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The Zenith El-Primero

Zenith El-Primero possibly the first and probably best automatic chronograph.


The last time I wrote in Antique Explorer back in October 2006, I advocated the Omega Speedmaster due to its historical importance as the only watch worn on the moon. At the time I felt they were under priced, now 3 years later the models I advised buying have more than doubled in value, and some early models now having trebled in price.

This year I am going to recommend another watch to readers of this magazine. It falls into the same parameters as the Speedmaster in being historically important  and being of quality. In this instance you may not have heard of this brand or model.

Let me take you back to the 1950,s watch companies had just perfected the automatic wind wristwatch. After various attempts first by Harwood and then by others, they settled on the 5 bearing design by Eterna. Now their attention turned to making an automatic chronograph. That is a watch that as well as normal time also has a stopwatch function for seconds, minutes and sometimes also hours. These watches were already complicated so adding an auto wind mechanism was not going to be easy. By the 1960,s some watch houses decided to collaborate to achieve their goal. The front-runners were Zenith-Movado, and Heuer- Breitling. The race was now on to make the first commercial automatic chronograph.

In March 1969 Zenith launched the El-Primero (meaning ‘ the first’). The watch had 354 separate parts ran at 36000 vibrations per hour which made the stopwatch accurate to 1/10th of a second. Also due to its rotor design the movement was very slim being only 6.5mm thick. It also had a power reserve of 50 hours.

In the same year Breitling, Heuer and Seiko also launched their products to the market but it was considered that Zenith that was the best. In fact to this day there is no more accurate short period stopwatch, and it was 1999 before someone else had made a slimmer automatic chronograph. The El-Primero movement went on to be used by Rolex when they needed a movement to update their famous Daytona, which they used from the 1980’s to 2000 when they replaced it with their own movement.

Zenith has had many ups and down since 1969 up to 1999 when it became part of the luxury goods company Louis Vitton Moet Hennesey group. LVMH has helped raise Zeniths profile amongst discerning watch buyers. This year 2009 has seen the re-launch of the 40th anniversary El-Primero, which will create further interest.

The models I would recommend are the standard chronograph the Rainbow Flyback and the Chronomaster which has day, date, and moon phase functions as well as being a chronograph.

Onto values, an original 1969 model in steel can be purchased today for less than £2000, with later models being between £1200 and £1500. This year at the New York Antiquorum auction an 18ct rose gold Chronomaster model on a strap from the 1990’s sold for $9000, Sotherbys sold an 18ct yellow gold of the same model in Geneva for 8200 Swiss francs. At Bonhams this September a steel and gold Rainbow on a steel baracelet sold for £1440. I have recently sold a new old stock 2004 model El-Primero on a steel bracelet with its original box papers and dealers labels for £2000. I sold a similar model 18 months ago for £1500.

As an aside currently Rolex Daytona’s with the Zenith movement sell for £1000 more than the same model with a Rolex movement.

Michael Delage-Pandeli: 10th Dec 2009 15:20:00


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