Zenith El Primero
It was once said of Ferrari that the engine was what
you actually paid for; the rest of the car was thrown in for
free. A similar vein of thought may be applied to the
watchmaker Zenith, whose El Primero movement could be
compared to a high revving Ferrari V12, such is the level of
its technical excellence.
Unlike Ferrari, however, which remains one of the world’s most widely
recognised luxury brands, Zenith is not a name with which
the layman would be instantly familiar. Despite supplying El Primero movements to Rolex for the Daytona line
until relatively recently, Zenith has never become fixed
in the public consciousness in the same way that some of its
This is no bad thing, however, as it helps to prevent
Zeniths from becoming the vulgar wealth indicators of the
nouveau riches that many upmarket Swiss watches have become.
It also contributes to the relatively (and we use the word
advisedly, as no Zenith can be termed ‘cheap’) low price of
the majority of its models.
The watch that is of particular interest to us is the El
Primero Chronomaster, which has been given its place on the
list both for its styling, which effectively bridges the gap
between sports watch and dress watch, and for the
magnificent piece of engineering that underpins it: the El
A few words about the El Primero, then, for those who are
not aware of its significance. In the late 1960s, Zenith set
out to create the world’s first mass produced automatic
chronograph. Unfortunately for Zenith, so did a group of
watchmakers comprised of Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton and
Dubois Depraz, who were able to bring theirs to market a
month prior Zenith's movement, which they had called the El Primero.
But whilst Zenith did not receive the ultimate accolade
that they had sought, the El Primero was, and is,
undoubtedly the more elegant movement. Beating at an
astonishing 36,000 vph, it is the only widely available mechanical chronograph movement
capable of measuring short time intervals to 1/10th second.
It is testament to the El Primero’s design that when
Zenith came under the wing of the LVMH group, Tag Heuer,
part of the same group, chose to base its high end calibre
36 movement on it.
There are a number of different Chronomaster models on
the market, but the one to go for, in our opinion, comes
with a basic stainless steel case and black alligator
leather strap. Follow this advice and you will have a watch
that will as happily accompany a dress suit at a summer ball
as make split second timing of cars’ laps at a motor racing
The case design is thinner than
dedicated sports watches, contributing to a feeling of
lightness on the wrist – itself a relief in this age of
weight seemingly being associated with quality. With its
triple step bezel and roman numerals it also possesses a
vintage quality, although not to such an extent that it
appears dated today or will do in the future; this, puns
aside, is a timeless piece of design.
So, if, like the Ferrari, the money that you pay for the
Chronomaster is for its beating heart, you are getting an
extraordinary deal for the rest of the watch.