It’s easy to build a list of legendary watch models—the Omega Speedmaster, the Rolex Daytona, the Patek Phillippe Calatrava, to name a few. But rarely does a watch movement enjoy the same iconic status as the watch itself. Enter the Zenith El Primero automatic chronograph caliber. Introduced in 1969, El Primero has maintained its status as one of the world’s best and most accurate movements for fifty years.
During the mid-twentieth century, the development and successful creation of automatic chronograph movement became the next innovative goal. Breitling, in collaboration with Heuer-Leonidas, Hamilton/Büren, and Dubois Dépraz was working on it. Seiko was in the game with the development of the Caliber 6139 automatic chronograph movement. But it was Zenith (with their partner Movado) that stole the show with a working prototype at a press conference on January, 10th, 1969. Aptly named the El Primero (the first), Zenith’s movement was revolutionary.
El Primero measured 13.5 lignes in diameter at only 6.5mm tall. The caliber was highly precise due to the first ever use of a dry lubricant based on molybdenum sulfate. And the balance had a higher frequency with a pace of 36,000 semi-oscillations per hour (5 Hz). This enabled the chronograph to measure elapsed intervals to the nearest 1/10 of a second. Other calibers of the time were paced at 21,600 or fewer per hour.
In the beginning, El Primero was manufactured in two versions: Caliber 3019 PHC with date display and Caliber 3019 PHF with a full calendar and moon-phase display. The El Primero’s oscillator is less prone to gravity or vibration, allowing the movement to keep time with a much higher accuracy. And El Primero’s rotor has a higher specific gravity, meaning even the smallest movement of the arm provides energy to automatically wind the mainspring. Since its introduction in 1969, Zenith has created a record 23 versions of El Primero. And others took notice.
It was El Primero that made the Cosmograph Daytona a self-winding watch in 1989 after Rolex began installing their own modified version. Rolex continued to use Zenith’s caliber until 2000. And Rolex wasn’t the only brand to utilize Zenith’s El Primero. TAG Heuer, Dubois et Fils, Daniel Roth, Ebel, and Dunhil have all used El Primero in their timepieces.
But only Zenith has remained successful at maintaining a lower price point for a movement that has been raising the bar since 1969. This is great news for those who want to add a caliber to their collection that ticks at a faster pace than any other. But El Primero isn’t just a must have for collectors, it can be a great entry level watch. Some models begin as low as $2000, making them the perfect gift for life’s milestone moments: graduation, promotion, retirement. As always, DavidSWis here to assist you in finding the perfect timepiece, whether it be a Zenith or one of the many other legends.