Zenith El Primero
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Zenith El Primero

The introduction of the El Primero movement was an unqualified triumph for Zenith—the literal zenith of their history, if you will—but the triumph would not last long. 

As (arguably) the first self-winding chronograph movement (hence its name), the El Primero was a horological game-changer. It was the culmination of five years of research and development, and was the first watch to integrate the chronograph within the automatic movement, rather than house it in a module that was sandwiched on top. Moreover, it was also a hi-beat movement, guaranteeing accuracy that was unparalleled—within 1/10th of a second.

Zenith wasted no time in getting the calibre ready for market. For this revolutionary new movement, revolutionary cases and dial colors were used. Variants like the A385 and its fumé dial, or the A386 with its tricolor chronograph registers, have attracted the attention of collectors with their distinctive looks and undeniable coolness.

However, despite the innovation that Zenith achieved with the El Primero, the sheer cost of developing and producing it crippled the manufacture.

In 1971, it was purchased by Zenith Radio Corporation—no relation.

As one can imagine, Zenith Radio Corporation had very little to do with watches. The company was founded in 1919 by two ham radio enthusiasts who met at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and bonded over their shared love of what was, then as now, an obscure hobby. But at the time, radio was a new and exciting medium, and Zenith Radio Corporation was poised for success.

It wasn’t long before Zenith Radio Corporation was the most recognizable name in American electronics, and with the emergence of television in the early 1950s, Zenith Radio Corporation added television sets to its arsenal. Soon, the company became the leading manufacturer of black and white sets in 1950, with sales topping $100 million. Furthermore, CEO Eugene F. McDonald was a pioneer in subscription TV services, which would pave the way for the rich and varied TV programming that we enjoy today.

By the late 1960s, the company, always seeking new avenues of growth, hit upon another new and exciting technology that was sure to revolutionize the watch industry: quartz technology. Since the Zenith watch manufacturer was struggling by that point, Zenith Radio Corporation purchased a controlling interest in the failing watch manufacture. The El Primero lived on… for a time.

Sadly, the powers that be decided that mechanical movements were on the way out, and decided to phase out production of mechanical movements in favor of quartz. In 1978, everything involved in the production of mechanical watch movements, down to the metal the tools were made of, was sold to the highest bidder. It was only thanks to Charles Vermot, the manufacture’s chief movement designer, that the El Primero survived—night after night, Vermot would hide presses, plans, and cutting tools in the attic of the Manufacture.

Nevertheless, the watches produced during Zenith Radio Corporation’s ownership are notable for their distinctive and futuristic cases.

Take this watch, for example, an El Primero Reference A781. Released in 1971, the A781 looks like it comes straight from a 1970s sci-fi blockbuster, with its bright red dial and blocky indices. Though only 38mm in diameter, the case is a chunky tonneau, and the large-link integrated bracelet makes it wear much larger on the wrist.

Produced in a run of approximately 1000, the A781 might not be as in demand as some of Zenith’s other watches from the period, but for a watch that combines a revolutionary movement with retro-futuristic appeal, it’s hard to beat.

Details

SKU: AS02282

Stainless steel case is approximately 38mm (excluding crown and pushers). Reference A781. Calibre 3019 Self-Winding Chronograph Movement. Circa 1970s.

Overall Condition: Case is in very good condition overall with moderate signs of use and wear. Dial is in very good condition with some signs of age. Signed crown.

Includes one 22mm Zenith wide-link bracelet.

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