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A Watch Brought Back From the Brink of Extinction

By Nancy Hass

David Chow. Styled by Victoria Petro-Conroy

The world’s first high-frequency automatic chronograph was introduced in 1969 by Zenith, a Swiss watchmaker founded more than a century before in the town of Le Locle. Unrivalled in timing precision (to one-tenth of a second) with a barrel-shaped tonneau case displaying a round dial with three charcoal-tinted subdials, the El Primero was considered a mechanical marvel; its chronograph module used an entirely integrated calibre, not just one bolted to an existing automatic movement. But the El Primero wasn’t on top for long: Just a few years later, quartz — an element that enabled watches to tell time even more accurately — threatened to make mechanical watches obsolete. Luckily, Zenith’s chronograph, along with the company, was saved when, in 1988, Rolex used the elegantly slender, self-winding calibre to power an updated version of its classic Daytona, which turned the movement into a cult favourite. Fifty years after El Primero’s debut, the company has released a timepiece that pays homage to the original 1969 model. Just two small tweaks were needed to bring it into the present: The hollow links of the original bracelet designed by the renowned Geneva firm Gay Frères have been rendered in solid steel; and there’s now a sapphire crystal caseback, the better to fixate endlessly on a timepiece that helped fine horology take a leap into the future.

Zenith El Primero watch, US$8,200.