Zenith El Primero 1205SP 1969
Vintage & Auctions

Auction bids in Geneva: a rare Zenith El Primero sold at Phillips

A rare collector piece reappeared amongst Rolex and Patek Philippe pieces at Phillips’ auction bid. An embodiment of watchmaking history, the piece was a much sought-after prototype of the famous chronograph.

By Joel Laplace

Phillips had something special planned for its first auction bid: the unique Zenith El Primero. Amongst the numerous batches presented by the new auctioneer there was this prototype with a triple calendar and moon phase.

History of a legend

The presence of this exceptional watch at Phillips’ warrants a little trip down memory lane. It all started in 1962 when the Le Locle-based manufacture decided to design an iconic watch for its centenary in 1965. The chosen piece was a chronograph but with such complex specifications for the time that it took Zenith’s engineers and watchmakers seven years to complete it; that is, it was ready four years after the jubilee it had been designed to celebrate.

Zenith El Primero 1205S 1969 Zenith El Primero Prototype

The El Primero – which means “the first one” in Esperanto – was unveiled on 10 January, 1969 and it was the world’s first self-winding chronograph.

Zenith El Primero caliber

A true mechanical revolution, it marked watchmaking history for a long time. In the early 1970s, the brand was severely affected by the quartz crisis and was sold to the American group of electronics with the homonymous name Zenith Radio Corporation.

Saved from destruction by a rebellious watchmaker

In 1975, the new owner took a drastic decision: the brand would stop its production of mechanical movements and would henceforth only concentrate on quartz. The idea was to get rid of something that was seen as “futureless and obsolete”. And so, Charles Vermot, aka Charly, shocked by the American group’s decision to destroy mechanical watchmaking – something he had always believed in – decided to take matters into his own hands. In order to save them from destruction, Vermot, at the time in charge of workshops, hid all machine-tools and plans essential for the production of several mechanical calibers, including the El Primero.

Charles Vermot The watchmaker Charles Vermot

Some years later, following the revival of Swiss mechanical watchmaking and with the help of Ebel, which was looking for a self-winding chronograph caliber, the El Primero was reintroduced. Rolex also chose this caliber to equip its famous Daytona chronograph but added its own craftsmanship standards to it.

The Daytona was equipped with the EP between 1987 and 2000, the year in which Rolex introduced its own in-house movement.

It was a dream come true for Charly whose help was needed to revive mechanical watchmaking. Today, this could be seen as a perfect marketing strategy but it is a true story thanks to the pugnacity and courage of a “simple local watchmaker” who never stopped believing in mechanical watchmaking.

Zenith El Primero 1205S 1969 Zenith El Primero Prototype

The historical prototype

It is a very 1970s piece that displays a beautiful patinated dial whose particularity is two applique stars at 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock next to the day and date apertures. This very rare 1205SP reference was produced in 25 pieces during 1969. Nowadays, it is not known how many of those pieces still exist but there are likely to be very few left. The watch comes with an original Gay Frères strap and a letter from Zenith that confirms the prototype is indeed original.

A similar piece was auctioned at Christie’s in Geneva in May 2012 and sold for CHF 37,000, and Zenith quickly announced on Facebook that it had won the bid for this very rare historical piece.

At Phillips Watches’ inaugural auction bid, the watch was sold for CHF 68,750. We can only hope that this time it was some lucky collector who took it home!

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