The El Primero story is lore, not only for its extreme ambition in engineering but equally that the world almost lost the calibre through the quartz crisis. Thank god for Charles Vermot, the watchmaker who disobeyed Zenith’s head office instructions to sell off all things to do with mechanical watchmaking, hiding away the plans, spares, and tools required to make the storied calibre 3019. Thanks largely to his efforts, the El Primero survived through the 70s and went on evolve through a bewildering array of variants. One of the least discussed variants today is the mid-70s ‘Surf’, an eccentric El Primero with a C-case, undersized hour totalizer, and (shock, horror) 4:30 date.
This chronograph was released just after the transitional year of 1972, when Zenith introduced a new square logo and system of reference numbers. With that came a new aesthetic. This 37mm steel case houses a perfectly matched grey dial, leading to a quite austere and unified appearance. Inside beats the auto 3019 PHC, with quick set date. Interestingly, you’ll see this calibre signed as both 17 or 31 jewels, and both are legitimate. The 17 jewel movement was built through Movado for the US market to be easier to import.
But that’s not the most charming point of this watch. That is, somewhat ironically, its thickness. Zenith went through all the immense trouble of engineering a quite thin automatic chronograph movement, right at the front of the pack. However, by the mid 70s, trends had swung firmly toward more vertically bulky and substantial watch cases. With no sense of irony, Zenith fitted their thin, beautiful 3019 into a case which lent it far more breathing room than required and called it a day. This is the most common criticism lobbied at the ‘Surf’ El Primero series. I find its adherence to period fashions quite charming, if a bit clunky. It is often quoted that these were produced in about 4000 examples, with a much smaller run in (plated) gold. I have not been able to find a source to confirm this. Whatever the case, this quirky 70s high beat is an outsized value today, one with immense charm and history.
This example is in decent shape overall. Its case has seen a light polish but is not significantly altered in proportion. The dial is lovely and clear of damage. It hour hand has a pin-sized hole in the tritium. It is said to be running and resetting well. It comes from a private seller out of Estonia.
Find this 01.0210.415 here on Chrono24 for 3300 EUR.