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Why Is The El Primero So Admired / Loved?

  1. Jeff Stein

    Jeff Stein Jun 19, 2013

    OK, guys . . . so let's try a different angle on the subject of the beloved El Primero movements: Why do you believe that the El Primero movement is so admired / loved by enthusiasts? Is it:
    • the physical beauty of the movement?
    • the engineering accomplishment / elegance of the design?
    • history of Zenith, before 1969?
    • use of the movement over the years -- Zenith, Movado, Ebel, Rolex, etc.?
    • Charles Vermot story?
    • is the movement especially reliable / rugged / accurate / easy to service?
    I am referring to the El Primero movement and all its derivatives over the years -- from the first El Primero to today's versions.

    Finally -- can you think of other movements that are similarly loved, from other brands? And what would these most admired movement be?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Mauseuhr likes this.
  2. dsio

    dsio Ash @ ΩF Staff Member Jun 19, 2013

    I think its partly due to the elegance of the design, the column wheel rather than a cam and lever, the intricate layout of the movement, which almost seems as if it were designed to intentionally show off as much of the inner workings as possible rather than hiding them under large bridges or plates Rolex/ETA style.

    A calibre 321 is a beautiful movement, the chicken bone shaped bridge and elegance of the design just happens to make it stand out, much more than its newer Cal 861/1861 siblings or a Rolex Calibre 4130. The El Primero I think has that, its a looker, and one that ticks every one of those chronograph fan features. I think the exact thing that makes it complex and difficult to service is also the same thing that makes it special.
    Mauseuhr and andy_s like this.
  3. Gavin

    Gavin It's the quiet ones you have to 'watch' out for. Jun 19, 2013

    Technical stuff and history aside, El Primero just sounds so much more romantic and charming than cal 321 or 11.:D
    Trev likes this.
  4. MMMD

    MMMD unaffiliated curmudgeonly absurdist & polyologist Jun 19, 2013

    I "discovered" the El Primero while researching the potential purchase of a vintage "Zenith" Daytona... I ended up buying an early El P instead. Most American collectors need that kind of entree into the world of vintage Zenith, because of the European focus of Zenith's sales and marketing back in the Golden Age... thus the relative wealth of information coming from Italy (where Zenith has always been huge) and the brilliant Nicola1960. The story is of course spellbinding to many WIS's, and the movement is in many ways a pinnacle of mechanical engineering, but - ironically enough - I doubt that anything has done more for the resurrection of the El Primero and interest among current collectors than Rolex's validation of the movement (by using a modified version in the Daytona from 1988-2000), considering the weight of the Crown among watch buyers/collectors. It also helps that, because of the Daytona connection, most watchmakers who repair Rolex... thus, probably most watchmakers... are comfortable working on El P's.
    Mauseuhr likes this.
  5. LouS

    LouS Mrs Nataf's Other Son Staff Member Jun 19, 2013

    This from a reply to a question long ago on another forum far, far away about how I got involved collecting El Primeros:

    In answer to your question, more or less by coincidence. I stumbled across one by chance, offered by a clueless estate jeweler for a giveaway price and bought it on the strength of its visual appeal. Of course, I had heard of the "El Primero" at the time, but no more than that. Once I had the watch in hand, I started to educate myself (, and the more I learned, the more I found to like. There's
    1. the name, which to my ears sounded almost tongue-in-cheek, like a masked mexican wrestler (that's a positive to my sensibility)
    2. the great story and enduring controversy of the race to the first automatic chronograph between Zenith, Buren-Breitling-Hamilton-Heuer and Seiko
    3. the even greater story - as close to epic as a watch story can be - of the courageous single-handed Saving of the El Primero during the dark quartz years by the intrepid watchmaker Charly Vermot
    4. the amazing longevity of the movement itself - still in current production with minimal change 41 years after its introduction, and still among the best movements you can get
    5. the quality - sought after by Panerai, Rolex, Parmigiani, Concord and others for use in their own pieces.
    6. the instant visual appeal and variety of the watches themselves
    7. the chronograph + date function
    8. the high-beat chronograph seconds sweep - smoooooth. Maybe that's trivial, but I find it to be nice visual reminder of the machine within.
    9. the power reserve which laughs at lesser engines
    10. the amazing precision
    11. the reliability -- I am still in awe of this. 40 year old movements, at least two of which sat in a drawer for decades, all run at 36000 BPH with excellent consistency and power reserve - all you have to do is strap them on. I have 10 of these, and none have ever given me a moment's trouble (yet -- I know, but it still impresses me)
    In brief, layer upon layer of fascination that continues to unfold.

    Or it could have been my subclinical OCD.
  6. MSNWatch

    MSNWatch Vintage Omega Aficionado Staff Member Jun 19, 2013

    Subclinical? ;)
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  7. LouS

    LouS Mrs Nataf's Other Son Staff Member Jun 19, 2013


    Hey, I take my meds. No one wants to go back to the "Special Room."
    pitpro likes this.
  8. gatorcpa

    gatorcpa ΩF InvestiGator Staff Member Jun 19, 2013

    From the list provided, these are the two reasons that make the most sense to me. Rolex has long been the king of watch marketing and most collectors know that the Daytona used the El Primero movement. Big halo effect there.

    The fact that Zenith was well positioned with NOS parts to make "new" EP movements when mechanical watches began to become popular again also helped keep the name in front of the public, beginning in the 1990's. So Mr. Vermot is very important to the legacy.

    Another similarly loved automatic movements that I can think of are the Omega cal. 55x/56x, particularly the chronometer rated versions. These are the ones found in many Constellations and Seamasters of the 1960's.

    Mauseuhr likes this.
  9. Veritas99

    Veritas99 Jun 19, 2013

    For me, it's the fact that the brand (and EP) have been under appreciated by American watch enthusiasts. There are fully developed collectors' markets for brands like Rolex, Omega, Patek, and more recently, Heuer, but Zenith has flown under the radar (one could argue those days are numbered). The El Primero certainly received a boost from the association with Rolex, but the ability to own a piece of watch history that has withstood 40 years of service remains available for the average collector through Zenith. The value and style of the vintage pieces is currently unmatched. If you appreciate the craftsmanship of a manufacture movement, how can you not love an EP?
    Mauseuhr and MMMD like this.
  10. Jeff Stein

    Jeff Stein Jun 23, 2013


    Thanks for so many excellent responses. I am working on a posting that will attempt to synthesize some of the key points.

  11. andy_s

    andy_s Jun 25, 2013

    Here's a more general context/viewpoint I mentioned 'on the other side' Jeff:

    "The automatic chronograph is where I've settled in terms of watch collecting, for me it is the final last gasp everyday complication of mechanicals before the dark ages and eventual renaissance, a renaissance that was more concerned perhaps with the less utilitarian aspects of the watch and more for the jewellery/visual aspects.

    So the first considerations are obviously the first trio of Cal 11, EP 3019 and Seiko 6139; all of which have their merits and different traits. A few years after '69, there came the other two (IMO) important calibres; the Lemania 5100 and the Valjoux 7750 family.
    The Cal. 11 is important, but was quickly upgraded into the 'better' Cal. 12 as we know. I too like the off-side crown arrangement and combined with the dial art of Heuer there have been a few superb examples.
    The EP 3019 is perhaps the best example of 'getting it right first time' in watchmaking, a superb movement housed in equally stunning watches that are very evocative of their time.
    The 6139 is interesting from a historical perspective and although restricted by its 30min counter it included day-date and a wide variety of options - so many that it's hard to pin down 'the' one that represents best this movement. (For me at least).
    The 5100 for me is my main love, an integrated column wheeled Massey Ferguson of a movement, ugly and strictly utilitarian with no display back or pretence of fine art, just a pure machine with undeniably the most intuitive and readable chronograph display method. If you actually need to use a chronograph, then this is the one to get.
    The 7750 is the most successful, versatile and reliable auto chrono, a workhorse that has been used by many manufacturers - the 'go to' modern movement. In terms of collecting though its ubiquity and diversity lessen its 'specialness', unfairly, but for me there is little 'heart' attraction, but a respect for its success nonetheless.

    So, from a personal point of view, the EP and L5100 are top of the heap for me, neither without its detractions, but ultimately the ones I'm drawn to."
  12. ulackfocus

    ulackfocus What're u lookin' at? Jul 3, 2013

    You won't get any argument from me, but your comments might be sacrilege to some. You don't want to fly over Rolex territory!
    Mauseuhr likes this.
  13. LouS

    LouS Mrs Nataf's Other Son Staff Member Jul 3, 2013


    When you speak of "iconic", you have to distinguish between "expensive" and "of landmark importance." If you are suggesting that El Primero is well-known and sought after to the (relatively) unwashed masses because of the Daytona, there's probably a case to be made there. If you are suggesting that El Primero has its place in horological history because a dumbed-down version was used in the Daytona, that's laughable. The only people that the Daytona version of El Primero makes an impression on are the Rolex fan-boys you mention. Anyone in any kind of watch-know understands that El Primero established the grounds for its status a decade and a half before Rolex even thought of an automatic chronograph. Its claim to iconic status depends on three principle factors, namely 1) first integrated automatic chronograph, 2) high frequency and 3) date complication - maybe add in a little time to establish that it was also rugged, durable and accurate. Rolex stripped away two of these signal features of the movement and THAT made it iconic? Huh?

    El Primero owes one thing to Rolex, and that is the inflow of funds that allowed Zenith to resume production and marketing of the movement, and that's a debt that must be split with Ebel. If the Rolex crowd has fetishized so-called Zenith Daytonas, its because even dumbed-down, El Primero was better than anything Rolex came up with, and they are so blinkered by Rolex-vision as to fail to understand that they can get a superior machine for a fraction of the price.
    aap, STANDY, timeismoney and 7 others like this.
  14. Jeff Stein

    Jeff Stein Jul 3, 2013


    I am loving this discussion!! Well done on all fronts!!

    For anyone who might want to compare the beauty of the El Primero and the Heuer / Breitling Caliber 11, see below. We see the beauty of an integrated column wheel chronograph, versus a cam and lever approach, designed by a committee, literally. Now in terms of the look of the watches, I vote for the Heuers, but in terms of the movement, it's got to be the El Primero.


    sneer likes this.
  15. papaebetu

    papaebetu Jul 3, 2013

    I love both this nice chronograph, but for Zenith with El Primero 3019 the offer was more complete:
    classic, military and sport watches with same movement, remember that we was in later '60..
    That's my poor opinion, 3cents

  16. Mauseuhr

    Mauseuhr Mar 23, 2015

    Wow guys. Thanks so much for this great input.
    Highly appreciate this forum and to learn so much about passion, facts and history. Zenith is a brand which I loved as a teenager because of their super ugly (IMO today) defy models. Now being 27, I am currently trying to find my first 1960's/70's EP but struggeling to find an el primero at reasonable el dinero.
    What should I keep focus on while searching for the right piece? Any advice would be much appreciated as I just can't tell the difference between 5k-10k.

    What are your comments on this EP, see pics, the seller claims dial and hands to be original as the rest of it. I find it looks less colorful than for instance Ben clymers EP. Am I mistaken or is this just a different development of the dial?

    Thanks and please keep up this level of making it hard not to read every single one of your comments with heart and soul.
  17. oddboy

    oddboy Zero to Grail+2998 In Six Months Mar 23, 2015

    I haven't dipped into Zenith, but this is a great thread. Thanks for sharing guys.
  18. pitpro

    pitpro Likes the game. Mar 23, 2015

    Great Thread. Soaking it up here.
    I only have one, and I'm pretty sure it
    hasn't ever been serviced. It's keeping
    time 1-2 sec fast per day. Can't get
    much better than that. I was impressed.
  19. haga888

    haga888 Mar 24, 2015

    The seller is mistaken or lying. Might be original Zenith hands, not original to the watch. Case is polished and the tachy is probably service as well.
  20. jfwoodman

    jfwoodman Mar 25, 2015

    Ditto to nearly all of the above.
    But another simple thing that makes me appreciate EP's over my vintage Heuers (cal 11/12) - the quick set date!!! Such a pleasure to have that feature on beautiful early chronos.
    Edited Mar 25, 2015