Zenith El Primero | A3817 | Steel
Instantly recognizable by its tri-colour dial, this Zenith El Primero reference A3817 from the 1970s is a design classic and the quintessential vintage sports watch; purposeful and smart. Famous for their distinctive high-beat chronograph timepieces – technically advanced wristwatches are very much in Zenith’s DNA. And - carrying the Calibre 3019 PHC - this piece belongs to the prestigious line of the first-ever automatic chronographs.
There has been a continuing and passionate debate which manufacturer developed world’s first self-winding chronograph, amongst the consortium of Heuer, Buren-Hamilton, Breitling, Dubois-Depraz and Seiko. Much of the argument has subsided in recent years, thanks to almost a decade’s tireless documentation by the original sports-chronograph collectors, such as Jeff Stein, founder of On The Dash, and author of Project 99 - The Race to Develop the World's First Automatic Chronograph.
According to the latter, Zenith was the first to announce the innovation. Having begun research and development as early as 1962, it debuted a working prototype at a pre-emptive press conference in Switzerland in early 1969. Rivals entered global production in August of 1969, while Zenith made the 3019 PHC publicly available in October the same year. Zenith proudly claims the “El Primero” to be the first-ever automatic chronograph, emphasizing its full integration and completeness - with a column-wheel and central rotor on ball bearings - as opposed to a being a modular addition. The name “El Primero” by no coincidence translates to “the first”.
The debate that may never truly be extinguished, but the “El Primero” movement will forever keep its claim as a first. It certainly had a huge impact on horological development. Other than being the first fully-integrated automatic chronograph, the movement was also a pioneer of high-frequency. Beating at a rate of 36,000 A/h, vs. at 19,800 A/h of its ‘Calibre 11’ competitors, the 5hz beat rate allows measurement up to 1/10th of a second, in comparison to up to just one-fifth of a second (at a rate of 2.5hz) of its contemporaries.
In 1985, Zenith resurrected the “El Primero” line, reissuing the calibre 3019PHC (as the calibre 40.0), and it is still in production today under the designation “calibre 400”. One of the most widely respected Rolex Daytona references, the 16500, used the base calibre 400 in its re-designed flagship sports watch in 1988.
This stunning example of the Zenith El Primero Ref. A3817 is from 1971 (With serial number 231 XXXX). According to the work of leading Zenith authority, Manfred Rössler, only 1,000 tri-colour A3817s were made in 1971, compared to 2,500 of its slightly more common cousin, the ever-popular A386. Uniquely, the A3817 has blue sub-seconds hand on the 9 o'clock sub-dial, which is also painted with blue indices. In comparison, the A386 has all its sub-dials painted with white indices and uniformly white hands.
While this piece is undeniably attractive, it is the condition that stands out. Vintage sports watches typically have tell-tale signs of being over-worn. However this A3817 has been remarkably well preserved. The angular, tonneau-shaped, stainless steel case measures 37 mm in diameter (47 mm from lug to lug) and has large chronograph pushers and the original, signed, fluted crown, each retaining their definition. Both the case and the straight-line lugs are sharp and thick, and grained on the front and sides. The bevels on the lugs are polished, as is the deep Zenith hallmark star on the screw-down case-back, further accentuated by the use of graining at the center. The unique reference number is also visible. Overall, the exceptional finishing of the Zenith El Primero A3817 is noteworthy, both for its design and execution.
Similarly to the case, the tri-colour dial is in excellent condition, has triangular hash markers on it, indicating the minutes and (1/5) seconds, and applied, faceted silver index markers for the hours. The tritium lume on the matchstick handset and index hour markers have aged to a dark yellow, complementing the patina on the sub-registers perfectly. Further to this, the watch also features a red paddle chronograph hand, displayed on many Zenith El Primero examples of the era, whilst the white portion of the dial is surrounded by a grey tachymeter and a Base 15 pulsations scale. The watch carries the above-mentioned self-winding 3019 PHC calibre, considered by many as one of the most famous column-wheel operated chronographs of all time. The movement features 31 jewels and a bi-directional central rotor, beating at 36,000 A/h, with a power reserve of 50-hours.
Together with its Zenith-stamped, original Gay Fréres ladder bracelet in steel, and matching ZKM end-links, this piece makes a showcase of what a classic vintage sports watch should be like.
Viewings can be arranged in Central London by appointment.
|Model:||El Primero Ref. A3817|
|Functions:||date, hours, minutes, center seconds, chronograph|
|Features:||unrestored dial, original lumes|
|Case:||37 mm stainless steel|
|Bracelet:||Zenith Grey Fréres ladder bracelet, ZKM end-links|
|Box & papers:||N/A|
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