Horology Heroes: The Man That Saved Zenith El Primero

I’m not against Progress, this is how the world is, in the sense that it always harks back to the past. You are wrong to consider halting the production of automatic mechanical chronographs, I am convinced that one day, your company will benefit from the fads and fashions of yesteryear.

Charles Vermont

Horology world was shaken when the Quartz Crisis came in the 1970s. All the heritage of high horology brands were at stake & a war of existence ignited between Mechanical & Quartz movement.

The world went for the new technology & by the end of the 1970s Seiko was dominating & thriving with it’s quartz watches, which led the Swiss industry to a painful journey of restructuring their whole business & had to adapt and start producing quartz as well, some brands couldn’t survive the damage & disappeared.

But one man had a vision & was able to save a treasure, a heritage & piece of art & he is the hero of our story Charles Vermont.

Zenith was founded in 1865 by Georges Favre-Jacot, a long history of heritage.

Zenith founder Georges Favre-Jacot – image: zenith-watches.com

In 1969, Zenith initiated a revolution in the world of horology after more than five years of research & development, by introducing the first ever automatic chronograph calendar equipped chronograph watch “El Primero” (The First), the most precise at its time.

In the time of the Quartz Crisis, Zenith was owned by an American company called the Zenith Radio Corporation Between 1971 and 1978 ( Currently Zenith owned by LVMH ), which to face the crisis they wanted to get rid of all of their mechanical movements, tools and its machinery & to sell them by the ton to the highest bidder! to focus the company resources on the development of the Quartz movement.

Charles Vermont, Chronograph movements specialist that spent his entire career with Zenith & from the initial developers of El Primero Movement was in complete shock when he heard the management decision and had an entirely different opinion & a vision that Quartz revolution is just a phase & getting rid of Mechanical movements is a big mistake.

Charles Vermont

He made that clear by sending a letter to the management informing them in his words: I’m not against Progress, this is how the world is, in the sense that it always harks back to the past. You are wrong to consider halting the production of automatic mechanical chronographs, I am convinced that one day, your company will benefit from the fads and fashions of yesteryear.

They Told me I was being Sentimental & Stuck in the past

Unfortunately the management dismissed Mr. Vermont‘s recommendations, But the passionate watchmaker didn’t give up. Charles Vermont embarked on a secret mission, that was the main reason of El Primero watch existence today & maybe the brand Zenith.

Charles Vermont started gradually to secretly store in the company’s attic all the instruments, tools & detailed instructions to be able one day to go back to this treasure & revive the beautiful chronograph mechanical movement

Technical drawings, El Primero Caliber – image: zenith-watches.com

We labelled everything and then packed the cams, the stamps, the cutting tools and small machines

Some of the saved components along Charles Vermot’s precise instructions on putting them back together.

Mr. Vermont hid away more than 1 ton of equipment that stayed almost 10 years secretly hidden from sight, until one day in 1984 an engineer who was aware what Charles Vermont had done, came to him with big news.

The engineer asked him if he could find all the tools for manufacturing El Primero & see if they can get them working again. Mr. Vermont happily agreed & was speechless and couldn’t hold his happy tears, his dream had finally became a reality after 10 long years.

Charles Vermont trying to hold his tears of Joy speaking in an interview about when he received the news on the possibility of reviving El Primero – image: Zenith Instagram IGTV

This act, enabled Zenith to relaunch the production of its legendary chronograph in 1984. Not only that, Zenith was able to supply Rolex with the automatic chronograph movements a 10 year contract worth approximately seven million Swiss Francs, when Rolex was looking into upgrading its Daytona watch & was looking for a thin automatic movement to avoid alterations to their Oyster case.

All that won’t be possible without one man, Charles Vermont. Saving El Primero, saved Zenith, and his heroic actions & passion have not been forgotten in the world of Horology.

Charles Vermont

Learn more by visiting Zenith Website

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