Innovation and Inspiration — Zenith and TAG Heuer Update Their Icons

Compared with other companies in the fashion or consumer products industries, the leading watch brands tend to be old, most of them dating from the 19th century.  The watch brands seek to leverage their histories.  Turning the pages of popular magazines, we see companies selling watches worn by famous pilots, explorers, divers and drivers.  Watch enthusiasts study the watches associated with historic events – Lindberg’s trans-Atlantic flight, the conquest of Everest or the moon landings – as well as the watches that are admired for their innovative designs or features.

It’s not surprising then that watch brands draw on their own archives and portfolios, as they seek to attract today’s customers.  We see modern watches labeled as re-issues, tributes, homages, classics and commemorative editions.  Other modern watches have no such labels, but carry forward the names of legendary models.

The original Carrera (center), surrounded by the 40th anniversary model from 2004 (left) and the Jack Heuer 80th Birthday model from 2012 (right).

Watch brands face a challenge, however, in re-issuing their iconic watches or producing homages.  When today’s brands stick too closely to the original watch, collectors accuse them of lacking creativity.  But if a brand strays too far, and enthusiasts fail to see the connection to the classic watch, the brand is accused of cheapening a sacred name or misappropriating its own history.  Still, we are seeing an ever-increasing flow of re-issue watches, across the spectrum from the “look-alikes” to models that merely tip their hats to their predecessors.

Recent re-issues of iconic watches by Zenith and TAG Heuer seem to have satisfied those who cherish the vintage models, while also creating some excitement for today’s enthusiasts.  The approaches taken by these brands illustrate some of the ways that an iconic watch can inspire innovative new watches, which are likely to become tomorrow’s collectible classics.

The Iconic El Primero.  Launched in 1969, the Zenith El Primero was the first automatic chronograph to use an integrated movement.  Ask the vintage chronograph crowd to name their favorite El Primero and many collectors will reply with one word, “Tri-Color”.  They refer to the overlapping silver, gray and blue registers of the Reference A386 chronograph.  But it’s more than the style of the registers that makes the Tri-Color El Primero the favorite.  The elegant shape of the case, the distinctive white hands, and the contrasting tachymeter and decimal minutes scale combine to make the Tri-Color one of the most coveted of the early El Primeros.  (Click for an overview of the early El Primeros.)

Zenith El Primero Ref A386, produced from 1969 to 1971.

Make it Striking. In one of its first re-issues of the El Primero, it was natural for Zenith to pay tribute to the Tri-Color, Reference A386.  No doubt, Zenith would have been praised for simply producing a new run of chronographs that looked and functioned exactly like the old favorite.  But rather than simply making a new version of the Tri-Color, at the 2010 Basel Fair, Zenith announced an entirely new approach to timing.  With its new Caliber 4052B movement, running at 36,000 vibrations per hour, Zenith produced a chronograph with a center-mounted hand that makes one revolution every 10 seconds, so that the decimal minutes scale (from the original Tri-Color El Primero) is now indicating decimal seconds.  That’s right, the center-mounted chronograph hand is showing tenths of seconds, rather than tenths of minutes, which also gave the new El Primero its “Striking 1/10” name.  The recorder at three o’clock shows chronograph seconds; the recorder at six o’clock shows chronograph minutes; the recorder at nine o’clock shows running seconds.  The hour recorder from the original El Primero is deleted.

Zenith El Primero Striking 1/10 Caliber 4052B, introduced in 2010. The center-mounted chronograph hand makes one revolution in 10 seconds, with the outer scale marked for tenths of seconds.

We Need a Hero.  Two years after the launch of the El Primero Striking 1/10 chronograph, Zenith created a new version of the chronograph.  The Stratos Flyback version of the Striking 1/10 chronograph added a flyback function (previously used on some El Primero models), and also introduced an entirely new case with a distinctive rotating bezel, marked in minutes.  Rather than relying on its technical innovations or new design to grab the attention of today’s collectors, Zenith used a bolder approach to promote the watch.  Zenith became a lead sponsor of Felix Baumgartner’s October 2012 “Mission to the Edge of Space” and arranged for Baumgartner to wear the Stratos Flyback during his record-setting jump.  It was “mission accomplished” for Baumgartner, as his record-breaking jump was headline news for several days; it was “mission accomplished” for Zenith, as watch bloggers and reporters featured his Stratos Flyback El Primero for a strong news cycle.  (See ABlogToWatch for a review of the Stratos Flyback, including side-by-side photos with the original Striking 1/10 chronograph.)

Zenith was one of the major sponsors of Felix Baumgartner's "Mission to the Edge of Space", and Baumgartner and the crew wore a newly-developed "Stratos Flyback" version of the Striking Tenth. Baumgartner wore the chronograph during his record setting jump.

TAG Heuer Celebrates the Carrera.  We see this same progression of innovation and inspiration in two of TAG Heuer’s recent re-issues of its legendary Carrera chronograph.  Heuer introduced the Carrera in 1963, with a design that was informed by the Bauhaus principle of form following function.  Many chronographs of the 1940s and 50s had “busy” dials, often having scales for tachymeter, telemeter and other functions.  With Heuer’s new Carrera, every element had a purpose and any extraneous element was removed.  The Carrera became the ultimate expression of the Heuer chronograph, a “white board” upon which future designs could easily be drawn.  Over the first two decades of the Carrera, Heuer offered over 100 versions and executions, all of them drawing on the original 1963 version.

An early sample of the Heuer Carrera, circa 1963. Heuer created a classic in chronograph design, by removing all non-essential elements.

In-House Innovation.  In 2010, the Carrera became TAG Heuer’s flagship for technical innovation, when the company used the Carrera to introduce an entirely new in-house movement, the Calibre 1887.  The Calibre 1887 movement is an integrated movement, featuring a classic column wheel construction, with an oscillating pinion to engage and disengage the chronograph (a technology developed and patented by Edouard Heuer in 1887).  The movement was a landmark for TAG Heuer, with the company producing the movement’s main plate, bridges, column wheel and oscillating weight at its own facility, based in Cornol, Switzerland.  While the movement was entirely new for TAG Heuer, the case, dial, hands and other major design elements were derived from the original Carrera,  so that the Calibre 1887 Carrera marked the ultimate combination of the old and the new.

Forty seven years after the introduction of the Carrera, the Calibre 1887 Carrera -- launched in 2010 -- incorporated the design elements of the original model. However, the familiar case housed an entirely new movement.

We Have a Hero and His Name is “Heuer”.  In 2012, TAG Heuer further updated the Carrera to celebrate one of the brand’s legendary heroes, with the introduction of the Jack Heuer 80th Birthday Carrera.  Jack Heuer had sketched the very first Carrera in 1963, and given it the beautiful “Carrera” name, so it was only fitting that he would direct the design of his special birthday model, 49 years later.  This model includes many of his favorite elements — from the two two contrasting registers, to the red Heuer shield that he had placed on so many race cars, to the Heuer family coat of arms on the case-back.  The red “80″ on the tachymeter track is a unique way to mark Jack Heuer’s special milestone. (See for a review of the Jack Heuer 80th Birthday Carrera, including side-by-side photos with the Calibre 1887 Carrera.)

Jack Heuer suggested the key design elements for the Carrera that TAG Heuer created to mark his 80th birthday. Of the many red accents, the "80" on the tachymeter track may be the most distinctive.

Innovation and Inspiration.  While I don’t believe for a second — or even 1/10 of a second – that either Zenith or TAG Heuer planned this exact progression of homage watches, we can still applaud approaches that build on a model’s heritage either by adding technical innovations or capturing special moments of heroic figures.  Sure, TAG Heuer and Zenith could have been satisfied to have re-issued their icons, as they were produced in 1963 and 1969.  They create far more interesting watches, however, when they use the original watch as a starting point, and then add interesting technical enhancements or associations with today’s heroes.

Tomorrow’s Classics.  Many of today’s collectors hesitate to jump into the world of vintage watches.  It can be difficult to find unmolested original watches, and even with the genuine ones, the collector’s experience is often a function of the availability of a reliable watchmaker and abundant parts.  Walking into a store and buying a new watch may be more appealing, and having a warranty and factory service can take many of the risks out of the experience.

The approaches taken by Zenith and TAG Heuer may be perfect for those who want the style and heritage of the classic watches, without the accompanying headaches.  By taking the best of their classics, incorporating innovative features and technology, and celebrating romantic figures or events, these brands attract today’s collectors.  We can expect that the Zenith’s Striking 1/10 and Stratos Flyback El Primeros, and the TAG Heuer Calibre 1887 and Jack Heuer 80th Birthday Carreras, will both be cherished by collectors, both today and in the future.

While we have considered recent re-issues by Zenith and TAG Heuer, many other brands are using similar approaches in celebrating their icons.  Over the last year, Rolex has sent a special version of its Sea-Dweller to the bottom of the ocean, IWC has paid tribute to Mohammed Ali on his 70th birthday, Vacheron Constantin has recreated the unique cushion shaped model that it produced for the American market in the 1920′s, and a Jaeger LeCoultre has marked the 80th anniversary of the Reverso and it 17 year association with Batman, both in the same watch.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Grande Reverso Ultra Thin Tribute to 1931 Watch Dark Knight Tribute

Today’s watch brands are continuing to take full advantage of their icons, as they offer enthusiasts innovative technologies and connections with historic achievements and personalities.  We can be confident that these new watches will become the classics for a new generation of collectors.

Categories Heuer, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Tag Heuer, Watches, Zenith Tags , , , Bookmark
  • analog/shift

    Great piece, Jeff! Couldn’t agree more.