At the time Heuer was founded in 1860, watches were judged more subjectively on qualities like the finish of the case as opposed to the functionality. Over the next several decades, as the industry advanced from pocket watches to wristwatches that focus shifted. The value of a watch would not only be measured by its outward appearance but also by its internal workings.
By the 1930’s, Heuer had made a name for itself. This prompted them to begin stamping their mark on the dial as well as the movement in order to boost the recognition of their brand. Despite the gradual shift in popularity from pocket watches to wristwatches, Heuer’s most popular timepieces continued to be timers and stopwatches, like the Autavia 12-hour timer released in 1933, featuring a Valjoux 59 movement.
Fast forward a few decades later to the 1950’s, and the popularity of chronographs was beginning to decline. This prompted Heuer to diversify its offerings, and the brand branched out into the production of non-chronograph timepieces. These timekeeping watches used an automatic movement as opposed to the manual movements used in the chronographs. Ultimately, Heuer’s non-chronograph watches didn’t take off in the market due to strong competition from other Swiss watchmakers.
The 1960’s proved a turning point—Heuer released the first Autavia wristwatch with a classic Valjoux 72 movement in 1962, the same year John Glenn took his Heuer 2915A stopwatch into space.
Just a year later in 1963, Heuer made history once again with the introduction of the first Carrera, a sleek and sophisticated chronograph based on form and function with no superfluous bells and whistles. The original Carrera was available in two variations, one featuring a Valjoux 72 movement and the other featuring a Valjoux 92 movement.
Despite Heuer’s successes in the early 1960’s, the demand for chronographs had continued to decline, and the market became saturated with automatic watches. Once-revered creators of watch movements, like Valjoux, were falling between the cracks, and many Swiss watch companies were facing significant challenges. In response to this shift in the market, four of the leading watch manufacturers – Heuer, Breitling, Zenith, and Seiko – began a race to create the first automatic chronograph.
Prior to that, Heuer had actually begun to conceptualize the Caliber 12 Chronomatic movement back in the 1950’s. They tried to consider how a chronograph mechanism could be mounted on top of a microrotor movement, like the one patented by the Buren Watch Company. At the time, Heuer abandoned this idea because even when they attempted to use the thinnest chronograph mechanism and the thinnest movement, the pair was still too thick to compete in a market where ultra-slim watches were in vogue.
When the race to create the first automatic chronograph commenced, Heuer knew they could revisit the ideas they developed during the decade prior. They enlisted the help of Buren as well as another company called Dubois-Depraz that specialized in designing watch complications. The only setback for Heuer was the capital needed to fund the project. They approached one of their competitors, Breitling, to form a unique partnership. Believing they were stronger in the race together than alone, Breitling agreed, and what came to be known as Project 99 was formed.
Finally, on March 3, 1969, Heuer solidified its place in watchmaking history.
Along with its partners, the brand held press conferences in five major cities around the globe, announcing the prototype of the world’s first automatic chronograph: the Caliber 11 Chronograph, or Chronomatic. In addition to crafting this groundbreaking new movement, Heuer also introduced a radical design to house it – the waterproof square sports watch known as the Monaco, another world-first.
Within a year of the introduction of the Caliber 11, Heuer recognized some key technical problems with certain aspects of the design. This resulted in the creation of the Caliber 11-I movement and later the Caliber 12 movement. A few years later, in 1972, Heuer and Breitling modified the Caliber 12 movement and created the Caliber 15 movement, which allowed automatic chronographs to be sold at a lower price point.
Today, TAG Heuer continues to innovate in the same spirt of its predecessor, whether it’s with their groundbreaking smartwatch or a complete cultural restructuring to reconnect to its early values. It seems that even as the brand continues to move forward, it can’t help but echo the successes of its past.