Style / World of Watches (WOW)

TAG Heuer Monaco Collection: The Paradoxical Superstar

We finally get to properly tackle the story of the Monaco, thanks to three new models in 2022, all of which confirm that it is indeed a paradoxical superstar.

Aug 27, 2022 | By Ashok Soman
Tag Heuer Watch

Whatever you hear about watchmaking brands creating icons is just spin on the following fact: time makes icons of some tickers. One can no more set out to create icons than one can build virality into a social media post. This is why the great watches of the past are always revisited, or possibly recreated for the contemporary age. Traditionally watchmaking is in an interesting position as far as this goes, because it has faced numerous moments when it had to reinvent itself. This has the curious effect of making iconic timepieces from the last century symbols of rebirth. It also births synchronicity, as we discovered in the case of our cover subject, the TAG Heuer Monaco Special Edition.

You may have heard about this watch when it was revealed on the occasion of the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix this year, but of course it is not a newcomer to the starting grid of high-performance timekeeping. The seasoned collectors amongst you will have immediately recognised this watch as the latest iteration of the legendary Dark Lord, but you will also have noted that the watch is no reissue. For the rest of you, the Monaco chronograph will certainly be recognisable — there is no watch like it in all of fine watchmaking, as we will demonstrate in this story.

Dark Lord Tag Heuer Watch
Image: TAG Heuer

First up though, as usual, for the proper details and specifications of this Special Edition, click here. This is where we typically get into the specifics about the cover watch itself. That said, any Monaco watch tells a powerful story, with peaks and troughs to suit the story of timekeeping itself, and the amplitudes of the various regulators that make the machines themselves tick. Now, we have made at least two very strong statements about the Monaco and we do intend on backing them up. Because this is not a story about the Dark Lord alone, we can afford to talk about the Monaco in general.

Left Field

Image: TAG Heuer

Normally, we would leap immediately into the history of the watch, which we are admittedly chomping at the bit to do. There is a lot of history to the Monaco, and much to learn about its story; however, this does not reveal why the Monaco is unique, and uniquely deserving of this characterisation. Part of the answer lies in the name of the watch, which ranks amongst the coolest in all of watchmaking. To make it plain, there is only one Monaco watch.

Jack Heuer literally hit the jackpot with the name, which he decided on because of the Monaco Grand Prix — which we will delve into later —– not because of any association with the Principality itself. This is how TAG Heuer explained it on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the watch in 2019, with Jack telling the tale in a corporate video: “Monte-Carlo as a name was taken but Monaco was available and sounded pleasant. We agreed it would make for a good wristwatch name.” This explanation is extraordinarily prosaic and a little deflating, but such is the nature of facts in watchmaking. Nevertheless, having such a distinctive name for a distinctive watch was fortuitous, with observers today frequently referencing the city itself when talking about the watch, with all its connotations. In fact, we just did it ourselves.

To be sure, a name suffused with all sorts of symbolic meaning could be dangerous, but the Heuer Monaco was living on the edge even before it was named. This is plainly evident from the design elements you see in this contemporary Monaco Dark Lord Special Edition, even though both the original reference 1133B that debuted in 1969 and the first Dark Lord in 1975 too both sported aesthetic cues that were straight out of left field. We will get to this shortly, but the current design plays its part in making the Monaco a standout.

Dark Lord Tag Heuer Watch
Image: TAG Heuer

Today, TAG Heuer leans heavily into the story of its icons, and has a specific approach to updating them. We spoke with the brand’s Creative Director Guy Bove at Watches & Wonders Geneva about the Monaco in particular (although not the new Special Edition and the Purple Dial Limited Edition as those were revealed after the fair — Ed). “There are two ways to approach (the challenge of working with an existing design icon). You can go in and do whatever you want with the watch — which I’m not saying we would — or you can ask what we were trying to say with the original (and build on that). I’m in favour of the latter. Most of the time, you don’t have the opportunity to talk with people who worked on the original, but Jack is still very much in the picture,” said Bove.

Bove agrees with many published reports on the subject of chronograph and timepiece design at Heuer that Jack was all about legibility, and that central conceit informs the current look and feel of the Monaco. It is a watch that grabs your attention by the lapels, as it were, with its combination of squares and circles, but it applies this feature to deliver information as sharply and quickly as possible to your noggin.

A Passion For Racing

Tag Heuer Watch
Image: TAG Heuer

Fortunately, we too do not need to rely solely on our own words, opinions or interpretations of the past here. We begin somewhere close to the beginning (taking our cue from Bove), with the words of Jack Heuer himself, as he wrote in his autobiography “The Times of my Life” on the debut of the Monaco. “We immediately knew this was something special because until then square cases were used only for dress watches because it was impossible to make a square case fully water-resistant. We immediately took a liking to the special square shape and were able to negotiate a deal with Piquerez that secured us exclusive use of the case design for chronographs. The revolutionary square case would be the perfect housing for our avant-garde “Monaco” wrist chronograph.”

There is a lot to unpack there, and it is perhaps a strange place to begin this story, given that we have not established the significance of the Monaco and the chronograph calibre it sported, to say nothing of the casemaker and the matter of water-resistance. Jack’s words here are striking enough that we wanted to extract them and present them in this way. I found myself wondering out loud about Jack’s choice of words, and his emphasis on the instant delight he and his team at Heuer felt about the prospects of the Monaco in 1969. From the perspective of the 21st century — the book was published in 2013 — Jack’s words make easy sense, but the entire story itself was bittersweet. Again, the timing is crucial because 1969 was probably the last great year for mechanical watchmaking in the previous century. Arguably, the story of the great watches of 1969, which means every single chronograph and indeed mechanical watch, not just the Monaco, approaches the level of tragedy, when one considers how it all ended in the 1970s.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, we must necessarily return to the magnetic figure of Jack Heuer, the great-grandson of Heuer founder Edouard. The story of the Monaco wrist chronograph is not only a tale of ambitious timekeeping, it is also the story of two ambitious men obsessed with motor racing. One is Jack, who loved fast cars and brought Heuer to Formula 1, and the other is Steve McQueen, who is without question the most significant character in the public story of the Monaco.

The Road to Iconic Status

1969_Monaco Tag Heuer
The world’s most famous watch with horizontal hour markers. Image: Tag Heuer

Nick Foulkes, author, raconteur and watch specialist, called Jack a new type of man for a new age, and this seems a fair assessment when Jack was about to join the family business in the 1950s. A fourth-generation Heuer in the family business, Jack was the first to attend and graduate university. By all accounts, he was multilingual and as far from provincial as Geneva is from New York. It was in New York in 1959 that Jack made his mark for the Heuer firm, setting up the Heuer Time Corporation there to manage what he thought was an underdeveloped market for Heuer.

Prior to this, Jack had identified a variety of weaknesses in the business, which was run by his father and uncle, and he saw the American market as a vital opportunity for the family’s timekeeping business. Stopwatches were the backbone of the Heuer business, and the American market accounted for two-thirds of all Swiss stopwatch sales. By way of contrast, the Heuer share of the stopwatch market in the United States was a mere 2-3 per cent.

The plan, therefore, was simple — get on track in the American market by literally getting on track. While it is hard to imagine today, Heuer was not associated with professional racing or motorsports. Yes, it had the Autavia dashboard clock (from the 1930s) and thus some shared history with the automobile, but it was hardly a fixture at racetracks. This was something Jack himself noticed, as a racing enthusiast and driver himself. He saw the opportunity to get the drivers themselves into the act, and charted a course to make Heuer — and now TAG Heuer — the global leader in motorsports affiliation, if not outright involvement. This fed into the creation of Heuer icons such as the Carrera and the Autavia, which Jack shepherded to the peak of motorsports glory, with the help of Formula 1 champion Jo Siffert.

The Swiss driver proved to be an enthusiastic Heuer man, and he was also to prove instrumental in the story of the Monaco when he drew the attention of Steve McQueen. But first, the chronograph had to become automatic…

Ingenious and Cheeky

Image: TAG Heuer

When considering something out of its own time, such as the Monaco, it is worth remembering that Heuer was not shooting for a driver’s watch. Here is where Jack’s avant-garde description comes into play, because the watch was really for people gunning for first place. In 1969, the Monaco was the world’s first automatic chronograph in a water-resistant square case. Thanks to Calibre 11, the watch also moved the crown to the left, which while quite the rebel move, was also echoed in all watches that used the new calibre.

The original Monaco was singularly distinctive, probably more so than was good for it, so the left-hand crown at that time was nothing special. The message of the positioning in all watches that used the Calibre 11, developed jointly by Heuer-Leonidas, Breitling, Hamilton-Buren and Dubois Depraz, was that you only needed to set the time with the crown — winding was utterly irrelevant. It was practical, if ingenious and cheeky.

By way of comparison, the crazy horizontal hour markers were much more provocative than the crown. They were crazy then and they remain so today — plenty of people have avoided the original reference 1133B just because of those markers, which only enhances the appeal now that more than 50 years of mileage have accrued. It is notable though that these have not made a comeback, including in the Special Editions and Limited Edition we have gathered to celebrate here.

To be clear though, the Monaco has not been in continuous production since 1969 or anything. Despite the Steve McQueen association, the Monaco was avant-garde but far from the sort of watch the public was looking for. Indeed, as noted in the book “Monaco — The Paradoxical Superstar”, the only reason McQueen had quite so many Monaco models to look at was that the Autavia and Carrera models were in short supply, due to being relatively popular. The Monaco was a prominent victim of the quartz crisis, with the Dark Lord model of 1975 being the last we would hear of the watch until 1998. In fact, by the time the Dark Lord debuted, Heuer and the Swiss watch trade were on the ropes, which is why so few Dark Lord models were made. Paradoxically, when the world began to rediscover its taste for mechanical watches (in the early 2000s, by common consensus), the Monaco was back in form, no pun intended, thanks to its timely reintroduction, as we shall see.

Avant-Garde Once More

Tag Heuer Monaco Dark Lord
Image: TAG Heuer

That renewal of the model, which came under the guise of the transformed TAG Heuer firm, was a happy confluence of happenstance. TAG stands for Techniques d’Avant Garde, the name of the aviation-focused group that bought out Heuer in 1985. The avant-garde part of the name was a good fit with the Heuer ethos, and apparently a proper match for the Monaco, if one recalls Jack’s words. While one wonders if the avant-grade description of the Monaco drew the attention of the new owners at TAG Heuer, they did intend on celebrating the anniversary of the debut of the automatic chronograph. Perhaps this new generation at the brand had some idea of how important the Monaco would go on to be, because its return was no sure thing. Given the proven track record of the Carrera, for example, it is conceivable and logical to expect TAG Heuer to use that model for the anniversary. For whatever reason though, the Monaco returned to the fold, but under even newer leadership that would see Jack himself eventually back in the picture. It was just in time to capitalise on the renaissance in mechanical watchmaking.

LVMH got into the act on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Monaco, and the development of the world’s first automatic chronograph. TAG Heuer became the fast-beating heart of the LVMH watchmaking business in 1999, and the Monaco would get a new and permanent lease of life. This story does not have the space to get into the 69 and V4 models the debuted thanks to this renewed interest in the Monaco, but it is notable that the model has played host to some of the most innovative timekeeping moves at TAG Heuer. To be sure, the new Dark Lord-inspired Special Edition, the Monaco x Gulf Special Edition and the Monaco Purple Dial Limited Edition, do not feature such chronometric leaps, but they do allow us to up our enjoyment of this icon. See the relevant sidebars for more details.

While the watch was a marvel on its debut, the newly returned Monaco of the late 1990s would continue to showcase the technical mettle of the manufacture. When LVMH stepped in, this accelerated, and on some level it is not hard to understand why. The fact that the watch is not round immediately sets it up for the extraordinary. Where the round watch wants to conform, the square one has nothing to conform to. History sometimes loves such a watch, and the Monaco got a boost from a man who made a virtue of not confirming, no matter the cost.

Too Cool

Carrera Tag Heuer

The story is legendary today and you too, dear reader, probably have heard some version of it, and we shall build on what we mentioned a little earlier. As noted, all we really need to know is that McQueen was at the zenith of his career, and was preparing to make the movie he had dreamed of making for more than a decade. It was a movie that was more in the auteurist vein of Robert Bresson than the star-making Hollywood films that had catapulted McQueen to global prominence. After all, we all know Bullit and The Great Escape, but you would be hard-pressed to name even one Bresson film. It seems likely McQueen always knew Le Mans was going to be a very different movie, and that his star-power was going to help him make it.

To be as true to the subject of racing as possible, McQueen wanted to be a model racer. In other words, he was going to be a racing driver who happened to be the subject of a movie. As mentioned, he specifically stated that he wanted to look like Jo Siffert. With a Heuer patch on his overalls for the movie and a yen for racing himself, McQueen had a lock on Siffert’s look. Now he just needed the right watch.

Property master Don Nunley obliged the star with a selection of Swiss watches; Siffert himself wore an Autavia and McQueen knew this. On the day he was looking at the selection of watches, there happened to be more Monaco watches than anything else. Nevertheless, McQueen was reaching for another famous model from another brand that had made cosmic waves just a few years before. Nunley reminded McQueen that he would be unlikely to sport a Heuer badge on his overalls yet wear a different watch. The star agreed, and he went for the most eye-catching and completely different watch on the table: the Monaco reference 1133B.

Outrunning Time

Carrera Tag Heuer
Image: Tag Heuer

Released in 1971, Le Mans ran 106 minutes, out of which the Monaco shared perhaps a minute, total (according to the book Monaco The Paradoxical Superstar). In the years to come though, the image of McQueen in his racing overalls, Heuer logo included, with his trusty Monaco on his wrist, became iconic. Needless to say, Le Mans was not a hit, and the Monaco was having a hard time finding fans too. Once more, a watch that is avant-garde cannot be for everyone but the fact that it was for McQueen makes it very sexy indeed. And the racing actor’s passions allowed TAG Heuer to bring all manner of racing associations into the fold, as you can see here.

Racing, or a passion for racing, informs the conclusion of this article, not only for all the reasons we have already outlined but because TAG Heuer itself debuted the Dark Lord-inspired model at the Monaco Grand Prix this year. Given the name of the watch, this was perhaps a fait accompli, but it is also telling in that the Monaco today has a sort of racing pedigree of its own. Not only has the watch outpaced its own teething problems, it also remains on the racetrack, so to speak, while many of its peers and suppliers have retired. This of course includes its own engine, the famous Calibre 11, but also the original casemaker, Piquerez. This means that the material foundations upon which the Monaco was built are defunct. We need not tell you that to continue to race time as the Monaco does, TAG Heuer had to find new resources.

Yes, the Monaco manages to exist as an automatic water-resistant chronograph in a square case, and it is also a sort of handsome embodiment of the Ship of Theseus. Even the caseback, which once bore the inscription Tool No 033, has been replaced by a version with an exhibition sapphire window. Yet despite all this, the Monaco remains the Monaco, so perhaps TAG Heuer is still trying to deliver on the original vision for the watch, as Bove said.

For more watch reads, click here.

Back to top