With Jean-Claude Biver at the tiller, the watch industry is accustomed to TAG Heuer presenting itself to the world in a larger-than-life manner, but one of the statements issued by the brand’s general manager at Basel was simply breathtaking in its bravura.
“TAG Heuer is one of the most important tourbillon manufacturer in Switzerland because of this piece,” Guy Sémon told me.
If someone had said that just 12 months ago they might have rightly been considered deranged – even Sémon admits it sounds ‘curious’ saying it now – but following the reveal of the brand’s Carrera Heuer 02-T and the numbers that TAG Heuer is set on producing, you’d be hard-pressed to argue with them.
What is causing waves is the price of the watch, a Swiss made chronograph tourbillon from £12,100. The traditional Swiss approach to the pricing of even ‘simple’ tourbillon models would see it cost many times more. Of course there are tourbillons on the market for hundreds, rather than tens of thousands, of pounds which originate from China. But TAG’s latest tourbillon is a home-grown affair.
“This tourbillon is manufactured in-house, in our factories, which means we have mastered the process to produce the base of the movement; the plate, the bridges, the steel parts like the gears, pinions, column wheel, all small steel components.”
The movement is indeed in-house. In developing the Carrera Heuer 02-T, TAG Heuer turned to a stockpile of some 5,000 of its CH80 chronograph movements, produced in 2014 at the brand’s Chevenez factory before it was closed and the movement mothballed in favour of the brand’s more affordable Calibre 1887 chronograph movement.
This was at a time when Jean-Claude Biver was urgently steering the brand away from grandiose haute horlogerie projects such as the Mikrogirder and towards more accessible pricing.
But now, some 18 months later and with a solid core of sub-£3,000 watches to its name, TAG Heuer once again seems prepared to explore its premium offering.
Now 1,000 of the CH80 chronograph movements have been heavily modified to incorporate a lightweight flying tourbillon, with a further 1,000 in the pipeline. These numbers would almost certainly make TAG Heuer the largest producer of tourbillon watches in Switzerland.
TAG has taken a modular approach with the design and Sémon points out that the Heuer 02-T is the only movement currently on the market where the mainspring barrel can be extracted with removing any bridges. The lightweight flying tourbillon also allows for a lengthy power reserve from a single barrel, 65 hours, with Sémon explaining: “It is a question of weight, of mass. Normally a tourbillon in more heavy than a normal regulator because of the cage. In this case to reduce the weight we are using special materials, the branches of the tourbillon are in titanium and the cage of the tourbillon is graphite. That means with the energy available in the barrel I can run the tourbillon at 4Hz, which is relatively fast for a tourbillon – it’s a one-minute tourbillon – with 65 hours of power reserve.”
The team behind TAG Heuer’s Monaco V4 haute horlogerie watch – the 2014 tourbillon version of which is still available to buy for £110,000 – developed the tourbillon for the 02-T movement.
“It’s not more difficult to produce this movement over a normal movement because we are using modern machines, the latest generation of tooling systems in our factory. What is often difficult is to maintain the quality. A tourbillon is about 30 small components, the trick is to respect the position of the components to keep the same centre of rotation. Normally it’s a watchmaker adjusting things to keep that centre of rotation, but with modern machinery it’s not necessary, it’s perfect at a level of microns.”
One of the most obvious omissions to TAG Heuer’s new chronograph tourbillon is the level of fine finishing applied to its components. Few would argue that a tourbillon is of any benefit to isochronism within a wristwatch, Breguet’s mechanism serves a purpose for more sedentary timepieces such as pocket watches and clocks. Today the tourbillon is more of a showcase for a watchmaker’s talent, often with as much attention paid to the decorative techniques applied as to its design.
TAG Heuer cleverly sidesteps that issue opting for a rugged, industrial design aesthetic and granular finish over the far more refined traditional approach usually taken with tourbillons. Whilst hand polishing serves to visually demonstrate that every effort has been made to remove imperfections, the granular finish will mask any such blemish, removing the need for tens, if not hundreds, of man hours and a great deal of cost in the process.
But that’s not to say that TAG Heuer has dropped its standards for the Heuer 02-T, the calibre is a COSC-certified chronometer meaning the movement has passed the Swiss institute’s 15-day barrage of tests.
What is especially interesting about Carrera Heuer 02-T is that it exists at all. Just 18 months ago Jean-Claude Biver had changed TAG Heuer’s heading; away from expensive, complex watches towards simple, affordable pieces with a much younger audience in mind. Now it would appear Biver sees that mission as being complete enough to allow the company to cover other bases.
Established industry pricing often sees margins increased depending on the complexity of the watch and increased potential after sales service requirements. TAG Heuer has dispensed with this approach for its new tourbillon.
“Of course your first impression is ‘Wow, it’s cheap’,” says Sémon. “But this product has no more margin regarding the rest of our collection.”
Sémon explains that the watch represents a new approach that will see the brand democratise the advances it has made in haute horlogerie in recent years and bring them in at accessible prices.
“The time is ready now to provide [the] ultimate technology developed in [previous] years for haute horlogerie, such as [our advances in precision]. It’s not very difficult to create this kind of technology for very small, limited quantities. But it’s huge work to transfer this kind of technology to mass volume production. But it’s what we are doing at TAG because it is the job of TAG.”
The 45mm titanium TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer 02 Tourbillon is priced £12,100, while an all-black Phantom edition, limited to 200 pieces costs £16,150.