“El Primero.” The first. Not only is the name of Zenith’s flagship chronograph calibre a history lesson in and of itself, but its naming convention also represents the brand’s relentless commitment to innovation and development since its founding in 1860. This has resulted in a legacy of iconic and memorable references — particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, many of which were powered by the El Primero, whose unique high-frequency beat rate and tri-color totalizers remain signatures of the brand’s most modern Chronomaster watches even today.
The Zenith story might have formally begun in the late 1800s, but it wouldn’t be until the latter half of the 20th century that its indisputable legacy would be established around the development and proliferation of the El Primero chronograph movement, a groundbreaking new calibre that roared to life in 1969. As the world’s first high-frequency (5Hz) automatic chronograph movement, it ushered in an entirely new arm’s race for state-of-the-art movement manufacture and precision chronometry and solidified Zenith as the category’s newest reigning champion.
But it all nearly came crashing down — as the El Primero soared, the watch industry itself soon stared down its own existential crisis in the rise of quartz movements only a few short years later, which threatened to shutter mechanical watchmaking forever — including the El Primero itself, along with the many other innovations of Zenith. In 1975, as Zenith began closing down and selling off many of its operations, it was a lone watchmaker named Charles Vermot who secretly hid away blueprints and tooling for the El Primero in hopes of preserving the calibre for future generations. And it’s because of Vermot’s brave actions that the El Primero lived to see the mechanical watchmaking renaissance of the 21st century, its enduring legacy of innovation now faithfully preserved in a classic, yet modern collection of Chronomaster chronographs, as well as the convention-beating Defy 21 watches. The modern Zenith brand acknowledges its brush with mortality by operating every day with the same commitment to precision and ceaseless innovation that has defined the brand since its new lease on life, once secreted away in an attic in Le Locle, Switzerland.