HERITAGE When heritage meets innovation

13 min

An unprecedented interview at the heart of the TAG Heuer universe

Heuer Ring Master and TAG Heuer Connected

On this morning, Edouard Mignon was working from his office. Catherine Eberlé-Devaux joined our Zoom meeting from Geneva. Both had a smile on their face and a watch on their wrist.

The first? Director of Innovation and Head of the TAG Heuer Research Institute, since February 2020. The second, TAG Heuer’s Director of Heritage, who will leave her position in April 2021 and be replaced by Nicholas Biebuyck, ready to take up the torch as a fine connoisseur of the Maison. Two key positions for a brand whose slogan sums up its ethos: “Swiss Avant-Garde since 1860”.

 

A passionate discussion touching on the past, present and future of a brand, thoughts on quartz or the philosophical power of a watch. Together we explored TAG Heuer’s heritage, innovation and values, all of which transcend time.

Catherine, Edouard, could you please remind us of your respective roles? 

Catherine Eberlé-Devaux: When the Heritage department was created almost 4 years ago in April 2017, the idea was to explore TAG Heuer’s heritage in depth and make it shine. It involved shining a light on the brand’s history, notably through archival documents that allowed us to retrace everything that has took place since 1860, and thus understand what guided the choices of the various directors, who span across four generations of the Heuer family. 

The goal was also to gain a deeper knowledge of the watches we’ve produced over the last 160 years of our existence. This expertise is crucial for three reasons. First, knowing the interior of a timepiece, as for archives, allows us to explore certain choices the business has made. The second reason is that this knowledge allows us to get involved in the vintage market. The Heuer and TAG Heuer collector community is very important. But, before creating the department there was no guaranteed authority on the quality of second-hand timepieces. There was a real need for us to authenticate our watches, even if they dated from 30 or 60 years ago. Finally, the more we know about the watches we made in the past, the better we’re able to develop our watches today, to give them meaning, emotion, an interesting aspect – rather than simply the value of the timepiece, even if this is already substantial. 

 

Your department’s activities are very varied!

CED: Yes, setting it up has been an exciting experience. It branches out into various other departments, that’s what I love about it. I work with Communications when we organize exhibitions, with the Press departments on how we’ll tell this or that story, with the auction and collector community and of course, with Innovation.

 

…with innovation: that’s your cue, Edouard.

Edouard Mignon: My work involves dreaming about the future of watchmaking! For this, just like the Heritage department, I have to find connections. Between the past, the present and the future, between various worlds and differing profiles. To introduce innovation and push it even further. It’s these connections that make our timepieces express something profound. 

At the TAG Heuer Research Institute, we have around thirty staff all with very complementary skills and personalities, ranging from material specialists to watchmakers. The Institute exists to build a bridge between traditional watchmaking and the more “cutting edge” side, technology. Its goal is to tackle the biggest challenges in watchmaking, but with an approach centered on the client and the Maison’s DNA. This is the point where mine and Catherine’s work come together! To propel ourselves into the future and produce meaningful timepieces, we must first be guided by our history. 

We develop new functions and new technology to improve performance, to reduce delays between departments and to create new movements. But our role also involves reimagining existing mechanical systems to make them simpler and easier to understand for our clients. Then there’s also the question of materials and processes; we’re at the dawn of a revolution in both of these areas! At the end of the day, our job is to interpret the technology found in our everyday world, and in TAG Heuer’s. Let’s not forget that TAG stands for: “Techniques d’Avant-Garde” (avant-garde techniques).

The TAG Heuer Vintage Workshop that restores timepieces, in La Chaux-de-Fonds (Switzerland).

Tell us about how your collaboration started, and how it has evolved today.

CED: I was lucky enough to be one of the first people that Edouard came to see to get an idea of this brand’s backbone. And not simply to say “nice to meet you, I’m your new colleague”. To be completely honest, our first discussion was about the importance of preserving the Maison’s innovative essence. Because, over the course of our 160-year existence, innovation has never ceased, and TAG Heuer has been able to harness, develop, nurture and enrich it. 

In the Heritage department, we do everything, except nostalgia. Yes, we have a museum, but it’s almost anecdotal. We hardly wanted to call it a “museum”, it’s a living space. 

We quickly began bombarding one another with questions. Me asking him about this mythical caliber that needed to be dusted off urgently, while he told me about quartz and to find out more about its place in TAG Heuer’s history. This is how our collaboration began, with very specific subjects, almost like a list of seemingly unconnected items. And, little by little, through various messages, Zoom calls and meetings, this list grew. 

EM: Exactly, I was lucky that Catherine was one of the first people I met at TAG Heuer, it was really a great first meeting. When you work with someone, it’s important to be inspired, to know how to feed off the other person and their knowledge. We like to bounce back and forth on general questions, but we also plan each project together. We are working together on a number of very concrete projects, where each of us contributes our own experience and expertise. It really is a double approach that we have together, either we start by brainstorming, which can go in all sorts of directions. Or, we tackle a specific subject and examine it from every angle in order to add value to it, to add meaning. 

 

It’s almost like you were destined to work together! 

EM: What is certain is that we both care about the notion of continuity. Today, we represent the TAG Heuer brand and our mission is to make it even more beautiful, because others will then take up the torch and carry it into the future. There has to therefore be a logic behind every single one of our actions. 

CED: Yes, we have a responsibility. We’re here for a limited amount of time, while the brand will exist forever. We are therefore both very humble, but also very involved. Our actions have consequences for the brand today, but also on the one that will be experienced in the future, and the one that will be described in the history books.  

EM: Exactly! It’s fun, we both work on long time scales. Catherine, you feed off everything that may have happened in the past, whereas we at the institute try to propel ourselves as far as possible into the future.

How long does it take for you to go from an intuition, to an innovation, to a product and then finally a heritage timepiece? Do you have an example of one of these trajectories?

EM: It can take several years, and the more ambitious it is, the more time it requires! I’ll take the example of the Monaco V4, which was launched as a watch in 2004. It took five years of hard work to turn it into a small series. Now, it is fully a part of our heritage and collectors talk about it a lot.

 

Is there an aspect of your collaboration that we wouldn’t expect?

CED: Remanufacturing components that make up a watch’s movements. The Heritage department has real issues in terms of restoring older timepieces. With restoration, rather than repair, it’s about preserving as much of the integrity and authenticity of the watch we receive as possible. And to do this, there is, despite everything, some worn materials in the movement that we have to replace. And, of course, we don’t have an infinite stock of every component, of every movement the Maison has used for the past 160 years! So, we have problems sourcing these rare and famous components. Until Edouard arrived, we were juggling with external suppliers. But we’ve since put a 100% internal supply chain in place, where Edouard’s Movement Development team come and work with my watchmakers. They collect the components we need and, as we don’t have any design plans for a spring dating back to 1940 for example, they completely map the timepiece with a high-tech scanner. Now that is cutting edge! Then the manufacturers take these scans and transform them into designs, manufacturing them in our prototyping workshop.

 EM: That’s really a great example! I’d also add that a lot of work goes into the simulation of what you’re describing. We can set all the tests we want for the watch’s use and try to simulate 10 years of wear, but real life often differs from the tests. Thanks to the Heritage department, we have access to a real gold mine: timepieces that are decades old, 50, 60 years old or even older, which we can really study to see what has happened to them. It’s amazing! 

CED: At this point, the first components can be integrated into the timepieces that we receive in the workshop. It’s truly satisfying! We’re the only Maison to do this, to push the detail of the restoration so far, all done in-house. 

 

What topics do you both tend to debate on?

CED: On the project we’ve been speaking about, one of Edouard’s manufacturers came to see us and said – I’m paraphrasing here: “I understand why a lot of people are sending back this kind of movement on this component, it’s badly made this thing!” And he explained how he could improve it. But when faced with this kind of situation, the question is not an insignificant one: do we improve a design by Leonardo Da Vinci to make it more effective, or do we keep its error? Almost philosophical discussions! In any case, it’s really a game of ping-pong between our teams.

EM: Yes, this fascinates the manufacturers, who are building the Maison’s and the future’s next calibers. Not only is this project refreshing for them, but on top of this, like you said, it encourages them for the next one. And this is incredibly rich! 

Established by an expert watchmaker restoring a more than 100-year-old Mikrograph.

Sketch of the ©TAG Heuer Carrera Code

How do you make innovation something you can really experience when you wear a watch on your wrist? The same question for heritage.

EM: Let’s take the example of the TAG Heuer Carrera. The watch will now have an 80-hour power reserve. That means that you can leave it on your bedside table for a whole weekend and it will continue to work perfectly on Monday morning. This was inconceivable 30 years ago. This modern Carrera also has a watertightness that is nothing like that of its ancestors. The ceramic bezels are completely scratchproof. However, its DNA remains unchanged, deeply rooted in our heritage. Simply put, it’s been refined using the best technology, allowing it to be incredibly reliable. In short, a perfect experience! 

CED: Sapphire glass didn’t exist either, they used plexiglass. However, plexiglass scratches easily, ages badly and turns yellow…

Is everything going well in the Heritage department? And in Innovation? 

CED: No, not at all! There are mistakes, misunderstandings, failures, dead-ends, lots of things we’d rather leave under the carpet. It’s up to us to know how to accept them, just as we accept that certain innovation leads aren’t for us…

EM: …Or that certain innovation leads simply don’t work! With innovation, the more ambitious it is, the longer it takes, and the more likely it is that it could end up at a dead end. 

CED: Sometimes you get the impression that, because it’s old, it’s good, but that’s not always the case.

EM: We must always interpret the Maison’s DNA. Innovation for innovation’s sake is useless, it must serve a purpose. Coming back to when we were talking about continuity and responsibility, if we make a decision that’s at a 90° angle to what we normally do, it’ll be obvious, so we discard it! We have to stay the course. 

 

What is this course? 

EM: We’re fortunate enough to have a brand that’s linked to cars, timekeeping and sport. It’s an endless source of expression and it’s amazing! It means that we can have fun with all the functions centered around reliability, performance and time measurement. Other territories are occupied by other brands, it would be contradictory to commit ourselves to anything else. 

CED: Absolutely! For example, we looked into certain major watchmaking complications. But, we wouldn’t necessarily be legitimate on moon phases, chimes and other grandiose effects. On the other hand, chronograph complications are extremely difficult to master properly, by the way! – this is the Maison’s real DNA. There is a fantastic area to explore: should time measurement be designed to be precise or to be reliable? How is time measurement displayed, how is it expressed? Who is this for? Is it just for pilots, or can it reach a wider target market?

 

When you develop a new watch, is its trajectory already set? 

CED: I always apply myself to new projects by saying: “Here is the state of play, here are the constraints, here is what has already been done. Now, leave it to infuse, let it take root, and give me your ideas!”. As the head of Heritage, I don’t want to be a burden, but rather a springboard. Only then will we discuss the evolution of how a collection will grow, what color it will be… In this dialogue, I am just one voice amongst those of both markets and sales, but also of the strategic intentions of top management. 

EM: I completely agree with you on that point. For my part, I’m representing the voice of both innovation and technology. Design also has an important contribution when it comes to product development. And then there is marketing, sales, there are many facets that contribute to the product’s evolution in line with our strategy. It’s this way of working together that gives our approach meaning and coherence.

Ring Master Heuer

What is more valuable: the innovation and the quality of that innovation, or the sentimental value of heritage? 

CED: For me, it transcends both. It’s the emotion that we’ll be able to offer. It’s the timepiece’s design which, the more you look at it, the more you think it is beautiful. It’s its function, its 80-hour power reserve, its water-resistance… And it’s also the fact it’s been around for 60 years, I’m wearing history on my wrist. It’s all of these things at the same time!

EM: When we achieve this alchemy, then we’re happy. That’s the recipe for success. We mustn’t forget that when we talk about old timepieces, they were innovative in their time. The ones that have lasted, that went down in history, had the characteristics you’re talking about Catherine. 

CED: We tend to look at the timepiece with a modern eye, when we shouldn’t. The Carrera is, today, one of the most classic designs. Very elegant, but classic. At the time it was innovative, ultra-modern, as unexpected as the Monaco V4 or the Connected watch could be today! 

 

Let’s take a 100-year leap forward: which TAG Heuer watch will be the most valuable?

CED: If I was able to answer, it would be because the brand had lost its innovative, avant-garde side. So, I’m hoping I can’t make a correct prediction! 

EM: Great answer! 

 

In terms of innovation, what is left to explore?

EM: Watchmaking has existed for more than 500 years, depending on the definition we assign it, and over this entire time, we have never stopped inventing, never! Some were quick to announce the end of mechanical watchmaking, but the mechanical watchmaking we know today is not at all like that of the 1960s. We have made a huge amount of progress, and this continues today. It’s an absolutely extraordinary field of exploration, because it’s both technical and a source of strong emotion. 

The most explored path today is materials. We have access to scanning electron microscopes, transmission electron microscopes, incredible tools that allow us to see atoms, so to speak, and to design materials according to our desired properties! A component can now have two or three functions. During the last few years, we were sometimes discouraged by a lack of controlled precision. This is all going down! We will be able to encounter even crazier complications, materials that are completely different aesthetically from what we used to have, with incredibly durable properties. It’s a new chapter that’s beginning. 

 

Where do you think this fascination with watches comes from?

CED: We mustn’t forget that we produce objects that measure time, our time. And, given our current lifestyles, our relationship with these objects is both very interesting and profound. Clearly, we no longer need a watch simply to know what time it is. Yet, we need it more than ever before. A watch has a visual side – we were talking about its display earlier – which allows us to see the time as it passes. Looking at our own time through a watch we like is a very important choice. Is it a round, blue, square, white, classic or innovative dial? Is it a mechanical movement with complications? Is it automatic? 

We now have access to all this knowledge and beauty of watchmaking craftsmanship, and we take immense pleasure in that. 

EM: Yes, I think it’s one of those rare objects that raises philosophical questions about how we measure time. On top of this, the watch combines the artisanal aspect of the watchmaker’s polisher, which will make the timepiece shine, and this high technology found in design, with state-of-the-art machines that look for precision almost on an atomic level. Having these various levels in one and the same object is unique. 

TAG Heuer Monaco V4, a technical feat

What do you consider to be the least-known TAG Heuer watch? The one that best represents the balance between your respective areas of expertise?  

EM: The 1970s is a relatively unknown period, well, it’s less fashionable today. However, it was in this decade that the Chronosplit was introduced, one of the first quartz chronographs with a digital display, which was particularly innovative for its time, almost the predecessor to the Connected watch. I love this period of time and this model, because it shows our disruptive side. Technologically, I even think that it helped develop the quartz, which is now so valuable to us. TAG Heuer is one of these Maisons that were pioneers in this area, where we’ve earned real credentials. 

CED: My favorite timepiece isn’t really unknown, especially as I often talk about it! But when I discovered it, it stunned me and I fell in love with it: it’s the Ring Master. Edouard, you were speaking about the inspiration behind the Connected watch. For me, the Ring Master is its true predecessor.  It was released in 1957. It’s a 7-in-1 sports counter, you could unscrew the glass and change the rings that show the timers. With it, you could go from timing a boxing match to timing a 100-meter race, or even the start of a regatta. What won me over in the end was that the 7th ring was blank, so you could put your own time indications on it! To cook your eggs, for a car journey, to optimize braking or acceleration, it’s all left up to your imagination.

 

This mechanical and modular side is quite incredible, as we had nothing like it at the time. If the Ring Master has remained relatively unknown it’s because it was, apparently, not easy to sell. I can understand why, the concept is quite crazy. But when my colleagues showed me the first Connected watches, I said exactly the same thing! You offer time measurement on the same object according to the moment and to what you’re doing: on the Connected watch of today, we go from golf to swimming, it’s the same logic.

 

What place will the Connected watch have in TAG Heuer’s history, and history generally, in 20 years’ time?

EM: I’m convinced that it will still be talked about, it will have left an impression. Even more so considering TAG Heuer was the first to take the plunge into this field. So, what will the Connected watch be like in 20 years? Will it have the same face as it does today? Most certainly not. What functions will it have? There is still a lot to be invented. 

CED: I completely agree, the first Connected watch arrived in 2015, it’s really a historic date. It is also the year we released our Heuer 02 Tourbillon. For TAG Heuer, it was crucial to be able to launch in the same year as the most iconic of complications, with the tourbillon AND the most innovative timepiece in modern watchmaking.

Make us dream, tell us about the beginning of a project you are currently working on together. 

CED: What shall we talk about Edouard?

EM: Perhaps this model which will be released soon… ? 

CED: That’s what I was thinking of! We are developing a unique timepiece, based on one of our most iconic collections and a very specific model from this collection, whose codes are being reinterpreted… by completely transforming them!

EM: We’re revisiting them with technology that is both aesthetic and performs well. This unique timepiece will be the first chapter in a new adventure… 

 

We can’t wait! Thank you both for taking us so far into your world.