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Zenith Celebrates El Primero’s 50th

A host of new and ‘revival’ watches commemorate the 1969 birth of the famed 36,000 vph automatic caliber.

Since the start of 2019 Zenith has launched a host of commemorative watches to honor its legendary high-speed automatic chronograph. While we suspect Zenith has much more to say (and debut) on the topic, let’s take a look at what the Le Locle-base manufacturer has offered in celebration thus far.

The Zenith Defy El Primero 21 from 2017.

The year began as Zenith showed a wide-ranging set of full-collection debuts. But one particularly auspicious three-pronged launch was specifically meant to both enhance and propel the El Primero legacy: a boxed set of three El Primero chronographs.

All three watches in the boxed anniversary set are linked not only by their El Primero roots, but also by their tri-color subdial counters, a nod to Zenith’s best-known El Primero dial treatment. Included in the set is a reissue faithful to the first El Primero model of 1969, a Chronomaster El Primero with a newly optimized movement and a Defy El Primero 21 with its 1/100th of a second timing capability.

Zenith's El Primero 50 Anniversary Set

In the boxed trio, Zenith has updated the Chronomaster El Primero to enhance its reliability and precision. The most obvious results of the enhancement are the integration of a stop-seconds device for more precise setting of the time, and power reserve bolstered to sixty hours. This new Chronomaster is also now a bit sportier, with a 42mm steel case topped by a black ceramic bezel, a star-shaped oscillating weight and a rubber strap with contrasting stitching.

The Zenith Chronomaster El Primero from its boxed set.

The Defy El Primero 21 in the set is a 44mm titanium-cased model with Zenith’s ultra-high-speed movement oscillating at a frequency of 360,000 vibrations per hour (50 Hz), ten times higher than its predecessor. With its one-revolution-per-second hand, it displays one hundredth of a second on a scale from 1 to 100. It’s movement features two escapements, one for the time and the other for the chronograph.

The Defy El Primero 21 from Zenith's boxed set.

The fourth cushion

The trio thus includes vintage, classic and modern versions of the El Primero. An empty fourth cushion teases collectors as the site for a future El Primero watch, very likely to be a very high frequency model (1/1000th of a second) according to Zenith.

All three are set into a box adorned with the El Primero anniversary logo. Its satin-brushed gray lid (with built-in touch screen) opens to reveal a reproduction of a miniature watchmaker's workbench, complete with an adjustable lighting system, magnifying glass and screwdriver.

In the box Zenith has also placed a special invitation to visit Le Locle. The invitation is an actual die of the chronograph’s coupling-wheel bridge. The owner is asked to visit the Manufacture in Le Locle and to hand-stamp two coupling-wheel bridges. One will leave with the owner and the other (engraved with the owner’s name) will be placed on the entrance wall of a very special attic. The attic is where Charles Vermot, the Zenith watchmaker who, in the midst of the quartz crisis in the early 1980s, secretly stored El Primero tools and dies, thus saving the movement – and possibly even Zenith itself – from oblivion (see accompanying story below).

At Baselworld

Just a few months after Zenith announced the El Primero boxed set, the watchmaker debuted another set of watches in celebration of El Primero: the Defy El Primero 21 Carbon ($17,800), the Defy El Primero Double Tourbillon ($141,000) and three gold-cased El Primero A386 Revival watches ($19,200 each).

The 44mm Defy El Primero 21 Carbon is the first all-carbon version of this 1/100 of a second chronograph (that features two separate escapements) Zenith introduced in 2017.

The new Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Carbon, pictured on a rubber strap.

Here, it’s not just the faceted case and round bezel that are forged from carbon, but also the crown and chronograph pushers. The hour, minute and constant seconds hands, like the applied hour markers, are faceted with a dark ruthenium coating and filled with black SuperLuminova. To focus on the high-speed aspect of the watch, Zenith has brightened the tips of the central 1/100-second hand and seconds and minutes hands with bright red tips.

Up close on Zenith's new Defy El Primero 21 Carbon

Zenith’s new Defy El Primero Double Tourbillon, a Baselworld 2019 highlight for many observers, starts with the high-speed (360,000 bph) developed for the Defy El Primero 21 and ups the horological ante.

With this watch, Zenith adds two tourbillons – a first for the watchmaker. One of the tourbillons (at 10 o'clock) is coupled with and regulates the chronograph that displays hundredths of a second. This tourbillon beats at 50 Hz (360,000 vibrations per hour) with its carriage rotating every five seconds, which Zenith says is the world’s fastest.

The new Zenith Defy El Primero Double-Tourbillon.

While that high-speed tourbillon regulates the chronograph hand, which turns once per second, the second tourbillon (at 8 o'clock) operates at 5 Hz (36,000 vph) with a carriage that rotates once per minute. This tourbillon regulates the rate of the hours, minutes and seconds. This model is available in two limited editions: a ten-piece platinum version and a fifty-unit carbon interpretation.

With an eye to its historical El Primero designs, Zenith at Baselworld also debuted three near-replicas of its 1969 El Primero with the round 38mm case. While the anniversary edition faithfully reproduces the original model’s case size, domed crystal, three-colored counters, tachymeter scale, shape of the hands and hour-markers and pushers and lugs, it differs with updated El Primero movement (now El Primero Caliber 400), a clear caseback, a new logo on the crown and the case metal.

The Zenith El Primero A386 Revival in rose gold, which debuted during Baselworld in March.

Zenith offers these El Primero A386 Revivals in white gold, pink gold or yellow gold. Each is offered as a limited edition of fifty pieces, and each is guaranteed for fifty years.

Except for the case metal, this new white gold anniversary edition El Primero A386 Revival reproduces the initial characteristics of the 1969 Zenith El Primero. And, it's got a 50-year warranty.

Latest Revival

And as we showed you when it debuted in June, Zenith added another dimension to the yearlong El Primero celebration with a steel-cased El Primero A384 Revival watch, which it debuted not as a limited edition.

The new watch echoes the A386 Revival in that it reproduces just about everything from the original watch thanks to Zenith’s “reverse engineering“ approach to the project. As a result, each component has been being faithfully re-created.

The new Zenith El Primero A384.

To do this, Zenith digitized each component, from the 37mm faceted steel case to the lacquered white and black ‘panda style’ tachymeter dial to the shape of the pushers. However, Zenith did veer from this replication process when it came to the crystal, the caseback and the movement itself. That’s why on the new model, Zenith uses sapphire crystal instead an acrylic glass, a display back instead of the solid steel caseback and the latest version of the El Primero 400 chronograph movement.

The caliber, which Zenith places into several models within its current lineup, still offers a frequency of 36,000 vph with a column-wheel chronograph mechanism.

An Act of Defiance

“You are wrong to believe that the automatic mechanical chronograph will die out completely.”

Charles Vermot wrote these prophetic words to the Zenith Radio Corporation, which purchased the Zenith Watch Company in 1971. Five years later, the new owners ordered the watch company to dispose of all its tools and dies for mechanical watches. Vermot, who was in charge of Zenith workshop 4, asked for permission to maintain a small workshop where all the tools necessary for the manufacture of El Primero would be kept. His request remained unanswered.

Charles Vermot in the 1980s. He saved the El Primero.

Fortunately for Zenith, Vermot decided by himself to safeguard the tools necessary for the manufacture of El Primero, and against all orders he secretly moved all the presses, cams, operating plans, cutting tools and manufacturing plans necessary to build the El Primero - to an attic fifty-two steps atop the one Zenith building not connected to all the others.

Then Vermot built a wall to hide his work.

Assisted only by his brother Maurice, also a Zenith employee, Charles told no one of his prescient act of defiance. The entire process required about six months of secretive work.

“My father did not tell a soul,” recalls Michel Vermot, Charles’ son, who is also a watchmaker.

“Not even his wife or any of his kids. He was returning from work much later than usual, and my mother was wondering what was going on. But he knew that we lived in a very close-knit community, and if any one person heard about it, everyone would know.”

Michel Vermot, son of Charles Vermot, wearing a special Zenith 'Charles Vermot' El Primero.

This occurred amid the quartz crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, during which tens of thousands of watchmakers lost their jobs as mechanical watch companies closed across Switzerland.

“If Michel’s father were to lose his job because he was not listening to his boss, it would have been very difficult to find another job,” adds Zenith CEO Julien Tornare. “He took a huge personal risk.”

Vermot told no one until about ten years later when new owners of Zenith called him.

“A Zenith worker named Gerber knew that Vermot might have some information about how the new owners could restart El Primero production,” explains Tornare. “Gerber asked if Vermot could help to restart production (after Rolex requested supplies of El Primero for its Daytona). He said of course, and then drove to Zenith and broke the wall down.”

Only then did Vermot’s wife understand why he was late on so many evenings ten years prior. “It was only on that day that told us that he had to return and help the new owners revive the El Primero,” explains Michel.

Zenith re-launched the El Primero in 1984. The company eventually rewarded Vermot with a new El Primero watch, and a trip to New York.

Zenith and watch collectors however have been reaping the rewards of Vermot’s act of defiance with decades of new El Primero watches.

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