Zenith El Primero Movement: The Epic Horological Story
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Zenith El Primero Movement: The Epic Horological Story

Zenith El Primero Movement: The Epic Horological Story


If you were alive during 1969, chances are you experienced a number of things. The Summer of Love, Neil Armstong stepping first onto the moon (with the Omega Speedmaster on his wrist of course!) and the start of the miserable Vietnam conscription. 

On more jovial terms, this was a period when the first, legendary Zenith El Primero came into existence, bringing with it an entirely new play on the automatic movement. It’s important to note that automatic movements have been around for a long time. 

Reaching as far back as the 1770s, the first automatic movement appeared under Abraham-Louis Perrelet. Capable of offering a power reserve of around eight hours per day after fifteen minutes of charging it up, this was the beginning of what Zenith would eventually dominate. 

Later Rolex would meddle with automatic movements as seen in 1931 with the world's first self-winding mechanism thanks to the classic Rolex Oyster Perpetual

Right, that’s enough of the background. We think it’s high time we try our hand at getting into the illustrious history of the Zenith El Primero movement. Hold on to your silicon hairsprings.


The Start Of Zenith’s Venture Into Movements


The El Primero calibre first started under the watchful eye of master horologist, Georges Favre-Jacot. 


Georges Favre-Jacot - Source - Wikidata


At the tender age of 22, he moved towards the watchmaking world in 1865. Favre-Jacot was originally a man who specialised in architecture, but he first made the leap into watchmaking by progressively involving a variety of horological techniques.

He developed the brand in 1911, the name being inspired by a high quality calibre that won the Grand Prix for precision at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. They similarly followed the successful path as their namesake. 

The brand then went on to release a number of mechanical movements such as the Calibre 135 that first won the Neuchâtel Observatory’s chronometry award between 1950 - 1954. Not enough? How about a total of around 2,300 chronometry prizes throughout their lifespan? Although time is never our friend, it appears the contrary for the Le Locle outfit.


The Zenith El Primero Movement


So, they have excelled in terms of calibre straight from their inception.


Abraham-Louis Perrelet - Source - Perrelet


Following on from that incredible timekeeping legacy, they decided to upgrade even further. After the 100th anniversary of the brand in 1965, they chose to try and accomplish what had long been discussed as impossible. Allow us a minute to explain.

The challenge was to create the first self-winding mechanical chronograph calibre. These styles of movements had been created previously, as noted by Abraham-Louis Perrelet’s version during the 1770s. 

They had originally claimed to launch the first ever chronograph calibre during their 100th year anniversary. However, they subsequently blew through the deadline.

Unfortunately, this meant a host of other brands decided to jump onto the horological ship of creating a self-winding mechanical chronograph calibre. 


The Great Race


They missed the deadline and other brands were hot on the heels of the Le Locle brand, similarly wanting the fame of creating the first ever self-winding mechanical chronograph movement for their watches. 


1969 Zenith El Primero - Source - Vintage Times Amsterdam

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Many Swiss brands teamed up to try and pool their resources and get this elusive chronograph calibre out onto the table. Composed of Breitling, Buren-Hamilton, Dubois-Depraz and Heuer-Leonidas, a Japanese brand, Seiko also decided - like Zenith - to follow this path alone. 

We’ll skip through the heart racing commentary and get to the finishing line. So who made it first past the post? (Dramatic pause) They won! Announced at a press conference on January 10th, 1969, they released the now iconic El Primero chronograph calibre which beat the Swiss collective, Calibre 11 “Chronomatic” calibre that was too late…by exactly 2 months. Seiko’s edition, The Calibre 6139, graced the timekeeping plain but not until May ‘69. 

Now for those Spanish speakers “El Primero” literally translates as “The First”. And boy did it certainly win fair and square, pushing down the boundaries of the significance of automatic calibres that enthusiasts adore to this very day.


The First Variation Of The El Primero Movement


So, what did the original El Primero originally look like?


1969 Zenith A386 - Source - Vision Vintage Watches

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Not only did it fulfil the criteria of being the first self-winding movement, but it was razor thin at just 6.5mm, an astonishing statistic considering it was made up of a very sizable 278 parts. 

This means that the watch is more than capable of being worn on the wrist,

without it looking like you’ve decided to opt for a Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea or Panerai Radiomir Officine . Utilising revolutionary materials like molybdenum sulphate, the accuracy is ensured as it means that friction is removed.

Onto the fast stats. Capable of running at a whopping 36,600 VpH, or 5Hz to you scientific horophiles, it means that for the functionality of the watch, the movement is capable of measuring elapsed times to 1/10th of a second through its epic chronograph functionality.

Breakdown of the watch - Source - Oracle of Time

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To put this into perspective, the general chronograph running speeds of that era averaged between 19,600VpH to 21,600 VpH. Funnily enough, that’s the exact same figures as Breitling (and others) and Seiko’s calibre’s respectively. 

Even in the modern era, the watches tend to run at around 28,800VpH or 4Hz, showing how incredibly fast the El Primero movement truly is, especially since it’s almost 60 years old. As per Roger Federer, in our view, it really is in a timekeeping class of its own.


Where Is This Zenith El Primero Movement Present?


Around eight months after the release of the calibre, they started being put into their chronograph watches in September 1969. 

Tropical Panda Ref A384 - Source - Christie’s

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Take for example The Chronograph Ref. 384 with a 37mm steel case. The watch was formed in a tonneau shape (no it’s not your time here Richard Mille) to enhance wearability and comfort. Of course, the sub dials went for a tri-compax aesthetic, resulting in three black sub dials, highly contrasting against a white dial. 

In fact, this “panda dial” style, coveted by many horophiles can be explored further in our snappy feature below;

If you are looking for The Zenith look that is adopted today, turn your eyes towards ref. A386 watch with a slimmer 38mm steel case. Adopting a tricolour design, this watch has grown to include a blue sundial for the minute counter at 3 o’clock, a grey version for the hours counter at 6 o’clock and a silver counter for the running seconds based at 9 o’clock.


Dawn Of The Quartz Crisis


Alongside the glory of the El Primero chronograph movement, a new innovation was underway. 

Seiko Astron - Source - Seiko

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Surprisingly, the same company that voted for the title of creating the first self-winding, automatic chronograph calibre, opted to turn to quartz to power their watches. Seiko made the right decision as quartz watches boomed in 1969, spurring on what is known as the Quartz Crisis. 

The Quartz Crisis within 13 years cost the horological industry around two-thirds of the industry employees their jobs and created a huge divide within the mechanical world.

Opposing the classical mechanical designs of escapements, quartz watches take their power from electronic batteries. The pros of this is that they were extremely cheap to mass produce, yet still retained an astonishing level of accuracy. The first quartz watch was the Astron, a piece that grew exponentially and swiftly became one of the most popular watches on the market. Just how severe was this to the brand?

Don’t get confused with this next bit: Zenith was first bought by a Radio Company also named Zenith. The newly formed company decided to halt everything to do with original watchmaking. This included the manufacture of mechanical calibres and an increased focus on quartz type watches.

This called for the culling of a high quality watchmaking brand who prided themselves on the highest levels of skill. Straight after the release of one of the most revolutionary movements of all time, they were destined for mass produced, quartz calibres, rendering their other movements dead. Or so we thought. 

A gentleman named Charles Vermot may have just been the saviour of the timekeeping world as we know it! Working under Zenith for many years, he quietly kept a number of El Primero watch parts and manuals for the future. He made the correct prediction (Don’t you wish he had the winning Lottery numbers), as the Quartz Crisis wouldn’t be around forever. Hold on a tick though. There’s more we need to get through before the comeback.

During the Quartz Crisis, the Le Locle brand went under the control of LVMH in 1999. This set the perfect scene for the El Primero chronograph movement to jump out of the shadows like Clint Eastwood with all guns blazing. 


Rolex “Zenith” Daytona And Other Variations


The El Primero calibre came back into global recognition following Rolex’s request for something to revitalise their dwindling Rolex Daytona watch. If you are in the know in the community, you may have heard of this small time watch!

Zenith Daytona - Source - Christie’s

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The Daytona was actually performing quite poorly during the Quartz Crisis, especially since it was a mechanical, hand wound calibre in a quartz world. The Zenith Daytona’s follow the reference numbers running from ref. 165XX.

They tend to have steel cases and boast sporty aesthetics like a classic Daytona.

Even with the first Chronomaster being released in 1994, things were still looking pretty quiet on the Zenith frontier. Launched at Baselworld, The Chronomaster boasts a dressy feel, but it has a sporty aesthetic as seen through the well-respected Chronomaster Sport line. As for measurements, Chronomaster watches tend to have 38mm steel cases, which is a fairly accessible sizing, especially for the modern consumer looking to buy a watch

The Chronomaster has received a fresh update in 2021 and 2023, dutifully named the Chronomaster Original and even a fresher release named the Chronomaster Open in 2022 with a gorgeous skeletonized tourbillon in a steel case. Is The Chronomaster line worth your perusal? Absolutely!

In 1998, Rolex requested a new, self-winding chronograph calibre to help bolster the collection. Charles Vermont brought out his blueprints and parts from a backroom and began Rolex’s return to the slowly rising, mechanical watch revolution. 

Turning away from the “El Primero” title, Rolex opted for “Calibre 4130” and made a few tweaks to prove it was their own work. They took the technical elements of the El Primero chronograph calibre and removed a few elements like the date aperture and offered a slower frequency of 28,800VpH. This was in contrast to the high speed original 36,600VpH. 

If you scour through your drawers and happen to find a Zenith Daytona, you are in great luck. These are extremely collectable as they had a brief existence of 1998 to 2000. This is because following on from 2000, Rolex opted to utilise their own, in-house calibre. Admittedly, the El Primero calibre is famed for being inextricably linked within the Rolex Daytona initially…

but it has been present inside other major watch brands too. 

Now that they were wholeheartedly a part of conglomerate LVMH, all the brands beneath the title shared each other's technical innovations. Playing a huge role within The TAG Heuer Caliber 36, the chronograph calibre was available in a few sizable collections such as the Carrera and the Monaco

Not enough? How about being present in Hublot’s HUB 4700 that's famously within the highly innovative Big Bang line. Brands outside of LVMH flocked to the El Primero movement to bolster the technical sides of their watches such as Panerai’s OP IV and OP VI chronograph movements. Is there anyone that the El Primero calibre hasn’t touched?


Updates To The Movement


The El Primero calibre is arguably the best to grace Zenith’s portfolio, never let alone anyone else’s horological catalogue. For us, it may just be the best in timekeeping history. 

Rainbow Flyback - Source - Christie’s

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That being said, they have indulged us with other movements too. We particularly enjoy the Elite calibre that takes strong inspiration from the El Primero but chooses to negate the chronograph dial functionality. After all, why would you need another chronograph calibre when you have the best around town?

The El Primero looks very different today, compared with its first release in 1969. While it originally looked like a standard chronograph, they have since added numerous features to complicate the already nigh on complex. 

Including features on the dial like flyback functions, power reserve indicators and even Haute Horlogerie Moon Phases and annual calendars, The El Primero retained its pristine frequency and power reserve until they decided to develop it further in 2017. 

Gentlemen, it’s time to enter the 9004 calibre. 


9004 Calibre

So important that it warrants its very own subheading, The 9004 calibre was featured in the gorgeous Defy El Primero 21, released in 2017.

Bolstered with two separate escapements, the integrated chronograph functionality is capable of surpassing the already exceptional 1/10th of a second interval, while reaching a rate of 1/100th of a second. 

It achieves this incredible feat by having one escapement running at a whopping 50Hz, or 360,000 VpH. This allows the chronographs central second hand to sweep around the dial once per second, while the other escapement - at a still very impressive 36,000 VpH, 5Hz rate - capably deals with the hours, minutes and running seconds. 

You’d be fair to assume that the power reserve wouldn’t be that good due to the incredible frequency, but they have a failsafe in place. They opted to use two mainspring barrels to keep two separate power reserves for each escapement. Offering 60 hours for the general timekeeping and 50 hours for the chronograph, it makes sense to split the power reserve for the high powered and the normal timekeeping functionality. 

The El Primero 9004 chronograph was also fitted with a great balance spring, made out of carbon nanotubes, specifically patented by Zenith and named carbon-matrix carbon nanotube composite. Resisting temperature fluctuations and magnetism to 15,000 gauss, the watch is given a big timekeeping, chronometer tick being COSC certified. 


Top 5 El Primero Powered Zenith Watches

Watch Watch Reference Dial Case Material Price (As of November 2023) Release Date
El Primero Rainbow Flyback Chronograph Ref. 02.0480.405 Rainbow sub dials, black background Steel case Around £4,000 on the secondary market. 1997
El Primero A384 Ref. A384 Black sub dials, white background Steel case Around £7,000 on the secondary market 1969
Chronomaster Sport Ref. 03.3103.3600/69.M3100 Blue, grey, black sub-dials, white background Steel case You can buy a Chronomaster Sport at retail for £10,600 2020
Defy Extreme Carl Cox Ref. 06.9100.9004/21.I001 Skeletonised sub-dials, black background Micro Blasted steel and yellow gold case At retail for £26,600 2021
Chronomaster El Primero Ref. 39.0240.410/01 White sub-dials, white background Steel case You can buy a Chronomaster El Primero on the secondary market for around £20,000. 2001


Frequently Asked Questions


When Did Zenith El Primero Come Out?

This particular movement graced horological circles in 1969 within the construction of The Zenith El Primero Ref. A385 watch with a steel case. 


What Is Special About Zenith El Primero?

The El Primero calibre could easily be defined as Zenith’s and the world’s most famous chronograph calibre since 1969. Offering an astonishing 36,600VpH which was unprecedented for that time, it’s a very practical piece due to its functional chronograph elements that’s revered by enthusiasts and collectors worldwide. 


What Is The History Of Zenith El Primero De Luca?

The El Primero De Luca was released by Zenith between 1988 and 1996. 

The De Luca variation represented their budding creative platform. Featuring various dial configurations, the watch remained consistent in its steel, three link bracelet with satin-brushed side links and polished centre links. 

The watches are home to the Zenith El Primero Calibre 400 and designed to look very similar to the classic steel Rolex Daytona. Following The Daytona’s design codes of Mercedes hands and dial configurations, the De Luca nickname relates to a Zenith distributor named “De Luca” who resided in Italy. 

He designed a new Zenith chronograph in 1988 which subsequently earned the nickname “De Luca”. 


Did Rolex Use Zenith Movements?

Yes, Rolex did use Zenith movements. 

In 1998, Rolex requested a self-winding chronograph calibre from Zenith, which they dutifully provided. Rolex named the El Primero chronograph calibre they received, the Calibre 4130 and reduced the frequency down to 28,800 VpH from 36,600VpH in order to preserve the power reserve. They stopped using the calibres from the 2000s onwards when they opted to create their own, in-house calibre movements. 




Well, Timelords. We’ve run through all the details surrounding the incredible legacy behind the El Primero movement. We’ve discussed its beginnings, the latest updates, and which models you should be looking out for to add to your collection. That should keep you ticking along for a while.

Ever since its first release in 1969, the timekeeping world has never - technically - been the same. The collection of Zenith El Primero watches continues to expand, featuring great updates to the Chronomaster and the Defy watches. It’s comforting to know that they are still trying to progress the calibre in the modern era. Take for example the 2017 Defy update which saw an incredible 360,000 VpH adaptation placed into one of two escapements, all housed with a ceramic case.

If you want to get your hands on a vintage variation of the Zenith El Primero calibre, you may find that easier said than done. After all, this is an incredibly complex and rare thing which is snatched up by collectors and horophiles alike! Why not spend a little extra cash, and get yourself a piece that will not only last a long time, but negate the extensive waiting times of retail valuations. 

The El Primero movement really is top of the timekeeping pops. Could we tempt you to buy into their glory?


Want to buy a Zenith complete with the incredible El Primero calibre? Want to do so on the safest and most secure platform possible? We understand. Trying to find a beloved timepiece on the pre-owned market is not an easy feat. Take time to make things easy by chatting to Chrono Hunter here

Receive multiple offers from our trusted network of the most reputable retailers. With a host of top-rated reviews on Trustpilot, put us first to get you in the best hands when you buy a watch or sell a watch. But wait a second, you can buy or sell all other major brands through Chrono Hunter

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Discuss with us no-obligation estimates and enjoy top prices paid when selling and the most competitive offers when buying. Whether purchase or sale, Chrono Hunter is here to deliver the most seamless and hassle free experience with quick turnaround times, first class service and an understanding of the market like no other.


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Further Reading: 

Top Zenith Watches To Buy And Invest In 2023


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