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ZENITH is installed since 1865 in street of Billodes in "Le Locles", where George Favre-Jacot creator of the manufacture decided to install his workshops.

The movement was given the name El Primero, while its code name is 3019 PHC. The caliber is so known under the name "Datron HS 360". The brand required five years of technical study but its gestation was much longer.

In 1962, ZENITH started to write the technical specifications of its new chronograph which was initially thought for the centenary of the brand.

While the competitors of ZENITH tried to create a modular chronograph caliber, the engineers of ZENITH chose an integrated movement including a column wheel and a central rotor assembled on ball bearing.

The result was to lead to a caliber flatter than its competitors and in fact it was necessary to await the end of the Eighties when Frederic Piguet developped his movement 1185 and succeeded in producing a less thick caliber.

The history of El Primero accelerated about 1967 when the rumour swelled of a competitor project led by Breitling, Hamilton-Büren, Heuer and Dubois-Depraz.

Without being able to date it precisely, it is probable that the objective of a functioning caliber with 36, 000 vibrations per hour was not in the initial specifications and that it is under development that the engineers of ZENITH for some, come from other houses which had given up this technology, imported this idea at ZENITH.

Indeed, it circulates several theories. Martell had the technology and knowledge to make chronographs. Zenith absorbed the Martel Watch company and got the knowledge of the watchmakers of this brand. The addition of the experience of ZENITH and Martell watch was certainly important in the development of the new movement.

Zenith's engineers did not have real experience in the technology of the high frequency and thus of 36,000 vibrations.

Several firms had engaged in the tests and research to find the best function between the diameter of caliber and a the highest possible number of vibrations(the high frequency).

For the engineers of several brands in the sixties and during the seventies, the choice of the high frequency induced large diameters of the calibers not very compatible with watches bracelets but more in use for meters of sport.

Many gave up to remain with 28,800 vibrations. Engineers of Movado and of ZENITH were attracted very quickly to this project which in the beginning, imagined that these high frequencies would counterbalance the underestimated competition of quartz.

ZENITH had a number of assets to make a success of this new bet. After having purchased MARTEL Watch C°, ZENITH had reinforced its production equipment and had qualified personnel and especially of brilliant concepts of technologically powerful chronographs, but ZENITH had a handicap: the absence of automation.

The calibers 146 and 156 (14 and 15 lines)were manufactured by MARTEL WATCH and the 136 came from EXCELSIOR PARK.

It was essential for ZENITH to quickly go and to take speed its competitors by proposing the first integrated automatic chronograph caliber.

The brand wanted automatic assembly in its new caliber that it seemed to him to be a condition of survival in front the arrival of technology of the quartz.

With the 36,000 vibrations of El Primero and its integrated design automatically ZENITH thouht held the lead.

The innovations brought by ZENITH with the EL Primero are numerous.

The choice to preserve the use of the column wheel in a self winding movement whereas the majority of the other brands replaced this system.

The column wheel transforms the pressures exerted on the push rods into "mechanical orders" to start the chronographic function, to stop it or carry out the resetting.

Because of the very high frequency of the caliber and exceptional centrifugal forces which result from this, the traditional lubrication of the parts was impossible.

The engineers of ZENITH had to show their talent by developing a special system of dry lubrication ensuring a high stability.

The El Primero was and stays a great technological exploit.

It was still necessary to innovate to give to the caliber more than 50 hours of power reserve in spite of a space available limited for the barrel and 36,000 large vibrations consuming energy.

The new caliber 3019 PHC "EL PRIMERO" was presented to the press by ZENITH, January 10, 1969 while the competitor project will wait until on March 3.

In its version of origin, it is at the same time close and far away from El Primero from today. Near by the design and moved away by the techniques to manufacture.

The caliber drawn at the time, with the hand on the drawing tables is manufactured today by machines of high technology to numerical controls.

The history of El Primero which had stopped in the years quartz failed according to the legend to be completed at the end of the Seventies and it would be thanks to a clock and watch maker of ZENITH, disobeying the orders of the American owners of the time, while dissimulating in the basements of the vast buildings of manufacture, the machines to be stamped and the stamps of El Primero which the manufacture of this one could have been started again.

If this history probably finds some bases, it is not enough to explain the resistance of this caliber of exception the technological projection proof on which it had as soon as its creation, taken an incredible advance.

El Primero could have one second chance when after ROLEX was interested in El Primero at the end of the Eighties and ensured ZENITH an order book which justified to start again manufacture of it.

If ZENITH in addition diffused some specimens of its caliber to some re-elected marks, it is the crowned brand which was the engine of the revival.

ROLEX wished to make modifications to this caliber of high technology to adapt it to the schedule of conditions of its model DAYTONA but ZENITH fell under the continuity of the challenge launched in 1962 and improved its mythical movement by making it profit from new technologies of production and by continuing some the developments.

LVMH which indeed, acquired the mark in its clock making pole in 1999 in particular with with dimensions of Tag Heuer is engaged in the daring industrial bet to start again ZENITH whose growing old image did not emphasize the quality of the watches of the mark.

ZENITH had the knowledge to make clock making but encountered difficulties of letting it know. It was necessary moreover to invest in the production equipment if not neglected by the preceding owners at least insufficiently developed since a generation infrontof an increasingly hard competition.

Conscious of having acquired a jewel of the clock industry, LVMH required of Thierry Nataf to take up the double challenge on the one hand, to vacuum-clean the image of ZENITH and to reposition the brand and on the other hand.

Tourbillons, Open models, power reserve indicator, big date, split second are the complications which came to transform, supplement and perfect this movement of exception.

The clock and watch makers of ZENITH could not have anticipated that the brand would be able someday to give a new life to its caliber El Primero.

Imagination is without limits.

El Primero is today on the front of the scene of which it dominates the family of the chronograph calibers.

With its 30 mms in diameter for 6,5 mm of thickness and only 7,55 mm for the version with triple day of the month with instantaneous jump, this movement with with column wheel is one of most powerful on the market. It does not include less than 354 parts including 227 different in the most complicated version, has 41 screws and 31 rubies, and requires more than 50 points of lubrication. The caliber requires nine months of work in cumulated time, request for 5 to 50 operations per part, imposes 50 millings of various dimensions on the side of the bridges.

Twenty clock and watch makers are put at contribution for a movement and not less than 18 metals are employed.

The EL primero remains the only movement able to measure short times with the tenth of a second. Its "split second" version is its last great evolution but certainly not the last, and its history seems to have beautiful days in its futur.

(November 2004 - Images : ZENITH)

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15 03 2005