Review: Zenith El Primero Skeleton Tourbillon
If you were to pitch what you thought was the ultimate watch, you’d need to have some pretty good justification for doing so. You’d need, say, at least three reasons why. So here they are, three reasons why the Zenith El Primero Skeleton Tourbillon is perhaps the ultimate watch.
Clue’s in the name; this is an El Primero-based watch, and from the original manufacturer no less. First produced in 1969, found in a multitude of the greatest watches ever made, borrowed by brands throughout history and notching up over twenty different variants total. The number of movements that can boast the same? Well, quite a few actually, especially when companies that exclusively manufacture movements are involved, like Valjoux and ETA.
But comparing Valjoux and ETA with the El Primero is like comparing—car reference warning—a Volkswagen and a Porsche. Yeah, they both do the same core job, but if you want to see an example of engineering excellence, there’s only place you’re going to go. For Zenith and the El Primero, that’s demonstrated by the twenty percent more parts it has over its competitors’ chronographs.
So, what’s so special about the El Primero? What does it do that the others don’t? Well, it has some of those trick features like a column wheel for smoother, more precise engagement, it’s beautifully built and finished, but more importantly, it’s the first integrated automatic chronograph movement ever built—that is, unless the Japanese beat them to it, which they may well have done …
The Zenith El Primero was first introduced in 1969
Anyway, what does this accolade actually mean? Well, before automatic chronographs there were automatic movements—timekeepers you didn’t need to wind—and manual chronographs—chronographs you did need to wind—and the first automatic chronographs were pretty much a sandwich of the two.
The El Primero was different. Zenith assembled a group of the finest watchmakers in Switzerland to find a way to make a singular movement from the two, integrating automatic and chronograph together for packaging, performance and refinement. Not only that, but they also managed to squeeze a tenth of a second beat from it as well, virtually unheard of generally, let alone in a chronograph. The Daytona of the time was still rattling around with a manual dinosaur beating at half that.
And there’s a reason no one else tried to make an integrated automatic chronograph, and that reason is that the project, despite being a sales success, cost so much it bankrupted the company. That’s just the price of perfection!
Let’s take another look at the name of this watch and see what we get next: skeleton. Skeletonisation is basically a watchmaking term for showing off, dating back to the royal clockmakers of the 1700s, who dissected their handiwork to reveal the level of expertise going on inside. I mean, let’s face it, the watchmaker’s biggest achievement is usually tucked away, never to be seen, and I bet that’s pretty frustrating.
So, they cut their clocks open, revealing the wheels and gears that make the whole thing work. The downside is that, with everything laid bare, there’s nowhere to hide; everything has to be perfect otherwise all that’s been achieved is self-inflicted embarrassment.
For a watchmaker that’s actually good, however, because you really get to explore more of what it is that makes them good, and in the case of the company that’s so good at making chronographs it spent itself out of a job, you know you’re in for a treat. Skeletonisation has come a long way from the hand-carved clocks of the 1700s, but the ethos is still the same, peeling back the outer layers and basking in the mechanical goodness within. It’s a bit like a mango.
Skeletonisation has been used in watchmaking since the 1700s
And being sandwiched in sapphire, the visual exploration of this particular El Primero extends to the back as well. Rather than a watch, this is more of a museum exhibit, suspended in a display case to be enjoyed from all angles. The famous integrated chronograph can be followed piece by piece, tracing the transfer of power from the mainspring, through the balance, gear train, into the chronograph clutch and back out to the hands. It’s an education.
It’s also an artwork. A dial is typically functional, it has a job to do. The El Primero dial is actually atypical in its use of colour and design, but even so, it’s hardly what you’d call dramatic. A skeletonised watch like this is the polar opposite, built to impress and admire, almost to the detriment of its core function of telling the time. Grey hands over a layered, complicated grey background does not an easy watch to read make. When it looks like this, however, you’ve got to wonder who really cares about boring stuff like that.
It’s becoming a pattern, so it’ll be no surprise that the last reason this should be considered the ultimate watch is also the last word in its name: tourbillon. A tourbillon is big, expensive, useless—and that’s exactly what puts the cherry on top of this ultimate cake. There’s engineering because you need to and there’s engineering because you want to and, even though once upon a time the tourbillon was technically a solution to a pocket watch problem, it is a solution in the excess.
Much like a Metal Gear Rex is a solution to resolving a neighbourly dispute over parking, a tourbillon’s sole task is to resolve instability caused by gravity. Gravity itself is stable, very stable—you’ll notice how we all tend to stay stuck to the floor and how difficult, especially for people like me, it is to jump—but the orientation of a balance wheel against gravity in a pocket watch tends to be suboptimal.
Assuming you’ve got kids or were a kid at some stage, think of it like a swing in a park. You give it a big push, the swing begrudgingly moves away, slows as it reaches its peak, then falls back down again, building in speed and giving you a hefty whoomph in the stomach. Compare that to the old favourite, the roundabout, the one you push and it goes, well, round. Get that puppy going and it keeps on going, no slowing down and coming back to cause you unexpected pain.
Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the tourbillon in 1795
A balance wheel orientated in a pocket watch is like the swing. A balance wheel in a wristwatch is like the roundabout. Either way, the tourbillon is a Cruise missile to crack a walnut, and that’s why it’s so popular. It takes the swing and puts it on a roundabout, making what would not only be the most dangerous ride in a kid’s playpark, but also a solution to the problem of gravity.
I mean, just look at it. Who cares what it does? It could be connected to absolutely nothing and it’d still be great. It is connected, obviously—whether it actually does anything is debatable, but like I said, who cares? It was invented by one of the greatest over-engineerers in watchmaking, Abraham-Louis Breguet, it looks like the machine in the excellent TV show Dark—all three series out now on Netflix—and presents one of the greatest bragging rights you can wear on your wrist. Oh, and it also beats ten times per second, over the typical eight, in true El Primero style. What’s not to like?
El Primero Skeleton Tourbillon, three of the greatest aspects of watchmaking new and old. To have them all combined into one is like when the Power Rangers’ vehicles all fused into that big robot. It sort of leaves you wondering why they just didn’t do it like that in the first place.
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