The Beckertime Brand Series: TAG Heuer
With a history reaching back more than 150-years, Swiss giant TAG Heuer has earned its place at horology’s top table.
From humble beginnings, the brand became responsible for a string of innovations throughout the 20thcentury, and it is a pattern which has continued into the present day.
Perhaps best known for their contribution to the glamorous world of motorsport, along with other high profile sports timing duties, today they are also stretching the boundaries of wearable tech in the Smart watch space.
Their contemporary roster is filled with everything from rugged tool models to handsome dress pieces, as well as some of the most affordable tourbillon watches currently available. Meanwhile, the craze for all things vintage is seeing the Heuer back catalog attracting more and more discerning buyers.
Here, we explore just what makes the manufacture one of the most interesting prospects for enthusiasts at all stages of their collecting journey.
TAG Heuer: History
Setting up shop in St-Imier, in the Swiss canton of Bern, the business originally called Uhrenmanufaktur Heuer AG was founded in 1860 by Edouard Heuer. The son of a shoemaker, who had become a watchmaking apprentice at 14, Edouard was a mere 20-year old when he started his workshop. As with all similar practices at the time, he busied himself with the manufacturing of pocket watches.
However, it wasn’t long before he was changing the face of his industry. By 1871 (after moving to Bienne and rebranding to Edouard Heuer & Compagnie) the business registered its first patent with the invention of a new keyless, crown-operated winding system. Then, having become fixated with the idea of precisely timing sporting events, Heuer built his first chronograph pocket watch in 1882.
But it was his creation of the ‘oscillating pinion’ just a few years later in 1887 which brought the marque to wider attention. A device that uncoupled the stopwatch mechanism from the regular timekeeping gearing, it was far simpler than the existing version, reducing manufacturing and assembly costs and making servicing and adjustments easier. The innovation was so far ahead of its time, in fact, that it is still widely used today.
TAG Heuer: 20th Century Breakthroughs
During the early years of the 20th century, huge strides were being made in automobile and aviation engineering.
For both, accurate timing was becoming a more critical factor and so Heuer seized on the opportunity by creating the world’s first dashboard chronograph in 1911 called the Time of Trip, suitable for use on the ground and in the air. The company would actually continue to produce similar instruments for many years, including the Autavia in 1933 (the name taken from AUTomobile and AVIAtion) and right up until the 1980s.
In 1914, they were able to introduce their debut chrono wristwatch as well, an adapted pocket watch with the crown at the 12 o’clock.
A further breakthrough followed hot on its heels when, in 1916, the company released the Mikrograph, the first chrono capable of measuring to within 1/100th second.
Heuer was quickly becoming the leading maker of mechanical stopwatches, adding the Semikograph (able to time to 1/50th second) and the Semicrosplit (housing a flyback function, so could record two events simultaneously) to their roster. All that brought them to the attention of the Olympic committee who pronounced Heuer the official timekeeper of all three games of the 1920s.
Heuer in The Modern Age
Jack Heuer, the fourth generation of the family to helm the company, arrived in 1958 and is the man credited with many of the breakthroughs of the second half of the 20th century.
His opening gambit was a new chrono, with a rotating bezel, in 1962. Reviving a name from the past, he called it the Autavia. Not only was the model a highly capable tool watch, it was among the first examples from the brand to be released in a number of different variations. Customers could take their pick from two or three register chronos, GMTs, diving or full spec military versions.
1962 was a banner year for Heuer. As well as the Autavia hitting the stores, one of their pocket watch chronos became the first Swiss watch in space when astronaut John Glenn wore one strapped to his wrist on his landmark flight aboard Mercury-Atlas 6.
The sixties also saw the debuts of two more iconic creations, both based around the brand’s history with motorsport. The Carrera arrived in 1963, an elegantly sporty chronograph taking its name from the punishing Carrera Panamericana car race in Mexico.
But perhaps more importantly, a revolutionary square model was ready to take to the stage, just waiting for an entirely new type of movement.
Heuer And The Race For An Automatic Chronograph
Automatic, or self-winding, watches had already been around for many years by this point, ever since Rolex brought out their Perpetual movements in the 1930s.
The one glaring omission was an automatic chronograph movement, with no manufacture able to produce a workable, affordable version. Now however, with the looming quartz crisis spurring them on, the traditional mechanical houses started to appreciate the urgency and so three separate concerns joined the race to build the first.
In Japan, Seiko came out with their ref. 6139, while in Switzerland two rival syndicates formed. Zenith teamed up with Movado, eventually bringing us the legendary El Primero. Meanwhile, Heuer were joined by Breitling, Buren and Dubois-Dépraz to form the Chronomatic Group.
All three launched their respective efforts in 1969 and there is still no end to the debate over who actually won the battle. Regardless, the Chronomatic Group’s creation, developed in what was dubbed Project 99, became known as the Caliber 11.
It was used in models by most of the contributing brands, with Heuer putting it to work inside the Autavia and Carrera range, along with the model which perhaps exemplifies their spirit the best; the Monaco.
The first ever waterproof square watch (although it was 40mm x 38mm, but who’s counting?) the debut ref. 1133 was launched at the ’69 Basel Fair with either a blue or grey dial. But it would take the priceless publicity of being Steve McQueen’s wrist wear of choice in the 1971 movie Le Mans before it would catapult into the public’s consciousness. It featured heavily in the film, and gave the Monaco a massive appeal that endures to this day.
In 2020, one of the models McQueen wore became the most expensive Heuer wristwatch ever sold when it auctioned for $2,208,000.
How Heuer Became TAG
As with just about every one of their contemporaries, the quartz crisis hit Heuer hard.
Yet, by embracing rather than fighting against the new technology, they were able to ride it out better than many.
The company was bought out in 1985 by the Saudi business group named Techniques d’Avant Garde, and officially became TAG Heuer on 1st January 1986.
The conglomerate oversaw significant growth, with the brand injecting huge amounts of capital and enlisting the likes of Ayrton Senna to shore up their motorsport heritage with some inspiring advertising campaigns.
By 1999, TAG Heuer had grown big enough to attract the attentions of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury goods company, which owns some 75 different brands across five separate categories. They took over the company, and scored an instant hit with fans by installing Jack Heuer as honorary chairman in 2001.
The acquisition has breathed new life into TAG, and ramped up the sort of innovation for which they became famous. Under their leadership, we have seen a string of pioneering and inventive releases, including the Mikrogirder, the first mechanical chronograph able to record down to 1/2000th second.
We have also been treated to groundbreaking concepts like the Monaco V4, the first watch powered with belt drives, which surfaced in 2004 and actually went into production in 2009. In 2014, it was released in a tourbillon version.
Further advances have followed, with a series of homegrown movements and a heap of industry awards, as well as a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking watchmakers currently operating.
Today, the TAG collection is a finely balanced mix of the highest of high tech and a pleasing smattering of vintage-inspired throwbacks to the good old days.
But a dedication to quality and engineering excellence runs through the catalog, making TAG Heuer possibly one of the best value for money brands currently available.
From their humble beginnings nestled in the Swiss Alps, the brand now ranks as a true giant of horology, with a fascinating past and exciting future.