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Zenith El Primero: a retrospective

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July 2019


Zenith El Primero: a retrospective

We are lucky enough (or old enough!) to have had the chance to witness in real time the birth of the El Primero chronograph at Zenith in 1969. For the first time, we are opening up the Europa Star archives covering that year and even further back, as the brand celebrates the timepiece’s 50th anniversary.

W

ho launched the first automatic chronograph? Among watch historians, the jury’s still out, with several brands claiming the title. Two incontrovertible facts remain, however: it was developed in the “hot” year of 1969, and the El Primero by Zenith was the calibre that stuck in the minds and hearts of aficionados.

The calibre introduced a set of distinctive features which have helped it to stand the test of time and remain an exceptional movement half a century on: a high frequency of 36,000 vph, a column-wheel chronograph mechanism and an automatic winding system that delivers 50 hours of power reserve.

Europa Star was there, back in 1969, so we wanted to pay tribute to the birth of the model 50 years ago by unveiling some of our archives around the launch of both the El Primero calibre, and the first watch to feature the movement, the El Primero A384.

The first mention of the high-frequency chronograph in Europa Star in 1969.
The first mention of the high-frequency chronograph in Europa Star in 1969.
© Europa Star Archives

For its 50th anniversary, the El Primero A384 is back in the form of a Revival series watch – a historically accurate recreation of the emblematic chronograph that retains its retro-futuristic styling, proportions and calibre. For the A384 Revival, Zenith sought to preserve and reproduce just about everything from the original watch by adopting a reverse engineering approach, in which every component is faithful to the original.

Exploring the El Primero calibre.
Exploring the El Primero calibre.
© Europa Star Archives

Each part of the original A384 from 1969 was digitised to ensure it could be accurately reproduced, from the 37 mm faceted steel case to the lacquered white and black tachymeter dial. The only differences are the sapphire crystal instead of an acrylic glass, the display back replacing the solid steel case back, and the latest version of the El Primero 400 chronograph movement. Unlike the A386 (read more below), the A384 Revival is not produced in a limited edition.

The first advertising campaign for El Primero as it appeared in 1970 in Europa Star.
The first advertising campaign for El Primero as it appeared in 1970 in Europa Star.
© Europa Star Archives

This year, Zenith has also launched a solid gold revival trilogy. The A386 is a luxury reedition of the original El Primero, in white, rose or yellow gold. Leaving aside the case material, this anniversary edition faithfully reproduces the initial characteristics of the 1969 El Primero: a 38 mm diameter case, a domed crystal, three-coloured counters, a tachymeter scale, as well as the shape of the hands and hour markers.

The El Primero chronograph in display at the Milan fair in 1969.
The El Primero chronograph in display at the Milan fair in 1969.
© Europa Star Archives

The mushroom-type pushers and lugs are also identical to the original, thanks to the reverse engineering process described above. The only exceptions are the caseback, which now fully reveals the movement, and the updated logo adorning the crown.

As we're also talking about the moon a lot this year, here is astronaut Walter Schirra wearing the new timepiece in 1969.
As we’re also talking about the moon a lot this year, here is astronaut Walter Schirra wearing the new timepiece in 1969.
© Europa Star Archives

Meanwhile, this model’s “engine” is the current version of the El Primero automatic calibre. It powers the hours, minutes, small seconds, chronograph, tachymeter and date functions, with the latter appearing between 4 and 5 o’clock on the white lacquered dial. The three unisex models in white, rose or yellow gold are issued in 50-piece limited editions with a... 50-year guarantee.

The El Primero in the 1970s in Europa Star

The El Primero featured in a selection of different chronographs in 1971.
The El Primero featured in a selection of different chronographs in 1971.
© Europa Star Archives
A second advertising campaign for the El Primero appeared in Europa Star in 1972.
A second advertising campaign for the El Primero appeared in Europa Star in 1972.
© Europa Star Archives
A luxury version of the El Primero chronograph with an open-worked 18-karat gold bracelet (1972).
A luxury version of the El Primero chronograph with an open-worked 18-karat gold bracelet (1972).
© Europa Star Archives
The El Primero was worn by members of the 1971-72 Trans-Americas Expedition, which completed the first vehicle crossing of the Isthmus of Darien, a 250 mile stretch of jungle in Panama and Columbia.
The El Primero was worn by members of the 1971-72 Trans-Americas Expedition, which completed the first vehicle crossing of the Isthmus of Darien, a 250 mile stretch of jungle in Panama and Columbia.
© Europa Star Archives

The 30th anniversary of El Primero in 1999

The El Primero in our Millennium special edition of 2000.
The El Primero in our Millennium special edition of 2000.
© Europa Star Archives

The 40th anniversary of El Primero in 2009

The 40th anniversary of El Primero: an interview with then-CEO Thierry Nataf in Europa Star in 2009.
The 40th anniversary of El Primero: an interview with then-CEO Thierry Nataf in Europa Star in 2009.
© Europa Star Archives
The trio of “New Vintage” El Primero watches designed for the 40th anniversary of the timepiece in 2009.
The trio of “New Vintage” El Primero watches designed for the 40th anniversary of the timepiece in 2009.
© Europa Star Archives

And there’s much more to discover in the Europa Star archives. Get access now by subscribing here.

Explore the Europa Star archives - Join us as a Club member
Including over 350 fully searchable back issues, up to the latest 2019 publications. A treasure trove for all knowledgeable professionals and aficionados.
Zenith El Primero: a retrospective

EL PRIMERO A384 REVIVAL

SPECIAL 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Reference: 03.A384.400/21.C815

Original Revival of the 1969 Reference A384 Original 1969 case with 37 mm diameter Automatic El Primero column-wheel chronograph

Zenith El Primero: a retrospective

MOVEMENT Movement: El Primero 400 Automatic Calibre: 13¼``` (Diameter: 30 mm) Movement thickness: 6.6 mm Components: 278 Jewels: 31 Frequency: 36,000 VpH (5 Hz) Power-reserve.: min. 50 hours Finishes: Oscillating weight with “Côtes de Genève” motif

FUNCTIONS Hours and minutes in the centre Small seconds at 9 o’clock Chronograph:
- Central chronograph hand
- 12-hour counter at 6 o’clock
- 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock Tachymetric scale Date indication at 4:30

CASE, DIAL & HANDS Diameter: 37 mm Diameter opening: 32.3 mm Thickness: 12.60 mm Crystal: Domed sapphire crystal with anti-reflective treatment on both sides Case-back: Transparent sapphire crystal Material: Stainless steel Water-resistance: 10 ATM Dial: White-lacquered dial with black-coloured counters Hour-markers: Rhodium-plated, faceted and coated with Super-LumiNova®SLN C3 Hands: Rhodium-plated, faceted and coated with Super-LumiNova®SLN C3

STRAPS & BUCKLES Strap: Comes in a black alligator strap or ladder bracelet Buckle: Stainless steel pin buckle

Zenith El Primero: a retrospective

EL PRIMERO A386 REVIVAL

SPECIAL 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Reference: 65.A386.400.69.C815

Revival of the first ever El Primero Model from 1969 Original revival of the case with 38 mm diameter Automatic El Primero column-wheel chronograph White gold version: Limited Edition of 50 units 50 Years of Warranty

Zenith El Primero: a retrospective

MOVEMENT El Primero 400, Automatic Calibre: 13 ¼ ``` (Diameter: 30 mm) Movement thickness: 6.6.mm Components: 278 Jewels: 31 Frequency: 36,000 VpH (5 Hz) Power-reserve: min. 50 hours Finishes: Oscillating weight with “Côtes de Genève”. motif

FUNCTIONS Hours and minutes in the centre Small seconds at 9 o’clock Chronograph:
- Central chronograph hand
- 12-hour counter at 6 o’clock
- 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock Tachymetric scale Date indication at 4:30

CASE, DIAL & HANDS Diameter: 38 mm Diameter opening: 33.05 mm Thickness: 12.60 mm Crystal: Domed sapphire crystal with anti-reflective treatment on both sides Case-back: Transparent sapphire crystal Material: White gold Water-resistance: 10 ATM Dial: White-lacquered dial with three different-coloured counters Hour-markers: Rhodium-plated, faceted and coated with Super-LumiNova SLN C3 Hands: Rhodium-plated, faceted and coated with Super-LumiNova SLN C3

STRAP & BUCKLE Black alligator leather strap with protective rubber lining White gold pin buckle

Other limited edition models are available in rose or yellow gold.

Explore the Europa Star archives - Join us as a Club member
Including over 350 fully searchable back issues, up to the latest 2019 publications. A treasure trove for all knowledgeable professionals and aficionados.