As avid students of wristwatch history are aware, Zenith launched its legendary El Primero chronograph movement in 1969, which of course counts as perhaps the most significant anniversary in the wristwatch universe this year. We’ve been wondering for many months how Zenith would mark this horological milestone, and the answer (or perhaps, the first part of the answer; Baselworld 2019 is still on the horizon) was revealed in Geneva in January, with the unveiling of a new set of three limited-edition models in a special carrying case that embody the past, present, and future of the El Primero.
The Past: The first of the anniversary trio is a faithful re-creation of the original El Primero watch from that seminal year of 1969 — representing, believe it or not, the first time Zenith has offered a modern timepiece that hews so closely to its record-breaking ancestor. (El Primero, of course, means “The First” in Spanish, and the movement in that watch was “The First” to offer a high balance frequency of 36,000 vph, meaning times could be measured to the nearest 1/10 second, and “The First” with both an integrated column-wheel construction and a then-unprecedented 50-hour power reserve. It was also, of course, one of the very first self-winding chronograph movements in a wristwatch, sharing that distinction with a handful of other pioneering watchmakers; for more details, check out our story on the history of the El Primero.) The stainless steel case measures a now-modest 38 mm, with a curved, magnifying sapphire crystal, while the dial offers the same tricolored subdials (light gray for running seconds, blue for elapsed minutes, and anthracite for elapsed hours), tachymeter scale, hand shapes and hour markers as the original. The lugs and mushroom-style chrono pushers are also direct descendants of the vintage model’s. Only the caseback, which features a sapphire viewing window while its predecessor was solid, is a nod to modern tastes, and the movement visible through that window is the most up-to-date, contemporary version, the El Primero Caliber 400, composed of 278 pieces and equipped with the 36,600-vph frequency and 50-hour minimum power reserve that wowed the watch community a half-century ago. Dubbed the El Primero A386 Revival, the retro-look timepiece comes on a black alligator strap with rubber lining.
The Present: The Chronomaster 2 El Primero celebrates the Chronomaster series, which the brand calls the direct descendant of the original El Primero watch family, with a larger, 42-mm steel case and a new-generation caliber, called El Primero 3600. The watch, which Zenith also nicknames “Chronomaster 2.0,” uses a very contemporary black ceramic bezel with a graduated scale for chronograph readings, and the movement powers a central chronograph seconds hand that makes a complete rotation around the dial in 10 seconds rather than 60, enabling the wearer to read elapsed times to 1/10th second directly on the bezel. The movement, visible again through a clear caseback, is constructed to visually highlight the column wheel and lever-operated lateral clutch as well as the openworked rotor with Zenith star motif, includes a stop-seconds function, and stores an enhanced 60 hours of power reserve. The date indication, traditionally placed at 4:30 on the original El Primero, is here moved to 6 o’clock, while the dial, in lacquered white on the 1969 replica model, is in silver tone with a sunray finish. The strap is sporty black rubber with a red contrast stitching.
The Future: Rounding out the set is the Defy El Primero 21 Chronograph, the latest iteration of a groundbreaking model Zenith introduced to great fanfare in 2017. Cementing its maker’s reputation as the king of high-frequency chronographs, the Defy El Primero 21 took the original El Primero’s 36,000-vph frequency and multiplied it by a factor of 10, becoming the first mechanical watch able to measure times to 1/100 second on its graduated bezel, with its central chronograph seconds hand making a full turn around the dial in a single second. The movement, El Primero Caliber 9004 — which is both self-winding and skeletonized — achieves this feat with the use of two independent escapements, one for the watch’s timekeeping, oscillating at the standard El Primero frequency of 36,000; the other for the chronograph functions, beating at a lightning-quick 360,000 vph. (For more technical detail on the Defy El Primero 21, click here.) This is the largest of the three limited editions, at 44 mm in diameter, and the only one with a titanium case. Floating above the skeletonized movement are three subdials in the original 1969 colors and, in place of a date display, a power-reserve indicator for the chronograph at 12 o’clock. The case is the most “modern” among the models, tonneau-shaped with flat pushers and short lugs, and integrated into a black rubber strap with alligator leather coating.
The Packaging: The collection comes in a very special satin-brushed gray box with leather details, chock full of extras for connoisseurs and collectors. The lid has a built-in touch screen and opens to reveal a miniature watchmaker’s work bench, with a mechanism on a rest, an adjustable lighting system, a magnifying glass and a screwdriver. The screw-locked drawer in the bottom provides the resting spot for the three watches, along with an empty cushion for a fourth, which Zenith teases is set aside for the inevitable 1/1,000-second chronograph that would mark the next generation of El Primero. Most interesting to a serious and well-heeled collector is the embedded invitation — in the form of an actual manufacturing die from a chronograph bridge — to visit the brand’s manufacture in Le Locle, Switzerland, where the purchaser can hand-stamp two coupling-wheel bridges. One of these bridges will leave with said purchaser, while the other will be engraved with his or her name and be added to a commemorative wall at the manufacture — namely, the one at the entrance to the now-famous attic where Zenith watchmaker Charles Vermot secretly stashed the essential components of the El Primero caliber to prevent the movement being lost to history during the Quartz Crisis years of the 1970s. This box full of watchmaking history, limited to 50 pieces, can be yours for $50,000.