In-Depth: The Secrets Of The Legendary Zenith El Primero

In-Depth: The Secrets Of The Legendary Zenith El Primero

It’s common knowledge that Zenith invented the first automatic chronograph 50 years ago. An absolute classic, the El Primero is the true pioneer of today's chronographs and was used by many other brands. Today, we take a look back on how this breakthrough was made possible.

By Viviana Shanks

Invented 50 years ago, this automatic chronograph made waves far beyond the snowy Swiss mountains. And although most everyone knows this, few knew that – if not for one man – the El Primero may not have survived to see the 21st century.

The Man, The Myth, The Legend - Charles Vermot

The year is 1969, a year full of firsts for humanity: the first Concorde supersonic test flight, the first man on the moon, and the first automatic chronograph. Zenith SA, based in Le Locle, was the first Manufacture to invent this now iconic calibre. After its creation, the Zenith El Primero had what looked to be a bright shining future. Not only was it the first ever automatic chronograph movement, but it was also the first and only chronograph capable of measurements to the nearest tenth of a second. All this was thanks to its now infamous 36,000 vph heartbeat. Zenith won the race against countless companies, Swiss and Japanese, to invent this now legendary chronograph.

Unfortunately, back in 1975 during the Quartz Crisis, the American company that owned Zenith ordered the cessation of production and the destruction of all things El Primero and mechanical movements. In their minds, there was no future for mechanical watchmaking, and quartz was the answer. Charles Vermot, a watchmaker that worked on the famous calibre, tried endlessly and without success to change the minds of the American owners. He wrote them letters to explain that it would be a mistake to part with the iconic calibre. He famously wrote,

Without being against progress, I note that the world often goes through various cycles. You are wrong to believe that the automatic mechanical chronograph will die out completely. I am thus convinced that your company will one day benefit from the whims and fashions that the world has always known. Charles Vermot

“Destroying” the El Primero

The company didn't want to hear it, so Charles Vermot volunteered to destroy the El Primero himself. In secret from everyone – even his family – he hid all the plans, parts, and necessary tools to make the El Primero and all mechanical movements behind a fake wall in the attic of a non-connected building next to the Manufacture. The strong belief that we would lose savoir-faire by destroying it guided his actions. Charles Vermot then carried on with making Quartz watches as requested by the American company.

Flash forward to 1984, the Quartz Crisis is finally coming to an end, and Zenith is now just a shadow of its past glory. The American owners sell the company back to the Swiss. Over the years, Zenith had changed and became a supplier of movements to more prominent brands. At the time, the brand with the crown (Rolex) was looking for newer movements to rejuvenate their Daytona chronograph. So, Charles Vermot was called and asked to help recreate the El Primero. Little did they know, Vermot had hidden all the tools, parts, and plans. After some colleagues remembered Vermot’s act of bravery and reached out to him, he returned to the Manufacture, broke through the attic wall, and, thanks to him, Zenith restarted production of the El Primero.

While at a beautiful dinner organized by Zenith this past June, we got the opportunity to speak with Charles Vermot's son, Michel. It was during this dinner we discovered that his family did not know of his actions at the time. Mrs. Vermot was so suspicious that she asked Michel if he knew what his dad was up to by staying late so many nights at work. Michel recalled that at the time he told his mother that he knew that his father was just a very hard worker and that she should not worry. Little did he know that his father would go on to save Zenith, and perhaps today's watch industry.

The A384 Revival

To continue the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of El Primero, Zenith launched the A384 as the final piece of the Revival series. Back in 1969, the El Primero A384 was a real standout with its original case shape and redefined style. It was also the first piece to be powered by the El Primero movement.

The Revival A384 is a perfect re-edition that stays true to the original. Powered by the newest El Primero calibre 400, it benefits from over 50 years of improvements. In my opinion, this might be the perfect piece for people looking for a stylish yet retro-futuristic watch.

To create such a perfect re-edition, Zenith reverse engineered the original A384. While keeping most of the pieces true to their ancestor, Zenith made a couple of small improvements such as replacing the acrylic glass with more durable sapphire glass and opened the case-back to allow us to admire the movement. A standard production piece, it’s the perfect watch for those who will not be able to get the 50th Anniversary set of the El Primero A386.

The Defy Collection

Saved by Charles Vermot, Zenith carried on making groundbreaking movements like those in the Defy collection. Their troubled past and the second chance provided by Vermot’s courage spurred Zenith to become one of the most ambitious brands in the market today. Always trying to innovate and be on top of technology, Zenith is, in my humble opinion, a brand that we should not overlook.

The Defy collection is proof of this. Back in 2017, Zenith further defied the laws of watchmaking when they launched the Zenith El Primero 21 with a 1/100th of a second Chronograph. They then quickly followed with the launch of the Defy Lab – a revolution in watchmaking – equipped with an extra-slim monocrystalline silicon oscillator that is unaffected by magnetic fields, gravity, or changes of temperature. The watch even won the GPHG Innovation Watch prize. A year later, the Zenith Defy Zero G scoffed at the laws of gravity with a gyroscopic module made of 139 minuscule pieces that further cancels the effects of gravity.

This year, with the Defy Inventor, Zenith innovates once more. With an extremely light case made of titanium and Aeronith (an aluminum-polymer composite), they’ve taken the Defy Lab out of the laboratory for a limited run of a few hundred pieces (the exact number is unknown). The Defy Inventor is powered by its very own patented regulating organ and beating to a high frequency of 18 Hz set to be extremely precise and reliable — all in a modern looking case. Zenith is writing the future of watchmaking year after year.

(Photography by Liam O'Donnell & Pierre Vogel)

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