Zenith’s El Primero automatic chronograph caliber — unveiled to the world on this date in 1969 — is regarded as one of the world’s best and most accurate movements. In this historical feature from our November-December 2017 issue, WatchTime contributor Thomas Gronenthal takes a look at its development.
The Defy El Primero 21 Chronograph debuted at last year’s Baselworld show and got quite a bit of attention. It’s the latest in Zenith’s long line of high-frequency chronographs, and adds a central chronograph hand that spins once per second to give you a readout to the closest 1/100th of a second around the dial’s perimeter. Powering this is a pair of high-speed escapements, one for the main timekeeping function and one for the chronograph (you’ve even got a power reserve indicator at 12 o’clock specific to the chronograph function). Technically, this is identical to last year’s releases, but with some aesthetic updates. The brushed titanium case is paired with a classic panda dial instead of one of the highly openworked dials we’ve seen previously. Overall, it’s a slightly more classic take on a thoroughly modern watch.
In Switzerland, toward the end of the 1960s, two coalitions of watch manufacturers were hard at work developing the world’s first automatic chronograph movement. A leading role was played by Breitling, which collaborated with Heuer-Leonidas, Hamilton/Büren and Dubois Dépraz to develop a micro-rotor caliber that was unveiled simultaneously in Geneva, New York, Hong Kong, and Beirut in March 1969. In Japan, Seiko was working on its own automatic chronograph movement, Caliber 6139, which was introduced to the Japanese market in May 1969. But Zenith and its partner Movado had managed to publicly announce the development of an automatic chronograph movement and show a working prototype at a press conference in Geneva on Jan. 10, 1969, calling its new watch the “El Primero” (meaning “the first”). This movement’s technological victory march was almost impossible to stop. It measured 13.5 lignes in diameter and was a mere 6.5 mm tall. A dry lubricant based on molybdenum sulfate was used for the first time. This contributed to the caliber’s highly precise rate. The power reserve exceeded 48 hours, which was somewhat longer than other contemporary movements. And the balance had a higher frequency than was usual in this era. The heart of the El Primero beats at a pace of 36,000 semi-oscillations per hour, i.e., 5 Hz, and enables the chronograph to measure elapsed intervals to the nearest 1/10 of a second. Most calibers in the late ’60s were paced at 21,600 or fewer vibrations per hour. The Breitling team’s Caliber 11 Chronomatic oscillated at a frequency of 19,800 vph.
Zenith has a serious pedigree when it comes to making high-frequency chronographs. This of course stretches back to 1969 with the introduction of the original El Primero, and while there have been quite a few other innovations along the way, the new Defy collection proves that the manufacturer is still flexing its design and engineering muscles to push chronograph technology forward. For those who might have found the earlier editions of this watch a little too sci-fi looking, this new version offers them a way to experience the movement in a more approachable way.
I have to say, the first time you activate the Defy movement and that central hand starts whirring around the dial, it’s totally captivating. Also, Zenith has done a nice job with the ergonomics of this watch, especially when the angular 44mm titanium case is paired with the matching titanium bracelet. Sure, it’s a big watch (there’s no getting around that), but it’s one that sits nicely on the wrist. Panda dials are hot right now – and Zenith clearly already knows this – so this addition to the collection makes perfect sense.
Model: Defy El Primero 21
Reference Number: 95.9001.9004/01.M9000 (titanium bracelet), 95.9001.9004/01.R782 (rubber strap)
Case Material: Titanium
Dial Color: Silver sunray with black sub-dials
Indexes: Applied rhodium-plated batons
Lume: Yes, on hands and markers
Water Resistance: 100 meters
Strap/Bracelet: Titanium bracelet or rubber strap