On January 10, 1969, traditional Swiss manufacturer Zenith earned their place in watchmaking history. That was the day Zenith proudly introduced the world’s first automatic chronograph caliber: the El Primero. Zenith had barely outpaced Seiko and the Chronomatic group consisting of Breitling, Heuer, Hamilton, and Büren in the race to create the first automatic chronograph.
The original movement, the 3019 PHC, is considered a technical masterpiece and still forms the basis of the El Primero family of calibers to this day. While the competitors from the Chronomatic group relied on a separate module, Zenith’s chronograph function is integrated seamlessly into the movement. This made the El Primero slimmer than most hand-wound chronographs of the era. The first El Primero boasted a column wheel and a date display; however, what made it truly impressive was its high frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour (vph), thus enabling the movement to measure to within 1/10 of a second.
Zenith has been improving upon the movement ever since. Versions with perpetual calendars, moon phase displays, and large dates, among other complications, have been added to the lineup. Moreover, Zenith introduced silicon components for the oscillation and escapement systems, making the watches impervious to magnetic fields and temperature fluctuations. You can find the El Primero in nearly every chronograph Zenith has produced since 1969. The most famous is the Chronomaster series of watches. Variants of the El Primero movement also power watches in the Defy 21 and Pilot Type 20 collections.
Zenith isn’t the only brand to appreciate the benefits of the El Primero caliber, however. The movement is also used in chronographs from TAG Heuer and Dunhill. In fact, the popular Rolex Daytona was powered by a modified El Primero from 1988 to around 2000.
The Beloved Chronomaster El Primero
The most popular El Primero watches are found in the Chronomaster series. One example is the Chronomaster El Primero ref. 03.2150.400/69.C713. The look of this watch is reminiscent of models from the early 1970s. Its stainless steel case measures a slim 38 mm in diameter. The silver dial has a subtle sunburst pattern, applied indices, a black minute track, and a tachymeter scale on its bezel.
The characteristic overlapping subdials are located at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. Each is a different color: The minute and hour counters are blue and black, while the small seconds shines in a silvery gray. In line with historical models, the date window sits at 4:30.
If 38 mm is too small for your liking, check out the Chronomaster El Primero ref. 03.2040.400/69.C494. This watch has a similar aesthetic to its sister model but has a larger, 42-mm case. The boost in size offers a more spacious dial, which allows the date to move beneath the hour counter at 6 o’clock.
Chronomaster El Primero With a Big Date and Open Face
You can also find fully or partially skeletonized watches in the Chronomaster series. One such watch is the Chronomaster El Primero Open ref. 03.2040.4061/69.R576. The size and dial layout are similar to the ref. 03.2040.400/69.C494 mentioned above, but in place of the small seconds subdial, you’ll find a cutout extending from 9 to 11 o’clock. This gives the wearer a clear view of the balance and escapement systems at work.
If you’re curious to see even more of the movement, you should take a closer look at the Chronomaster El Primero Grande Date Full Open ref. 03.2530.4047/78.C813. This watch does away with a dial completely. The movement is framed by nothing more than a minute track with applied indices. As the name suggests, Zenith equips this watch with a large date display between 1 and 2 o’clock. While the hour counter at 6 o’clock is replaced by a moon phase display, the 30-minute counter and small seconds remain at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions, respectively.
El Primero With a Complete Calendar and Flyback Function
The Chronomaster models from the late 1990s and early 2000s are particularly popular among El Primero enthusiasts. A graduated bezel and Roman numerals add an elegant touch to these watches. The timepieces are powered by a chronometer-certified El Primero from the 410 series, which provides the watches with a complete calendar and moon phase display.
A good example from this series is the Chronomaster El Primero Complete Calendar ref. 01.0240.410. Its silvery-white dial features a 30-minute counter and small second at 3 and 9 o’clock, respectively. There’s also a 12-hour counter and moon phase display at 6 o’clock. The date window sits between 4 and 5 o’clock, and the day of the week and month are located at 2 and 10 o’clock, respectively.
The Chronomaster El Primero Flyback ref. 03.1240.4001 looks confusingly similar to the Triple Calendar model; however, the dial features fine guilloché engraving. The watch also boasts a flyback function, meaning you can time intervals without having to stop and reset the chronograph.
Defy: The El Primero for the 21st Century
In 2017, nearly 50 years after the first El Primero caliber debuted, Zenith launched a completely new movement: the C 9004. Also known as the El Primero 21, this movement once again proved Zenith’s ability to raise the bar when it comes to mechanical chronograph calibers. Thanks to new separate oscillation and escapement systems, the chronograph beats at a record-setting 360,000 vph and can time to within 1/100 of a second.
The new movement is used in the Defy El Primero 21 line. These watches feature a modern 44-mm case made of gold, titanium, ceramic, or carbon. A skeletonized dial and a sapphire crystal case back showcase the movement from all angles. Once you set the chronograph in motion, you can watch the escapement vibrate and the central chronograph seconds hand whirl around the dial once every second. This is the hand that measures hundredths of a second. The actual chronograph seconds are displayed on a subdial at 6 o’clock, while the chronograph minutes and small seconds remain at 3 and 9 o’clock, respectively. Unlike previous models, this movement has a power reserve indicator at 12 o’clock.
Vintage Classics A386 and A384
There are many vintage watches with El Primero movements as Zenith equipped a wide range of lines with the high-beat caliber in the 1970s. Some of the better-known watches include the Espada, TV, and C-Case. However, it is the earliest El Primero models from 1969 that are particularly sought after. Collectors’ hearts beat a bit faster when they come across the refs. A384 and A386. The former has a striking barrel-shaped case, while the latter – the very first watch to house the El Primero – offers everything the movement is known for to this day: multicolored subdials, a date display at 4:30, and high-frequency precision.
Zenith re-released both watches as part of the Chronomaster Revival series in 2019. The watches came with the famous “ladder bracelet” originally designed by Gay Frères.
Price and Performance
The Zenith El Primero is a watch for connoisseurs and enthusiasts. Anyone who owns one surely knows the significance of its history and technology. There is a massive selection of models available, meaning there is something for every taste.
In terms of cost, El Primero watches are moderately priced compared to other cult chronographs. If you decide to buy on Chrono24, you can save a good deal of money. Current models are selling on our marketplace for 20-30% below the manufacturer’s RRP. A titanium Defy El Primero 21 ref. 49.9000.9004/78.R582, for example, costs around $10,250 on Chrono24, compared to the list price of $12,100. Likewise, you can buy a Chronomaster El Primero ref. 03.2040.400/69.C494 for around $6,100 on Chrono24, rather than $7,700.
Prices vary greatly on the vintage market. They range from around $4,700 for a chronometer from the 1990s, such as a ref. 01.0240.410, to around $13,500 for a well-maintained A386. If you are looking for an original A384, be prepared to spend around $11,000.
Zenith watches generally retain their value well, making them good investment pieces. That said, you should not expect exorbitant increases in value anytime soon. If you are looking for more significant appreciation, check out the Rolex Daytona ref. 16520 fitted with an El Primero caliber. The value of this watch has increased by over 100% in the past five years.