Last year, Zenith celebrated the 50th anniversary of its El Primero movement with a handful of retro editions that garnered much collector fanfare, putting the brand on enthusiasts’ maps once again. Now Zenith is releasing a distinct new take on its influential chronograph, proving there’s plenty of history to mine for one of watchmaking’s most significant timepieces.
Although celebrated today as the world’s first high-frequency automatic chronograph movement, the El Primero was all but dead on arrival after its release in 1969, with Seiko upending the mechanical watch industry that year with the debut of its Quartz Astron. As luxury watchmakers frantically pivoted to battery power, a Zenith watchmaker named Charles Vermot safeguarded the El Primero movement in the manufacture’s attic; decades later, it would be deployed en masse by brands such as Ebel, Dunhill, Tag Heuer and, most notably, Rolex, helping seed the mechanical watchmaking renaissance of the late ’80s.
Zenith’s newest El Primero model, the mysteriously named Shadow, might be its most exciting version
yet, based on a previously lost prototype from the ’70s. Zenith kept the prototype’s angled case shape, black dial with white markers and practical 37 mm size, but outfitted the new Shadow with the revered El Primero 400 movement originally found in the A384 model—something the 1970 version never had.
The new model is called the Shadow because the prototype on which it was based was discovered
in a dark, hidden corner of the manufacture’s attic. “A little less than a year ago, we were looking for documents and archives and things in one part of the attic, where we usually don’t go, and we found a box with one of the three prototypes, made in 1971, that were previously thought to be lost,” says Zenith CEO Julien Tornare. “We decided to mount it in the A384 case with micro-blasts titanium. It’s a fantastic mix between the traditional side of the shape of the A384 and the modern aspect of the micro-blasted twist.” It’s a fitting designation not just for the achromatic color scheme but also the way it wears: Thanks to the ultra-light case material, the $8,100 watch seems to lay weightless on your wrist.