The chronograph—that is, a stopwatch combined with a time display watch—has a long and storied history. The self-winding chronograph, however, has been around for considerably shorter. History converges in 1969, when several entities were racing to produce the first automatic chronograph; the winner in the public eye was Zenith, which revealed the El Primero in January of that year.
The original El Primero was remarkable not just for its self-winding capability; it also had a high beat rate of 36,000bph, which afforded it an exceptional level of accuracy. It was also quite a handsome specimen with its slim 38mm case, overlapping tricolour counters and red seconds hand.
Despite its ground-breaking debut, the El Primero movement was nearly lost forever. In the midst of the quartz crisis in the 1970s, and beholden to the then-owners of the company, Zenith was instructed to abandon mechanical watchmaking entirely; this entailed the destruction of the equipment used to manufacture the El Primero movement. Employee Charles Vermot secretly moved the equipment into storage instead; this paved the way for the El Primero’s revival in the 80s, when the movement was also seen powering the chronographs of other notable brands (most famously the Rolex Daytona).
It has been 50 years since that launch, and Zenith is paying tribute to this iconic watch. The El Primero A386 Revival chronographs (SFr19,900) are faithful reproductions of the 1969 original, which were ‘reverse engineered’ with a digitisation process to ensure a faithful reproduction. The movement is the contemporary version of the classic calibre, sporting 55 hours of power reserve—no mean feat, considering the high beat rate. Key aspects, such as the vintage sizing (the case is 38mm in diameter and sleek 12.6mm thick), domed crystal, tachymeter scale and date between 4 and 5 o’clock markers were also preserved. The only major change is the caseback now sporting a sapphire of its own, to better appreciate the movement within.
If anyone is wondering about the next 50 years of the El Primero, Zenith has that covered – this limited series of watches boasts a 50-year guarantee. There are three options of case – yellow, white and rose gold – limited to 50 pieces each.