The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 6

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November 2010


The famous El Primero movement is a veritable Phoenix, which continues to be reborn from its ashes and to spread its wings. Designed in 1969, the El Primero calibre was one of the first four automatic chronograph movements (which were all introduced at the same time) but it alone beat at 36,000 vibrations per hour. It nearly disappeared for good, however, in 1975 when the owners at that time—the American Zenith Radio Corporation —decided to move totally into quartz and to get rid of all the equipment and tools related to mechanical movements.
If Charles Vermot, a watchmaker at Zenith who could not bear to see all this treasure thrown away, had not decided to conserve not only all the production plans and procedures in a file folder but also to carefully label all the tools and equipment and to hide them in the attic of the manufacture, El Primero would today be nothing more than a fond memory, a glorious page from the history books of timekeeping.
But nine years later, in 1984, the new owner, Paul Castella, had all the machines brought out of storage and relaunched production of the highest ‘beating’ automatic chronograph in the world (ten vibrations per second—36,000 per hour—compared to the traditional eight vibrations per second).

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 6 EL PRIMERO 1969, EL PRIMERO 36’000

In 2000, Zenith was acquired by the LVMH group, which decided to reserve its famous movement exclusively for the brand and to discontinue its sale to other brands, notably Rolex whose Daytona model was driven by it. Today, only TAG Heuer, another brand in the LVMH portfolio, receives the El Primero.
Appointed to head up the brand in order to assure its renaissance, Thierry Nataf, the first CEO of the LVMH era, can be credited with refocusing public attention on Zenith again. But his creative compulsions along with the incessant introduction of new models and lines somewhat diluted the message. With all the media attention that was generated, the importance and the exceptional qualities of the El Primero movement faded into the background of the large bling bling cloud.
With the nomination of Jean-Frédéric Dufour in June 2009, the brand enjoyed a rapid return to its roots. Passing from some 800 references to 50 (112 with the other in-house movement, the Elite), the El Primero once again became the beating heart of Zenith, the centre of its attentions. The brand would now fully capitalize on its glorious past as a manufacture.
And this seems to be working rather well, according to Dufour. Since December 2009, the brand has seen 50 per cent growth, and its numbers are ‘in the black’ with a production that we can safely estimate to be around 25,000 pieces per year.

Finally showing the tenth of a second
The most important demonstration of the grand comeback of the El Primero movement was the release of its already famous El Primero Striking 10th during BaselWorld 2010. Quite ‘naturally’ if we might use this term, it showcases the movement’s 36,000 vibrations per hour, which imposes ten jumps per second on its chronographic hand (one hour is made up of 3,600 seconds). Up to now, this feature had never been transformed into a tenth of a second indication visible on the dial. (For more precise technical information and the realization of this unique display, see Europa Star 3/10 or type El Primero Striking 10th into the search bar of our website, www.europastar.com).
This calibre—representing a truly emblematic return to the brand’s roots as envisioned by Jean-Frédéric Dufour (which goes along with a moderation of prices, the El Primero starting at CHF 5,600) —completes the El Primero range that already includes some ten chronographic models. Besides the basic models, these calibres include a flyback, the amusing Retrotimer with its eight-minute display (“for cooking pasta,” smiles Dufour), triple date, perpetual calendar, minute repeater, tourbillon, universal time with alarm (Multicity Alarm), the Grand Class Traveler with its 800 components, and a surprise to come, the amazing Christophe Colomb, which we will examine in our next issue.

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 6 The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 6

Remodelling the manufacture
Still located in the same facilities—as historic as they might be with their corridors, their stories, and their bridges, even though not particularly adapted to the demands of modern production—the manufacture is being transformed little by little. The most important renovations will mark the 150th anniversary of the brand in 2015.
For the moment, however, it is in this nostalgic maze where 250 people now work—and where, over the course of history, no less than 180 different calibres and 515 movement variations have been created—and produce the in-house calibres that equip 100 per cent of Zenith watches. Of the 356 components of an El Primero movement, 280 are thus made at the facility, while they are all assembled here.
Like the journey a watch makes through this manufacture, a visit to the site is made in much the same disorder, if we might say so. We start with the movement development department where constructors, technical drawers and watchmaker-prototypists all work side by side. While the decor might be a bit antiquated, the instruments—notably for control and measure—are all cutting edge. One example is the high-speed camera (30,000 images per second) used with the latest generation of Witschi test beds that have been specially developed to check the very specific movements beating at 36,000 vibrations per hour.
Everywhere we go—whether in the products department that brings all the components together, in the ébauche ateliers where the CNC machines function in three eight-hour shifts, seven days a week, in the sections where the small components are cut out, in the mechanical ateliers where all the stamps and other tools are made, in the pre-assembly or assembly rooms, or in the haute horlogerie department (tourbillons, perpetual dates, perpetual calendars, minute repeaters)—we cannot help but notice the multiplicity of check points for testing and regulating. There are 60 such points in all, including those relating to the case. Jean-Frédéric Dufour insists especially on this point: “Authenticity facilitates life,” he says, “because it allows us to look at ourselves in the mirror every morning. This authenticity, which presupposes optimal quality, reliability, and precision—therefore a multiplication of checks and verifications—is in the brand’s genes. Since its beginnings, the clients of Zenith have been individuals who have sought, above all, this precision and these levels of performance. Historically, most were pioneers in this domain, as our golden book testifies with messages from a certain Admundsen or Blériot or even Albert 1st of Monaco before he left for his oceanographic explorations, or even captains of industry.”

The ‘Sleeping Beauty is waking up
Dufour goes on to explain, “We must be up to the level of this history, at the height of the 2,333 prizes awarded by the Observatory and the 297 patents recorded by the brand. With the demand for precision and reliability primordial for us, the decoration of our pieces only represents five to ten per cent of their value, while at some brands, this may climb to 50 per cent of their value. I believe, with others such as Rolex, for example, that an excess of decoration is sometimes the enemy of precision. For instance, to hand bevel—as skilful as it may be—a steel part that comes out of a CNC machine adjusted to the nearest micron may be nonsense and a source of perturbation in the precision that we strive for so dearly.”

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 6

The return of Zenith to its fundamentals seems thus to be well underway. Making a detour down one of the corridors, Jean-Frédéric Dufour takes us to an out-of-the-way room, seemingly abandoned. Following him, we climb the stairs to finally arrive in the attic. “Look here! You are the first journalist to come here,” he confides. In an atmosphere befitting Harry Potter, and on carefully labelled shelves, lie all the tools and stamps that have fashioned the long history of Zenith. It is a veritable treasure that asks only to be brought back to life.
Among the wooden compartments covered in dust, Dufour shows us one that is empty. This is where all the tools and ébauches that were responsible for the renaissance of the El Primero calibre slept, hidden away. But now, the ‘Sleeping Beauty is finally waking up.

Source: Europa Star October - November 2010 Magazine Issue