Am I sitting in a tin can, Far above the world

The watch that Felix Baumgarten used when he set his world record of course had the El Primero movement.

By Britta Rossander

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In the early 1960’s a competition was arranged in several places in the world, where the goal was to develop an automatic chronograph at any cost. In the Swiss Jura mountains there was a conglomeration of companies striving to achieve success together – Heuer, Buren, Hamilton, Breitling and Dubuis. On the other side of the globe, Seiko stubbornly struggled on. But the ”underdog” Zenith from Le Locle, Switzerland, won and could present their finished movement in 1965. A couple of years have passed from the blueprint stage to a working prototype, the first Swiss made self-winding movement with an integrated chronograph.

Boutique Zenith Geneve

The movement was launched January 10, 1969, under the name El Primero and has had a strong cult following ever since. After almost fifty years it is still the best chronograph movement within its price range.

Zenith’s watchmakers had accepted the challenge of designing a caliber that was completely integrated, without a module and with a central rotor running on ball bearings. It would also have to beat at a high frequency to be the most precise chronograph. To complicate things even further, the parts had to be in miniature to make room for the mechanism of the date display.

Le Locle is the birthplace of Zenith and its founder Georges Favre-Jacot, who started out as a watchmaker’s apprentice and realized early on that the production would have to be rationalized and that new assembly methods were necessary. The craftsmen were scattered in little workshops all around the village, some at a considerable distance, while others worked out of their private homes. Favre-Jacot understood the advantages of collecting all this talent under one roof. He started his own company in 1865, at only 22 years of age, and erected a big and well-illuminated factory building. By gathering all the local craftsmen he had the means to complete new designs and changing the conditions of contemporary watchmaking.

El Primero chronograph in steel.

El Primero chronograph in steel.

With the entire production chain under one common roof, quality control became easier and Favre-Jacot could supply the demand for highly accurate timepieces. Precision became a big part of the brand’s image. A solid reputation for trustworthy products allowed Zenith to get well established in the international market by the second half of the 19th century.

Favre-Jacot was a true visionary, and with the help of one of the top architects of the time, Alphonse Laverriere who strived to give industrial products an aesthetic and artistic dimension, he created what we today call ”branding”. The two men made detailed plans for how the shops would look, how the logotype should be used, the design of the packaging, etc. In 1911 the name Zenith was introduced but the address remained Le Locle.

The El Primero movement sadly went out of production in 1975 because the owners at the time wanted to focus on quartz movements. The late 1970’s were a horrible period for the Swiss watch production, when many producers went bankrupt because of the success of the quartz movements. The El Primero was put on the back burner and the future looked grim for the Zenith watches.

The movement was way ahead of its time when it was introduced.

The movement was way ahead of its time when it was introduced.

In 1983, both Ebel and Rolex wanted to buy the spectacular movement and Zenith would be able to produce it from their old stockpile of parts that many had already forgotten about. The company wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet, and a couple of later the El Primero was back in production.

The movement was way ahead of its time when it was introduced. Watch lovers were impressed by the “floating” second hand and the 10th of a second precision timing.

In 1999 the conglomerate LVMH made an offer to Zenith’s owners, the Dixi Group, who had reintroduced the mechanical movement. The Dixi Group took the offer and LVMH banged on the big PR drum for El Primero’s cult status. Zenith’s watches got new perforated faces to show off the movement. Jean Frederic Dufour, Zenith CEO 2009-2014 and a prime mover in the watch business (today CEO at Rolex) boosted El Primero’s status even more with several new models while underlining the brand’s rich and proud heritage.

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A dedicated fellow reporter from Germany, specialized in movement constructions, says: “El Primero has withstood the test of time and the movement is likely to be the most important automatic chronograph caliber ever created”, a statement that shows a professional connoisseur’s viewpoint.

Throughout the years many watches from the top manufacturers have been fitted with El Primero movements, like the Daytona from Rolex and Ebel’s classic chronograph. Another customer in Le Locle have been the experimental brand Urwek. When Louis Vuitton launched the Tambour model it had an El Primero movement, making it a steal when LV presented their first watch collection. Today Zenith is only allowed to share the movement with its sister brands in the LVMH group, and logically the first Bvlgari watch with an El Primero movement was introduced last year.