Why Zenith's El Primero is still a horological marvel
Among watch enthusiasts, the Zenith El Primero is famous for being the unsung hero that inspired the machinations behind more household names.
Without the El Primero, there'd be no Panerai Luminor Chrono, no Bulgari Chronograph, and, most notably, no self-winding Rolex Daytona.
You'd be forgiven for not knowing this—few outside of the Jura do—but many of those in the know consider the El Primero to be one of the pinnacles of their watch collections, and for good reason.
The story began way back in 1969, when Zenith's El Primero was unveiled as its first ever high-frequency, automatic chronograph movement. This highly complex watch was the first kickback to the burgeoning 'Quartz Crisis'—a time in which mass-produced quartz movements threatened the traditional industry with extinction—and its name was derived from the Esperanto for 'the first.'
The El Primero came on the back of slow progress for Zenith. After a centennial that demanded a brand new movement, Zenith struggled to mark its birthday with something worthwhile. It was then that rumours began to spread of a rival landmark from a powerful alliance of Breitling, Heuer-Léonidas, Dubois-Dépraz, and Hamilton-Büren—one that would fulfil Zenith's aims of a fully integrated chronograph watch. The competition spurred Zenith on and, soon enough, the El Primero was unveiled on 10 January. Happy birthday indeed.
The technical legacy has lived on in more recent versions of the El Primero. The Chronomaster Open Automatic of 2018, for example, exposes the movement's beating heart among a highly detailed dial, while 2015's El Primero Night Vision was a unique watch with all the durability of a ceramic bezel, but the lightness of aluminium.
It's something that's earned cross-industry endorsement too, though many manufactures liked to keep this initially quiet. The El Primero was such a groundbreaking movement, that it wasn't just co-opted by Rolex and Panerai et al.
TAG Heuer, Louis Vuitton, Ulysse Nardin, and Bulgari have all used some iteration of it, which has encouraged Zenith itself to adapt the movement a whopping 23 times. It takes many manufactures decades to even boast an in-house movement, and chances are you've worn (or at least admired) an El Primero without ever realizing it.
Shockingly, the El Primero almost disappeared altogether: a costly production and a re-focus upon quartz saw the movement sidelined for nine long years. But excellence, despite the many crises the Swiss industry has faced, perseveres, and the El Primero hit shelves once more in 1983.
Zenith hadn't past its prime then. The same is true today.