There are a variety of classic watches whose names are often uttered with reverence and grail-like zeal by collectors who know and appreciate them. From the Rolex Submariner to the Patek Philippe Calatrava—with many, many in between—a watch is a remarkable window into the aesthetics, technology and even the cultural climate of the time and place in which its development occurred.
Far less common is a watch movement garnering the fame usually reserved for the timepiece it powers. And here’s where the Zenith El Primero steps in, with celebrity all its own thanks to its impact on watchmaking since its launch in 1969. As the world’s first automatic high-frequency integrated chronograph, it captured the attention of watchmakers and watch aficionados alike, foretelling its role as the singular watch movement in Zenith’s collection for over 53 years.
Master of Chronographs Exhibit in NYC
The Zenith “Master of Chronographs” exhibit tells the intriguing tale of the emblematic El Primero, which nearly became extinct during the quartz crisis. The impressively conceived pop-up, held at Phillips auction house in NYC (June 15 – 17), kicks off a worldwide tour whose future stops will include Europe, Japan and Dubai.
“We wanted to have a recap of the whole history of the chronograph,” explains Zenith CEO Julien Tornare, who says that Zenith’s broader role in precision timekeeping began way before 1969’s El Primero. “We had been working on this since the late 19th century. That’s why this exhibit will be traveling around the world—it’s a way to show we have this long legacy in chronographs.”
A number of rare timepieces are on display, and an in-depth tour of the exhibit is engagingly led by Zenith Product Development and Heritage Director Romain Marietta, who is impossible to confound when it comes to Zenith, its history and its products.
The experience also includes hands-on watchmaking clinics presented every hour, each lasting about 30 minutes depending upon one’s patience, steadiness of hand and eyesight.
A highlight of the exhibit, I think, is the juxtaposition of old timepieces with new, beginning with an exquisite 18-karat gold chronograph and minute repeater pocket watch from 1900. A selection of “Purpose-Built Specialized Chronographs” is representative of Zenith’s role in producing workhorse timepieces throughout its history for a variety of clients, including the Swiss Post.
The “El Primero: Arrival of the Modern Chronograph” section spans 1969 through 1972, with gold and steel wristwatches fitted with the then-new movement. Finally, new models in a section call “El Primero 3600: The Chronograph of the 21st Century” hits home the evolution of the movement and its significance in the current collections, which number four—Defy, Chronomaster, Pilot and Elite.
Marietta, who has been with Zenith for 15 years, says of the collections, “I think we are offering some of the most valuable watches on the market today. If you want a manufacture caliber with historical background and a brand with deep roots that has been active in many important fields, we are one of the main players.”
And speaking of current watch collections
The Geneva watch show Watches and Wonders, held in March of this year, saw two new Zenith collection extensions, both represented at the NYC exhibit: An updated Chronomaster Open was introduced in steel on a steel bracelet or in 18-karat rose gold on a strap—both fitted with the El Primero 3604. The Chronomaster Sport line now includes a solid gold version, as well as a two-tone steel and gold version. The “Master of Chronographs” display was first shown at that Swiss show before packing up and heading to New York.
Zenith Master of Chronographs; Phillips auction house, 432 Park Avenue; June 13 – 15, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.