The Force is with Him: In Conversation with Frédéric Arnault, CEO of TAG HeuerBy Wei Koh
This is the thing about Frédéric Arnault. He makes some pretty damn great watches. But the fact that he doesn’t shout about himself, is actually relatively self-effacing and understated, and prefers to let his actions and products speak for him rather than engage in table-banging histrionics, means it takes a little while for this to sink in. It came to me over the course of my week in Paris earlier this year. Like all watch lovers with a modicum of self-preservation and vague grasp of one’s mortality, I was simultaneously delighted to be decamping to the City of Lights, yet highly apprehensive of being robbed for my watches. The problem in every European capital today is the violent tsunami of watch crimes sweeping across them. Part of this is that the criminal underground has recognized the intrinsic value of the majority of Rolexes, Royal Oaks and Nautiluses. Another part of this is that, sadly, watch theft is not taken seriously in most places, with thieves let go by sympathetic judges after they shed a few Amber Heard-like crocodile tears. Indeed, there could be a new reality TV show with a countdown function tracking naive Singaporean watch collectors with a false sense of security based on the relative safety of their native country, air-dropped into different European metropolises wearing Richard Milles, with bets taken on how long before their timepiece is forcibly removed at knife or gunpoint.
Anyway, the point is, I had to select my watch for the week wisely. As someone who worships at the altar of horology, it had to be a watch that excited me and was a pleasure to wear. But it also had to be a timepiece that did not affix a huge crosshair on my back accompanied by a sign that read “Rob me!” or in French, “Vole moi!” In a moment of inspiration, I came across my TAG Heuer Aquaracer in grade 2 titanium and decided that this would be my constant companion through my seven-day bacchanal of unchained Gallic gastronomic sybaritism. During that time, I was reminded that the Aquaracer is one of the best diving watches ever made.
First, the design is utterly unique. While all other dive watches feature a round case, round bezel, round plots, everything on the Aquaracer is sharply angled and linear giving it an appealing aggressivity. On the wrist, it is absolutely stellar — ultra light thanks to the titanium case and bracelet, which is wonderfully finished with a matte industrial texture. It fits fantastically because it has a micro-adjustment system that is one of the most effortless and intuitive to use. It has a stunning green ceramic bezel with luminous dive markers that, for an unfathomable reason, is still a rarity in Swiss watchmaking. And it has different colored lume applied to the hour indexes and markers versus the blue lume used for the minute hands and dive markers, which is absolutely brilliant.
I wore the Aquaracer everywhere — jogging by the Seine, at spin classes at Dynamo, to dinner at Guy Savoy, Chez L’Ami Louis and L’Ami Jean, chilling out quaffing innumerable Picantes in Soho House in Pigalle. I mean everywhere. And it was perfect in every setting. Because it is just that. A perfect watch which is also wonderfully affordable. The tactile experience resonated with quality. The screw-down crown took the perfect amount of tension to undo and was super smooth. The bezel took the right amount of tension to turn and each micro-click was pleasing to hear and feel. It was such a pleasure to wear that afterwards when I headed to Monaco to join TAG Heuer for the Monaco Grand Prix, even though I had brought two Carreras with me, my own special edition Revolution & The Rake “Blue Dreamer” model as well as the Fragment/Hiroshi Fujiwara model, it was impossible to take this gem of a watch off my wrist.
My enjoyment of wearing the Aquaracer which was launched in 2021 made me reflect on the watches emerging from TAG Heuer since Arnault took the reins of the brand. And the more I thought about it, the more I was impressed with his work. This recent Watches and Wonders boasted TAG Heuer’s most impressive launches in recent memory. I loved the 1,000-meter water resistant Superdiver. The Professional 200 Aquaracer with its solar-powered Solargraph movement was another hit with its perfect integration of solar technology and the cool carbon/Super-LumiNova bezel. The Carrera Plasma with its lab-grown diamond case and dial was intriguing. The many limited edition Carrera watches created by Arnault such as the Montreal were dynamic and fun. The new Carrera models featuring the Heuer 02 were appealing, so much so that my friend and Heuer collector extraordinaire Arno Haslinger bought one.
But it was one watch in particular that Arnault created that truly blew me away. That was the amazing pièce unique Monaco in carbon fiber with a carbon fiber dial and carbon nanotube hairspring created for Only Watch last year that I felt was possibly the very best retro modern watch created in recent memory. What is clear is that when it comes to his watches, Frédéric Arnault is truly hitting his stride. He has also surrounded himself with some of the most dynamic people in the watch industry, such as the legendary high complication specialist Carole Forestier, Edouard Mignon as Head of Innovation and Nicholas Biebuyck overseeing Heritage. With an understanding of what is waiting in the wings for TAG Heuer, I am now convinced that Frédéric Arnault is one of the next generation’s most important young leaders. As such, it was a pleasure to catch up with Arnault during the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix to discuss his work over the last few years and listen to him hint at what the future holds in store.
The event you hosted was stellar — that drone show over Monaco harbor was quite something. When did you come up with that?
It’s the first drone show for a brand allowed in Monaco. The only other one was for Monaco’s National Day, also known as Prince’s Day, last November. It is still very new in watches and we are the first. I think it is important to have a consistency in the message we send. We were always pioneers in timekeeping and in precision. So regardless of what we do, we need to keep that pioneering spirit and execute our initiatives and events with this in mind and also at the very highest level we can.
I look at the Only Watch Carbon Monaco and think of it as a historically significant timepiece for you. It was a spectacular watch, a true Singer Porsche of a watch, taking historic iconography but elevating the game with an incredible pioneering use of carbon fiber, especially for the spiral…
That was a very significant watch for us. I talked about a pioneering spirit. Well, this is [our] approach with carbon fiber, which has been used by other brands for cases and in rare instances for the baseplate. But we wanted to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with carbon fiber, so we also had our carbon hairspring. This is a new and cutting edge technology which is not quite ready for industrialization. So right now we are very selective about the watches that we equip with this, like the Only Watch Monaco and the Carrera Plasma, for example. That Only Watch Monaco with its carbon case and dial, with the incredible gratté (scratched) finish on the baseplate with the carbon hairspring was a really nice project because it shows how we can still be really true to ourselves, really express a coherence with our DNA in terms of design, precision timekeeping but also elevate our game in a big way.
I see that the legendary Carole Forestier is part of your team now. Did she work on this watch?
Carole Forestier, who was previously at Cartier and before that Renaud et Papi, is something of a legend in watchmaking. She was very much part of the Only Watch project and will take a big leadership role in bringing new innovation and elevation to TAG Heuer. It is funny especially with the specialized press, as soon as they found out Carole was with us, they were all asking, “What is she doing?” Well, she already worked on this project as well as the Plasma but more than that she is behind our entire movement strategy that we are rolling out. We have developments in-house. We have close developments with partners. She is overseeing all the new movements that we launched. The TH30-00, the TH50-00, the great Solargraph in the solar-powered Aquaracer— she worked on all of these.
I’m not saying if you are right. But this is an interesting observation, and I will say that TAG Heuer has never done a split seconds chronograph on a wristwatch. We did it on pocket watches 100 years ago. But incredibly, we have never done this on a wristwatch. Hypothetically, if we are going to approach this complication, we should absolutely revolutionize this. I’ll put it this way: whatever we do, we are going to be really serious about it. We have an absolutely great team. We have Carole Forestier, we have Edouard [Edouard Mignon] and we have Emmanuel [Dupas] who used to be a movement director at Rolex who is managing our innovation, so you can understand what I mean when I say we are in this for the long term.
Wow, what a team! I concur, your guys are bad asses. What is the innovation department about?
For me, the key thing is how do you take innovation, I mean, really cutting edge technology and make it really reliable? For example, the carbon nanotube spiral we were discussing earlier, we cannot create big volumes today. But we are investing in the capacity to be the leader in this technology and it is going to come. And when it comes, it is going to work perfectly.
I feel that you’ve very cleverly used the Only Watch Carbon Monaco “Dark Lord” to set the stage for the commercial titanium Dark Lord watch you launched during the F1 Monaco Grand Prix. Am I right?
As you know, TAG Heuer’s history and heritage is very important to me. We are one of the few brands where our heritage director plays a significant role in all our developments. When we started to look at revitalizing the Monaco, we quickly landed on the reference known to collectors as the “Dark Lord.” This is, from an auction performance perspective, a star watch. It is super collectible. Its look is amazing and at the same time it feels really fresh and contemporary. It’s crazy to me that this watch was created back in the mid-’70s. Today brands sell all-black watches like it’s something you can only make today. But we made this watch almost 50 years ago. So we said, “OK we need to bring back the Dark Lord, but always with this focus on quality and reliability.”
The engine power is the Heuer 02, which is a great movement. We put the crown on the right because, historically, the original also had the crown on the right. As opposed to the original Monaco, which used the very first modular chronograph movement, the Caliber 11, the Dark Lord was one of the very first watches at the time to use the Valjoux 7750, which explains its crown orientation. From a material perspective, ergonomics and comfort are very important. You are wearing your titanium Aquaracer and you told me it feels great on the wrist. This is very important to us. So, for the Dark Lord, it was important to make it light, balanced and a pleasure to wear.
This was the first thing that Patrick Dempsey told me when he put his on…
That’s exactly what we want to hear. From a design perspective, we of course are using the traditional black and orange theme, but we also wanted to make the watch warmer and to elevate the quality, which is why we decided on the rose gold hands and indexes. This touch really works for me and also gives the watch a vintage feel without us using more overt elements like a patina colored Super-LumiNova, for example.
What is the commercial result?
Demand has already been very high. It’s not a limited edition. But it is limited by our production capacity. The volume we had already planned for a year has been immediately sold out. So there is now a waiting list for the watch.
That’s very cool…
Look, this is new for us. A few years ago, we were very much focused on limited editions. This worked very well for us. The watches sold out very quickly. They appeared on the secondary market at significant premiums. But we still had people over a year later that were asking, “Where can I find this green dial Carrera?” We felt the frustration. And we decided we needed to shift the model. We wanted to find a way to serve the needs of our customers better. With the Dark Lord, we want to create a reference that is unlimited, but you will probably just have to wait a bit because there is a very high demand. I think this is the best solution to respect the customer.
I’m honestly blown away by how amazing this event has been and how well we’ve been hosted. You’ve really stepped it up — why?
Thank you for saying that. Monaco is the most important event of the year for us. We’ve been sponsoring it for many years. It is the single most glamorous race on the F1 calendar, and so it was important for us to make a statement. We wanted to offer a truly unforgettable experience to our guests. We are in the process of elevating the brand. As I said, we are improving quality, reliability, design, but it doesn’t end at the watch. We are improving the retail experience, aftersales, every dimension of TAG Heuer. We closed 25 percent of our distribution in the last two years. At the same time, we’ve invested a lot in our own boutiques. We want to offer the best service, the best locations and the best people — it’s as simple as that. For example, we are opening a boutique at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore with our friends at Sincere Fine Watches. This is such an important location. We wanted to launch this around the Singapore Grand Prix to celebrate this race.
Your new TAG Heuer ambassador Jacob Elordi is such a cool guy. How did this relationship come about?
The most important thing for us is the authenticity of the relationship. We reached out to him and gave him a watch. But we were genuinely surprised at how he wore his Monaco everywhere and how much he loved it. It progressed very naturally from there.
He told us an incredible story about how his mother told him he needed to be connected to a watch brand to be successful, and that he even bought his TAG Heuer jacket before meeting you.
It has to be a real relationship. The worst thing that can happen is an ambassador just puts on the watch for pictures and then takes it off afterwards. He doesn’t talk about it or promote it amongst his friends. It’s just a transactional relationship. For us, we must have a personal relationship with an ambassador who really loves the watch and the brand. We really have this with Jacob. On top of that, he’s such a nice person, super approachable and totally genuine. If you listen to him speak about the history of cinema, you’ll understand that this is someone with real depth that loves and appreciates the culture of filmmaking.
Patrick Dempsey was mentioning how happy he was that you now have a partnership with Porsche…
He is the perfect figure to represent this partnership. We never did anything official with them before. When we looked at car partnerships, however, it was always Porsche that appeared as the most authentic, and that would make the most sense of all the brands. So we approached them and we had all the elements: the heritage, the ambassadors, the timelessness of our designs, the brand positioning, the focus on innovation but also reliability. They are the ones that I feel are truly successful in their transition to pure electric cars. So, we’ve built a great relationship with their team.
Everyone recognizes how hard you work. But this year, I finally see you during Watches and Wonders, and Monaco, enjoying yourself and having fun.
I think it’s very important to enjoy the moment. It’s important for the brand and for the team. We sell an object that is all about passion. We create timepieces that make people dream. And so the fun part, the passion, is very important. I have fun every day working on these amazing watches and for this great brand. I have fun meeting people like yourself.