TAG Heuer’s heritage director, Catherine Eberlé-Devaux, talks to Revolution about the Heuer spirit and the role of the Carrera in inspiring the brand’s historic motor-racing collections.
Before the brand was “TAG Heuer”, it was known simply as Heuer, named after its eponymous founding family. By the first half of the 20th century, the manufacture was well-known for producing dashboard instruments and stopwatches, having released models such as the Mikrograph stopwatch and the original Autavia, a dashboard timer. But arguably, it was only in the 1970s when Jack Heuer, great-grandson of the founder Edouard, and the company’s then-CEO, partnered with the biggest names on the automobile racetracks that the Heuer brand name was sent roaring through fast laps. Since then, the merger of timekeeping and motorsports have become a successful association for the watchmaking house. This success stems from the 1963 Carrera, which set the tone for well-designed chronographs bearing clean dials in a “3-6-9” configuration and recessed registers in legible colours of black or white.
TAG Heuer’s heritage director, Catherine Eberlé-Devaux, shares more on the importance of Heuer’s heritage and how the preservation of the Carrera has influenced TAG Heuer’s racing DNA up till today.
What was it that drew you to TAG Heuer and started your journey into vintage watch collections?
I started my journey with TAG Heuer. In order to know the brand from the start, the best place was to sift through the archives. There’s a great history to the brand, especially one that is rooted in motor-racing. It wasn’t enough to study the timepieces alone, so I also immersed myself with the knowledge from the museum and archived stock. Especially the stories of the Carrera models, which set the tone for the racing DNA in the watches that followed.
I also visited the manufacture, where it was the best place for me to get the best explanations of the movements. Through my conversations with the watchmakers, I learned more about the complications, and from whatever I read from the archives, I could see them come to life.
The Heuer name has been synonymous with racing since the introduction of the Carrera in the ’60s and the engagements with Ferrari in the ’70s. How has the influence of racing been preserved in the collections throughout the years?
When Jack Heuer helmed the brand during its prime, he ensured that the tone of the Carrera watches was preserved. He related to motor-racing with a passion. In fact, one of the very first cars in Switzerland was owned by Jack Heuer. The iconic vintage models we love today were all moulded by him — the Monaco, Monza, Autavia, Silverstone, and especially the Carrera.
Heuer was always associated with racing from the beginning. When the brand was with Ferrari, Heuer gave each Formula 1 driver a special watch. It was a full 18K yellow-gold cased Carrera — the 1158CHN. It was a very beautiful piece with black registers against a gold dial, providing high legibility. The back was engraved with their [each driver’s] name, making it a unique and personal piece.
For me, the Carrera is a true racing icon. At that time, the pieces were designed to measure incrementally smaller times. The design was very intentional, in terms of the functions, the horns of the lugs, and how the case was designed. Most of the new models in the Carrera line have stayed true to the 1963 case.
Most collectors of the Carrera are very familiar with vintage cars. Beyond the history of this watch, they also relate a car engine to a watch movement. These are similar in a way that they are all made up of small parts which are very important to work altogether.
My personal favourite is the Monaco Calibre 11 — otherwise known as the “Steve McQueen watch”. There are not many watches out there as storied as the McQueen Monaco, but do you believe that it’s crucial for vintage timepieces to carry their own stories so that they’re more than just an “old” piece?
We need to remember that these watches didn’t necessarily start out how [the way] they’re marketed today. The collections from the ’50s and the ’60s are very collectable because of how they were made. Their design is reminiscent of the dashboards found in vintage cars, which in turn has also created collectors of such convertibles. Yes, the Monaco is probably the most successful because of Steve McQueen but back then, the watches were made simply to be used. The vintage scene is very interesting because it’s always shifting. Now, watches from the era of the ’40s and ’80s are starting to look up in the market.
On the topic of square pieces, some would say that the Silverstone was an outlier collection on its own. How else was it different from the typical Heuer offerings?
When the Monaco came about, it was actually not selling well. At that time, we wanted to offer something that differed from the rest of the market. But still, a square watch was a very different thing to have, so people were not used to the idea of it. It was only in 1971 when Steve McQueen wore it for his movie Le Mans that the watch actually took off. And as you know, the rest is history.
The Silverstone was introduced as an alternative to the Monaco at that time. It sat in between the round cased offerings and square case of the Monaco. That’s why it bore rounded corners and a softer bezel. It was meant to soften the shape of the Monaco. The Silverstone also saw the return of 3D dials with a few dial offerings to widen the appeal.
How would you say collecting TAG Heuer watches differs from collecting the watches of other brands?
When you encounter a vintage piece, most of them are watches that have been passed down from previous owners. Each story builds up when they go through different owners in their lifetime. Perhaps an added scratch here, and another there; they’re a charming addition. Over time, these add on to the entire story of the watch. History is important because TAG Heuer watches have an interesting heritage. Having a collection differs for everyone; it’s ultimately a personal curation.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that collecting vintage watches is an expensive hobby. Across the board, most collectors have at least one, if not all, of the “Big Three”: Carrera, Monaco, and Autavia. Besides vintage pieces, there is an increasing number who are interested in later pieces from the ’80s, and even more recent pieces like the high complications of the 2000s. On the whole, I would say the [majority of] TAG Heuer vintage collectors are different; they don’t go for new-old-stock (NOS) pieces. With that said, it’s actually hard to find NOS pieces in the market.
In your own words, what does it mean to be a vintage Heuer collector?
A vintage Heuer collector is someone who is passionate about carrying on the heritage. Their watches are used by the people who bought them and who wore them. They are also detail-oriented. Like I said before, vintage watches are characteristic in their own way based on their preowned conditions — well taken care of, of course.
In an interview with Revolution last year, you mentioned that “heritage is more of a female thing”. Does that still stand with you now?
[Laughs] What I meant then was a lot more of a sentimental value. I relate heritage very much like how the Greeks have it. They have a very long history of their country and culture, dating back to many years of documented memories and events. To have a brand rooted in heritage is not just colourful, but also very important. In fact, 99 percent of Heuer collectors are male.
That leaves one percent for female collectors. What kind of watches do they go for?
They prefer new-old-stock pieces, with aesthetics from the ’70s. What’s popular among them are the colourful dials. But don’t get mistaken — they’re not just after them for the looks. They’re equally learned about the movements behind them. They are very familiar with the products down to the technical specifications.
Finally, how do you feel about the recent ascendance of TAG Heuer in watchmaking under Jean-Claude Biver?
It’s been very good for the brand. He has this saying: “No tradition, no future.” TAG Heuer naturally follows this motto. We’re all about heritage! The influence of the Carrera is evident in the watches that followed in the same spirit. Take the Autavia and the Connected watch, for example. They’re on polarising ends of history, but there is a connection because of the brand’s evolution. There’s still an emotion to these watches and it wouldn’t have been possible if we had forgotten our heritage.