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Should Heuer have been another Rolex?

Should Heuer have been another Rolex?

Niki Lauda Ferrari Heuer

Rolex is unique. It represents a brand with a superlative understanding of the industry and a model to cater to each buyer. Just one model. Likewise, quality is consistently high and innovation delivers the complications which we actually need. Above all, what makes this brand truly great is its ability to market a simple yet clear image which compels us to buy. This does, however, sound rather like another brand in its heyday: Heuer. Should Heuer have been another Rolex?

The Building Blocks

Founded in 1860, Heuer’s path towards a more technical market was apparent after creating its first chronograph in 1882 and later producing a wristwatch chronograph in 1914 — only a year after Omega’s effort. To add to this, they pioneered the world of dashboard clocks in both the cars and planes of the early 20th century with the “Time of Trip”. When one thinks about it, it was these new means of travel which appeared so vividly in the iconic posters of the 1930s which represent the image for so many.

Heuer dashboard cloch

Through these timepieces, an underlying purposeful and pragmatic approach to watchmaking becomes apparent: just as it did with Rolex. Founded in 1904 by Hans Wilsdorf, Rolex was very much of the same school of thought. Crucially, Wilsdorf was no watchmaker. First and foremost, he was a businessman.

Rolex did not dwell on impractical complications or superfluous decoration. Instead, they produced water-resistant watches, watches with just the date, and ones to appeal to new occupations. In its own ways, Heuer represented both business sense and this relentless appeal to the needs and desires of the public.

The World of Racing

When many people consider Heuer, it is racing which first springs to mind. This thought is, as it turns out, rather well-founded. This is where we should begin.

Heuer Autavia

Following on from their 1916 release of the first stopwatch to measure hundredths of a second, the Mikrograph, Heuer added something enduring to the range. This came in the form of the 1933 Autavia. As per the name, the Autavia was originally intended for both automotive and aeronautical industries. However, with time, this dashboard clock became the first true racer’s onboard stopwatch. In this way, Heuer was to timing instruments what Rolex was to wristwatches.

Where wristwatches were concerned, Heuer was just as involved with appealing to a particular market as Rolex. Of course, Rolex was far ahead with dive watches as the Submariner was able to define its market segment from inception. Perhaps this is unsurprising due to Rolex’s longstanding association with water-resistant cases. By the same token, Heuer’s association with the chronograph is undeniable. For this reason, and due to the irrelevance of in-house movements in the mid-20th century, I would argue that Heuer had just as much influence as Rolex in this market.

Creating an Icon: The Carrera

As an example, let’s look at one of the most exciting decades of motorsport: the 1960s. Whilst Rolex ruled the diving and international travel and Omega ruled space, Heuer ruled racing. At a time when Formula One was at its most dangerous and Ford was battling Ferrari at Le Mans, Heuer created the iconic Carrera.

Heuer Carrera Should Heuer have been another Rolex
The original Heuer Carrera | Copyright: Phillips

As evocative it is factual, the Carrera name was introduced to the Heuer line in 1963 as a racing chronograph with a clean dial and truly modern case. The dial and hands represented pure functionality mixed with the style of the era. In effect, it was more stylish than a Speedmaster and more practical than a Daytona. It really was the perfect chronograph. To add to this, the case was a design classic with a form which still looks modern today. The original movement inside this iconic racing chronograph was the same as in the contemporary Rolex Daytona — the Valjoux 72.

Jack Heuer and Formula One

However, whilst I can only praise Rolex’s success in the worlds of travel, diving and formality, the Daytona was a flop to the immense success of Heuer’s offerings. This is where the business sense of Heuer came in. Just as Hans Wilsdorf was able to foresee the advent of brand ambassadors with the cross-channel swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, Jack Heuer carried his brand’s banner.

Niki Lauda Ferrari Heuer
Niki Lauda in the Ferrari 312 T2 at the Nurburgring in 1976

Whilst we recognise Rolex as the sponsor of Le Mans and Formula One, the Heuer logo became iconic on the racing cars of the 1970s. Frankly, if I had to name the sponsors which epitomised that era they would be JPS, Martini, Gulf and Heuer. No other watch brand came close in the racing circle. Even if we ignore sentimentality for this time of crude aerodynamics, scantily clad women and a level of danger far removed from modern standards, what Jack Heuer achieved was remarkable. Whether it was Enzo Ferrari or Jo Siffert, Heuer was known all along of the pit lane.

Should Heuer have been another Rolex?
Jack Heuer in 1958 | Copyright: TAG Heuer Branch of LVMH Swiss Manufactures SA

The Automatic Chronograph

Jack Heuer, with his ample connections across the motoring world, was a consummate salesman. Where Rolex had Paul Newman, Heuer had Steve McQueen. Ironically, if you ask most people where they remember seeing a racing watch, it will be the Monaco on the wrist of Steve McQueen in Le Mans. Curiously, they remember the watch more vividly than the film: a somewhat underwhelming piece. Likewise, whilst Rolex stuck to the manual chronograph and Omega failed with its expensive 1040 chronograph, the Heuer Monaco was born of a sensible collaboration. Dubbed Project 99, Heuer worked with Hamilton, Buren, Breitling and others to release the first modular automatic chronograph in 1969.

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Steve McQueen Heuer Monaco
Steve McQueen in Le Mans with the original Monaco | Copyright: TAG Heuer Branch of LVMH Swiss Manufactures SA

With this was created the Monaco: one of the most recognisable designs of all time. Yet what is most apparent is that, without its change of management in the 1980s after the industry-wide impact of quartz watches, Heuer was destined for a position alongside the most illustrious brands. The only snag to this theory is that, by the mid 1970s, the advent of cheaper and more accurate quartz watches was crucifying the industry.

Heuer Monaco
Heuer Monaco | Copyright: TAG Heuer Branch of LVMH Swiss Manufactures SA

A New Venture: The Dive Watch

Yet again, Heuer had an answer for this issue: the Heuer Diver Professional. This much-derided model remains one of the brand’s bestsellers even today and perhaps saved the company altogether. Released in 1979, this model spawned a myriad of variants with different sizes, styles and coatings. In truth, most of us simply think of derivative Rolex-esque styling and tinny bracelets; but much more was afoot. Jack Heuer recognised that, far removed from the brand’s normal bread and butter, affordable and robust dive watches were becoming popular. This was also a time when luxury dive watches, though sometimes produced, were far less common than rugged tools as was the Rolex Submariner of the day.

Heuer dive watch catalogue
Heuer Professional Diver catalogue | Copyright: Heuerville

The Heuer was never intended as a competitor for the Submariner due to a different price range, but had an unintended result in later years. By the 1990s and the emergence of widespread watch collecting, the Heuer name, now TAG Heuer, had lost its remarkable cachet. Perhaps this was because, despite what we claim that we seek in vintage watches, we don’t want purely functional watches but rather interesting ones.

The Modern Day

The Heuer dive was nothing new where design was concerned, nor was it mechanically innovative with either a quartz or simple automatic movement. As a result, it did not fit with the creation of a love for mechanical watches seen from the 1990s onward. However, it did show a level or market awareness and understanding which was rare at the time. It also represents Jack Heuer’s legacy in modern Heuer watches as an unbroken line since 1979 — something rarely found in any brand’s history.

As you can see, Rolex and Heuer share very little in approach, yet the marketing prowess demonstrated by Rolex is very much also at the core of Heuer. Perhaps, without a change in market interests at the turn of the millennium, Heuer could still be regarded alongside Rolex?

To see more, take a look at the TAG Heuer website.

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