TAG Heuer Aquaracer: A Bold Timekeeping Instrument
The TAG Heuer Aquaracer collection gets a major refresh for 2021, with ergonomic performance top of mind. We put the watches through their paces while creating a visual impression of what they represent.
When we wrote in issue #59, just a few short months ago, that TAG Heuer should spare a little love for its dive watch collection, the Aquaracer, I really had no idea that a suitable reply would be coming from the manufacture quite so soon.
Here is what I wrote in that story: “Taking note of the winds of change that are swirling around watchmaking once more, we hope that the powers-that-be at the brand and LVMH consider the powerful allure of the dive watch, and seize the opportunity with what is already a pretty good model. It could be great.” Ask and ye shall receive, apparently. Well played TAG Heuer.
Before I let my enthusiasm for the Aquaracer get the better of me, a few confessions are in order. I wrote an extensive story on the family of watches known as the Aquaracer in 2018 for the Indonesia edition of WOW, and I followed up with the aforementioned piece last year. Part of the reason for this is that one of my first proper watches was a TAG Heuer 2000 Series chronograph, featuring an early appearance of the full colour version of the TAG Heuer logo on the dial.
It is only one of several dive watches that I own, or have owned. While my current tastes go in quite a different direction, the dive watch is a must-have for most people who love watches. In this case, I am still in the “most people,” camp. The overall popularity of the dive watch is a narrative thread woven into a number of parts of this story, which is likely the most personal of cover stories we have done in the last five years. The TAG Heuer Aquaracer is the contemporary successor to the aforementioned 2000 Series, after all.
Admissions of bias aside, I will also assert that dive watches are far more than useful tools for professional and amateur divers. We certainly put the watches through full immersion testing while shooting the images you see here, and no harm came to any of the Aquaracers. Even such superficial challenges are far from the reality that these watches will face on the wrists of the enthusiasts and collectors. Amateur divers may well put these watches through their paces, but even they will not touch the depths that the 300m water-resistance promises.
That said, we are getting ahead of ourselves here, because you may be surprised by TAG Heuer’s focus on the dive watch this year. Yes, despite our exhortations and my own advocacy, TAG Heuer is not strongly associated with water sports. For that reason, we will begin this story with a couple of old Heuer models called Seafarers and Mareographs. These watches offered the very specialized tidal indications function, and were in the Heuer range from the 1950s to the 1970s.
The story goes that Jack Heuer himself — then just 15 — created the first tidal indication watches for the Heuer manufacture. In his biography, he notes that he collaborated with his high school physics teacher to calculate the wheels and cogs needed to show the times of the tides at a specific location. It will turn out that on the waves or below them, the story of TAG Heuer timekeepers might be titled the Life Aquatic with Jack Heuer.
To return to the Aquaracer for a moment, I can confirm that over the years, the various versions of this model have always got the job done beneath the waves, in such a way that you never need to think about the watch. My wife has taken one version, the quartz model from 2018, diving and it survived her… As for legibility, I cannot speak to how it performs in the no-light conditions beneath the waves, but in low-light scenarios the luminosity is perfectly acceptable. It also will not startle anyone in a cinema, which is a very real issue with some luminescent watches. The story will return to professional standards briefly, but for now, the history lesson continues.
The birth of the Aquaracer collection
As mentioned briefly in the introduction, the Aquaracer is certainly not TAG Heuer’s first dive watch. Not for nothing but the Swiss Heuer watch firm patented its first water-resistant case in 1895 — a pocket watch no less. It is not the first such case in watchmaking, and there is a big difference between making any sort of dive watch and a watch that is merely water-resistant, but this 19th century patent shows that engineering excellence has been the order of the day from early on at TAG Heuer.
The contemporary collection got started under this name in 2004, as the TAG Heuer 2000 Aquaracer, which was both the first appearance of the Aquaracer name, and the last hurrah for the 2000 Series. From the next year, Aquaracer watches no longer carried the 2000 moniker. It was this earlier collection though that heralded TAG Heuer’s entry into the undersea realm, so it is worth a short look before we turn to the Aquaracer in particular.
The 1980s were not the best of times for the Swiss watch industry, as many of you will no doubt know. The entire trade had to justify its existence, now that cost-efficient and cutting-edge quartz technology had delivered precise timekeepers to, well, everyone. The Heuer watchmaking firm (it had yet to get its TAG, as it were) had a novel solution, pushed reportedly by the legendary Jack Heuer himself. Basically, in the 1970s, Jack discovered a significant gap in the market – reliable timekeepers, at a reasonable price, for aquatic activities.
Thus, just as the 1970s closed out, was born the Heuer Diver Professional, also known as the 1000 Series. Although mostly powered by quartz movements, there were automatic and complicated versions too, such as the peerless Autavia Diver 100 chronograph in the early 1980s, but we digress. The point here is that Heuer was a pioneer in bringing the dive watch to more wrists than ever before, and it did so by taking advantage of quartz technology. In a way, the company was demonstrating that it would not buckle under pressure (and thus living up to its moniker in the 21st century).
- READ MORE: Unsung Heroes of TAG Heuer
Tribute to the Number 844
Past and present collide in 2021 for the Aquaracer in the form of the Aquaracer Professional 300 Tribute to Ref. 844. Famed watch designer Guy Bove, who presented the entire collection for Watches & Wonders 2021 alongside TAG Heuer CEO Frederic Arnault, took the audience through a meticulous examination of all the major design points, and more than a few details. Perhaps this is to be expected, given that Arnault declared that the Aquaracer was his first watch… something he has in common with Bove. So it is that our journey into history is interrupted here by the magnificently named tribute number, which TAG Heuer itself calls a meeting between heritage and modernity. To our minds, this is simply the future of the dive watch at TAG Heuer, forged under immense pressure at the 21st century manufacture.
From the full name of the watch, you can immediately tell that it is a reference to a model known only by the number 844. While we went into some of the seagoing history of the Heuer brand, there was one watch in particular that opened up the depths to the watchmaker. It was 1978, and the watch known as Ref. 844 was what Jack believed the market needed, although he did express some trepidation because the Heuer company had no expertise here. The first dive watch from Heuer then was an experiment, which is why the word Professional is printed on the dial as Professionel. It was not an error, of course, and reflected the fact that Jack brought in a French specialist called Monnin to help develop and produce the first 844 models.
Today, these are known as the Heuer Monnin Reference 844 watches, according to The Veblenist; the maker of after-market straps went to the trouble of scouring the forums and some of our favourite TAG Heuer resources, including Calibre11.com, to get what looks to be the definitive story of the original 844 so we recommend you head there for that. For our purposes, we will note that this reference has been absent for too long from the official narrative of the Aquaracer. As the author of this story, my own biases for the successor 2000 series limit my ability to offer an objective look at Heuer’s first chapter in the world of dive watches. On the other hand, the story can and will note where and how the Tribute to Ref. 844 takes its cues, and how it represents the future of the Aquaracer.
To begin with, the 2021 limited edition is in Grade 5 titanium, which might well be the ideal material for a 43mm watch designed to withstand the equivalent of 300m of water sitting on top of it. The 42mm original was rated water-resistant to 200m, and was issued in stainless steel. It was likely also issued with a steel unidirectional bezel, with some kind of anodized metallic bezel insert. By way of contrast, the Tribute to Ref. 844 sports a titanium unidirectional bezel with black ceramic insert, which is just what is expected of a contemporary dive watch. It also tracks well with the 2014 rework of the Aquaracer collection, but there are some key changes here that we will address in the overall section on the 2021 makeover.
Back on the subject of the 844 vs the Tribute to Ref. 844, we continue with aesthetics, which in a tool watch are often functional too. On the dial, the original features an unusual 24-hour scale in red Arabic numerals, which is recreated in the Tribute to Ref. 844. While the original used tritium, this has been replaced with Super-LumiNova®, which is given the aged-look here. The hands and hour markers are entirely contemporary in the Tribute model, being essentially the same as the regular collection details, but completely different to the 2014 Aquaracer. The same is true of the caseback, except for the “One of 844” text, and the movement. Interestingly, the original 844 used a France Ebauches calibre, which was then the French equivalent of ETA in Switzerland today.
The final notable point in looking at both the 844 and the Tribute is the strap. Both are in rubber, but the original is a tropic strap while the Tribute model uses a perforated rubber strap. Essentially, the strap is punctured by octagonal holes at precise intervals. With that, we return to the regular chronology, and find ourselves in the 1980s.
- READ MORE: The Conversation: Integrated Bracelets
Engineering made to last a lifetime
By the time the 1000 Series became the 2000 Series in 1983, TAG Heuer had successfully found the formula that would define prestige sports watches across the industry. As I learned on a TAG Heuer junket to Phuket a few years ago, there are six parts to this formula: superlative water-resistance (200 meters or more), screw-down crown, unidirectional bezel, sapphire crystal, luminous hands and hour markers, and a double safety clasp. More than 35 years later, these features still define the luxury professional sports watch, more or less.
The popularity of the Aquaracer at this time, and right through the 1990s, explains why men of different generations such as Bove and Arnault can find themselves united in sharing the same first watch. This may be so, but the collection itself went through several evolutionary stages at TAG Heuer, including that important moment when it got its official name, and the former practice of naming the series 1000, 2000 and so on was put to rest. One thing that did not change, and remains with us in the contemporary collection is that six-part formula.
It is important to remember that some elements of that formula relate to ISO 6425, the standard that governs proper dive watches. This relates mostly to the water-resistance level, the unidirectional bezel, and the legibility of the watch underwater. The water-resistance and legibility are mostly self-explanatory but the bezel could do with a bit of explaining. This kind of bezel turns only in one direction, theoretically allowing one to safely keep track of time spent underwater. Accidental knocks to this sort of bezel will only turn it anti-clockwise, making it seem like you have spent more time underwater than you thought, and making it necessary to surface sooner. It is all about safety first, you see (more details on dive watches here).
In reality of course, the unidirectional bezel is a last resort, and offers only a rough guide. As Roger Valberg noted, how much air you have in your tanks depends on how deep or shallow the breaths you take. The pressure gauge on the tank itself remains the best reference.
As far as water-resistance goes, it is a fair question as to why watch brands such as TAG Heuer go to such lengths to offer exceptional ratings; non-professionals are not going down to 100 meters, and those who do will likely get purpose-built tool watches (such as those for COMEX, for example). Such instruments are purpose-tested across the production run, which is where standards such ISO 6425 come in. This standard requires every watch in the production line to be tested, not just a sample, and adds to the price of the final pieces. The value of this to the average watch lover is highly subjective. Professional standards are highly specialised, and relate to specific scenarios, but when you buy a watch, water-resistance means something else.
Arguably, the idea behind the water-resistance is build quality, which Bove alluded to in his introduction to the Aquaracer collection. This generally means that the watch has been engineered to the level that it is suitable for professional use, even though that is not its purpose. In cars, we see the same philosophy of over-engineering; no one is going to hit all the peaks of a Porsche in everyday driving, but it is nice to know that you could, if you had to. Of course, a road-going version would perform very differently to a track version, and legal restrictions (also common sense) prevent overlaps in the extremes.
Bold design for the future
The new Aquaracer line-up consists of eight watches in two sizes, three case materials, and various colours and dial variations. That seems easy enough, and we have already covered the Tribute to Ref. 844, leaving us with seven more pieces. As mentioned in that earlier section on the Tribute model, there are some common features that distinguish the Aquaracer as a collection, and are reflected in all models, including the Tribute. Of the seven core models, four are sized at 43mm and three are more petite at 36mm, which appears to be the default-yet-unofficial unisex size. Across all eight models, stainless steel is the case material of choice with the exception of a single watch in Grade 2 titanium, which is distinguished by its green dial, and of course the aforementioned Tribute version. The rest of the stainless steel models are available with either blue, black or silver dials.
In addition, notable upgrades over the existing models include a scratch-resistant ceramic insert, now basically a necessity on luxury watches, a magnifier integrated under the sapphire crystal, which keeps the exterior surface smooth, and the application of green and blue Super-LumiNova® on the hour and minute hands for improved clarity and legibility under low light conditions.
The profile of the Aquaracer’s case, bezel, and bracelet was also slimmed down in response to modern demands for improved ergonomic performance. The manufacture recognised that not all who buy an Aquaracer are looking to explore the ocean’s depths. Many landlubbers simply desire an elegantly versatile and robust timepiece to accompany them in a variety of different environments. Bove confirmed this point while introducing the collection. Practically speaking, this means the new Aquaracer’s profile was minimised, with the bezel having lost a full 1mm. It also lost the grips that defined the collection since the days of the 2000 Series, but gained the grip-friendly texture of the 844. Bove was keen to show off what he called the pleasing clicks of the bezel as it turned, and we can report that it does sound oddly satisfying. Adjusting the bezel is physically a pleasant experience as well – if you did not know the grips were there before, you would never think the bezel needed it.
Another significant appointment is the new integrated metal bracelet with an improved fine adjustment system, which allows the user to easily extend or reduce its length on the go to fit over a wetsuit or in accordance with changes in climate and temperature. The new design of the Aquaracer Professional 300 is rounded off with a tweaked scaphander diving helmet motif on the caseback, an emblematic feature since 2004. The helmet is now more angular and features a 12-faceted faceplate which reflects the updated bezel design. Other commentators observe that one of the nifty details of the current design is that the diving helmet is now in the same position on all watches. Previously, the helmet could have been askew depending on how the caseback was fitted, so if you sent it in for servicing it might have come back a little different.
On the dial, the octagonal hour markers are a nice detail, which is sometimes incorrectly described as dodecagonal, like the bezel. The horizontal lines across the dial remain, although the spacing appears to have opened up. Bove suggested that even the steel models are lighter than their 2014 predecessors, but it is certain that the titanium versions are lighter, to the tune of 50% versus the same model in steel. Shorter and steeper lugs might also make for a better fit on the wrist, while simultaneously making any of the new Aquaracers feel lighter.
Between the dial and the caseback, the movement is actually the easiest to address in this update because everything is powered by the automatic Calibre 5, even with the change to the date position in the 2021 models. To recap on this calibre, it is TAG Heuer’s version of the automatic Selita SW200 or the ETA 2824-2 (which are basically interchangeable). The balance beats at 28,800vph and the power reserve is 38 hours. Given that TAG Heuer is pretty firm on keeping the watch slim, any calibre lined up for this collection will have to take that into account. For the record, the manufacture informs us that the 2021 Aquaracer is 12.20mm thick, as opposed to the 2014 version, which is 12.55mm thick. Now neither of those measurements are particularly chunky, when one considers that dive watches are typically above 14mm in thickness.
Prestigious watch adapting to all lifestyles
It may surprise collectors and enthusiasts alike to realise just how big a part the Aquaracer plays in the contemporary TAG Heuer story. Almost every year, to use just one example, the brand has a very strong focus on its racing legacy watches, including the perennial favourite, the Carrera, but also important standards such as the Formula 1 family and the Monaco.
Nevertheless, if you take a look at the TAG Heuer website, the sheer scale of the Aquaracer collection cannot fail to impress you. There are simply too many to get into here, even if this entire story had been dedicated to showing them all. This brings us to the existing 2014 models, most of which appear to remain in the offering. This is unusual but not unheard of, and will no doubt offer a useful point of reference for the brand, and perhaps some useful data from the website. The biggest advantage for Aquaracer enthusiasts though is the ability to benchmark the current collection against its own recent past.
At any rate, the collection continues to celebrate variety. From mechanical models powered by Calibre 16, Calibre 5, Calibre 9 and Calibre 45 to quartz offerings and gem-set versions, there is something for everyone here. Chronograph lovers should take note that there remain only quartz models for now, but we are sure that this complication will return in mechanical form sooner rather than later. We draw your attention to the Aquagraph from 2002. This professional dive watch (discontinued since 2008, roughly) was water-resistant to 500 meters and the chronograph could actually be activated underwater, which is a rarity among dive watches. It was also an automatic, not quartz, and was tested and certified by the US Navy Seals, according to TAG Heuer.
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