A History of the El Primero Movement

 The Zenith El Primero Caliber 3019. Photo courtesy of SIHH.

The Zenith El Primero Caliber 3019. Photo courtesy of SIHH.

The Zenith El Primero is the best automatic chronograph caliber ever made

That's a bold claim, but I stand by it. The El Primero outlasted it's competition from 1969, was resurrected in 1986 and today it is the defining movement of Zenith.

The history of self-winding watches goes all the way back to the 18th Century when Abraham-Louis Perrelet invented the rotor mechanism. Perrelet's invention was studied and lauded by his contemporaries of the time, including the most famous Abraham-Louis, Breguet. However the self-winding mechanism does not suit pocket watches, as the timepiece doesn't get enough movement to activate the rotor. The next major advance came in 1923 when British watchmaker John Harwood created the automatic wristwatch.

 
 

Unlike most modern automatic watches, Harwood's rotor was limited to a 300 degree arc, rather than a full 360 degrees. At the end of the rotor's travel were two spring-mounted shock absorbers which would 'bump' the rotor back the other way. Ever since these type of automatic movements have been dubbed 'bumper' movements. Some of Harwood's Perpetual' branded watches lacked any crown to set the movement, thus emphasizing the self-winding feature. Instead, the hands of the watch were set by a rotating bezel, much like the earliest alarm pocket watches were.

Unfortunately, Harwood went out of business in 1931 during The Great Depression.

The next progression in automatic winding came with Hans Wilsdorf's company, Rolex. You might have heard of them. The self-winding movement designed at Rolex rotated 360 degrees, which would be the meaning behind the 'perpetual' written on the dial. Rolex would patent the 360 degree rotor and well into the 20th century, other brands were forced to use manual wound calibers or stick with the inferior bumper movements.

 The first Rolex Perpetual movement. Photo courtesy of Rolex.

The first Rolex Perpetual movement. Photo courtesy of Rolex.

There are many, many great manual wind chronograph movements from the last 100 years; The Longines 13ZN, the Valjoux 72 and Lemania CH27 to name just a few but the prize for some brands was self-winding chronographs. At the beginning of the 1960s, several brands began the race to become the first to make a self-winding chronograph. Seiko and Zenith, two independent brands began work on opposite sides of the world, determined to go it alone. Their main competition was the Chrono-matic group, a partnership between some of the biggest brands at the time: Hamilton-Buren, Breitling, Heuer and Dubois Depraz.

Breiting and Heuer were big companies but their popularity differed on either sides of the Atlantic, with Breitling more popular in Europe and Heuer more popular in America. By working together, there was the promise of creating better watches than their competition, safe in the knowledge that their partners weren't intending to encroach on their territory. Hamilton-Buren was brought aboard as they were experts in making compact automatic watches, especially with micro-rotors and Dubois-Depraz were specialists in converting base movements into chronograph.


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Who made the first automatic chronograph?

Other than "Who made the first dive watch?", there is no question more likely to receive multiple answers from collectors than the one above. In my opinion, the reason for all the conflicting answers is the poorly worded question. It leaves too much room for personal preferences to influence the answer.

Zenith were the first to announce their prototype self-winding chronograph at a small press conference in January, 1969. Seiko were the first brand to release a self-winding chronograph to the public in May, 1969. The Chrono-matic group were the first Swiss group to release a self-winding chronograph to the public in August, 1969 with the Caliber 11 movement. Them's the facts folks, and if you don't like it, then tough.

 Seiko Caliber 6130. 

Seiko Caliber 6130. 

Seiko were undeniably the first, beating the Chrono-matic group by months. The Caliber 6139 was the first full-rotor, vertical clutch, column wheel controlled, automatic chronograph ever made and was in produced till 1980. But because they are a Japanese brand, they didn't get the recognition they deserved from their achievements (and still don't), but I can understand why. If they didn't put out a press release in English/French and kept the news to within Japan, how was 'the industry' meant to know it happened.

 A selection of the Chrono-Matic Caliber 11 watches.

A selection of the Chrono-Matic Caliber 11 watches.

The Chrono-matic group's collaboration is a truly wonderful piece of marketing and teamwork yet their Caliber 11 movement was short-lived. Within a year of production, the Caliber 11 had to be upgraded to the Caliber 12 because of a weak rotor and an overly strong mainspring. Hardly a movement for the ages. Yet the watches that made use of the movement, especially the Heuer Monaco, are some of the most recognizable watches of the time.

Zenith's early announcement of their prototype was over-ambitious as the watches weren't released until October, 1969.

Zenith original plan was to release the first automatic chronograph in 1965 as a celebration of the brand's centenary. Unfortunately the development of the El Primero lagged well behind schedule and it was delayed year, after year, after year. Yet out of all, the Zenith El Primero has proved the most versatile and long-lasting.  Research and development for the El Primero began in 1962 and from the start, it was meant a complete movement rather than a modular movement. It would also have a column wheel activation at the heart of the movement, rather than a CAM, despite the column wheel being more complex and expensive to make.

What makes the El Primero unique is speed.

Most watches of the 1960s beat at 18,800 beats per hour (bph) or 5 beats per second (bps). Seiko had achieved a high beat movement with the Grand Seiko 61GS in 1968, but it was time-only. Zenith wanted more. A high beat movement allowed for an exceptionally smooth sweep of the chronograph hand that was accurate to within 1/10th of a second. But this high frequency movements caused a few problems. The faster the frequency, the more wear and tear a movement sees so Zenith had to developed special lubricant that would stay in the movement longer than traditional oils. They also had a increase the power reserve of the watch to 50 hours to compensate for the increase drain on power. These challenges meant that the El Primero was delayed by several years past its intended 1965 release date. The first prototypes weren't completed until 1968 and weren't shown to the public until January, 1969.

The name El Primero is Esperanto for first, or at least according to Zenith it is. Esperanto is a constructed language developed in the 1870s by L.L. Zamenhor, a Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist from Bialystok. When you look up Primero in many online Esperanto dictionaries, the results come up blank and searching for the Esperanto of 'first' comes back as unuaulo (noun) or unua (adjective). Google translate does say that Primero does mean first in Esperanto, as well as Spanish and Portuguese. Why there is this discrepancy between the translations ultimately doesn't matter. A rose by any other name is just as sweet, as the Bard once said, and El Primero is a damn good name for a damn good movement.

Calibre-Zenith-El-Primero-3019-1969-600x406.jpg

Zenith releases two calibers in 1969, both 30mm in diameter and 6.5mm in height. The 3019 PHC is the movement most people associate with the El Primero name, a tri-compax layout with a date window at 4.30. The other movement was the 3019 PHF which added a moonphase at 6 o'clock. Zenith released several watches over the initial run of the El Primero movement, 1969 to 1975, but today I'm focusing on the lineage of the movement itself, and not the watches that Zenith released.

 A Zenith Radio Corporation storefront from 1930. Not particurarly relevant to watches but I liked the design so here it is. 

A Zenith Radio Corporation storefront from 1930. Not particurarly relevant to watches but I liked the design so here it is. 

Despite its technical achievements, the run of the El Primero was cut short when the brand was bought by the Zenith Radio Corporation (ZRC) in 1971. After 4 years, the new owner decided that mechanical movements were out and quartz was in. In a decisive but short-sighted move, ZRC demanded that all presses and tools for mechanical calibers were to be sold as scrap by the ton to the highest bidder. Any drafts or technical documents were to be scrapped as well.

Even when I try and see things from ZRC's perspective, I find the decision to sell the presses and tools for scrap baffling. There were still brands who made mechanical watches who might have bought the equipment for its intended use for a higher price. ZRC's decision is a perfect example of the mindset of some people in the 1970s towards mechanical watches. It was all about technology and being on the cutting edge, not about creating a luxury product for enthusiasts. Of course, in the long term, quartz technology would not be embraced as an object of value like mechanical watches but no-one could have known that in the 1970s. But the act I find truly vindictive and stupid is the destruction of the documents and technical drafts. Destroying tools is one thing, but destroying information is a real crime. Luckily, one man would save the El Primero from extinction.

Mr. Charles Vermot was the foreman of Workshop 4 and a specialist in chronograph movement construction. Before working at Zenith, he had worked for Martel Watch Company, a specialist chronograph manufacturer who was bought by Zenith in the early 1960s. When the order came to scrap the machinery, Vermot wrote to the head office of ZRC, pleading with them to reconsider. His pleas went unanswered, so Vermot took matters into his own hands. So night after night, Vermot worked on hiding all 150 presses, cams, cutting tolls and plans in wooden crates and, like any diligent watchmaker, kept meticulous records in ring binders that he hid in the attic of the workshop.

 Charles Vermot at work. Photo courtesy of Zenith.

Charles Vermot at work. Photo courtesy of Zenith.

After the tenure of ZRC ended in 1978, Zenith was back in Swiss control and the new owners wanted to begin making mechanical watches again. Yet without the plans or tools, it would cost a fortune to restart manufacturing the El Primero again. Mr. Vermot's defiant action saved Zenith as he was able to show the location of everything the company needed to begin production again. Included in the crates were unassembled Caliber 3019 PHC movements which Zenith would sell to Ebel in 1983. Zenith had so many of these movements that they staggered delivery over 3 years.

 The first Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. Photo courtesy of Rolex.

The first Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. Photo courtesy of Rolex.

Around the time of Zenith's return to watchmaking, Rolex was interested in updating their classic chronograph, the Daytona. From 1961, Rolex Daytona's had been using variations of the Valjouz 72, a manual wind, standard beat movement, which there had been four variations: the 72B, 772, 722-1 and 727. By the mid-1980s, the word on the watchmaking street was that Rolex was looking for a self-winding movement to replace the Valjoux 72, and Zenith believed that they were the best choice. Rolex liked the idea and proposed that if Zenith could resume production of the El Primero, they would have the contract. President of Zenith Francois Manfredini delivered the first Rolex El Primero caliber, the Caliber 4030, in 1986 and in 1989, Rolex debuted the new Daytona Ref. 16520. Rolex requested that Zenith make a number of changes to the movement before delivery:

  • A larger escapement was added with a larger, freely sprung balance with Breguet overcoil
  • The oscillation rate was slowed from 36,000bph down to 28,800bph.
  • The date function was removed

By the time the changes were complete, there was only 50% of the original parts left. Rolex renamed the movement the Caliber 4030 and, whilst watchmaking could easily identify the source of the movement, they kept tight-lipped about who they have bought the movement from. Unsurprisingly, to this day there is no mention of Zenith's involvement in the resurgence of the Daytona on Rolex's website. Between 1989 and 2000, hundreds of thousands of El Primero movements were made for Rolex and these watches are some of the more desirable modern Daytonas. I'll be honest and say that I don't like this Daytona design at all. I find the bezel thick and ugly, and I don't care for the re-designed chronograph registers. But I can't fault the movement in the slightest.

 The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 16520. Photo courtesy of analog/shift

The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 16520. Photo courtesy of analog/shift

Whilst Rolex is the most famous company to use the Zenith El Primero movement, they are by no means the only ones. Panerai has used the 3019 PHC movement in several of their Luminor chronographs, TAG Heuer adapted the movement into their Caliber 36 which, rather ironically, was used on their Monaco 24 series and Bvlgari used it in their Octo Velocissimo series.

Zenith haven't sat on their laurels either and have adapted the El Primero at least 23 times. There is tourbillons, skeleton movements, grade dates, time-only watches and annual calendars that all make use of the El Primero name and movement. Now the El Primero now and the concept of high beat chronographs movements is one of the defining features of the Zenith brand. 48 years later, the El Primero is the pinnacle of mass-produced, automatic chronographs.