Heuer Design

Held towards the sun, the dial of a Heuer Carrera wristwatch reference number 150.573F shimmers with the mystery of a hologram, reflecting and refracting light from an intricate finish called “Cotes de Geneve,” known in the watch industry as Geneva Waves, after the coast of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Inspected closely, two different finishes on the steel watch case are evident, one with a starburst “grinding,” a radial pattern of tiny little lines that have a matte finish, along with a very different shiny polished finish along the bottom of the case where it meets the bracelet. Someone who is not a “watch person,” probably thinks very little about the engineering and design of the case of their watch, but even to an untrained eye, there is artistry in the finish and contour of the Carrera case. Grinding that has not been re-polished is preferred by collectors; a watch with scratches, dings, and wear marks is said to have acquired patina, and, in its imperfection, reflects the history and character of its previous owners. The 573 model Carrera is unusual in that the barrel-shaped case is devoid of “lugs,” the parts of the watch that connect to the strap. The barrel shape of the automatic Carrera, brought out by Heuer in 1974 was modern, a departure from traditional round cases. The “F” at the end of the serial number stands for a color called “Fume,” or smoke, which can read the spectrum from dark metallic brown to charcoal. The fact that even Heuer collectors cannot accurately describe this color is one of many unanswered questions about Heuer, an iconic brand that derives much of its collecting significance from its association with automobile racing in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1970, the film “Le Mans” starred a flinty-eyed Steve McQueen. Either 20 or 40 Heuer watches and timing devices (the exact number is the subject of hot debate among collectors) were delivered by Gerd Lang (the founder of the Swiss watch brand Chronoswiss) to the Property Master for use by McQueen and others during the film. Paradoxically, Jo Siffert the driver featured in Le Mans favored not McQueen’s Monaco, but the Autavia, specifically a model with a white dial, black hands, and blue accent dial markers. These two models, the “Siffert” Autavia with a white dial and bright blue accents, and the “McQueen” Monaco reference 1133B are among the most sought-after vintage Heuers. Jack Heuer’s prescient pursuit of motorsport not only linked his brand with Ferrari, Porsche, and Lotus, but also the celebrity of swashbuckling athletes like Siffert, Johan Rindt, and Clay Regazzoni.

In 2008, Callwey, a specialty publisher in Munich, came out with a book by Arno Michael Haslinger called Heuer Chronographs, Fascination of Timekeepers and Motor Sports 1960s/1970s. Using many new old stock or near perfect, mint condition watches, Haslinger shows 83 Heuers in magnified splendor. Details that to the naked eye are not easily observable, such as the delineation of the seconds scale into 1/5thintervals, and the variation of the spelling of “tachymeter,” sometimes written as “tachymetre” or abbreviated simply as “tachy” are revealed. For the collector community, it is nice to see specimen examples of their favorite watches, but it has also become their principal authentication source. The visible parts of a watch are few in number: dial, hands, sub-dials, typography, printed scales, bezels, date windows, tension rings, glass, crown, case, pushers, and dial markers. But there is an almost astonishing variation in the finished product, and in the way that the dozen or so basic design elements can be subtly interchanged and modified. Heuer engineers not only made different models, but by varying small details — the color of the borders on the dial markers, for example — created lots of variationwithinthe same model. Differences also evolved over time. Shared components were common, and as production runs of certain models came to an end, a “parts bin” approach to design was adopted, producing watches with whatever was at hand. A half-century after the Heuer motorsports era began, chronographs with spurious pedigrees show up on EBay, leaving collectors to hotly debate their origins.

In the 1980s, Heuer merged with the French watch company TAG, forming TAG-Heuer, owned today by the luxury super conglomerate, LVMH. A generation later, the automatic chronographs produced by Heuer during the ’70s and ’80s, along with a few non-automatic models like the Camaro and early Carreras, powered by legacy movements produced by the venerable Valjoux firm in La Chaux du Fond, have become the intense focus of collectors worldwide. In 1985, at the end of the golden era for Heuer chronographs, had you bought say, an iconic Monaco ref. 1133 B, a Silverstone ref. 110313 B, and an Autavia ref. 1163 T, you would have been out about a thousand bucks. Today’s worth? Depending on condition, about $15–20,000, a double-digit compounded annual return. While there are clearly more prestigious watch brands than Heuer, there is almost nothing to compare to the family of race-inspired chronographs it produced in the period roughly between 1960–1985. These models have inspired a loyalist troupe of part geek, part macho obsessives. Overlapping aspects of investment, sport, art, and science, the pursuit of the 1960–1985 generation of Heuers is cresting precisely as the global economy is floundering.

The key word in Haslinger’s book — fascination — connotes highly focused interest, but there is perhaps a too much Teutonic diffidence in the word to convey the interest level of an international group of collectors focused on Heuers. The spiritual center of vintage Heuer chronographs is a web site called “On the Dash,” whose creator, Jeff Stein, lives in Atlanta, a surprising place for one of the leading experts of a brand with origins deep in Switzerland. Stein presides over a family of Heuer-specific resources, including his baby, the MOAT, or “Mother of all Tables,” a spreadsheet detailing serial numbers, dial colors, movement types, and dates of production for nearly 300 models of the golden era. Stein, an attorney, is a watch autodidact who has become a regular contributor to industry publications like International Wristwatch. OTD is the virtual summit for Heuers, a fraternity where forum members probe the science of topics like PVD surface coatings and the material composition of watch parts smaller than a millimeter. The once insular world of collecting old watches has been vastly expanded by the internet, which has provided an instantaneous platform for sharing visual and technical information. Previously, it was difficult for collectors to even see a watch, let alone note the differences in lug size or the size and color of the dial markers. At the time of its invention in 1969, the Heuer Caliber 11 Self-Winding Chronograph movement was constructed from 132 parts. It was, by a fraction, the first movement of its type, beating out two other consortiums, one led by Zenith, and another by Seiko. Automatic watches, meaning watches that wound through stored potential energy from an oscillating weight, were fairly common, as were chronographs, which in addition to elapsed hours, minutes, and seconds, provided for a stopwatch function. But prior to 1969, it was not possible to own a chronograph that was wound by the movement of one’s wrist.

In spirit it is difficult to compare a passion for vintage watch collecting to other pastimes. Birding may present the closest comparison, where the taxonomic and morphological differences among closely related birds can elude even the expert eye. As in birding, watch collectors focus on tiny details. The watch folks may have an advantage insofar as they can study a stationary target under magnification. But often even this level of scrutiny is not enough to confirm the originality or provenance of a particular watch. Since different watch models shared components, including hands, cases, and dial markers, the style of a particular watch often changed throughout its range of production dates. Autavias, for example, were produced for about a twenty year span from 1960 through 1980. Two virtually identical watches, both authentic, can vary with one having slightly different hands or sub dial designs. One particularly thorny issue is the bezel configuration for related Autavia models. Two models, the 11630, and the 1163 differ primarily in the thickness of the case, the 11630 being a thicker watch. On OTD recently, a posting suggests that there may be two different types of bezels for the Autavia ref. 11630: a version that lies completely flat and one that is angled upwards. Complicating matters is the fact there are several variations of the 11630 itself, including the 11630T “Tachy” (with a tachometer scale bezel, and the 11630P, a diver’s decompression model. Without having an assortment of different watch models lined up like a cupping session for coffee roasters, the intelligence-gathering effort requires outreach to the network and accurate feedback. Watches in new-old-stock condition are prized as avatars for a particular model. Certain model variants, like the 15630, a silver-dialed Autavia, are so scarce that there are fewer than five known examples.

For people without an abiding interest in watches, it would be considered strange behavior to fret over the merits of the pattern of the grinding — the surface patina imparted to the steel case of a watch — but OTD treats these topics with reverence. In fact the condition of the grinding is one of the key determinants of value for a vintage piece, with collectors expressing an overwhelming preference for grinding in its original condition. Nicks, scars and scratches that seem like damage to a layperson are considered “patina” to a collector. Only when a watch has been pummeled beyond recognition is it considered to be a candidate for re-polishing. Perhaps the obsessive summit of vintage watch collecting is tracking serial numbers. Manufacturers historically have stamped serial numbers on watches and have kept annual production records, at least for the total number of watches produced. The accuracy of record-keeping varies widely by company, Omega and Rolex being fairly meticulous, with Heuer noted for being comparatively lax. Computing annual production numbers is a matter of estimation for vintage Heuers; their heyday was long before manufacturers discovered the marketing magic of the limited edition. For the Heuer collector, this means that fairly elaborate forensic techniques are required to date some watches, particularly Monacos and Autavias. Recently, Stein brought up an esoteric topic even by the nitpicking standards of OTD: the frailty of the original oscillating pinion in the vintage Heuer Caliber 11 Self-Winding Chronograph. The tiny part resembles a screw with a wheel at the end, but the pinion serves as an anchor of sorts in the vastly complex yet elegant workings of a mechanical watch. Stein noted that the initial fabrication of the Caliber 11 oscillating pinion was comprised of a brass head on a steel shaft. The brass head turned a brass wheel, causing both parts to wear out too quickly. Along with other improvements, Heuer changed the pinion to all-steel, and quickly revised its Caliber 11 to “Caliber 11-I,” for “improved.”

Thanks to the efforts of Jeff Stein and others, the “MOAT” (mother of all tables) contains a massive amount of raw Heuer data; there are 101 different models of the Carrera catalogued between its first execution in 1964 and the last “pre-TAG” model in 1985. Order/family/genus/ and species have their Heuer equivalents in terms of brand/manual versus automatic/model/ and serial number. OTD has been tracking the prices of vintage Heuers since 2003. Stein has an acronym, “SPY,” samples per year that tracks the number of collectible models of specific serial numbers that come to the market through auctions, dealers, and private sales. There are a few collectors who have more inventory than dealers. In fact, it seems that there are a number of collectors with seemingly inexhaustible financial resources, buying anything in their path. It’s not unusual to see people posting photographs of three or four newly acquired watches. For serious collectors, there are two basic acquisition strategies: vertical collecting, an attempt to buy as many of variations of one model as possible, and horizontal collecting, which focuses on finding different models. It is not unusual for a collector to have ten or more slightly different models of the same watch. In a fixed-supply market, holding a decent number of rare watches in highly collectible condition puts one in a position to regulate supply and to a large extent, price.

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On a hazy late August Manhattan afternoon in 1986, I took my Father to the Tourneau watch store near Penn Station. The store was new, and in the fast food monotony of the neighborhood, it was a little oasis. Our mission was to buy matching Heuer wristwatches — this was before Heuer, a venerable brand specializing in chronographs, became TAG-Heuer. I hadn’t done my homework. At the time, I knew little about the history of Heuer, that it was a major sponsor of the international racing circuit, and that it created and launched the first automatic chronograph movement (along with its partners at the time, Breitling and Buren.) I also did not have the prescience to see that some models, like the Monaco and Siffert Autavia would gain steadily in value in the next twenty years, and achieve cult status. All I knew was that as a young guy with an MBA and a slick job in real estate development, I wanted something that would draw a little attention, and that would give me some instant gratification about earning my first real paycheck.

We settled on a chunky chronograph, a quartz-powered model called the 1000. Heuer in 1986 was being whipsawed by the quartz revolution — or, as some would term it, the quartz repulsion. Unlike some other mechanical watch making firms who closed up completely rather than being crushed by the Japanese quartz juggernaut, Heuer hedged its position by electing to continue making fine mechanical sports watches powered by the workhorse movements of the day — notably the Lemania 5100 and the Valjoux 7750. My Dad and I were not really plugged into the intricacies of the watch business, nor were we students of watch history. We plunked down $660 apiece for the matte silver model 1000 chronograph with a quartz movement. It was what watch folks call a tool watch — designed for one or more sports-specific functions — but if it was indeed a tool watch, it had just enough attitude to make it distinctive.

Mechanical watch making, which in very broad terms describes watches that are powered strictly by winding power — either hand-wound or via a rotor, an internal weight that oscillates freely within the watch case, transmitting mechanical power to the escapement — was severely curtailed during the rise of the quartz watch in the late ’70s and early 80’s. Guided by Jack Heuer in the 60s and 70s, Heuer ascended in the world of auto racing through judicious sponsorships with Formula 1 racing teams, notably Ferrari. Specific watch models were created around circuit races and race-inspired iconography: the Carrera after the Carrera Panamericana Mexico, the Silverstone after the eponymous track in northern England, the Autavia an amalgam of the words ‘Automotive” and “Aviation.” An association with a particular driver or, in the case of the Monaco, a screen icon and a car guy — McQueen, is what separates the few cult status pieces from the pack. The Monaco is at the top. It’s rakish and modernist design — square case, distinctive sub-dials, and elegant bracelet, have combined potently with the enduring appeal of McQueen to push Monaco prices into double digit annual gains. Second on the list is the “Siffert” Autavia, named for the Ferrari driver Jo Siffert.

It is interesting to note that it is about 25 years from the time when Heuer transitioned from race-inspired mechanical chronographs to more fashion oriented watches. Jeff Stein, in a forum response in 2007, postulates that collector interest is piqued by one’s aspirational desires as a sixteen year-old, so taking 1973 as the rough midpoint of the Heuer golden era, implying that the typical Heuer collector is now in his or her early 50s. While there is undoubtedly a core of middle-aged Formula One fans with an avid collecting interest, there is a timeless aesthetic embodied by the dials, hands, markers and cases that can be traced to the advent of modernism and the Bauhaus.

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If you look at the front elevation of Walter Gropius’s 1911–12 Fagus shoe-last works building, there is a simple clock over the entrance. The Fagus building is notable for being the first building designed as a “curtain-wall” construction, a steel frame building with a glass façade that is literally hung into place. Curtain wall design ushered in the modern era of construction with structures that permitted far more light and air and far fewer columns than traditional forms of construction. From a horological standpoint, this clock is remarkable. It has a simple white dial and hour markers — the same design vocabulary that Heuer would use fifty years later. The only slight bit of ornamentation comes from the clock hands, the hour hand a rosette and the minute hand a graceful marker.

Approximately thirty years later in the early 1940s, the Swiss engineer and designer Hans Hifliker created the iconic Swiss railway clock using almost precisely the same template as the clock that adorned the Fagus building. Hifliker took simplicity one step further: he omitted any type of decoration for the hour and minute hands, rendering them in bold stick form. Otherwise, the Fagus clock exhibited virtually the exact same parsimony of design as the Swiss Railway Clock, over a generation before Hifliker’s icon. In the US, commuters did not quite benefit from the same parsimony of design that Europeans enjoyed. New York’s Grand Central Terminal contains a hodgepodge of clocks in modern and classical styles.

The advent of modern wristwatch design occurred after the Second World War Military-inspired watches returned with soldiers. Designed for legibility, these watches are desirable today and are the epitome of design clarity: dark dials, luminous white Arabic’s and second hands that were designed for synchronization. As a sports timing specialist, Heuer, along with Omega and Breitling, led the path to wristwatch designs that specialized in sports timing. According to Jack Heuer, his company devoted more attention to the design of its dashboard chronographs than the wristwatches. Richard Sapper, a Milan-based industrial designer, was used by Heuer to design race timing devices in the 1970s. The wrist chronographs were designed by a combination of Heuer designers and the firms that supplied it with cases and dials. From Haslinger’s interview with Jack Heuer, a top-down marketing approach emerges: Jack produced a concept for a watch, typically with a racing, sailing, or Olympic theme, and from that concept the design took shape. At the time, “tool” watches, or watches that serve specific timing needs, were not as prevalent as today. The most famous Heuer, the Monaco, had a production span that lasted only 4 years, and during its production life, the Monaco could be occasionally be bought for as little as $99 on sale. Considering the brevity of the production span of many models, along with intra-model variation in design, case materials, and movements, Heuer chronographs forty to fifty years later read as a very well edited collection. The marketing intuition of Jack Heuer appears to have been brilliantly absorbed and reified by his designers and outside vendors. The size of the watches in relation to their functional elements — outer timing bezels, internal tachymeter and pulsometer scales, and other enhanced design elements — is for the most part perfectly scaled. The Verona, for example, a watch on the dressier end of the chronograph spectrum, has a version that in its minimalist stick style is the watch equivalent of a black tuxedo.

As the boomer generation fascinated by motorsport legends of the ’60s and ’70s ages, there is speculation about whether the Heuer legacy will be sustained by younger collectors. It is apparent that the true high-end of the market seems to be breaking away — one of the McQueen Heuers achieved a price north of $80,000 at a recent Antiquorium auction. This is perhaps an indication of the strength of the brand or more tellingly a signal that celebrity is the key determinant of price and desirability. Time, as always, will tell.