In Conversation with Frédéric ArnaultBy Wei Koh
Though I’m only starting to really understand him, as are the myriad of watch collectors and journalists the world over, I think it is fair to say that this has been one of the most significant years in the life of Frédéric Arnault. Because this year, coinciding with the 160th anniversary of one of the most beloved names in watch culture, Arnault made the transition from TAG Heuer’s strategy and digital director to becoming its CEO. Which makes him the youngest CEO in the Swiss watch industry at 25 years of age.
It would be easy to regard his appointment to this role as an extension of the empire-building created by his father, Bernard, who founded the world’s most dominant luxury group. It would be simple to say that he is following in the footsteps of his elder brother Alexandre who, in his role as CEO of the once quirky and anachronistic luggage brand Rimowa, had ably transformed it into a scorching hot lifestyle brand with particular traction among millennials and the mainland Chinese. But that would be too simple. And Frédéric Arnault, soft-spoken, intensely intelligent, a concert pianist with a persona that makes you think he is playing infinite chess-like strategic scenarios in his mind every nanosecond, is anything but simple.
What is clear is that he takes the reigns of TAG Heuer at a truly critical time for the brand, as it was led with two very different strategies in the last decade. One strategy implemented by Jean-Christophe Babin related to focusing more on the high end combined with what was universally lauded as some of the most daring technical innovations, characterised by watches such as the Monaco V4, the first belt-driven, lubrication-free mechanical watch (with a prototype built by Philippe Dufour no less).
The second strategy implemented by Jean-Claude Biver was to position TAG Heuer as the unrivalled king of the value proposition, characterised by the Heuer 02T, the world’s most accessibly priced tourbillon chronograph replete with COSC certification at USD 14,000, as well as a pioneer of the luxury smartwatch with the TAG Heuer Connected Watch.
So which of these pathways will Arnault follow? From what I can see, the answer is neither. Rather, he is taking the brand back to its roots, reconnecting us with the most iconic models from TAG Heuer’s history — the Carrera, the Monaco, the Formula 1 — but with some of the best design acumen I’ve seen for a long time in the watch industry. So much so that I was compelled to ring up my friend Nick Foulkes, the editor of Vanity Fair’s On Time to ask, “Is it just me or is TAG Heuer having one of the best years I’ve ever seen? I mean, the watches, and there have been a lot of them, are just really f**king good, no?”
To which he replied, “Wei, I was just thinking the same thing. I have to say I’m really quite impressed with Frédéric Arnault.” Petitioning other opinions, in particular, world-renowned TAG Heuer expert Arno Haslinger, I got the same remark: “He’s good. He really knows what he’s doing and the watches are strong.” When I went to look at my friend Jeff Stein aka OnTheDash’s Instagram page, I noticed how effusive he was about the 2020 Carrera Chronograph 42mm Heuer 02, which he felt was a perfect modern expression of historic codes but in a really relevant, exciting new watch.
I had to stop for a second. So one thing you need to know is that the watch world is an insular, guarded and judgmental environment. And one of the prevailing sentiments is that the upper management of the watch world, especially in big group-owned brands, has replaced the once engaging and charismatic entrepreneurs with INSEAD-educated managers who are somewhat less passionate about horology than they are about their EBITDA margins.
But the result is that many watches now feel like soulless strategic creations rather than objects born out of genuine love for watchmaking. I have to say that judging Arnault purely based on the watches created in his first year as CEO, he militates against this. Indeed, talking to him about the impressive array of watches he created this year had me intimidated by his knowledge and insight into his brand’s history. Which is precisely the feeling you want to have when discussing watches with the leader of a Swiss watch brand.
And although he doesn’t resemble any of the past icons of watch leadership in temperament or manner — he is measured while they are effusive, he is guarded while they are flashy, he is soft-spoken while they like to shout, he is understated while they are larger than life — he might just be the most viable modern successor to the legends of 20th-century watch industry leadership, based on one very simple but elusive ability. To create genuinely good watches.
Let’s look at this year based purely on the watches created by Arnault and TAG Heuer. The first was the Carrera Silver Limited Edition for the brand’s 160th anniversary, which was a stunning pure homage to an icon. The second was the visually arresting Monaco Grand Prix de Monaco Historique with its rhodium-plated red sunray brushed dial.
The third and fourth are two different versions of the all-new Carrera Chronograph driven by the in-house vertical clutch Heuer 02 calibre in 42mm and 44mm versions. The fifth is the Carrera Montreal, also a vintage revival watch but here an amalgam of famous design elements reinterpreted to created something new.
The sixth is the collaboration watch with Fragment of Japan, based unexpectedly on a Formula 1 case. The seventh is the Carrera 44mm Limited Edition watch to commemorate the brand’s 160th anniversary, with the interesting shift of the date window to 12 o’clock. The eight is the F1 Senna Edition watches. Nine is a new version of the Connected Watch. And ten, just launched yesterday in partnership with the one and only George Bamford, the TAG Heuer x Bamford Watch Department Limited Edition Aquaracer. Impressive, right?
It was a pleasure to catch up with Frédéric Arnault to discuss his first and very significant year as CEO of TAG Heuer from the perspective of the watches he has created.
WK: Let’s talk a little bit about what I’m kind of identifying as three main sort of design philosophies related to watches at TAG Heuer: historic, modern and connected. I would say the first are the ones that are kind of revivals of some of your most beautiful historic watches. And I think the best example of that was that silver Carrera we saw for the 160th anniversary — that was amazing. You know, I remember I was in the airport, and I saw it, and I almost dropped my phone, because I was like, it’s stunning. So tell me a little bit about what this watch represents to you from a historical perspective, but also in terms of your capacity to revive icons.
FA: We thought of the 160 years anniversary of the brand, we really wanted to have a focus on one collection in particular, and we thought that Carrera was really the one that made most sense. I’d say it is one of the leading names today in our brand and also in the watchmaking industry. And to relaunch it, we wanted to recall the past and look at the first versions that made this watch special. And actually, you know, this collection, unlike some others, was really successful from the start. The name was great, design was great, there were good collections, different models that were very complementary.
It’s a chronograph, which is very important for Heuer at the time and TAG Heuer today. And this watch in particular, we thought was very interesting [especially] the colour of the dial. And we didn’t want to do a strict re-edition, but we wanted to bring modern techniques to it. So we have a modern movement for Heuer 02 [and] we have an interesting full patina on the hands. It’s a sort of modern-retro, modern-vintage look. And it was really to show the anchor of the Carrera in the past. It’s a connection that has almost 60 years of history. It’s an icon — very few watches have this status.
WK: Let’s talk about the Heuer 02 movement, which is a fantastic chronograph movement made by you, a column-wheel vertical clutch. But you also used it to create two very interesting Carrera Chronographs this year, one in 44mm and one in 42mm. And when I initially thought about these watches, I thought perhaps they might be quite similar and actually kind of occupy the same category. But then when I looked at them more, I realised actually the 44mm watch is much more robust and kind of sporty and a little bit aggressive, especially with the ceramic bezel. And then if you look at the 42mm, it’s more of an elegant watch as well. Was that the intention to have these two offers and do you think they’re complementary?
FA: I think you summarised very well the vision we had for this launch. We really wanted to recall the top models that were launched in history. If you look at the first models, it was a chronograph with a thin bezel with a tri-compax display. And this is the first time that we bring it again on a classic dial. We had the Heuer 02 with the skeleton dial but this is the first time on the Carrera [that] we bring it again with the classic dial.
And on the sporty, we wanted to recall one of the leading SKUs, leading models that were launched in 2004. Actually, it was the first time that an external tachymeter was launched on the Carrera. There were initially some internal tachymeters on the dial, not on the very first ones — the very first ones were really without tachymeters — but later on, we saw some internal tachymeters and in 2004, that’s the first time that we saw an external tachymeter and then it started becoming one of the iconic looks of the Carrera.
You know, the watch we [hark back] to is Calibre 16, a black watch; it was also nicknamed by the collectors as the “Brad Pitt” watch, because at the time, Brad Pitt was the ambassador of TAG Heuer. And it was extremely successful. And so we really wanted to refine these two tastes and flavour in the Carrera. One more elegant, and one a bit more sporty with an external tachymeter. But there’re many details that we changed that we can see in both models.
WK: The 42mm version a really elegant watch. You know, and it was really cool, Frédéric, to see guys like Jeff Stein, like Arno Haslinger, all coming out and saying that they absolutely love this watch. I mean, how did that make you feel?
FA: Very proud, very proud of the teams that have been working tirelessly on this project for more than two years. On this one, we recall the dispositions of the counters, the legibility of the dial, which was very true for Jack Heuer. We added a small hands for the seconds and this is quite new for the Carrera; it actually looks quite good on the dial. On the case, we of course kept the lugs and the lugs is also what makes this watch special. But we added a chamfer from lug to lug.
Recalling also some shapes, of course, we get the disposition of the pushers, round pushers — this is very true to Carrera. We had thought maybe we should bring some different design on these pushers, but we always came back to this design. And the steel strap also is quite new. It’s a new shape. The new “H” shape. We really worked on integration also, so it looks very smooth with the case.
WK: Every single detail from the chamfer that you were talking about, from the lugs, from the pushers, from the bracelet. And from the iconography of the dial, which is extremely pure. I know how difficult it is to design really apparently simple things but have a very strong, pronounced sense of identity. Tell me a little bit about your work in the creative process.
FA: Thank you very much for your kind words on this watch. It was very well received by my clients and we also put the comments by journalists, as you mentioned, Jeff Stein, to great collectors for the brands. I was involved from the beginning, first on defining objectives. And it was to re-bring a classic look on the Carrera with our modern in-house manufactured movements, with always improving quality and also perceived quality.
We have this tri-compax design, as we call it. We had discussions on all these topics we mentioned one by one. We started by the case, what should we do? How should we recall the historic codes? That’s when we had the idea of this chamfer that was actually not possible at the time 60 years ago, and it’s a new technique that allows us to do it smoothly [while] keeping a very good quality for the watch. Also, on the dial, there was many discussions on the disposition of the indexes, of the finishing on the counters, the subdials, how do we really make this watch modern, natural, but keeping the flavour of what Carrera was and is in people’s mind? The idea was not to do evolution but to bring something fresh and new.
WK: Let’s talk a little bit about the Carrera Sport Chronograph 160 Years Special Edition watch, which is just launched about a week ago. It’s a great watch as well, I love how you take in one element in particular, which is the date, change the placement of it and having it in red. And it completely changes the identity of this watch as well.
FA: Yes, there’re many codes we brought. The “panda” dial, of course, of which we have many examples in history. I really love also the details on the counter, the sub-counter at three with the red lines, and this is very unique to Heuer’s history.
And we can see it also in the Carrera Montreal watch that we launched. It was in yellow, the red hand and touches of red like this was very true to us. Of course, as you mentioned, the red date, the date at 12, is something we don’t see nowadays too much. And we had it in the past, we thought it was a very cool detail. And it’s actually a very legible [watch] also. So yeah, thanks for your comments on this watch. And we launched it at the date of the Carrera Panamericana. You know, this was the inspiration for the name. Very dangerous race, iconic race happening in Mexico. And we launched this watch at just the date of this race.
WK: You know, I have to say, I really commend you, you are using vintage elements in contemporary watches. This kind of sense of dynamic contrast is really apparent in the watches you’re creating, certainly in the 42mm Carrera, certainly in that 160th Anniversary Sport Carrera as well. Is this kind of the idea for watches to come?
FA: I love spending time in the museum, in the archives, also some blogs on which I discover stuff about the brand. We have great periods of design, and we have to leverage that. It’s a very, very strong element for us. We have 160 years of history we can rely on that. It gives also trust and confidence to the consumers. They know we’ve been around for this much time, they know that we have real codes that we nurture, in which we believe, and that makes our watch live through time and not become obsolete. And so this is the spirit — always making them modern and bringing a modern touch and also with the techniques. Having the latest sapphire glass or having the latest techniques in the movement with the best quality you can find, and improving these elements on the quality is very important for us.
WK: One of the most successful collaborations you’ve had is with Fujiwara from Fragment and you’ve created another really cool Fragment watch this year. Tell us a little bit about these collaborations and what they bring to TAG Heuer.
FA: Definitely. So to talk about the Hiroshi Fujiwara, we have a great partnership with him. With the second watch, we’ve actually worked with him. We did a first Carrera 39mm with quite an innovative struggle. From there, we wanted also to maybe push the brand in directions where we never did. And we took inspiration from actually a Formula 1 case, which is our entry-price watch, usually on the quartz movements.
And we thought, why not try bringing our in-house manufacturer movement in this watch? It was something we’ve never done in the past. And also we designed a completely new bracelet [and] this was Hiroshi’s idea. Some ideas came from him. Some ideas came from us internally. But it was really a discussion. I think that’s what makes a product great. It wasn’t just Hiroshi saying, I want this. No, we have also a point of view. And it was really a discussion between him and us that brought this product. We know what’s great in our brand, he knows what’s great in his and what point of view he can bring. The strap, the finishes, we brought on the case.
And actually, it’s from a Formula 1 [case], but it also recalls some vintage Autavias from the ‘70s. All the finishing on the dial, which was printed, we had some thoughts of having some specific indexes but we thought collectively that having the full printed dial was quite cool and quite new. So this was extremely successful in Japan and China [and] throughout the world.
Collaborations will play an important part and I think that’s what the watch community wants to see as well. Some creativity that we couldn’t bring by ourselves. We couldn’t do this watch, just by Heuer, we need some external inputs [from an] external brand, external point of view to bring this creativity. And we’ll have some future collaborations for the brand — one of our objectives is really to bring creativity that only TAG Heuer plus another partner could bring.
WK: Let’s talk a little bit about the 39mm Heuer 02-driven Monaco with this great integrated bracelet as well. I know that integrated bracelet watches are a very hot category as well. Tell us a little bit about this watch.
FA: When I joined the brand, there were many discussions about the metal strap on the Monaco and we saw many different versions and none of which we thought integrated well with the watch. I think we need to recall some code of designs we could see on the case, on the dial and to feel the watch as one; not just [a matter of] we design first the case and then we design the bracelet. And with this watch, it’s already quite big.
The big risk was to make it very heavy with a steel strap. And with iterations we found on this strap, we believe that we’ve had in the past a lot of central connections for the strap and it works pretty well for the Monaco and also the square shape. We recall the square shape we have on the case, on the sub-counters and I think that’s what makes it look [like] one watch and not just a strap on a case.
WK: I was speaking to my friend Brian Duffy yesterday, who’s the CEO of Watches of Switzerland. And he was discussing how, despite a challenging year, their results were still very strong. And one of the key differences also was e-commerce. Are you a believer in e-commerce and for you, what is the future for e-commerce related to your industry?
FA: Personally, and at TAG Heuer, we are strong believers in e-commerce. I think that’s the trend in commerce. E-commerce in general, [and not] just for the watch industry, is booming. And it’s reinforced even this year with the crisis, as we know. And we are seeing less and less barriers in purchasing a watch online.
When I joined, we put as a first priority the redesign of our website. I think it has to be our number one flagship, that’s where we have the most traffic, that’s where we want to bring the best expression of the brand, best expression of our collections. We invested a lot on the representation of the products. So we have great 3D visuals that can make you feel as if you had the watch in front of you, and people more and more want the ease of purchasing online. Sometimes they can access easily the point of sale [yet] they’re used more and more to purchasing online.
I think it’s a complementary service to an offline distribution. But today, it’s still very small penetration compared to other industries. I believe it will grow still by a lot. And we need to bring services — we’re investing a lot right now on how to bring a human touch online, how to make sure, okay when you are browsing, you can easily contact a sales advisor that will be able to give you the best advice for you as a customer as you would have in a boutique, because we say okay, in a boutique, human contact is very important. It is but we can also bring this human contact online. And it’s a question of organisation, it’s a question of investments. And customers are more and more wanting this type of service.
WK: So let’s talk a little bit about the Connected Watch. Now, at this point, this is a really evolved product in terms of its quality, right? You’ve got steel and titanium options, a ceramic bezel, a sapphire crystal. And it’s also, from a price perspective at 1,700 euros, a luxury object. Who is the consumer or the buyer for this type of connected luxury sports watch?
FA: So we had a target audience, and then an audience that we observed. And, of course, like many launches, some of the target audience we had right [while] some of it we discovered [that] we hadn’t necessarily thought of. So first are the TAG Heuer fans. People who own a few TAG Heuers, who love the brand and who are interested in this type of technologies. But we have a lot of customer acquisition with this watch, more than 60 percent of the people purchasing this watch.
It’s the first TAG Heuer for them, and they were not necessarily purchasing a watch from us before. We have watch fans and watch collectors who have a strong collection and who wouldn’t want to compromise on the aesthetics and what they love about watches when they have a smartwatch on their wrist. And we invested a lot on the materials. Stainless steel, titanium, we have a great ceramic bezel, the straps.
When you have this watch on, it feels as if you had a mechanical watch in some aspects. And so a lot of customers really value that. And then, we have some specific audience. One of them is a golfer. We’ve invested a lot on this watch [and] on the software. And I believe success in this category comes from the alliance of mechanical engineering and design, hardware engineering and design, software engineering and design and services. So there’s extra complexity that comes with this product, but we have a vision of all of that. And we’ve invested a lot on cases and software, building our own ecosystem.
[We’re] focused for now really on sports, and TAG Heuer is so relevant in the world of sports and measuring sport performance on the watch is something that’s becoming more and more common. You know, we have extra sensors, GPS, heart rate monitor. And we saw Golf as a great opportunity. We have our own app. And it’s really the leading experience. On the watch, we have interactive display with the shape of the golf course, we can see with our own 3D maps [and] now we have a database of all the golf courses in the world. And this is performing very, very well. Golf is really one of our leading sports, but we also invested on more mainstream sports, like running, fitness, and we have a strong world map with dedicated teams internally working on that.
WK: I know that you’re quite a consummate sportsman. I think I’ve seen you do some kitesurfing, which looks very impressive. How would you integrate the Connected Watch into your sort of routine?
FA: It’s a companion during sports activities. I run once or twice a week. I started off actually after the confinement. And one of the reasons was, because we had a product in golf, and I thought I had to use it in real life, to be able to challenge the teams on the product we were building. On the golf course, of course, but a lot on my day to day. And that’s what’s great with this watch. It’s not just a sports watch. And it’s really a watch that accompanies you in the day to day.
Simple-use cases like notifications. I love changing the dial very often; we have so many different configurations and grid creativity to come also on the watch faces. The latest one we launched was the Helios watch face, which is an inspiration again from vintage cameras, but we reinterpreted the counters, now bringing them completely digital. And you can have a GMT, or sunset-sunrise [and] the weather [forecast] that’s completely designed by us. And I think that the design is really great. I love changing the dials and the expression on the watch very often. And yes, simple-use cases like notifications, seeing my next appointment, on a day-to-day business life, I find that very useful.
WK: You are celebrating your 160th anniversary this year for TAG Heuer. As the man who is now guiding this brand into the future, what would you like to see happen to the brand over its next 160 years?
I think 160 years is a very long, long time. And we’re not thinking, in the brand, 160 years ahead. We really are thinking that everything we do should last [twice as long], but already a decade is long enough. Now, what we’re looking at is that this brand is one of the leading brands in watchmaking, and it should stay one of the leading brands in watchmaking. For that, it has to be true to what it was, but it also shouldn’t be afraid of reinventing itself and finding new milestones of things it can do in 2020.
[Things] we couldn’t do before in terms of innovation, in terms of creativity and building new milestones for the brand. One of the ambitions we have is to really continue building founding acts for the brand today. You know, the founding act, there is the foundation of the brand when it was in 1860 founded by Edouard Heuer, there were some key innovations that came.
There’s also the [time] Heuer became TAG Heuer, which was a great moment for the brand and you know people today know the brand a lot as TAG as well when you’re in the United States. People talk a lot about TAG and TAG brings a lot of flavour to the brand on the techniques level. The innovation, the avant-garde, is really in the name. The ambition we have is that we will, in this decade, continue building some founding acts that will bring the brand forward.