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There are many examples of movements being used by several manufacturers at once, but remarkably, the El Primero can make that claim about watches launched twenty years apart.
Zenith launched the El Primero in 1969 and immediately the watch proved to be an exceptional step forward for chronographs. The El Primero was the world’s first high-frequency, automatic, calendar-equipped chronograph, and it was the most precise, as it was the only chronograph capable of measuring stop times to the nearest tenth of a second.
It also introduced a brand new aesthetic, which to this day remains Zenith’s signature. The most common and well-known chronographs at the time favoured contrasting dials as these made the registers more legible.
0 Women's Running Matte 1 Silver Guresu Black White Reebok Shoe But Zenith anticipated the move towards more eccentric patterns in the 1970s. The El Primero relied on three colours (blue, light grey and dark anthracite) to distinguish the overlapping sub registers, a look that is immediately recognizable to collectors today.
Reference A386 introduced a few other El Primero staples, such as the red chronograph hand and its distinctive rectangular luminous indicator, as well as the black-tipped hour and minute hands, but the watch’s main selling point was, and still is, its movement.
Zenith produced the reference for approximately two years, but the movement (known internally as calibre 3019 PHC, and used in other Zenith models) was highly regarded among the Swiss watchmaking elite, and when Rolex decided to make an automatic Daytona, following 25 years of manual wound references, the company came knocking on Zenith’s door. The El Primero was just what Rolex had been looking for, although some adjustments would be made before it could be fitted inside a Daytona.
The problem was that Zenith no longer made the El Primero movement, or any mechanical movement for that matter. The company had condemned the production of all movements during the quartz revolution and they were so confident about the shift in the market that they asked employees to get rid of all the tools required to build the El Primero. Luckily, one man disobeyed that order.
Charles Vermot, a specialist who helped develop this calibre, came to Zenith’s rescue by revealing he had hidden the equipment in the manufacture's attic. A few months later, the movement was back in production. Zenith went on to make hundreds of thousands of movements for Rolex, which not only kept the company afloat, but gave work to all of the town’s men and women.
Today, no one can argue the El Primero isn’t one of the most significant watch launches of the 20th century, and the fact that you can pick one up in original condition, with box, papers and hang tag at a reasonable price presents a fantastic opportunity for anyone getting into vintage watches.
This is an iconic calibre, housed inside an attractive a contemporary-looking chronograph that comes in the perfect size, in our opinion. The fact it comes with the original Gay Frères ladder bracelet takes it to another level.
This Zenith El Primero is lot 41 of our upcoming Winning Icons sale, taking place on October 26 in New York.
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