La vraie histoire du calibre El Primero

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Présenté en 1969, à la barbe de ses concurrents, ce chronographe automatique créé par Zenith demeure le plus célèbre de l’horlogerie suisse. Et pourtant, il a bien failli disparaître.

Lorsque au début des années 2000, nous écrivions dans ces colonnes que le mouvement El Primero était un prototype pas tout à fait opérationnel quand il fut dévoilé précipitamment à la presse en janvier 1969, pour damer le pion au groupe Chronomatic* qui travaillait sur un projet similaire, Thierry Nataf, alors président de Zenith, prit la mouche. «Nous avons été les premiers au monde à sortir un calibre chronographe à remontage automatique. Un point c’est tout! C’est d’ailleurs pour cela qu’il a été nommé El Primero, “le premier” en espéranto.»

Vingt ans après, Julien Tornare, quatrième PDG de cette entreprise depuis que LVMH l’a rachetée en 1999, avance d’autres arguments. «Dans les années 1960, les Suisses et les Japonais étaient en compétition pour développer un chronographe à remontage automatique. Cela s’est joué à quelques mois. Tous les calibres sont sortis pratiquement la même année. Selon les documents retrouvés dans nos archives, quand le 10 janvier 1969, Zenith présentait le calibre El Primero, il fonctionnait parfaitement. Sa force réside dans sa construction, soit un mouvement à roue à colonnes 100 % intégré à laquelle est associée une haute fréquence de 36.000 alternances par heure. Sans compter qu’El Primero affiche une épaisseur d’à peine 6,5 mm. Certains ont oublié à quel point ce mécanisme, avec ces innovations, a révolutionné l’industrie.»

Un plan original  du calibre de 1969.
Un plan original  du calibre de 1969. Zenith

Le trésor de Charles Vermot

Pourtant, avant de devenir le chronographe favori de Bill Clinton, de Sean Connery et de Sean Penn, El Primero a connu une traversée du désert. Sa naissance fut longue et douloureuse. Sept ans de gestation dans un contexte agité. Dans les années 1960, le quartz asiatique est sur le point de menacer l’industrie traditionnelle suisse qui tente d’élaborer des montres mécaniques plus précises. En 1962, Zenith s’y attelle. Sous le nom de code «3019PHC» se cache le projet d’un chronographe automatique d’un nouveau genre: un calibre qui ne serait pas le fruit du simple rajout d’un module de chronographe à une base automatique. La marque traîne, la concurrence avance. En 1967, la rumeur d’un projet similaire, mené par le groupe sus-cité, pousse Zenith à accélérer le mouvement. L’horloger parvient à lancer El Primero deux mois à peine avant la sortie de celui de ses petits camarades. Sa haute fréquence de 36.000 alternances par heure (contre 18.000 pour un mouvement classique) le rend deux fois plus précis qu’un chronographe standard. Et lui permet surtout d’être le premier du genre à mesurer les temps au 1/10 de seconde. Mais ces qualités intrinsèques ne profitent pas encore au Speedy Gonzales de l’horlogerie.

» LIRE AUSSI – El Primero, le chronographe automatique le plus rapide du monde

En 1971, la marque fondée au Locle (Suisse) en 1865 par un certain Favre-Jacot est vendue à la Zenith Radio Corporation, à l’origine un fabricant de radios et de téléviseurs de Chicago… En prenant le destin de la manufacture helvétique en main, les Américains le brisent. En compétition avec le quartz, El Primero ne se vend pas. Au milieu des années 1970, en pleine débâcle de l’horlogerie traditionnelle, ordre est donné à Zenith d’arrêter la production des mouvements mécaniques et de détruire tous les outillages et les machines nécessaires à la fabrication d’El Primero. C’est grâce à Charles Vermot, responsable de l’un des ateliers que le calibre a pu sauver ses rouages. Avec l’aide de son frère Maurice, il planque 150 étampes, plans et outils, créés pour le fameux calibre, dans le grenier de la manufacture dont ils cimentent la porte d’entrée.

Zenith est revendu, en 1978, à un consortium d’industriels suisses, lesquels entendent ressusciter la production d’El Primero, notamment pour le vendre à de grandes marques de compatriotes en quête d’un mouvement chronographe automatique de haute facture. Grâce au trésor des Vermot, la fabrication peut être relancée.

«Notre objectif est de nous appuyer sur le passé pour construire l’avenir. Ainsi, pour les 50 ans d’El Primero, nous proposons un coffret édité à 50 exemplaires comprenant trois chronographes»

Julien Tornare, PDG de Zenith

Dans les années 1980, Ebel, Panerai, Rolex en équipent leurs montres. El Primero devient une référence horlogère. À tel point que, pendant des années, 80 % de la production de ce sujet d’exception est vendue à autrui. Zenith perd son image, El Primero, sa notoriété en étant enfermé dans des boîtiers qui ne portent pas son nom. Le rachat de l’entreprise par LVMH va changer la donne. En 2001, le Français Thierry Nataf fait de ce calibre la pierre angulaire de sa stratégie et parvient à rendre sexy une marque qui ne l’était pas. Il ouvre le cadran des montres et rend visibles les «battements du cœur» d’El Primero, multiplie les complications horlogères développées sur la base de son mécanisme fétiche. Seulement, les prix flambent. Les puristes et l’industrie crient à la trahison… Nataf est remplacé par le Genevois Jean-Frédéric Dufour (ancien directeur de la manufacture LUC de Chopard et futur président de Rolex) qui s’emploie jusqu’en 2014 à remettre Zenith dans des rails plus orthodoxes avec une offre au design plus apaisé et des modèles rendus nettement plus abordables.

Les trois chronographes du coffret du 50 <sup>e</sup> anniversaire, édité à 50 exemplaires.
Les trois chronographes du coffret du 50 e anniversaire, édité à 50 exemplaires. photomontage Le Figaro

Aujourd’hui, si entre 60 et 70 % des montres Zenith sont équipées d’une base El Primero, sa place soulève plusieurs questions. «Un mouvement aussi connu, plus célèbre que la marque, qui prend autant d’importance, est-ce une faiblesse ou une force pour Zenith ?» s’interrogeait Jean-Claude Biver lorsqu’il dirigeait la branche horlogère de LVMH. «C’est une force quand, aux côtés de ce mouvement icône, on apporte une montre icône, répond Julien Tornare dont l’entreprise produit environ 20.000 garde-temps par an. Notre objectif est de nous appuyer sur le passé pour construire l’avenir. Ainsi, pour les 50 ans d’El Primero, nous proposons un coffret édité à 50 exemplaires comprenant trois chronographes. Le premier est une réédition fidèle de la montre de 1969, le second est un Chronomaster classique dont le mouvement a été optimisé, le troisième est une Defy qui mesure les temps au 1/100 de seconde. Et nous avons disposé dans ce coffret un quatrième coussin pour accueillir un prochain chronographe au 1/1000 de seconde…» En attendant, Zenith annoncera après la foire de Bâle 2019 avoir produit un million de mouvements El Primero depuis cinquante ans.

* Groupe Chronomatic: Breitling, Hamilton-Büren, Heuer et Dubois-Dépraz.

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Mexican drug-lord ‘El Chapo’ ran his crime empire using Canadian servers, prosecutors say at trial

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A secret Canadian-based communications platform allowed reputed cocaine kingpin Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman to control hit men, organize global drug trafficking and direct corrupt cops, according to evidence in an ongoing Brooklyn trial.

It was only after Colombian Cristian Rodriguez, Guzman’s in-house computer geek, moved four servers out of Canada that American authorities were able tap into the encrypted messaging system at the heart of his billion-dollar empire, prosecutors argued at trial this week.

Rodriguez is now a co-operating witness for the prosecution.

Guzman faces life in prison on conspiracy charges, as prosecutors contend he used the Canadian-based system to run an empire that trafficked narcotics and weapons and played a central role in Mexican drug wars that have left thousands dead.

Guzman has pleaded not guilty to charges of international drug trafficking and conspiracy to murder rivals.

The central role of communications didn’t surprise a Toronto-based journalist who covered organized crime on the Mexican-U.S. border in the early 2000s, before he was forced to seek asylum in Canada over cartel death threats.

“These guys have resources — both human and economic- to implement advanced networks,” Luis Horacio Najera said in an interview on Thursday. “They also have a new mindset that understands and know how to use technology for criminal purposes, which is remarkable.”

That Star has examined some of the evidence from the ongoing case.

According to the evidence presented by prosecutors, Rodriguez developed the Canadian-based platform for Guzman, trained associates in how to maintain the systems and helped upgrade and repair them from a remote location.

Rodriguez, working for investigators, persuaded Guzman to allow him to move the network’s four secret servers from Canada to the Netherlands in 2011, as it was believed it would be easier there to get a warrant to seize the phone calls as evidence.

Rodriguez told Guzman he was doing a routine upgrade, prosecutors said.

It was after the switch that authorities were able to tap into Guzman’s encrypted messages.

Guzman was extradited to the United States in 2017. Agents recorded his phone calls from Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center and said they were able to identify traits that made his voice identifiable.

A federal agent told the trial that Guzman’s voice has a “kind of a sing-songy nature to it” with a “nasally undertone” and distinctive high pitch.

The recorded messages show Guzman played a variety of roles, from calming an over-zealous hit man to trying to monitoring the various women in his life.

In one of the recordings, he tells worker Orso Ivan Gastelum Cruz — better known as “Cholo Ivan” — to show a bit of restraint towards beating up police officers, kidnapping and murder.

“Once you have them tied up and such, we’ll check it out to make sure we don’t execute innocent people,” Guzman tells Cholo Ivan.

“Talk to them, you know they are policemen. It’s better not to smack them around,” Chapo urges Cholo Ivan.

“Well, you taught us to be a wolf,” Cholo Ivan replies. “Acting like a wolf, I’m remembering, and that is how I like to do it.”

Authorities got their big break after luring Rodriguez to a Manhattan hotel in 2010, where he was secretly recorded trying to buy equipment that would allow him to evade law enforcement detection.

That conversation was used as leverage to eventually persuade Rodriguez to co-operate with authorities.

Guzman’s trial in Brooklyn has heard several of the calls this week.

The trial has also heard that Guzman used encrypted Canadian-made BlackBerries to spy on his beauty queen wife, Emma Coronel, and a lover, Agustina Cabanillas Acosta.

In court exhibits, Cabanillas is referred to as “Fiera,” Spanish for “Wild Beast.”

Court heard text messages in which Guzman and she discuss setting up a chemical fertilizer business in Germany and citrus firm in Ecuador to export drugs to Canada, Europe, Australia and the United States

They address each other as “Love” in the texts.

However, in a text to a friend also released in court, Cabanillas calls Guzman an “idiot” and disses his Canadian-made cellular phones.

“I don’t trust these BlackBerries, the ones he gives me over here, because the bastard can locate me.”

With files from The Associated Press

Peter Edwards is a Toronto-based reporter primarily covering crime. Reach him by email at pedwards@thestar.ca

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El Mocambo sign lights up the night as snow tumbles down

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You can keep your jokes about politicians who will show up to the opening of an envelope. In this town, the mayor will show up to the flipping of a light switch. If it’s the right switch, for the right lights.

On Thursday night on Spadina Avenue, the velvet ropes were set up on the sidewalk just south of College, and a crowd of people had started to form in clusters of three or four. A steady parade of Cadillac Escalades and Porsche Carrerras pulled to the curb — and some Honda Civics and a Dodge Grand Caravan too — to drop off women in short sparkly skirts and men in cowboy boots and velvet jackets.

The El Mocambo sign on Spadina is lit up again after a ceremony during last night’s snowfall.
The El Mocambo sign on Spadina is lit up again after a ceremony during last night’s snowfall.  (RenÉ Johnston / Toronto Star)

Speakers set up on the sidewalk played a 35-year-old U2 song. “I saw them here!” one woman said.

Another man, with a woman and young child, was walking by and asked who was playing tonight. “No one’s playing,” he was told. They were just planning to relight the neon sign.

“Ah,” he said, smiling and nodding that it was an obvious enough reason for the buzz. Then he said, to his own child as much as to the stranger in front of him, “This is a legendary music venue, The El Mocambo.”

The music historian Nicholas Jennings posted on Facebook this week that the first band to play at the El Mocambo when it opened on March 23, 1948 was a “light jazz combo” called the Ambassador’s Trio. He posted early ads for the bar when it was billed as “a bit of Mexico in Toronto,” a bill from the late 1950s featuring an all-girls singing group called “The Coquettes Quartet” and a “Big Irish Night” lineup from 1965.

The new façade of the under-renovation venue says “Keeping live alive since 1948,” and clearly the history goes way back. The legend most Torontonians under about age 80 are more familiar with is a bit more rock ’n’ roll. This is the place the Rolling Stones recorded a live album — not just them, but Elvis Costello, Stevie Ray Vaughan, April Wine. The Ramones played here. Tom Waits. And U2, like the lady says.

In the 1980s and 1990s, it was also a place a where your buddy from English class might have a gig with his punk band. And the night after you saw him, you might see the hottest local indie act. There was something special in exactly that mix: it hosted legends, yes, but was also home to local scenesters and wannabes and never-weres.

It was shuttered in 2014, a broke bar in a broken down building that was going to become a computer store or something. But Eccentric Billionaire Michael Wekerle bought it, promising to restore it to its former glory.

Four years later, it isn’t ready to reopen yet. But the sign is back.

We love our old signs in this city. I’m old enough to remember the outcry when it briefly seemed Fairmont was planning to take the words “Royal York” off the front of the then-skyline-defining hotel. We have a connection to the neon and the bulbs that spell out our memories of the places that have defined our neighbourhoods.

Lately there’s been a trend to save signs from the trash bin: I reported live from the dismantling of the thousands-of-points-of-lightbulbs at Honest Ed’s, to be reinstalled later on a different building. I wrote about the relighting of the Sam The Record Man spinning discs in January this year, now high above Dundas Square.

But this one is special: The palm tree spelling out EL MOCAMBO in yellow neon along its trunk, the flashing white leaves surrounding purple coconuts and a crescent-moon that may be a banana.

It’s special because of that legendary history. And because it’s actually back here in its original spot at 464 Spadina. But mostly because its restoration and reinstallation anticipates the reopening of the El Mo, renovated and soundproofed and ready to rock again, sometime next spring.

The crowd on the street Thursday night had swelled to more than a hundred as the falling snow accumulated. Everyone laughed when a car collided with a parked police car at the curb. Then, shortly after 7 p.m., Eccentric Billionaire Michael Wekerle himself appeared behind the velvet ropes, wearing a green fur coat and pink gloves and sunglasses. He was bouncing up on the balls of his feet and beaming, shaking hands with the crowd and shouting about how great it all was. He pointed and called out to people in the crowd — “Andy Kim!” — and called the boxer George Chuvalo up to stand next to him. And then, speaking a mile a minute into the microphone, he promised a new great beginning for Canadian music artists, and then introduced the mayor.

“Thank you,” John Tory said to his host, and to the crowd. “If Michael Wekerle hadn’t had the determination, and frankly the money, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. Music is important, he said, bringing people together in a city where they may not share the same language, but can dance to the same beat. “Here’s to the El Mo,” he said, “and to many years of success.”

Then the crowd there on the street counted down from 10, as if it were New Year’s Eve. When they reached one, they all shouted “El Mo!” and the lights came on, purple and green and yellow and white. The familiar opening guitar chords of the Rolling Stones “Start Me Up” came through the speakers. Everyone cheered, many took photos.

A few in the crowd even started dancing in the snow, while others began to make their way around the corner to a private party being held in a back alley to celebrate. A man in a parka and toque smiled and jumped in the air, and shouted. “Rock and roll, baby!”

Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire

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El Mocambo’s neon palm returns as owner shows off huge, ambitious changes

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There is, once again, light at the end of the tunnel — or above the front doors, at least — for Toronto live-music lovers eagerly awaiting the rebirth of El Mocambo.

A brand-spankin’-new replica of the El Mo’s iconic “neon palm” sign will be lit on Thursday evening amidst as much pomp and circumstance as rock ’n’ roll will allow, in its familiar perch since 1948 over 464 Spadina Ave. Most of the marquee and the art-deco entryway beneath it are finally restored to their former glory, too. A private party to celebrate the venue’s 70th anniversary will follow.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble—Live At The El Mocambo 1983 is a high-powered performance from SRV’s early days, featuring Testify, Texas Flood, Pride and Joy and a fiery interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).

It’s not the grand reopening of the beloved nightclub that owner Michael Wekerle — the Bay Street financier and former Dragons’ Den star who bought the dilapidated property in 2014 to rescue it from being turned into a computer store — would have preferred. But that’s coming. This time it’s really coming. Just don’t ask him for a date.

Read more:

Opinion | Edward Keenan: Preservation of Honest Ed’s sign part of new movement, ‘sign-ism’

“This is where everything’s starting to transform,” said Wekerle Monday, as the 2,300-kg El Mocambo sign — painstakingly recreated in every detail by Cambridge’s Pride Signs, save a few modern-day technical upgrades — was being hoisted into place outside the El Mo construction office. “It’s been very stressful, to say the least, for the last four-and-a-half years. It’s about four times the cost and about three times the time that we should have taken to do it. But you know what? At the end of the day, it was not to be taken lightly because we wanted to bring back the El Mocambo.”

El Mocambo rivals the 71-year-old Horseshoe Tavern and its comparably grotty Spadina Ave. neighbour to the north — the currently demolished Silver Dollar Room (required under City of Toronto law to return) — as Toronto’s most beloved rock ’n’ roll destination.

It could be the city’s best-known venue internationally, in fact, as it was the site of some of the recordings found on the Rolling Stones’ 1977 album Love You Live — not to mention a rumoured dalliance between Mick Jagger and Margaret Trudeau, then the wife of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy graced its stage when it was predominantly a blues club during the 1970s but, by the time the New Wave era came around, the El Mo would play host to the likes of Blondie, the Ramones and Elvis Costello. U2 was paid $500 to play its first gig in North America there in December 1980.

The club has escaped extinction a number of times. It was declared dead in 1989 and 1991, and bounced back during the late 1990s as a choice underground punk-rock spot under the stewardship of promoter Dan Burke, who actually hosted a Neon Palm Festival in 1999 to relight the original El Mocambo sign.

El Mocambo owner Michael Wekerle is seen riding the sign Monday as it is first lifted off the truck. The famed music venue on Spadina installed the updated iconic sign and will light it up on Thursday — one more step toward reopening.
El Mocambo owner Michael Wekerle is seen riding the sign Monday as it is first lifted off the truck. The famed music venue on Spadina installed the updated iconic sign and will light it up on Thursday — one more step toward reopening.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

It was sold again in 2001, got a major renovation that stripped off some grime and it was never quite the same again — the upstairs room briefly became a dance studio — despite still luring Queens of the Stone Age for a memorable gig in 2008. Cadillac Lounge owner Sam Grosso bought the building in 2012, pledging to restore El Mocambo to its “former glory” but the bookings never happened.

Billy Idol at the El Mocambo in the 1980s.
Billy Idol at the El Mocambo in the 1980s.  (Toronto Star file photo)

It’s actually rather fitting that a replica of the old neon palm will adorn the new El Mocambo because, much like the original sign, the original El Mo was in such rough shape when Wekerle bought it off Grosso for $3.6 million that he essentially had to oversee the construction of an entirely new “building within a building.” It’s more or less a replica of the old El Mocambo itself and, while the space is still pretty raw, you can see it taking shape — especially if you’re lucky enough to sneak a peek at the top-secret renderings for the final product — and the broad outlines are comfortingly respectful of the old layout.

There’s still a smaller room in the 400-capacity range with a stage on the west side of the ground floor, while upstairs a long, wide room in the 600-700-cap range will maintain the stage — which will be flanked by the original El Mo sign, “butterflied” into two halves — in its familiar position in the middle of the north wall, albeit now with a third-floor VIP balcony where the low ceilings used to be. There’s now a freight elevator backstage to spare bands hauling their bass amps up three flights of stairs, too. Oh, and there’s a recording studio overseen by legendary producer/engineer Eddie Kramer and John Storyk, the chap who designed famed New York studio Electric Ladyland, tucked in the corner behind the balcony.

That’s the 21st-century angle on the new El Mocambo: when finished, the entire thing will be “a recording studio that happens to be a nightclub,” as Andy Curran, the one-time Coney Hatch frontman who now heads the nascent El Mocambo Records and El Mocambo Entertainment operations, puts it. Even the third-floor dressing room is wired into the control room on the top floor. It will be a cinch to record, stream or broadcast top-quality audio and video from pretty much anywhere in the building.

Mick Jagger leads the Rolling Stones at the El Mo on Mar. 4, 1977.
Mick Jagger leads the Rolling Stones at the El Mo on Mar. 4, 1977.  (Ken Regan photo)

“In reality, (Wekerle) has actually built a recording studio,” says Curran. “The whole thing is wired. Each floor is soundproofed. The amount of work that went into soundproofing is, as our production manager says, so crazy that you could potentially have the Dropkick Murphys on the ground floor and Diana Krall playing a jazz set upstairs and you would not hear anything.”

All the technology going into the new venue is thinking ahead of the curve, too. Obsolescence will not be a problem.

“There will be no issues for the next 15 to 20 years” besides any cosmetic updates, says Wekerle, who’s cutting deals that he hopes will make “Live from the El Mocambo” content as familiar as the Austin City Limits or Live From Abbey Road brands.

“This is being built for the next 50 years. We have probably overspent in the short term, but we’re probably saving in the long term.”

Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age performs at the El Mocambo on Friday May 9, 2008.
Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age performs at the El Mocambo on Friday May 9, 2008.  (Carlos Osorio/Toronto star file photo)

He’s coy about how much this project has actually cost him, but he’ll freely admit it’s a lot.

“Oh, man. You couldn’t even guess. The over/under is $20 million. But it’s over. It’s over. I’m eating every Thursday and Saturday, but it’s OK,” says a laughing Wekerle, conceding that there have been moments when he worried that he was in way over his head. “I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t been stressed out about what’s the next issue here? ‘Oh, we hit a pipe? OK, we gotta do this differently.’ ‘Oh, this permit hasn’t come due? Well, we’ll have to hold off on the drywallers.’ It’s just been issue after issue. Maybe I would have changed my mind if I’d known how big a job it was at first.

“But it’s great for the city. I really believe in it. And thank you to anyone in the city who’s come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for bringing the El Mo back.’ It’s not me, it’s a whole team of people, but it really means a lot to me that people have reached out to say I’m doing something right. Yes, we could have done it cheaper. Yes, we could have opened it earlier. But it would have been lacklustre if we’d opened it earlier with just a touched-up facade, and it wouldn’t have had the kind of impact I think we’ll have.”

So when is the new El Mocambo going to open?

“I’ve been reluctant to say,” he sighs. “I keep saying ‘spring 2019.’ I’d like to have it open to do something during Canadian Music Week in May, but the date I’ve been giving is April 2. Maybe I should say April 1 because it gives me an out.”

Ben Rayner is the Star’s music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner

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