Review: Zenith Defy El Primero 21
If you’re just getting into watches, it won’t be long before you come across the El Primero. Meaning, ‘the first’, it was the name given by its creator, Zenith, to mark the creation of the world’s first integrated automatic chronograph movement. That was 50 years ago—there’s been a lot of progress since.
The El Primero was born to a cursed life. It was to be the first, the original automatic chronograph, the final piece of the puzzle in the technological ascension of the mechanical watch. But a group of watchmakers—including Heuer and Breitling—got there first, by building an automatic chronograph in stages: first, the automatic movement, and then the chronograph module that sat on top.
Zenith lost out by mere months. Sure, the regrettably named El Primero was still the first integrated automatic chronograph—that is, designed as a singular unit rather than modular—but it came second where it really counted.
Things went from bad to worse as quartz technology swooped in, and after a buyout, Zenith was shut down in 1975. All the plans, all the equipment, were to be sold off—but not if disgruntled Zenith watchmaker Charles Vermot had anything to do with it. The El Primero may not have been first, but it was still the collective result of the hard work and passion of this once proud watch company, and he wasn’t about to see it liquidated.
So, Vermot hid it all, the plans, the tooling, the parts—everything—in the factory attic. Three years later and the company was under Swiss ownership once more, replete with a supply of unassembled El Primeros ready to go thanks to Vermot’s quick thinking. And this would be the saviour of the brand, because who would want to buy all these ready-made movements for their up-and-coming chronograph but Rolex?
Despite this good fortune, the new, automatic Rolex Daytona with its El Primero movement didn’t do so much to re-establish Zenith’s reputation as it did to overshadow it. This new Daytona would go on to command waiting lists that spanned years, set Rolex up for this new era of massive demand and little supply. Zenith needed a hit of its own.
It looks the same as the 1969 original—albeit a bit bigger—but the 2011 El Primero Striking 10th actually has a bit of a trick up its sleeve, utilising one of the incredible features of the original movement—one that Rolex actually did away with in the Daytona. A movement typically beats 28,800 times per hour; that’s eight times per second, not enough to properly measure a tenth. The El Primero, however, beats 36,000 times per hour, ten times per second—and that is enough.
This allows the striking tenth to propel its central chronograph seconds hand around the dial once every ten seconds, offering an extremely clear reading on the tenths it can accurately record. A silicon, double-layered clutch wheel with a hundred teeth, engineered to always be running for quicker operation, is lightweight and reduces wear on the mechanism. It’s an impressive piece of engineering for sure—but now Zenith has gone ten times better.
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the El Primero movement comes this, the Defy El Primero 21. Did you just get a cold shiver? Perhaps there are residual memories of something previously called Defy—try to shake those off if you can; this is a different kettle of fish entirely.
Right off the bat, there are no prizes for guessing who was in charge of Zenith when the Defy 21 was being developed. Mastermind of the Hublot turnaround, the LVMH group has sought the input of watch brand paramedic Jean-Claude Biver to bring some of his magic touch to Zenith, and with good reason—Biver is why Omega and Blancpain are still here, and not just pages in a history book.
His influence is obvious in the design, the hardened, industrial flavour a marked difference from the classic El Primero. You either like it or you don’t. Either way, it’s what’s on the inside that we’re here to see because it’s pretty ridiculous.
Fans of TAG Heuer may remember the incredibly expensive concept Mikrograph and recognise what’s going here, but for those who don’t, let me explain. The calibre El Primero 9004 in this watch is a movement that exhibits something of a dual personality. From the front we see the calm, smooth beat of the 36,000 vph balance wheel that tells us the time, as we’ve come to expect from an El Primero movement.
It’s from the back that Dr. Jekyll morphs into Mr. Hyde, because lurking within the calibre 9004 is another balance wheel, another escapement—in fact, a whole other movement. It’s wound independently with the crown, power displayed on the dial, separate to the main time-telling movement—which winds the other way or via the rotor weight. It remains stationary, unused, still—until its services are required. Then, the start pusher is pressed, and all hell breaks loose.
The reason the chronograph requires a separate movement with its own power reserve is because it’s a 360,000 vph monster, beating a hundred times every second. The central chronograph seconds hand on the Striking 10th may look quick rotating once every ten seconds, but the Defy 21 makes it seem positively pedestrian with a rotation every single second, ten times faster.
And not only can it do this all day long, it’s also more efficient in its construction than the original El Primero, with 203 parts instead of 278, and has an instant reset mechanism that can return the second hand to zero in a flash no matter where it stops. Most impressive, however, is that one of these can be bought for about the same price as the Daytona whose shadow it has stood in for so long. Perhaps now, with this, that could be about to change?
Progress in the mechanical sense is a strange notion, the pursuit of advancing a technology that really has no place in the modern world—but thanks to companies like Zenith, we get to appreciate it all the same. This is a spectacular commemoration of a company and an engine that has played such a decisive—if somewhat behind-the-scenes—role in making watchmaking what we get to enjoy today. Here’s to another fifty years of the El Primero!
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