows how well the initial design of the calibre must have been. Combined with modern materials and machining, the El Primero has also more power to run these complications.

 

The transparent caseback of the Zenith Academy Minute Repeater showcases the El Primero calibre. The added minute repeater module is fit on the dial side.

The transparent caseback of the Zenith Academy Minute Repeater showcases the El Primero calibre. The added minute repeater module is fit on the dial side.

Attractive designs in the new collection

 

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The Zenith Heritage Pilot Café Racer with an aged stainless steel case and a grain finished slate gray dial.

 

A good spot to be sandwiched in, Zenith, in the grand scheme of LVMH’s portfolio sees itself appealing to the younger crowd with its sporty range as well as the more seasoned collectors with its collection of classic pieces. Steering away from stablemate Hublot’s fusion concept, which uses multi material cases, or her other stablemate Tag Heuer’s tool watch segment, Zenith’s El Primero finds its sweet spot in the Heritage Pilot’s line. Loud design cues with large cases and huge lugs and crowns are enveloped with vintage finishing and story telling. For instance, the Zenith Heritage Pilot Café Racer is a fitting example of ‘vintage’ case and dial finishing, with a darkened steel aged case and grain finished slate gray dial, complete with patina lume.

 

elprimero-wrist

The Zenith El Primero Classic, in 18K rose gold.

 

On the other hand, there is the minimalism themed Zenith El Primero Classic Chronograph. The simple watch is the answer to the consistent debate over the unnecessary cluttering of the dial. Notably, the Classic, removes all the subtitles and also takes away an hour subdial. Moving away from a tri-compax to a bi-compax, the Classic is reminiscent of a ’40s chronograph. It bears the DNA of vintage chronographs, with thin lugs, and no date, broad pushers and thin line stripe markers. But our favourite part of the watch is something quite unexpected. The leaf shaped hands.

 

The El Primero in non-Zenith watches

 

The El Primero was also a donor chronograph in the days when having an in-house chronograph was not the norm. Seeing a manufacture movement being used in another brand’s timepiece more often than not implies the value of the movement, be it in reliability or reputability. It was the base within the Ebel Chronographs, and the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, among others.

 

The Bulgari Octo Velocissimo, featuring the iconic octagon bezel.

The Bulgari Octo Velocissimo, featuring the iconic octagon bezel.

 

Perhaps most famously it was used in the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona before Rolex rolled out its own chronograph movement. The Rolex Caliber 4030 is a modified El Primero, with a Rolex escapement slowed down to run at 28,800 bph. Seeing the El Primero being used in a Rolex could easily be ‘one of the greatest achievements’ in El Primero history.

The El Primero has also recently been seen in her sister brands’ chronographs. For example, the Bulgari Octo Velocissimo, with its beautiful lacquered dial and stealthy case design packs a real punch with the El Primero movement at its heart.

 

bulgari-velocissimo-back

The Octo Velocissimo uses the Caliber BVL 328, a high frequency movement similar to the El Primero by Zenith (the only difference is the nomenclature).

 

The Zenith El Primero while respectable has still a long way to go to outdo its past achievements. While Zenith’s latest creations and designs have been good, they still lack the punch of creating the definitive icon for the brand. Whenever that happens, or whichever piece that may be, we will be looking forward to it.

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