Watch Lore: TAG Heuer – Once upon a time, when TAG Heuer was just Heuer

People identify with brands. Brand perception is oftentimes more important than what a brand truly is, especially so from a commercial point of view.

We all know Louis Vuitton, Rolex and BMW as great brands with great products. While knowing is good, it is the degree to which we know that allows us to better understand the obsession with certain brands; a way to identify the method to the madness, if you will.

The crux of this column ‘Know Your Brand’, therefore, would be to transform just ‘knowing’ to knowledge. Knowledge leads to insight. With deeper insight, perchance we can then pinpoint the source of the obsession – whether it originated from the notion that since everyone has one, it ought to be good (common), if it is expensive and people know it’s expensive, that’s enough for me (very common), or truly because a brand possesses a lineage that goes beyond the glitzy advertising.

Origins of The Heuer Watch Company

Edouard Heuer was born in 1840 and he opened his watchmaking workshop ‘The Heuer Watch Company’ at the age of 20, operating out of St-Imier, a small village located in the Jura region of Switzerland.

A young Edouard Heuer

Edouard Heuer was known for many things but above all, he was an inventor and a brilliant engineer. In 1882, he patented his first chronograph (a watch capable of functioning as a stopwatch allowing its users  to capture the elapsed time over a period while still retaining its standard time telling function). This was followed up by a groundbreaking patent 5 years later: the oscillating pinion

An original  patent drawing of the oscillating pinion

Without venturing into watch-nerd territory and losing the layman in a flurry of technicalities, the oscillating pinion was a 3 part component designed to replace 2 large wheels in the conventional chronograph configuration which allows the chronograph (stopwatch) function to kick start at a speed that was never possible prior: 2/1,000th of a second – a significant milestone in timekeeping accuracy. The best part of it all? It was simpler to make and assemble. Edouard Heuer’s design is still used in modern day chronograph movements.

He passed away in 1892 and the keys to the Heuer company were handed over to his 2 sons, Jules and Charles August Heuer. They continued their father’s legacy of innovation and launched the first chronograph designed to fit onto the dashboard of automobiles and aircraft – The Time of Trip Patent – in 1911.

The Time of Trip patent. Main dial tells the standard time. Subdial at 6 o’clock measures the seconds while the one at 12 o’clock measures the time elapsed up to a maximum of 12 hours. Single onion pusher at the top of the watch starts, stops and resets the chronograph.

5 years later, they invented a stopwatch capable of staying accurate to within 1/100th of a second called the mikrograph.

An original mikrograph which took precision timekeeping into uncharted grounds

The revolutionary work produced by the Heuers were highly documented within the watchmaking community and it propelled the brand forward. It was not long before major sporting events (and eventually, motor-sports) took notice and Heuer was appointed as the official timekeeper – a partnership that continues to this day.

Throughout the 1920s, Heuer stopwatches were used in the Antwerp, Paris and Amsterdam Olympics, the most prestigious sporting event in the world.

Jack Heuer – the early days

Undisputedly, the man most remembered for the brand, and widely credited as the one who took Heuer to the world stage was Jack Heuer, great grandson of Edouard Heuer, founder of the company.

The family did not have to wait long for Jack to make his first impact.

In 1946, Walter Haynes, President of American retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch had a meeting with Charles Edward Heuer, Jack’s father and he requested for a new watch capable of timing the tides. Charles Edward, while intrigued, had no idea how a watch like that could be designed. 

Trivia: In his autobiography, Jack Heuer recalled a funny incident prior to Walter’s request in which his father commented on the potential usage of a watch that could track the phases of the moon during one of their mushrooms hunt after having observed that mushrooms tend to spring up more when there’s a waxing moon.

While the elderly Heuer was stumped, 15 year old Jack Heuer believed that it was possible and recommended the man who could make it work – his college physics professor, Dr. Heinz Schilt. And work it, he did. Dr. Schilt came up with the calculations to determine the exact number of cogs and screws required to time the tides. The result was the Heuer Soluna.

While Jack Heuer is most commonly associated with the Autavia, Carrera and Monaco, this was his first and little know influence in the Heuer’s product line

In the 1950s, the United States was a major market for Heuer but distribution was always through a local parnter. Sensing the enormous business potential of the US, the Heuer family took a huge risk, selling their family home to fund their own distribution business in North America. It was incorporated in New York in 1959 as Heuer Time Corporation and Jack Heuer was put in charge.

Jack Heuer in New York

Jack Heuer – motorsports and the Carrera

From the 50s leading up to the 60s, Heuer’s chronograph stopwatches were widely revered among the motor-sports community. It was used by everyone from professional to amateur racers, and even their crew members.

Dashboard mounted Heuer stopwatches

In 1964, Jack Heuer launched the Carrera, a model which cemented its place as the definite watch in auto racing which would also become synonymous with the Heuer brand.

The name paid homage to the ‘Carrera Panoamericana’ – a sports and sedan car racing event along the open roads of Mexico which ran from 1950 to 1955. It was one of the most dangerous race events in modern times with 27 deaths over 5 years. Despite the obvious risks of racing on open roads, participation was overwhelming with key racing industry figures taking part. Entry requirements were almost unregulated and the result was a mixed bag of racers – Formula 1, NASCAR, rally and even stock cars driven by amateurs. Another notable brand which came out of this event was Porsche, after having won a few races, decided to create their Porsche Carrera line.

One model of the 1964 Heuer Carrera. The ‘Fisher’ you see above was a co-branding exercise, Fisher was a scientific company that purchased Heuer watches as measuring instruments.
Another 1964 Carrera. The printed tension ring circling the circumference of the dial allows measurements down to 1/5 of a second. It’s not as simple as just painting the markers onto the surface, the movement within had to have the precision capability of moving the sweeping seconds hand evenly across the 300 markers around the dial.  

While Heuer stopwatches and watches were increasing in popularity among racers, it was still by and large a business to consumer relationship.

The most important partnership that Heuer made was with one Jo Siffert, a Swiss racer who shot to fame after winning the 1968 British Grand prix, sponsored by Heuer. Jack made Siffert a deal whereby he could purchase Heuer’s chronographs at wholesale prices. While seemingly insignificant at that time, as Jack himself recalls, it kicked things into high gear when Siffert, the Grand Prix champion began peddling the chronographs to his entire team and other racing mates, touting it as the best money can buy. Ferrari came knocking and the rest, like they say, is history.

In 1971, Steve McQueen was cast as the lead for the motor-racing film, ‘Le Mans’. In preparation for the role, McQueen consulted a personal friend, who was none other than Jo Siffert. Siffert did more than consult, he gave the Grand Prix winning track suit which he wore to McQueen and when the time came for McQueen to select a watch, he picked the Monaco. Inside the case of the watch was the state of the art Calibre 11, developed jointly with Breitling and was one of the best automatic chronograph movements upon its inception.

The Heuer Monaco series amassed a cult following and is revered for its unique square design – a world’s first for a sports chronograph

For me, these were the golden years of Heuer but things would soon change.

Heuer becomes TAG Heuer

With all its great innovation and unique positioning with motor-sports, the Heuer Watch Company was not spared from the Quartz Crisis in the 80s.

Jack Heuer, while aware of the impact this could pose to mechanical watches, did not foresee how deep it would hit. The company was in bad shape and by 1982, was struggling to stay afloat. A task force was assembled to turn the company around. Jack Heuer was not part of it.

While Jack was out sourcing for funds to save the company, it was decided that he should no longer be a part of Heuer and on 25th June 1982, Jack was forced to leave the company bearing his name. It also marked the first time in Heuer’s 120 year existence that there was no Heuer running the Heuer Watch Company.

In 1985, Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG), a Saudi Arabian manufacturer of Formula One automobile parts acquired them and ushered in the next phase of The Heuer Watch Company’s story. It was renamed as TAG Heuer.

The first TAG Heuer logo

With the acquisition came new funds, and the funds were used to revive the brand through a series of marketing and advertising campaigns. The marketing spend of TAG Heuer amounted to 20% of annual turnover, while commonplace in the current age, was unheard of back then. Millions upon millions were heaped onto celebrity endorsements, prime time spots and premium magazine placements, so much so that the products they represented was overshadowed by all the big names and pretty faces.

TAG Heuer also diversified into the dive watch category, quartz watches and everything else in between. Brand value soared and investors were happy. When a company makes money, little else mattered.

In 1999, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) bought TAG Heuer for 900 million. When you look back on how Jack Heuer struggled to borrow just 2 million to save his company in 1982, one struggles to decide the party most pivotal to the brand’s success today.

Was it Jack Heuer, with all his sharp business acumen and design foresight, which created the best sports chronographs, thus immortalizing Heuer’s place in motor-sports?

Or was it TAG, with their willingness to splurge on creative marketing that appealed to a new demographic, which took the company to greater heights?

For those who would like to read more about the life of Jack Heuer, TAG Heuer has graciously provided his recent autobiography in PDF format free of charge: 

Closing opinion

I love everything about ‘pre-TAG’ Heuer. A humble facility started by a true artisan whose focus was on simplifying the chronograph mechanism and yet increasing its capabilities. Edourd Heuer was an astute mechanical engineer and so were his sons after him. While Heuer has never made their own movements, instead, relying on Valjoux ones from which they heavily modified, the technical advancements and design aesthetics they’ve brought to the world of horology are irreplaceable.

TAG turned the company into an enormous commercial success. It is sexy and all powerful but somehow, it just lacks soul. No amount of endorsements would bring that soul back and it is just hard for me to focus on the watches when at every bend, I see a Hollywood star staring back at me. Motor-sports would always be the essence of Heuer, and though that association lives strong, it feels rather diluted. Oh well, must be the pressure.

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