Venerable Vintage: Zenith El Primero – a legend since 1969

Last week, I wrote about the first automatic chronograph(s) and it was concluded that who came first depends primarily on your interpretation of what ‘first’ really means.

With that out of the way, I’d like now, to focus on the one I feel – which is also generally agreed by the watch community at large – is the best out of the three: the Zenith El Primero

Zenith A384 – the first of the El Primero series introduced in 1969 with about 2,500 pieces made. Dial condition seems to be just about right and I don’t think that refinishing was done. This piece here is a real piece of work.

Let’s talk about the aesthetics first before dwelling into the history and movement.

Isn’t it just flawless? The triple register subdials in reverse colour are just so perfectly well balanced with not the slightest feel of clutter to it.

As always, much as I’d prefer to do away with the date window, it’s marginally forgivable by being in a corner of its own, as opposed to being over an hour marker. However, being in an off-centre position does throw the overall balance off that wee bit, but date windows and vintage El Primeros are mutually inclusive, so yeah.

Another A384. The dial has been relumed and polished.

There were a total of 14 El Primero variants, and all of them had vastly different dial/case configurations though the tri-compax chrono style remained consistent (which is a good thing, by the way).

This makes it a whole lot more fun to collect as opposed to, say, vintage Patek Phillipe perpetual calendars, which (relatively speaking) look pretty much the same and cost a hell of a lot more than an El Primero.

Ref A385 (2nd variant released between 1969-1971). About 2,400 pieces made. Unique colour choice from Zenith. The ‘rusted’ or ‘muddy’ dial works just fine for me.

Case size – which comes as a surprise for a 1960/70 era watch – is a sizeable 38 mm, which makes it all the more attractive for modern collectors with a general disdain for 33 to 35 mm watches – a common size back in the days.

4 pointed star seen on crown. This embellishment is also present on the casebacks of certain variants.

Amazingly, for all the chronograph firepower it packs, along with a date module, the case is not a thick chunky behemoth; it’s reasonably thin and should slip under shirt cuffs with ease.

Image via onthedash. Ref G381 in solid gold. 750 pieces made.

Fitted with a thin bezel, the El Primero wears larger but its straight lugs help to frame the case nicely even for people with smaller wrists.

Both case and lugs sport a brushed finish with fine faceting on all sides – a significant detail to watch out for when buying; over-polishing by previous owners might have erased the lines away.

Ref A386 – 2,500 pieces produced between 1970 and 1972. Widely considered as the iconic El Primero because of its beautiful tri-colour dial. Also the only (stainless steel) model with a traditional round case.

Aesthetically, vintage Zenith El Primeros are definite classics; it looked perfect 40 years ago and its perfection hasn’t waned since.

It truly is one of the best (if not the best) looking chronographs ever made.


Zenith was the first (among Seiko and Heuer-Breitling) to make an announcement about their achievement as the ‘first’ automatic chronograph watch in January 1969 and they had samples (though it was a very small number).

Image via onthedash. First generation of Heuer watches equipped with the Heuer-Brietling automatic chronograph movement.

Due to a lack of marketing and public relations effort, or rather, Heuer-Breitling’s overwhelming competence in said functions, Zenith’s El Primero never got the same amount of limelight as their Swiss compatriots.

However, taking all marketing fluff aside, the El Primero movement was a revolutionary effort and horological marvel, and remains as the only chronograph movement launched in 1969 to still be used in today.

Column wheel seen at approximately 12 o clock – rounded screw with 7 ‘legs’ orbiting its circumference.

The El Primero calibre was a hi-beat movement, meaning that it beats to a frequency of 36,000 times per hour, or 2 times more per second over the standard 28,800 bph, which translates into an almost gliding seconds hand, not one that ticks rapidly.

With such a beat frequency, wear and tear would be the greatest enemy, to which Zenith developed a special lubricant to fight against. An equally commendable attribute was the inclusion of a mainspring providing up to 50 hours of power reserve, as a hi-beat movement expends power much quicker.

Disassembled El Primero calibre. Mainspring barrel seen at 9 o clock.

Zenith also chose to use a column wheel in its chronograph module instead of a cam actuated system. Merits of utilizing a column wheel would be the elimination of the ‘kick off jerk’ of the chronograph hand when it is first started. It is also a more labour intensive option as the edges of each column had to be hand smoothened after the component is cut from CNC machines.

Modern day El Primero movement. Barring slight tweaks, it has stayed true to its roots since 1969.

Combined with the high frequency of its base movement at 36,000 bph, the El Primero could measure durations down to 1/10 of a second with great accuracy. In terms of quality and commitment, Zenith’s watchmakers have truly produced a remarkable timepiece that would stand the test of time.

Heritage and legacy

Being one of the finest automatic chronograph movements ever made, the El Primero calibre was not only used in Zenith watches; they supplied it to other watchmakers too e.g. Ebel and Movado.

Their most famous client? Rolex. And the watch? The legendary Daytona.

Arguably, the most famous sports chronograph ever made. The 16500 series introduced in the 80s used a modified El Primero movement. The main change Rolex made was to reduce the frequency to 28,800 bph.

The El Primero was also the only movement among the 3 introduced in 1969 to survive till today. Seiko’s calibre 6139 stopped production in 1980 while Heuer’s original calibre 11 went through an overhaul due to problems with its micro-rotor.

Therein lies another story of how this could have changed, and Zenith had one man to thank for the existence of the El Primero calibre today.

In 1975, at the height of the Quartz Crisis, Zenith, like many other Swiss watchmakers, believed that the future of watches was quartz. Mistakenly empowered by this belief, the then American owners – Zenith Radio Corporation – started selling the production tools necessary for mechanical watchmaking away as scrap metal.


Charles Vermot, a long time watchmaker at Zenith, did not agree with the company’s vision. Mechanical watchmaking was the pride of Switzerland and had deep sentimental meaning to its artisans; Charles wasn’t about to let it all go to waste.

Hence, he defied the orders and started stowing away the tools – an act which not only saved the instruments themselves, but also the future prospect of reviving the El Primero movement from complete destruction.

From the archive of Zenith: production papers for the escapement 

Sure enough, the crisis did blow over, and when Zenith decided it was time to shift back to mechanical in the mid 80s, Charles emerged with his hidden tools, along with the instruction manuals and production notes, and the El Primero movement regained a new lease of life.

Cost of acquisition 

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The first 3 variants (A384/385/386) had around 2,500 pieces made each. Production figures for later versions were in the mid 1000 range while solid gold ones had numbers in the low hundreds.

Vintage El Primeros are not ‘super rare’ and a couple do surface for sale every now and then, though fully untouched pieces in excellent condition come by less often, but they are still around.

Prices start from SGD 7,500 and move upwards to more than 10 grand, but rarely breaching the SGD 20,000 mark.


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