What do you think of when someone mentions, TAG Heuer,? Racing, Steve McQueen, and perhaps even sunglasses might come to mind–all of these of course, would be accurate, since (1)TAG Heuer has long been involved in precision time measurement, (2) a watch that they produced was glorified in cinema after being chosen by Steve McQueen, and (3) the company is a multifaceted producer of a variety of sporting accessories, including sunglasses
In the eyes of some watch lovers, however, this multiplicity of identities has deeply injured TAG Heuer as a watchmaking company. After all, the company, who was founded in 1860 by Edouard Heuer began its life as a serious producer of chronographs, and it made its reputation producing mechanical timing devices whose precision garnered considerable fame; among these triumphs can be counted the Mikrograph of 1916 (the first stopwatch capable of 1/100 second precision), and the Chronomatic Calibre 11 of the late 1960’s–a microrotor chronograph watch movement that Heuer developed in conjunction with Buren; this mechanical movement helped establish the legitimacy of microrotors as a winding alternative to centrally-mounted rotors for automatic watches, and created a precedent followed up by Patek Philippe, Chopard and others.
In the seventies, however, Heuer, like many old Swiss watchmaking companies, began to languish severely, strangled by the rise of the sensational quartz technology that swept over the craft of watchmaking, and the business of watch marketing. Mechanical watches, and the thicker chronograph watches in particular, had such small demand that many companies could no longer justify producing them. Not surprisingly, enrollment of young people in watchmaking schools declined precipitously. By the 1980’s quartz technology was firmly established, and looked as if it were the new darling of consumers; by this time, many traditional mechanical brands had passed completely into oblivion.
After the eponymous, family-owned Heuer company was acquired by TAG in 1985 (after a brief period of ownership by Piaget) and the company became TAG-Heuer, emphasis was dramatically shifted to inexpensively mass produced quartz watches, and a heavy “lifestyle”-based marketing angle went along for the ride. But, you know the rest of the story; everything does indeed come full circle, and mechanical watches began to feel a rebirth that began as a whisper in the late 1980’s and became a roar by the mid-90’s, ultimately leading up to the cult following that mechanical watches enjoy today. Ironically, TAG, which pulled the richly mechanical Heuer brand out of oblivion and successfully resuscitated it as an almost purely quartz brand to reap the trends of the 80’s, fell victim to this strategy, which suddenly backfired as consumers looking for richly detailed and historically important heritage brands turned their nose up at ETA quartz movements and the department store banality which TAG seemed to represent; the solution, it became apparent, lay back within the “Heuer” part of the logo. In 2000, the LVMH group acquired TAG Heuer from the TAG Group, and began to take a serious look at the brand, its heritage, and how consumers perceived it–and they acted. As a result, TAG Heuer and its forward-thinking CEO have over the last five years made some serious strides to re-focus corporate attention on creative and high performance mechanical watches. True to its creed of precision, TAG Heuer plans to stay on the cutting edge of quartz technology, too—after all, that is what electronics and quartz movements are all about; however, even their quartz watches are innovative and highly unusual. Watch lovers should be pleased: TAG Heuer the watchmaking company is alive and well, and is making serious watches!
As the excellent article by Joe Thompson in October’s issue of WatchTime Magazine so exactingly details, TAG Heuer’s CEO, Jean-Christophe Babin, has implemented some carefully calculated changes to re-focus the watch buying public upon the watchmaking heritage of TAG Heuer. Notable here is the fact that the production of mechanical watches has been boosted many fold, and a considerable amount of this invigorated production is now assembled in house, rather than being largely outsourced, as was the case previously. Research and development has been reinvigorated in a big way, and all one has to do to see the fruits of this is to look at some of the watches which will soon be hitting the market, such as the Carrera Calibre 360 watch, the first mechanical wrist chronograph to allow 1/100th of a second timing precision, or the revolutionary Monaco V4 Concept watch, which is anticipated for 2008, and will feature notched belts–rather than wheels–as the basis for its mechanical operation. Within the realm of quartz technology as well, TAG Heuer has become a pioneer, not merely content to purchase already existing technology, however functional; its award-winning multifunction Microtimer watch utilizes a movement developed in-house, a considerable expense that has certainly paid off and emphasized the values of the company in being on the cutting edge of precision time measurement. TAG Heuer can certainly be lauded for incorporating the excellent fast-beat Zenith “El Primero” movement in its Link Calibre 36 Chronograph watch, and they also have done vintage enthusiasts proud in producing collection re-issues of such Heuer classics as the Carrera and Monaco, all with automatic mechanical movements, as they should be. Then there is the really interesting stuff: how many companies out there would have the audacity to develop a watch like the Monaco Sixty-Nine watch, which unites two distinct eras–the manually wound mechanical, and the cutting-edge electronic–in one uniquely styled package that can switch between these identities with the simple flip of the case? Far from being a haphazard desecration, this is a very cool and tasteful bridge across two horological universes, in my opinion!
Perhaps most spiritually satisfying, Jack Heuer (the great-grandson of Edouard Heuer) now sits on the company board as Honorary Chairman, overseeing much of the new innovation that takes place. As the last owner of Heuer before it slipped into the quartz desolation of the 1970’s, this passionate devotee of mechanical chronographs can now can witness a rebirth of the company, and know that his forefathers would certainly be pleased. In both mechanics and electronics TAG Heuer is once again at the forefront of precise time measurement, and the traditional heritage of the brand is once again integral to building for the future.