In the pantheon of iconic timepieces, the El Primero takes its place among the most the coveted and reputable chronographs – something that Swiss watchmaker Zenith is cognizant of. The El Primero made a splash when it first debuted back in 1969 for its high frequency performance (36,000 beats per hour) derived from its automatic winding mechanism. Louis Nardin in his book “The Magic of Watches” described it as a “revolution at (the) time,” but rued that it “disappeared from the market shortly after being launched for industrial and economic reasons.”
What didn’t disappear was the El Primero’s imprint on the watch scene, which no doubt contributed to Zenith’s reputation for being a legitimate chronograph heavyweight. The model reappeared in 1984. The story goes that the Rolex wanted to “modernize its Daytona model and El Primero calibre,” but was too costly and Zenith couldn’t invest the kind of money needed. This however paved the way for the resumption of the El Primero production which assumed several calibre variations before its 50th-anniversary incarnation.
In an exclusive Zoom interview with Calibre Magazine, Zenith CEO Julien Tornare shows the El Primero’s past and present – particularly the Chronomaster Sport with the El Primero Calibre 3600 conducting its orchestra. Let’s get to the bottom line from Julien, who avers: “We feel that big fans of watches who know the watchmaking industry and Zenith… will see a revolution in the models.” For those without that kind of appreciation – or who don’t give a fudge, really – it’s still “a sporty, nice casual watch to wear.”
Encased in 41mm-diameter stainless steel, the Chronomaster Sport features a black ceramic bezel with markings so you could measure 1/10ths of a second (more on that later), 100 meters of water resistance, and 60 hours of power reserve (up by 10 hours). Its tricolor subdials (an El Primero signature) make it stand out; in the dark, the rhodium-plated (with Super-LumiNova) hands and indexes should grab your attention.
Back to Chronomaster’s ability to tick out 1/10th of a second, Julien is immensely proud of this, pointing out that others chronos measure 1/8th or 1/6th of a second. How useful is that, really, he observes.
The arc towards reviving the Chronomaster began around the end of 2018, when Julien sat down with Romain Marietta, Zenith’s Head of Products. “Let’s bring back these key watches in our history,” Julien recalls saying to Romain. They decided on the A277 (which predated the El Primero movement), the De Luca, and the Rainbow.
Elements from these classic watches served as inspiration for how Chronomaster Sport now appears. “I wanted to restructure it,” he continues. “I wanted to bring back the Chronomaster collection to the top – where it should be.”
Barely a week after its reveal, Julien admits that the newest El Primero iteration has “been the craziest launch” the brand has ever had.” The morning after, executive’s e-mail inbox was flooded by inquiries (primarily from Asia). “It was a pre-order we’ve never experienced,” he underscores with a grin. To adroitly adapt to the new normal, the company has been developing its e-commerce platforms – starting with Europe in June, then the US in July. So far, they’ve managed to generate close to five percent of the year’s projected business just in those territories. “Weeks ago, we opened our WeChat boutique where we’ve been selling watches every day,” he reveals. But even as they wait to cover more territories with proper e-platforms, Julien wants everyone everywhere to know that they can reach out to the brand through its social media platforms and Zenith will do what it can to get the watches out to them.
“I want 2021 to be better than 2019 – and 2019 was a record for us,” declares the CEO. “I want us to go back to being a key brand; to recapture the high-end chronograph segment which is historically ours.”
So, yes, you could say that El Primero is about Zenith getting back to el primero status.