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    Chronograph wristwatches have existed since the beginning of the 20th century (around 1912 or 1913 for the earliest examples) but all of them were fitted with hand-wound movements. In the 1960s, it was time for the chronograph to modernise itself, by adding the practicality and comfort of automatic winding. Watchmakers embarked on a genuine race to develop the first self-winding chronograph. Three parties started to develop their own project, each with their own merits and their own technical vision.

    • The Chronomatic was the project of a consortium uniting Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton-Buren and chronograph specialist Dubois-Depraz. It conceived the Calibre 11, a modular construction based on a micro-rotor Buren movement and a Dubois-Depraz chronograph mechanism.
    • The Seiko 6139 calibre was a 27mm integrated column wheel chronograph with vertical coupling and beating at 21,600 vibrations/hour (or 3Hz).
    • The Zenith – code-named 3019 PHC calibre – was a high-frequency integrated chronograph with a horizontal clutch. Better known as El Primero, this development was initiated in 1962 with the goal of presenting the movement in 1965 to coincide with the centenary of the brand. The calibre was also named ‘Datron HS 36’ at Movado, which commercialised the movement under the Zenith-Movado-Mondia consortium.

    In the 1970s, the post-war global economic boom came to an end. The new, accurate quartz watches gained popularity and plunged the Swiss watch industry in a deep crisis. Zenith was sold to an American company called the Zenith Radio Corporation. Aiming to market quartz watches exclusively, the Chicago-based company decided to stop the production of all mechanical movements, included that of the El Primero calibre.

    Charles Vermot, a specialist in chronograph movement construction had followed the development of El Primero since its inception and spent his entire career within the Manufacture. Knowing that the production of mechanical movements at Zenith was about to stop, he decided to store the essential elements away safely. Evening after evening, he began secretly hiding the presses (150 of them), the technical plans, the cams and the cutting tools.

    The news was greeted with great dismay by Charles Vermot, who had spent years working with Zenith and had followed the development of El Primero ever since the first sketches came to life. Ignoring orders, Vermot secretly hid all the equipment and tooling necessary for the production of the chronograph the brand had invested so much time and money in developing.

    During the 1980s, Zenith was able to resume the production of El Primero without having to redevelop tooling, first for Ebel – which would use El Primero for some of its models. This was instrumental in the decision taken by Rolex to replace the hand-wound Valjoux 72 powering its Daytona with an automatic chronograph movement. The Rolex calibre 4030, an El Primero with a modified regulator ticking at 28,800 vibrations/hour, a Breguet hairspring, a modified column wheel and a personalised rotor, would power the iconic chronograph for over 10 years until the launch of the Rolex in-house calibre 4130 in 2000. Apart from Rolex, many brands have equipped their watches with this movement. The list includes names such as Daniel Roth, Bvlgari, Panerai, Hublot or TAG Heuer…

    In any conversation about the history of time measurement, the name of Sir John Floyer - an English physician and author who made his life’s goal the creation of a tool that would measure the human pulse - will likely ring fewer bells than a minute repeater. And yet it was he, with the help of one of the greatest masters of horology, Samuel Watson, also from England, who created the first ever stopwatch, or to spell it out, chrono-graph. The physician’s pulse watch, as it was named, had a seconds hand and a lever which, when pressed, stopped the entire movement to enable a doctor to accurately measure the patient’s pulse rate. Both the seconds hand and the lever which stopped the movement were horological innovations. Introduced in 1690, the physician’s pulse watch was and still is the point zero of all portable timepieces that count seconds so that they can be accurately recorded.

    A proliferation of stopwatches and chronographs followed. Louis Moinet began working on his Compteur de Tierces (literally “counter of thirds”, a term used to denote one sixtieth of a second in a pre-decimal age) in 1815 and completed it around a year later in 1816. The next step came from Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec of France in 1821. He created a chronograph for King Louis XVIII, although less complicated than the Compteur de Tierces. By the 1870s, mechanical stopwatches were in general use on racetracks, at sporting events, and especially among artillery officers. Integrating the stopwatch complication into existing calibres was extremely tricky, and so it wasn’t until 1913 that Longines produced the first wrist chronograph. Breitling perfected the design in 1923 by separating the stop/start function from the reset function, through a combination of a crown and a single pusher at 2 o’clock. In 1932 Universal Genève added a second pusher at 4 o’clock for resetting. This would be the face of the chronograph.

    Three competitors in the race

    Several names stand out from this first period, with productions that closely resemble what we know today. Companies like Venus, Leonidas, Minerva, Martel, Excelsior-Park, Valjoux and Lemania produced outstanding chronograph calibres. Legendary wrist chronographs were born, such as the Universal Genève Aero-Compax, the Navitimer and the Chronomat by Breitling, the Rolex 4113 split-seconds chronograph, Minerva chronographs with the 13-20CH calibre, Longines chronographs with the 13ZN calibre, and aviation chronographs from Hanhart, Urofa and, later, Breguet and others. The apogee of this era was undoubtedly the most legendary and celebrated hand-wound chronograph of them all: the Omega Speedmaster, which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary.

    Even so, the Swiss industry experienced a massive decline in sales of chronograph watches in the late 1950s due to the ever increasing popularity of the automatic and waterproof watches now on offer. By 1960, the hand-wound chronograph seemed like something from another era. The solution was for the chronograph to modernize itself with automatic winding. Lemania had already produced a prototype automatic chronograph calibre in 1947, but it never left the factory; Omega directors are said to have deemed the project superfluous. Omega having lost its big chance, the race to produce the world’s first automatic chronograph fell to three competitors.

    Primus inter pares

    There is a before El Primero and an after, namely a brief but very real “chronograph war”. The competition intensified when the Heuer group quickly replaced Caliber 11 with Caliber 12 due to some teething problems. Lemania produced the wonderful 1340 and later the utilitarian 5100. Omega produced the awesome 1040 with a Lemania base and, shortly after, the chronometer-grade 1041. Valjoux riposted with the classic 7750. All these were fantastic automatic calibres that equipped fantastic watches. This was, however, an extremely difficult period for a Swiss watch industry in crisis. Many companies were put out of business and those that did manage to survive were forced to scrap projects and even vital production tools and machines. During this time, only a very small number of automatic calibres were produced in the country, which is somewhat ironic considering there were so many of them around.

    Zenith Revives The Gay Frères Ladder Bracelet With New El Primero A384 Revival
    JAN 13, 2020 —

    As the race for the first automatic chronograph movement drew to a conclusion in 1969, the watch industry at large was experiencing an explosion of creativity in case, dial, and bracelet designs as manufacturers sought to distinguish themselves from the more conservative styles of the past and from one another. Zenith, eager to highlight the revolutionary new El Primero movement with a distinctive look, hired esteemed third party bracelet manufacturer Gay Frères to create a one of a kind new style for the watch and the famous “ladder bracelet” was born. Today, we see that bracelet make its return on the Zenith El Primero A384 Revival Gay Frères bracelet-equipped watch.

    Inside the A384 Revival, the El Primero 400 automatic chronograph movement maintains the original trademark 36,000 bph beat rate alongside a robust 50 hour power reserve.


    Just like the super-faithful re-edition of the El Primero A386 – the steel one, part of the collector’s box, (the gold models are modern creations as this reference never existed in precious metal), Zenith goes for authenticity here. The idea is to reproduce just about everything from the original watch by adopting a “reverse engineering” approach, where every component is faithful to the original. Each part of the original El Primero A384 from 1969 was digitised for accurate reproduction, resulting in a truly vintage-looking piece – and not vintage-inspired.

    Zenith El Primero A384 Revival

    The case retains the same 37mm diameter and 12.60mm height as the original watch, which seems pretty easy, as both the old and new watches are equipped with the same base movement. While 37mm could feel small in modern pieces, it makes a lot of sense here and contributes to the charm of this piece. Worn on my 16.5cm wrist, the watch is superbly proportioned, reminding us of the comfort of these case sizes.

    Zenith El Primero A384 Revival

    The steel case is shaped and finished in a truly faithful way too, with its cushion shape, its polished facets and its radial-brushed top surface. Even though the watch reproduces that special charm of the early 1970s, it doesn’t feel fragile or outdated, as could be the case with certain vintage revivals. Zenith, however, has made minor concessions to modernity and the El Primero A384 Revival is equipped with a sapphire crystal instead of an acrylic glass and a display back replacing the solid steel caseback of the 1969 model. For the rest, everything is how it should be!

    Zenith El Primero A384 Revival
    Zenith El Primero A384 Revival
    The dial of the A384 has also been faithfully reproduced, without “faux-patina”. Don’t expect dark old-radium luminous paint on the hands and indexes. This revival piece is meant to resemble what an A384 was back in 1969. The matte, white lacquered dial features the same panda look, with black sub-counters and a tachymeter scale on the periphery and red accents. Hands, indexes and inscriptions are also very close to what was found in the original A384 model. Then again, the beauty of recreating a watch by using the same base movement is that the sub-counters remain in exactly the same position.

    Zenith El Primero A384 Revival

    For this edition, Zenith has also re-issued another iconic feature of its 1969 watches: the ladder bracelet. Formerly manufactured by Gay Frères, the ladder bracelet was uniquely shaped with open central links. Staging a fitting comeback, the ladder bracelet feels as smooth as the original but, on the downside, won’t be as robust as a modern steel bracelet. But we have to agree that it adds a lot of charm to this revival piece.

    Zenith El Primero A384 Revival

    Powering this Zenith El Primero A384 Revival is a modern version of the El Primero calibre 400, with several updates compared to the 1969 movement – mainly, improved reliability and better chronometric precision, thanks to tighter tolerances in the manufacturing process. Still, the movement remains extremely close in its architecture; it still runs at a 5 Hz high frequency and boasts a 50-hour power reserve.

    A384: Completing the retro look and feel of the watch, the A384 Revival comes with a reproduction of the iconic Gay Frères “ladder” bracelet that became a signature feature of many historical El Primero watches.
    "Flesh could not keep its glamour, nor eyes their sheen. They would go to nothing soon. But monsters are forever"

    “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.
    If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.
    As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide".
    Abraham Lincoln

  • #2
    A very interesting read! Thanks for posting this up, Mike.


    • #3
      Thank the stars, Charles Vermot disobeyed his superiors!