1969 was an important year for the watch industry. As most of you probably know, this was the year of the automatic chronograph. Three companies came out with an approach to this complication. The Heuer/Breitling/Buren Cal 11 was the ingenious entry, placing a specially-crafted module on top of a Buren 1281 Intramatic. The Seiko was the simple entry, focusing on economy of manufacture and keeping it spare with only one minute-recording subdial and no small seconds. Zenith, on the other hand, unleashed the El Primero. A fully integrated, high-beat automatic 3-register chronograph with a quickset date. The El Primero may not have been the first, but it was definitely the most sophisticated.
1969 was also the year that watch design exploded. Round, subdued designs gave way to different case shapes and lots of color. The most memorable watch from 1969 was the Heuer Monaco. TV case watches like the Monaco may seem classic today, but at that time, they were the epitome of futurism.
Zenith’s response to the TV case chronograph came out in 1972. The El Primero TV case was a design tour-de-force. It’s a two-tier rounded rectangle with a brilliant blue dial, and a flat mineral crystal. The pushers are actuated by a rectangular bar that pivots under the crown. Round pushers would have looked so old-fashioned on a square case. The bracelet is integrated, a big new idea of the 70’s. Unlike the complex compression-fit caseback of the Monaco, the El Primero TV case uses a standard, round screwback.
All of this high design makes for an interesting and heavy slab of a watch. It’s a much more refined look than the Monaco, and with the nicely weighted integrated bracelet, made by Chaterlain, it’s relatively comfortable to wear.
The bracelet deserves some discussion. Chaterlain was a small company that made bracelets for many of the big manufacturers. The Breitling Transocean is another popular watch with this bracelet. The heavy, solid links are held together with beefy spring bars. The clasp is a two piece affair with two settings, to allow for some fluctuation in the wearer’s wrist size. Unfortunately, Chaterlain went out of business sometime in the mid-70’s. The remainder of El Primero TV Case watches used a much lighter bracelet made by NSA. Still nice, it lacks the solid feel and counterweight of the original.
This case houses the 3019PHC El Primero movement. This movement is very nice, but also very complicated. Just as an example, five different kinds of oil were specified for lubrication. When the El Primero is working, the chrono seconds hand moves very deftly, as it is ticking at an alarming rate of 36000bph. Two things to check for are a low power reserve, which can indicate service is needed and the setting mechanism. If there is not a strong click between setting, date setting and winding positions, there could be some broken parts in there.
There are a few variations of this watch to keep things interesting. Due to a conflict with the Zenith television company, early U.S. market examples were branded Movado, which was part of the same conglomerate at the time. By the later 70’s, the Zenith television company had bought the watch company, so there was no need for the alternative branding. Nearly all of the watches had a blue dial, but some of the last examples had a black chapter ring and a few were all black. These are heavily sought after. Due to tax regulations, US-bound watches had 17 jewels, while the rest of the world got 31.
Zenith was a small manufacture and as a result, all of their watches were low production. The TV case was made in the greatest number, but that means that only 2000 were produced from 1972-77.
In the collector market, Zenith El Primeros have been some of the biggest gainers of 2015. Thanks to the greater number produced and the tank-like build quality, many TV cases still exist. They are definitely a product of their time style-wise and values are not as strong as earlier El Primero references. This means that while acquiring one won’t be cheap, it’s also not going to be ridiculously expensive.
Zenith was very proud of this watch and featured it heavily in ads and on their stationery. I think it offers a higher quality, more reasonably priced alternative to a Monaco. And since Steve McQueen didn’t care for either design compared to his Rolex 5512, why not go for the Zenith?