Of all the stunning lots in this week’s Christie’s sale in Geneva, one that particularly caught our eye, and the eye of some serious watch collectors, was a mythical prototype Zenith El Primero. This watch was one of 25 prototypes, of which an unknown number survive to this day. Turns out that interest in the watch ran beyond the typical collector, with Zenith themselves getting right in the thick of bidding.
Housed in the same relatively large case as the reference A386 (a.k.a. the “tricolor”), the prototype differs in that a serial number was not engraved on the caseback and the side of the case was modified to add pushers for day and month adjustments. Essentially, the movements in these prototypes incorporated moonphase, month, and day indicators on top of the standard El Primero automatic chronograph movement that had a date indication and operated at 36,000 beats per hour. The movement is signed 3019 PHC (the standard El Primero movement), but is the clear precursor to the 3019 PHF movement found in the Zenith Espada.
This prototype is similar to another that is known to survive. Both feature a gray dial with star markers at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions to create space for the day and month windows. A video featuring Charles Vermot, the man who saved all of the Zenith El Primero parts and plans from destruction, also shows an example of the watch at the 2:50 mark. Beyond these two public examples, it is unclear if the other 23 still exist.
After the auction, Zenith announced on Facebook that they had won the auction, which ended at 37,500 CHF. It is admirable that Zenith is collecting important vintage pieces from its illustrious horological history.