TAG Heuer Takes Pole Position
How the watch brand became one of the most recognised names in motorsport.
There comes a time in most men’s lives when they become aware of luxury brands. These days, with the widespread diffusion of social media, it’s probably earlier than it used to be. For me, it was in the early 1990s when I entered my teens. Back then, my peers and I learned of a trio of luxury watch brands that became a sort of adolescent horological holy trinity: Rolex, Omega and TAG Heuer.
Even among those three, TAG Heuer stood out. It was sporty, manly, aspirational. Mr Ayrton Senna wore one. Its strapline was “Don’t Crack Under Pressure”. Omega had yet to sign James Bond. Rolex was at best aloof, and at worst a watch for red-braces-wearing financiers. TAG Heuer was just cool, and everyone I knew wanted one.
A quarter of a century on, not too much has changed. Those three are still top of the watch pile, certainly in awareness terms – although Patek Philippe has arguably become even more sought after than Rolex. TAG Heuer retains its “cool”, still making sports watches, and, as of a few years ago, once more encouraging us all not to crack under pressure. They’re even still making Senna watches.
Mr Ayrton Senna wearing a wearing a TAG Heuer watch, Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, San Marino in February 1991. Photograph courtesy of TAG Heuer
TAG Heuer’s story of course runs much deeper than that. The roots of the company lie in the golden age of Swiss watchmaking expansion, the second half of the 19th century. It was founded by Mr Edouard Heuer in 1860, a watchmaker whose invention of the “oscillating pinion” is a watchmaking landmark. Through the decades, it developed numerous timing devices that advanced accurate timekeeping, such as the Mikrograph of 1916, the world’s first stopwatch accurate to 1/100th of a second.
Mr Jack Heuer and his father Mr Charles-Édouard Heuer in the Heuer Workshop, 1958. Photograph courtesy of TAG Heuer
But the story of the brand we recognise today only really began with the succession of Mr Jack Heuer, the great-grandson of the company founder, to the helm of the company in 1962. Jack was an engineer, but more importantly he was also a cosmopolitan. By the time he took the reins, he’d already worked for the company in New York, where he witnessed the post-war rush to mass consumerism. Critically, his time in the US also introduced him to marketing. His talents and experience meant he could develop products consumers needed – and make them want them.
It was the perfect marriage of skills, and over the space of three decades, Mr Heuer transformed the family company from the maker of technical, industrial instruments (it made far fewer watches before his time, and rarely named the ones it did) into a global brand that made some of the world’s most desirable accessories.
Along the way, he hit upon a number of ingenious ideas. The biggest of these was recognising the growing popularity of motor sport, and tagging his watches to it. Starting in the 1960s, he began introducing dials carrying names such as Carrera, Monaco, Monza, Silverstone, Camaro and Montreal, all before anyone had hit on the idea of licensing names (so it cost him nothing). He was also among the first to spot that the drivers were becoming household names in their own right, and so put watches on the wrists of some of the sport’s heroic figures, including Messrs Clay Regazzoni, Jo Siffert and Jochan Rindt. Obvious in this age of endorsement, but pioneering at the time.
Mr Niki Lauda racing the Ferrari 312T, Grand Prix of Italy, Monza, 07 September 1975. Photograph by Mr Bernard Cahier/Getty Images
The company’s success wasn’t continuous, though. Like so many other Swiss watch houses, Heuer suffered in the late 1970s and early 1980s as quartz ripped through the traditional mechanical watch industry, forcing the sale of the company to Techniques d’Avant Garde in 1985, at which point Heuer became TAG Heuer. During the 1990s, TAG Heuer found its feet again, winning a new generation of fans, beginning a revival that continues today. Mr Jack Heuer, who left the company under a cloud in 1982, was reinstated as honorary chairman in 2001, a role the octogenarian still holds today.
In 1971, he hitched his brand to Ferrari, creating one of the most iconic partnerships in motor sport history. The nose cones of Mr Niki Lauda’s 1975 and 1977 championship-winning Ferraris carried the famous Heuer logo and launched the brand into the minds of millions of fans, and onto the walls of boys’ bedrooms all over the world.
The TAG Heuer of 2017 is once again one of the watch industry’s fastest growing brands, and after launching the Connected watch earlier this year to tie in with the release of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, MR PORTER is now delighted to welcome the rest of the family onto the site. Under the guidance of current chief executive Mr Jean-Claude Biver, a man widely considered to be the greatest marketeer working in the industry today (he signed Bond and Ms Cindy Crawford to Omega in the mid-1990s and turned Hublot into a global superbrand in the 2000s), TAG Heuer is thriving and attracting a new generation of aspirants, led by an impressive roster of high-profile ambassadors and an extended family of watches, outlined below, that celebrate both the company’s heritage and its spirit of innovation.
Arguably, TAG Heuer doesn’t have a signature design. Contenders would include the Monaco (but it’s pretty niche) and the Aquaracer (it’s certainly prevalent), but it’s the Carrera that most perfectly and most broadly explains the TAG Heuer story. Introduced in 1963 by Mr Jack Heuer, it was inspired by a deadly 1950s motor race called the Carrera Panamericana, and targeted at stylish young professionals. Racing pedigree, timeless design and the watch Mr Heuer has often said he’s most proud of.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when TAG Heuer was getting back on its feet, it made a watch called the 2000 Series, which became one of the most iconic watches of its time – and the watch that many argue saved the company after the ravages of the Quartz Crisis. Its spiritual successor is the Aquaracer, which was given a refresh this year. Like the 2000 Series, it’s sporty, accessible, pretty versatile, and often buyers’ entry point into the brand.
Many reckon that without the intervention of Heuer in the early 1980s, Formula 1 wouldn’t have become the high-tech sport it is today. Heuer – as it was then – introduced sophisticated timekeeping equipment to the sport that meant lap and split times could be recorded with greater accuracy than ever before and displayed on TV, bringing a new era of competition and audience engagement to the sport. The Formula 1 watch arrived in 1986, and was then, as now, young and sporty, powered by quartz, and keenly priced.
The Monaco, named after the Grand Prix rather than the principality, is one of watchmaking’s truly iconic watch designs. When it was launched in 1969, it became both the world’s first automatic and first square-cased chronograph. Today, it’s remembered more for its bold aesthetic, particularly in its classic blue, white and red iteration, made famous when it was worn by Mr Steve McQueen in the 1971 racing epic Le Mans. An icon.
Originally, TAG Heuer’s portmanteau watch was a dashboard instrument that could be installed in both cars and planes. It enjoyed a heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s, then sat in purgatory for a few decades, before being officially reintroduced this year as the home for TAG Heuer’s latest in-house chronograph calibre, and in response to clamour from collectors. Judging by its reception, it looks set to stay.
TAG Heuer has always been at the cusp of watch technology and design and it’s currently leading the way in marrying Swiss watchmaking traditions with the smartwatch wave. The Connected has an Intel processor and runs Google’s Android Wear, and is already in its second iteration, now a modular design that can be tailored to the consumer’s whim. It also enjoyed some screen time as the Kingsman agent’s watch of choice this year.