It’s remarkable how just one man’s actions can change history. As I wandered through Zenith’s recent pop-up exhibition in Singapore to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its pioneering El Primero movement, I was repeatedly reminded of Charles Vermot. Not only did he ensure that El Primero actually survived to celebrate its 50th anniversary, he also, conceivably, secured Zenith’s star as one of horology’s leading lights.
What a trailblazing year 1969 turned out to be: the first man walked on the moon, while the Concorde broke the sound barrier. It was the year when the counterculture movement hit its peak with Woodstock even as the Arpanet project, the forerunner of the Internet, was introduced. For the world of haute horlogerie, 1969 will forever be the year of El Primero, the first automatic chronograph in history. Seven years in the making, El Primero was an exceptional feat: an integrated caliber designed as a complete whole and beating at 33,000 vibrations per hour. At a very svelte 6.5mm high by 29.33mm wide, it even came with a date function. The world’s most accurate chronograph at the time of its birth, El Primero remains the most precise series made caliber today.
For all its pioneering status (see sidebar for more El Primero highlights), El Primero wasn’t an immediate success for the brand. Zenith came under new owners in the early 1970s and, beset by the Quartz Crisis, the management decided to stop production of El Primero in 1975. The following year, the company decided that all the metal presses and tools need to manufacture El Primero were to be sold for scrap.
Enter Charles Vermot, then the foreman of one of Zenith workshops and a specialist in chronographs, who protested the decision to dump the production equipment. Ignored, Vermot took matter into his own hands, secretly hiding the away the presses (150 of them, weighing more than a ton), technical plans, cams and cutting tools. Years later, Rolex approached Zenith: they wanted El Primero for its iconic Daytona model – can Zenith resume production of the caliber, please? Thanks to Vermot, Zenith could, paving the way for the success of both movement and brand.
Even now, nearly four decades after Vermot’s act of defiance that ultimately saved El Primero, the debt remains an unforgettable one. As present-day Zenith CEO, Julien Tornare, pointed out: “If he didn’t do what he did, Zenith would probably be a very different company now.” More than that, he said, Vermot had also worked on the creation of El Primero. “He was part of this very innovative spirit in Zenith, which is still an essential element of the company today as we continue to build for the future.”
While El Primero is not the ultimate creation of the Zenith, it was still instructive to see how the caliber has forged a path of its own. A Star Through Time, the pop-up exhibition by Zenith to celebrate El Primero’s 50th anniversary, which made its world debut at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza in Singapore, was perfectly illustrative of this, capturing the historic essence of the movement, from birth, through its lost years and subsequent resurrection, and to its current effervescence. Intertwined with El Primero’s story is that of Zenith’s and Tornare mentioned how the movement was a springboard into the future for the watchmaker. “In watchmaking, we are working on a very, very abstract concept. Time is incredible; it is all around us and, sometimes, we forget how special it is. What we want to show is that whatever happened in the past, defines what happens in the future. And I can say that El Primero today is helping me build the future of the brand.”
As for the future of El Primero, Tornare has little doubts: “El Primero will remain – it will evolve as it always has. We will keep the spirit of the movement but add improvements. We’re currently at El Primero 21 (the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Chronograph), which measures 1/100th of a second, but we’re looking beyond with our Chronomaster.” Tornare, however, has bolder ambitions for the 154-year-old Zenith: “El Primero is forever, and while it is probably the most famous movement in the world, Zenith needs the most famous watch in the world. We don’t have that yet, but I want us to create a watch that is at the same level as El Primero.”
Charles Vermot would definitely approve.