Not all chronographs are created equal – and if there ever was one to rightfully claim to be superior to at least most of the others, then that’s the El Primero caliber. The Zenith El Primero Original 1969 watch, contrary to its name, is a relatively new piece from Zenith, albeit one that promises to remain authentic to an original design with which Zenith debuted its remarkable chronograph movement family.
If you are the type of watch lover keen on owning a piece of haute horlogerie, but for whatever reason do not wish to, or simply cannot go for a minute repeater or a tourbillon, your best option is probably to just get a chronograph. For its sheer complexity, even to this day, the chronograph remains one of the most challenging-to-make complications – yes, even more complex than a perpetual calendar or a tourbillon, as echoed by numerous master watch makers I discussed this topic with. The history behind the Zenith El Primero further proves this point.
It was during the 1960s that four major brands (along with some others) got into cut-neck competition over creating the first automatic chronograph wristwatch. Heuer and Breitling collaborated (with the help of Hamilton, Buren, and Dubois-Depraz), while Seiko and Zenith were pretty much on their own. Who actually was first remains the topic of heated – and I’m sorry, but rather pointless – debate to this day. You get a different answer when you consider who was the first to debut the movement, the first to produce working prototypes, or the first to bring it to the market.
Over the years, Zenith has modified the El Primero in countless ways, adding complex calendars and even gimbal-suspended escapements (hands-on here) to it. And yet, as briefly discussed above, the complexity of this “base” movement is already truly remarkable. Luckily, the Zenith El Primero Original 1969 comes with a sapphire crystal case-back, exposing the strikingly beautiful and indeed very technical-looking movement inside. The large, skeletonized automatic rotor runs on seven ball bearings, and sports a skeletonized Zenith star logo in its center, along with wide Geneva striping and some bold “Zenith El Primero Manufacture Le Locle” scripts engraved.
Once you look behind the rotor, machine-finished parts of very high quality are revealed. While the El Primero looks very impressive at first, one has to bear in mind that it was designed to be a tool, a device, a workhorse movement – and upon closer inspection, that shows. Comparing this Zenith El Primero to some other movements is like comparing a 4.0 liter flat six from a 911 to a roaring V12 from a Lamborghini: one was designed to work tirelessly, rain or shine, while the other is rather more delicate, finicky, and impresses in a more exotic way.