In 1969, the race to be the first brand to create an automatic chronograph movement was on. There were three contenders: a conglomerate consisting of Heuer, Breitling, Buren and Dubois-Depraz; Japanese powerhouse Seiko; and Zenith. The argument as to who won rages on today, but what is certain is that the most revered and enduring came from the last of the trio in the form of the fully-integrated, high-frequency, column-wheel chronograph with date: the El Primero.
The past five decades have seen highs and lows for the El Primero, including its near demise during the quartz crisis of the 1970s. At this time, Charles Vermot, an engineer in Zenith’s ébauches department, was told to dismantle and destroy the tools and technical drawings for the El Primero. Sensing that there would one day be a mechanical watch revival, Vermot carefully packed and stored the equipment in an attic space at the Zenith manufacture, before walling up the area. A decade later, when Rolex enquired about buying the El Primero movement, production of the movement could be resumed thanks to Vermot’s foresight.
To celebrate the half-centenary of this renowned calibre in 2019, Zenith hosted events around the world, which culminated in Geneva on 8 November when the brand’s CEO Julian Tornare, along with Aurel Bacs, Executive Consultant and Auctioneer of Phillips Watch Department, unveiled three new versions of the El Primero A386.
The new watches were designed with input from Bacs and Alex Ghotbi, Phillips Head of Watches, Europe and Middle East. The trio consists of a unique piece in platinum with lapis lazuli dial that was auctioned in aid of childhood cancer charity Zoé4life, 40 pieces in stainless steel with orange sub-dials and strap and 29 pieces in gold with a dial bearing the famous “John Player Special” livery of black-and-gold (the two edition numbers adding up to the symbolic 69).
“It was June this year when I received a phone call from Zenith,” says Bacs. “They said, ‘This is El Primero’s 50th anniversary and we would like to close the year of celebrations with a highlight: a one-off piece.’ They asked if Phillips would be willing to sell the watch. But there were two problems; the watch didn’t exist yet and they wanted our help to design it.”
Although not a designer, but as a lover of vintage watches that has sold thousands of pieces over the years, Bacs has developed a feeling for what works and what doesn’t, so with little hesitation, he accepted an invitation to go to Le Locle and spent a day with the Zenith team. After pouring through back catalogues and archival ephemera, the new watch design began to take shape.
Making an Excellent Case
“We didn’t want to just change a tiny detail, so we decided to go for a unique case material,” says Bacs. “We chose platinum as that was a material being used in 1969 while titanium or ceramic cases didn’t exist. The 1960s is also a time when brands were experimenting with stone dials, so we settled on lapis lazuli, which gives the watch an astral quality. We played around with colours for the lume to get the right shade of creamy-yellow, as if it had been applied in the 1960s and patinated. We made many subtle changes to achieve what we thought a dressy, one-off would look in 1969.”
“This special watch is our way to give something back at the same time as we celebrate El Primero’s half-centenary and the good business it has brought Zenith,” continues Tornare. “It was important to come up with something that Zenith has never done before and we decided on an El Primero in platinum. I give my commitment that we will never to do it again so it’s a real one-off.”
And the legacy of the watch is more than just as a unique creation: neither Zenith nor Phillips profited from its sale with 100 per cent of the amount realised on 9 November being donated to Zoé4life.
In the Metal
As for the other two limited editions, Bacs explains them with a smile and a shrug. “That day we had so much fun working on the platinum watch, I said, ‘What if we made another one in gold and another one in steel?’ Everyone liked the idea so we carried on for hours until we came up with the two limited-edition designs that were unveiled the night before the pièce unique sold.”
On why Bacs and Tornare were equally keen to make this partnership happen, both men have similar reasons. “Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo has taken amazing leadership in the watch auction business over the past few years,” says Tornare. “And they tell me that something is happening with Zenith. They felt it first with the Rolex Daytona with El Primero movement, and now they are starting to feel it in Zenith models.”
Bacs, who inherited his passion for watches from his father, also took on board his view of the El Primero as the ultimate chronograph. A man often spotted wearing the 1969 El Primero that he bought off someone’s wrist in 2014 (“I could not believe the man who always tells people to do their homework before they buy, bought a watch practically unseen in a dark room”), Bacs believes that although the El Primero has been somewhat bypassed, its time in the spotlight is approaching.
“It is the movement itself that is so special, so the appeal is more intellectual than visual,” he says. “But people are now recognising that the world’s number one, high-end, Swiss brand chose to use that very movement to power the most wanted, most emblematic wristwatch ever – the Rolex automatic Cosmograph Daytona – instead of developing one itself.
“As with a good wine, it takes time to mature. From a collecting point of view there is a community that loves Zenith and we’ve seen the prices go up year after year, but I don’t think we’re close to the end of this yet. Zenith El Primero is like an aircraft on the runway. When the tower says, ‘You’re clear to go’, first there’s a lot of noise but not much movement and then it starts accelerating, the noise increases, it starts wobbling and suddenly the nose lifts and it’s in the air. But there is still another 30,000 feet to climb and that offers fantastic opportunities for collectors.”
Most importantly, Bacs tips his hat to Tornare and his refusal to give way to the whims of fashion. “When you look at the Porsche 911 or the Hermès Birkin bag, their designs have stayed constant – it may be modernised but when a design is proven over time, you don’t throw it overboard. Because El Primero has not tried to please everyone at the same time, it is becoming increasingly important. It also has a fantastic, romantic story behind it.”
When asked prior to the unveiling of the limited editions if he would repeat the experience, Bacs replied: “Well, let’s see the reaction to these. If people hate them, I will go back to auctioneering because that may be a better use of my time than designing ugly watches.”
First seen in the metal on the evening of 8 November, and sold on a first-come, first-served basis, both the steel model priced at CHF 9,900 and the gold at CHF 19,900, sold out in 17 minutes. The following day, the platinum model hammered at a record-breaking CHF 250,000. Mr Bacs, your drawing-board awaits!