Their Finest HeuerBy Arno Haslinger
As the head of the TAG Heuer museum, Catherine Eberle-Devaux presides over a collection belonging to an innately masculine brand. She laughs as she confirms: “Heuer is, for sure, a male brand but – if we must start with stereotypes – then ‘heritage’ is more a female thing. As I love to hear passionate stories, to look at watchmakers’ art and to dig into archives, I think this position was made for me.”
She feels that, as TAG Heuer has a rich history that dates back to 1860, its heritage is the soul of the brand and the justification for a dedicated department. Its goal is to preserve, restore and value the company’s past. “‘No tradition, no future’ is Jean-Claude Biver’s motto, which inspires us every day. This is what I’ve been implementing for a few years.”
Eberle-Devaux works with a team that analyses the museum timepieces. One objective is to create a full database of the Heuer cases, including the case production dates. The watch analysis reveals information on the way the watches were produced, including tiny details that had not been discovered before about the suppliers. Says Eberle-Devaux: “That’s how we had the confirmation of Huguenin Frères as case-supplier.”
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Her department undertakes research on specific models, as well as restoring customers’ watches from around the world. To restore the pieces, the museum has inventoried the company’s New Old Stock (NOS) components, finding out in the process that not all are usable for various reasons. The company also works closely with a branch of Singer to restore dials. She says: “This can save a watch by keeping the original dial. And as a complement to this, I have initiated work that involves other departments at TAG Heuer in the reproduction of unavailable components made fully in-house. The first piece was a bezel for an early Autavia. It is signed ‘TAG Heuer’ on the back, to prevent confusion. All of our knowledge and expertise are combined for this major project at the behest of Mr Biver.”
Because of the vast array of historic Heuer models, collectors and enthusiasts are bursting with questions like: “Is it true that Gérald Genta was involved in the design of the Cortina?” and “Was the Calculator co-developed with the ETH [Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] in Zürich?”
Chronographs and Motorsport
Eberle-Devaux acknowledges that Heuer’s roots are deeply embedded in motor racing. “People think right away of the drivers of the 1960s and 1970s, but you could start much earlier in our history, for instance, in 1911 with the Time of Trip, one of the very first dashboard timers for cars and planes. It had a complication to display the time of your trip – very convenient for checking your fuel reserve.
“The Calculator also belongs to this genre, with its rotating bezel acting as slide rule for sophisticated calculations on your wrist. Of course, Jack Heuer was an engineer himself, graduating from ETH Zurich in electronics engineering, and this watch was invented for scientists, drivers and pilots.”
Additionally, Jack Heuer opened a new era of striking designs for more refined watches, starting with the Carrera in 1963. But the Cortina is a less well-known chronograph. Says Eberle-Devaux: “It was launched in 1976; its hexagonal case and pure dial make it unique among watches of this period. It was never produced in big quantities, but definitely brought some fresh air to the sporty design of the other ones.”
Addressing another mystery, she says: “I have found no proof in the archives or in my conversations with people who were there at the time, that Gérald Genta worked on the Cortina. I think one explanation is that the shape was already out there thanks to Genta, and that Heuer simply adopted it, adding its own twist.”
Birth of the Monza
Another rarity with peerless motorsport provenance is the Heuer Monza. In 1975, the legendary Austrian driver Niki Lauda finished third on the famous Italian track, winning the Formula 1 title for Ferrari, then a partner of Heuer. Shortly afterwards, the Heuer Monza was presented as a limited-edition series. Eberle-Devaux explains that the case design was inspired by the Carrera. “Niki won the championship in Monza in his second season with Ferrari. Ferrari had had little success in the preceding years and Niki was a true hero.
“Heuer, as the official timekeeper of the Scuderia, had to do something to celebrate this title. Jack Heuer had his case suppliers working on a new line and eventually, they took the classic shape of the Carrera case and, following the latest trend, they electroplated the steel case with a black chromium layer. The movement inside was the Calibre 15, with its running seconds at 11 o’clock.”
Jack Heuer was close to the whole Ferrari team, especially Luca di Montezemolo, so once the watch had been approved, the production started. “Jack Heuer was a very innovative marketing man as opposed to a traditional watchmaker. The whole ethos of our brand owes so much to him and the original Monza is a perfect example of this.
“It was then decided to extend the Monza range with grey versions, and models containing the Calibre 12. It all started as a one-shot watch, and it became a collection. The name was great, too, it is still cool today and we know that helps a lot. We owe Niki Lauda a big thank you for winning the championship at Monza – another more complicated name may have changed the destiny of the watch!”
Dropping news of another lesser-spotted Heuer gem into the conversation, Eberle-Devaux says: “We have also found a very similar watch to the Monza in the archives: the Modena. It can be seen in a German catalogue and we, therefore, imagine that it was specifically made for the German market. Very few have surfaced so far. So, it is definitely one to watch out for.”
Also, part of Eberle-Devaux’s responsibilities is TAG Heuer’s much-admired series of re-issues, dating back to the revival of the Monaco in the late-1990s, followed by a regular flow of milestone models. This year, the brand released a new Autavia and a limited-edition Skipper to great acclaim from the collecting community. “We now have a range of historically inspired watches: Monaco with Calibre 11, Carrera with Calibre 18, the Monza, which won the Revival prize at the Grand rix d’Horlogerie, and the Autavia. The four all feature the Heuer logo.
“But the museum cannot be considered as a never-ending source of inspiration. The idea is to reimagine pieces but without nostalgia in our product development strategy – we don’t want to simply surf the retro trend. The 2017 version of the ‘Jochen Rindt’ Autavia, for example, is the result of an online vote involving the whole Heuer community.
“The re-edition of the Skipper is a different kind of project. It is an ephemeral re-edition. It was fun to work on this gorgeous watch – the originals are very rare and sexy on the vintage market – it involved taking the original watches out of the museum and 3D-mapping them to define the codes of the model. We also had to chart the story of the piece and the main episodes of its history. But the idea came from Hodinkee, and it was really Ben Clymer and team’s project – it was never intended to be a new model in TAG Heuer’s historical collection.”
For Eberle-Devaux, re-editions and reinterpretations are fine, but what she finds more interesting is the opportunity to combine heritage with an avant-garde product like the Connected Watch, which is housed in a Heuer Carrera case. “To me this is natural and organic as the Carrera has always been ahead of its time,” she says. And to that end, while she is not about to spill the beans on new models, she does admit that, “2018 will be under the spell of the Carrera, to celebrate its 55th birthday”.
In order to succeed as the head of Heritage, Eberle-Devaux has to have an affinity for vintage watches. “I am always very moved when I look and touch the very old pieces. There is one with a double face, a chronograph with a telemeter scale and a compass in the crown. The decoration of the case is perfect. The movement is untouched and works like a brand-new one – what is there more interesting, more beautiful, more useful? Just to know that this tick-tock was the same in 1900 when the timepiece first left the factory.
“In terms of design, my heart lies with a particular 1930s chronograph. The case is a perfect circle, the horns are straight, the bezel is fluted and rotating. The strap is cool, and the font is kind of Art Deco, very neat. This sort of watch was ordered by the armed forces, because they were very convenient for pilots. They are actually the ancestors of the well-known Bundeswehr and are highly appreciated by collectors.”
That ’70s Show
The 1970s gave birth to an incredible range of daring designs for Heuer, defined by the Monaco, Autavia and Carrera. “We talked about the hexagon shape used in the Cortina, while the best example of a chunky 1970s Heuer design remains the Manhattan. But let me introduce you to a mal-aimé hexagonal model: the Memphis. It experienced a short period of production because of poor sales, and only two versions – black dial or white dial – exist. It is very rare and only now is it starting to be appreciated.
“There are also the two forgotten classics from the 1970s – Verona and Jarama, which were forerunners of the bi-colour steel-and-gold trend. Verona is in a classic and elegant case, while Jarama is showier with a thick golden bezel. Both pieces are becoming more and more sought-after nowadays.”
Eberle-Devaux acknowledges that vintage Heuer is an area that has been growing in popularity for some time. “The vintage models are cool, they have iconic names, they are colourful and distinctive,” she says. “Auction houses set the tone, they present more watches, identify more details and hence get better prices. They have understood the potential of Heuer and promoted it as a good alternative to other blockbuster watches.
“To me the vintage market is a key performance indicator that helps me to check if I am doing my job correctly. Apart from that, we do not interfere with the pre-owned arena – we leave it to the collectors, auction houses and dealers.”