The year was 1969, and one of the last great problems in watchmaking lay unsolved: how to make an automatic, or self-winding, chronograph watch. Though the automatic chronograph has become more common, at the start of 1969 they didn’t yet exist. Zenith changed watchmaking forever when they introduced the watch aptly known as the “El Primero” (the first) which was the first self-winding chronograph watch with a full-sized rotor for the automatic winding system.
The El Primero was revolutionary in more than one way as well: it was also the first automatic chronograph with a balance (the regulating element in any mechanical watch) to tick at 36,000 vibrations per hour–at the time, the fastest vibrational speed any watch could claim, and still a rarity today. (Fast-beat watches offer better accuracy, and in particular, fast beat chronographs can divide time into smaller fractions of a second.)
Two other automatic chronographs also debuted that year, but the El Primero is the only one of those three still available today–a testimony to its enduring reliability and beauty. Both are on display in the El Primero Open Power Reserve Chronomaster, which combines the classic case shape of the original El Primero of 1969 with an elegant window in the dial that lets you both hear and see the one of the fastest beating hearts in watchmaking: the balance of the El Primero movement, caliber 4021P. The finishing flourish is the power reserve which shows the number of hours (up to fifty) of energy stored in the automatically wound mainspring. A watch that made history, dressed to the nines–your heart will beat faster too.
The Zenith Open Power Reserve El Primero Chronomaster. Rose gold model as shown, $16,500. Stainless steel on strap, $7,300; on bracelet, $8200. All prices subject to change.
Jack Forster is the Editor in Chief of Revolution Magazine, a quarterly publication celebrating the world of fine watchmaking, and he also manages Revolution Online www.revo-online.com the foremost information and discussion site on the internet for watch enthusiasts.