The watch we will show you today launches a new section here at Monochrome. A section exclusively focused on vintage watches. Why exclusively, and why vintage, you might wonder? Vintage watches are the watches of days gone by since they were manufactured in an era when mechanical was the only way to go. These timepieces were designed and manufactured mainly to fulfill their specific functions. They were luxury items; they were symbols of status; but mainly and most importantly the vast majority of them were created to serve a certain purpose, in a world in need of accurate time-keeping instruments.
The Rolex submariner was actually used by divers, recreational and professional alike. The Omega Speedmaster helped the astronauts of Apollo XIII to return back home. The IWC Mk XI was used by the British and Commonwealth Navigators to find their way through dead reckoning navigation. The Breitling Navitimer was actually employed by civilian pilots to calculate basic parameters of their flight, and the Ingenieur & Milgauss (from IWC & Rolex respectively) helped scientists to monitor the timed duration of complex lab procedures in a highly magnetized environment. These small mechanical wonders were purpose-built, which makes them both peerless and truly fascinating!
We start with a rare bird, the iconic Zenith Pilot/Diver with the legendary El Primero 3019 PHC movement. This Zenith Pilot/Diver was produced from 1971/1972 to 1975 and production numbers are still debated; some sources talk about 2,500 pieces, while others state numbers as low as 1,000 pieces in different variations. The variations in question had mainly to do with different bezels: a diver’s bezel with a 1-55 graduation and an aviator’s bezel with numerals 1 through 12. The Pilot/Diver was introduced by Zenith in order to compete with the other well-known, high-class chronographs of the time, namely the Breitling Navitimer, various Heuers (Autavias & Carreras) and the Omega Speedmaster. The Zenith Pilot/Diver was strategically pitched to the market as a sport chronograph.
Its main characteristic included firstly its enormous size: at a time when 40mm watches were considered huge, the Pilot/Diver measured 44mm in diameter and 13.9mm in thickness – undoubtedly a big and hefty chronograph. Its second main feature was its twofold character. The different bezel transfigured the usage of the watch from a pilot to a diver chronograph. Thirdly, and most important, was its heart. The El-Primero 3019PHC, something that we will touch upon later.
On the wrist, its size dominates one’s first impression; however it is balanced by the excellently constructed tonneau-shaped case. From this perspective it can be compared to the Heuer Autavia, although that one has a smaller diameter. The robust case features polished and brushed finishing. It has a bi-directional friction notched bezel in two variations, as previously stated. The black or grey dial (depending on the version) is a work of art, with subsidiary dials for the 12-hour and 30-minute register and the constant seconds. Around the dial is a chapter ring with markers for the minutes, seconds and 1/5th seconds. There is an outer tachometer scale and finally the aperture for date is positioned between 4 and 5.
Despite all this information, the dial is not cluttered at all, at least not in the way that some Breitling Navitimer dials are. The watch exudes quality, something which becomes immediately apparent from the moment you put in on your wrist. The Zenith Pilot/Diver comes on a so-called Lobster style bracelet, which was made by a company called Gay Freres. There’s a good chance you heard that name before in relation to other 1970’s sports watches, as they also produced the bracelets for Heuer chronographs and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ref. 5402st. While the Zenith Pilot/Diver is a luxury timepiece, it is also a functional tool, and within it beats one of the greatest calibers ever produced, the unrivaled El-Primero 3019PHC.
The El Primero
In 1960, Zenith acquired Martel Watch Company, a producer of chronograph movements and other complicated movements. Martel was well-known as the supplier of chronograph movements for Universal Geneve and other respected brands. By acquiring Martel, Zenith enhanced its capabilities in the design and production of chronograph movements. After two years, Zenith started to form the basics for the creation of their first integrated automatic chronograph movement, the El Primero.
An important focus for Zenith was a high frequency, with the movement's balance vibrating at 36,000 vph. This made the movement more precise and consequently it could measure more exact (i.e., shorter) time intervals.
After seven years of research and development, the new caliber was finally introduced to the public on 10 January 1969. Code-named 3019 PHC for the variation with a date and 3019 PHF for the variation with triple date and moon phase, and christened El-Primero – meaning ‘the first’ – the movement made a deep impact. It was the first fully integrated automatic chronograph and also a pioneer of high frequency, because it beats at a rate of 36,000 vibrations against the 19,800 of the Calibre 11 competitors (Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton-Buren, Dubois-Depraz). The speed of 36,000 vph allows the chronograph to measure up to a 10th of a second!
The Pilot/Diver was a bold watch that was probably ahead of its time. It was quite simply too large to be considered a luxurious timepiece and too expensive for a true tool watch. Although its dimensions and mechanical attributes are well suited to today’s aesthetics and current haute horologie’s standards, in its own day, it was not embraced as enthusiastically as we now can do.
By combining all the elements of a true sport chronograph with the iconic El-Primero movement, it became a reference piece for the company: if we examine the new Stratos Flyback chronograph, for example, we can recognize some design features which were clearly derived from the Pilot/Diver. Although a thoroughbred timepiece, the Pilot/Diver did not have as much commercial success as its competitors. Breitling, Heuer and Omega dominated that specific segment of the market. This however, does not diminish its value at all. Created in small numbers by a company that always lent importance to values like quality, design, and technical prowess, the Zenith Pilot/Diver may represent one of the most iconic and underrated chronographs of its time.