El Primero Historique, 1969
It was in 1962 that the basics of the El Primero movement first took shape on the drawing board. The idea was simple: to create an iconic watch that would be launched in time for the centenary of the Manufacture in 1965. The idea was simple, but the technical specifications were not. It was to be the first automatic chronograph ever. Better still, the caliber was to be fully integrated and designed as an inseparable whole. There would be no additional module, but instead a construction built around a column wheel and a central rotor mounted on ball bearings. It would also need to beat at a high frequency in order to be the world’s most accurate chronograph. To complicate matters still further, the movement was to be miniaturised and equipped with a date mechanism. All these factors amounted to an equation so complex that it would take seven years to solve it – four years past the anniversary date.
9 MONTHS OF WORK
MORE THAN 2,500 OPERATIONS
300 EXPERT HANDS
18 TYPES OF METAL
Christined El Primero – meaning ‘the first’ in Esperanto – the chronograph that was to have a lasting impact on modern watchmaking was presented on January 10th 1969. Its exceptional performances made it possible to develop and launch two calibers, code-named “3019 PHC” for the chronograph with date and “3019 PHF for the chronograph with triple date and moon phase.The innovation went beyond the exceptional mechanism, since El Primero also heralded new aesthetic codes. At a time when the trend was for tone-on-tone dials, the models sported an unprecedented range of colours, playing on contrasting effects to improve the readability of the counters: the lightest shade for the seconds and the darkest for the hours, with an intermediate hue for the minutes. The options chosen were light grey, anthracite and blue – a combination that would soon become iconic.
Over 40 years on, El Primero is still the most precise series-made chronograph, the only one capable of measuring short times to the nearest tenth of a second. It is also one of the most titled, having been honoured by numerous distinctions.
The evolved versions of this legendary caliber are now housed within a complete collection bearing its name. It takes an average of nine months to make a single watch in the El Primero Collection. A series of 2,500 operations are performed by 300 expert pairs of hands and 18 different metals are used. Technical feats of a legendary caliber Whether enriched with a “small complication” such as a minute repeater or with a mechanism as complex as the gyroscopic “Gravity Control” module, the El Primero caliber is distinguished by the spectacular cadence of 36,000 vibrations per hour, an integrated movement construction, as well as a power reserve that is exceptional for such a high frequency.
In performing 10 jumps per second, the seconds and chronograph hands mark off tenths of a second. This exceptional precision is matched by improved rating regularity, since the higher the number of oscillations, the smaller the variations in rate due to external factors such as gravity or impacts.
COMBINING A HIGH FREQUENCY
WITH A POWER RESERVE
OF OVER 50 HOURS
While the integrated El Primero caliber represents the noblest interpretation of the chronograph with a column wheel to coordinate its functions rather than a cam, one of the constructors’ most spectacular accomplishments lies in having succeeded in combining high frequency with a power reserve of over 50 hours. This is because doubling the frequency while maintaining the same inertia of the balance implies multiplying the energy requirement by eight.
The El Primero caliber has constantly evolved over the years, regularly enriched with additional complications, original mechanism and new materials. It now comes in 23 different versions. Impelled by its creative boldness and its longstanding determination to unite the full range of watchmaking skills within its Manufacture, Zenith will continue writing some of the finest chapters in the epic adventures of watchmaking for many decades to come.
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