The El Primero is a landmark movement with a compelling story. Its history, including Charles Vermot’s intrepid preservation of the machine tools that allowed is resurrection, has been told elsewhere, and more than once, so I will not belabor it here. Although the first automatic chronograph movement ( I know, I know, Seiko and Buren, yadda, yadda – there are other threads for that discussion), and still produced in largely unaltered form today, it remains relatively exclusive, never having been broadly distributed to other brands. Integrated, high-beat, precise and durable and with a date complication to boot, El Primero makes it hard to find something not to like. To the extent that it has disseminated beyond Zenith, it has been associated largely with elite brands as Rolex, Panerai, Concord and others, validating (if it needed that) its qualities and virtues.
The initial issue of El Primero powered watches – Los Primeros Primeros, the first of the first, is distinctive and attractive. Combined with the history, I found them magnetically attractive, and for about the past year – a blink of an eye in watch collecting – they have formed the core of my collecting ambitions. What follows are observations accrued while collecting these, for your interest, information and feedback. All opinions expressed are solely those of the author, etc, etc. To the best of my ability, I have identified sources for the images. Also, I’m restricting most of my commentary to the watches I’ve actually had a chance to handle.
Regarding my credentials, I have none other than interest and curiosity. Onwards.
First step in collecting El Primeros: Buy a Rössler. Manfred Rössler’s Zenith is simply indispensable to this as to other Zenith-related pursuits, containing production dates and numbers, images of examples and on and on and on. My principal criticism with respect to the early El Ps has to do with the choice of a woefully over-polished example of an A 3818 to illustrate the model (p 247 – the one used for the cover is much better), and the lack of illustrations of certain low-production models, particularly the rarer gold-cased models. In almost every detail regarding the early El Ps, I have found the book reliable and accurate. It is also well-bound and so far has not fallen apart with repeated consultation.
In addition to Rössler, I have found the following internet articles to be interesting and somewhat helpful. Many of them are in other languages, and non-speakers can frequently get the gist with the help of a translator program.
1. ZEN is the moderator of the French Zenith forum at Forum a Montres, itself a tremendous resource, not least for the tidbits of Zenith history he throws out, if you read French (Connexion). He has his own stand-alone website devoted the El P, in English no less. It has scans of the images from Rössler as well as other useful material. zenithelprimero
2. More history? – I have enjoyed the rather lengthy treatment given to the topic by Nicola1960 in Italian: Zenith "El Primero": la nascita, il salvataggio, la riscoperta
3. Why a Spanish name? – no it’s not Esperanto – a myth given out by Zenith itself from time to time. So why Spanish? It’s only natural that this would preoccupy the Spanish watch forum. This thread initiated by Mickelson rather thoroughly debunks the Esperanto thing and proposes some thoughts on the name. Zenith "El Primero"
4. Last but not least, I highly recommend assiduous reading of this very forum. It is where I have gotten the majority of my Zenith education, and has some shockingly well informed and experienced members.
II. The Market.
Discussing values is always tricky, because a watch is worth what someone is willing to pay for it, as has often been written. My impression is that the market for the early El P remains relatively accessible given the status of the movement. That might be a surprising remark, because they are not cheap – I don’t think you can get a decent piece of any model much south of $1500 – but compare with the early calibre 11. A decent original dial Monaco for less than $6-7K would be considered a bargain not to pass up, and cal. 11 or 12 Carreras, Autavias or Silverstones regularly post upwards of $3K. The whole Heuer world shows me what a well-established collecting infrastructure can mean, with such terrific resources as Jeff Stein’s On the Dash, and a steady flow of historic reissues and support from the manufacturer. And between us, I have no doubt which is the better movement!
Compared with Heuer, Breitling and other chronograph manufacturers, Zenith remains virtually unknown in the United States, no doubt from a long-time conflict with the electronics company (and Zenith’s former owner) over advertising. This is a boon for the collector, and the vigilant can still find an unsuspecting seller here or there, putting an El Primero on the market for a derisory price (Why people post items on Ebay as “Buy It Now” I will never understand).
That said, the movement is by no means obscure, and I think we’ve all sensed renewed vigor from the manufacture under M. Dufour’s direction. My prediction is that the early El Primeros will continue to rise in value, especially if Zenith’s new models continue to draw on the historical ones for design inspiration.
I won’t address actual value in detail, as this is highly variable. Furthermore, deals are few and far between, so there is simply not enough N to arrive at any kind of reliable generalization. I think it is possible to address relative value however. Below, I have attempted to arrange the models in terms of relative value, condition being equal, based on what I have seen in the past year, and discarding outliers like the ‘uninformed seller” items. My sense of the range across this classification: the best A’s are north of $4000, acceptable E’s are around $1500.
A: A 386
B: A 3817, A 3818
C: A 384
D: A 385, A 788
E: A 787
A note about Branding. Zenith appears to have cross-branded a few pieces destined for the North American Market as “Movado” even though they are in all other respects pure Zenith models. Movado branding appears to significantly decrease value, despite the fact that these models are mechanically identical. Branding appears oncrowns, dials, rotors and chronograph bridges.
Happily, I’ve never seen any outright fake El Primeros – after all, they’d be pretty hard to create de novo given the distinctive cases and dials and the inimitable El P itself. However, there are plenty of watches that have undergone various degrees of substitution. What constitutes acceptable substitution will vary from collector to collector. Personally, I draw the line at crowns, and I consider the hands, especially the chrono seconds sweeper with the rectangular lume paddle, essential to the El P (and period Zenith) DNA. In rough order of frequency from common to rare, substitutions occur as follows:
Hands (especially subdial and chrono seconds)
Bezels (substituted or removed)
Movements (more recent El Primeros e.g cal 400)
Crown: This is the correct crown for this model line in steel.
But one often sees this one which post-dates these models
To me, the substitution is not offensive, but if you are a strict purist….Gold models appear to be originally equipped with Star-Z crowns, and in fact, I have never seen a four pointed star in gold (Correction, courtesy of j-luc, such crowns do exist).
Hands. The chrono second hand, with its distinctive lume paddle, is also commonly replaced, and these are impossible to source. It is not clear to me whether there is a special vulnerability here, but I have had trouble with the chrono second hand becoming loose after a service.
Subdial hands are also very commonly substituted, sometimes more harmoniously than others.
Caseback: There appear to be two correct casebacks for the angled tonneau and the round case. By far the most common is the12-sided polygon containing four pointed star with the case number, in the form of ###X###, where X= the letter D or E.
Inside, there is perlage finish with
1. the word Zenith underlined by the lower limb of the first letter “Z” at the 12 o’clock position or, in later models the combined M and Z in the diamond of the Zenith Movado group
2. “ACIER INOXYDABLE” in block caps at the 9 o’clock
3. “SWISS MADE” in block caps at the 3 o’clock
4. variably “ SP 1205,” “SP 1301” or “SP 1301-1”at the 6
Interestingly, there also appears to be a plain caseback which I believe was available for watches when the buyer wanted to inscribe the back. This also has a 12 sided polygon, but has no star. Initially, I thought these were substitutions until I saw two with appropriate serial numbers. Note that these do not say “SUPER SUBSEA.” I believe the ones that are so inscribed really are substitutions from another model.
Dial. The specifics of each model are dealt with in a followup post. This is only to note that one almost never sees refinishes as one does in other watches, for the obvious reason that these colorful and intricate dials are extremely challenging to refinish. One does see substitutions and alterations being passed off as the real thing, about which more below. This forum has discussed the use of dials from the 2009 New Vintage 1969 in old cases (see https://forums.watchuseek.com/showthr...ranken-primero) to create franken “NOS” pieces. A comparison between new and old dials may be found elsewhere. (see https://forums.watchuseek.com/showthr...hlight=comparo)
Movement. The El P found in these watches is the 3019 PHC or PHF. According to Rossler, we might occasionally find the intermediate 40.0 labeling – I’ve not seen it. Anything other than that is a later substitution. As later model El Primeros fit without difficulty, this can and does happen. I’m not sure I blame the substituter – I’d have a hard time letting one of these watches die if the 3019 PHC gave out on me and was not repairable.
Example of an A 386 with a substituted movement
The movements come with 31 jewels or 17 jewels, the latter being for the American market, which levies higher import duties on watches with more than 17 jewels. I do not know which jewels were omitted in these models. The 17 J models are usually also labeled unadjusted for the same reason. Jewels count is should be clearly indicated on the rotor and the chronograph bridge. Beware for rotors are easily changed, so I would regard the bridge labeling as more definitive.
The chronograph bridge should be labeled as follows:
Movements without “Zenith” on the chrono bridge, or “Swiss” in place of “Zenith” exist. I hypothesize that these may be repair pieces or movements meant for Movado watches, either Movado-labeled Zeniths or Movado Datrons (or Datachrons – same model). I have run into more than one seller who shows the picture of the movement with the rotor obscuring the writing on the winding bridge, which bothers me not so much for the lost info (a 3109 PHC is a 3019 PHC, and the only aspect that really matters to me is the jewel count, which I believe to be relevant in a 40 year old movement) but for the sense it gives me that a seller is trying to be deceptive.
Issues of wear come up often regarding the 3019 PHC, the concerns coming from the high beat rate of the movement and unknown service histories. I haven’t had these watches long, but of the dozen vintage Primero movements I have, all worn with some regularity, I have not had any mechanical failures. At least two of these have been sitting in a drawer for about 40 years. Most have not had a service within 5 years. Certainly, some of them are not quite up to the Primero’s usual consistency and accuracy, but I am correcting that one by one as these go off for service.
To be continued (Part 2: https://forums.watchuseek.com/f27/pre...ml#post3217351)