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History of TAG Heuer

TAG Heuer's heritage is certainly one of the most important of all the Swiss watch brands.

Founded as Heuer in 1860, and renamed TAG Heuer in 1985, when the TAG Group purchased a majority stake in the company, the Swiss brand has played a key role in taking watchmaking to new levels of accuracy and performance.

Its history starts when Edouard Heuer (1840-1892) established Uhrenmanufaktur Heuer AG in St-Imier, a municipality in the canton of Bern in Switzerland. At the time, he was just 20 years old. The son of a shoe maker, he had started his apprenticeship as watchmaker at the age of 14.

Edouard Heuer in 1860

In 1864, he moved to his hometown in Brugg, a few chilometers from Bienne, and opened an Atelier under the name of Edouard Heuer & Compagnie. A few years later he definitively set up in Bienne in order to take advantage of the three-year tax exemption incentive offered by the municipality to new businesses.

The Heuer Atelier in Brugg, the hometown of founder Edouard Heuer, in the 1860s

Heuer's very first patent was granted in 1869 for a keyless, crown-operated winding system for pocket watches immediately revealing that innovation was part of the DNA of the new brand, as demonstrated by the amount of inventions in the following years.

A major breakthrough happened in 1887, when Heuer patented the "oscillating pinion" for stop watches. Consisting of a movable shaft with two differently toothed gears, this mechanism could be engaged to make the chronograph function start or stop by simply operating on the respective push buttons. To understand the importance of this invention just consider that the oscillating pinion is still used by major watchmakers of mechanical chronographs.

The French "oscillating pinion" patent granted by the Paris 'Bureau for Industrial Property' - 1887

Above and below, the US patent granted to Heuer in 1888. 


In 1892, Edouard patented his first chronograph, successfully presenting it one year later at the Amsterdam International Exhibition.

Edouard's sons, Jules-Edouard and Charles-Auguste took over the company when the founder died in 1892.

A new patent was awarded in 1895 for one of the first water-resistant cases for pocket watches.


The continuous growth of the company brought to commercial expansion in the Americas in 1910 with the appointment of Henri Freund & Bros. as  the exclusive distributor for the American market as well as to numerous product novelties presented in the following decade.

Designed for use in automobiles and aircrafts, the patented "Time of Trip" was the first dashboard chronograph (1911). It featured central hour and minute hands to show the time of day, a small counter for the running seconds and a larger one with hour and minute hands to indicate the duration of a trip up to 12 hours. The top-mounted crown allowed the user to set the time with the start/stop/reset actions operated by the button mounted in the crown.


Adapted from pocket chronographs, hence featuring the crown at 12 0'clock, the first wrist chronographs of the brand were introduced in 1914.

Heuer's first wrist chronographs featuring a silver case, enamelled dial and luminous hands - 1914

Heuer's dynamism was evidenced by the launch of the "Mikrograph" in 1916, the first stopwatch accurate to 1/100 of a second. Its dial was designed to make the reading of the 1/100th second increments simple and accurate.

The Mikrograph - 1916

The "Mikrograph" was followed by the "Semikrograph", a stopwatch measuring time to 1/50th of a second. The 'Semicrosplit' version could also measure two events simultaneously thanks to its fly-back hand.

Thanks to these patented stopwatches, Heuer became the official timekeeper of several editions of the Olympic Games and other sport events. In particular, the Heuer split second pocket chronographs were selected as official stopwatches used at the Olympic Games on 3 consecutive occasions: Antwerp in 1920, Paris in 1924, and Amsterdam in 1928.


The connections to the worlds of sport and motor racing cars significantly contributed to the growing success of Heuer in the 1920 decade.

Fully realising the importance of the "brand", in these years Heuer extended the use of the famous shield logo to the dials of their timepieces that, before this change, were generally sold without any indication of the manufacturer.

The 1930s were tougher years due to the impact of the so-called Great Depression that followed the Stock Market crash in 1929. While not at the level of the 1920s, production continued despite a negative impact on exports.

In 1933, Heuer designed the successful AUTAVIA, a new dash counter for racing cars, boats and aircraft. Its name, a contraction of AUTomobile and AVIAtion, will be later used also for a popular wrist chronograph launched in the 1960s.


In these years Heuer also started producing chronographs especially designed for pilots, in one-button and two-button versions. Instead of being converted pocket watches, these models - often referred to as "Flieger" - were designed from scratch as wristwatches. Nonetheless, some links with converted pocket watches were still evident, like the lugs welded to the case using a solid bar rather than the handier spring bars that would have appeared in few years.

Heuer advertising - 1936

Some of these chronograph models will later be source of inspiration for popular models released several decades later, like the Targa Florio and the Monza.

This pilot chronograph will be the inspiration for the Targa Florio model

Another Heuer chronographs from the 1930s. As Heuer fans will notice, its case shape served as the inspiration for the Monza model launched in 2000.

In 1934, with the world economy slowly recovering form the crisis started five years before, Heuer looked for further expansion participating for the first time to the 1934 edition of the Basel Watchmaking Fair.


Chronography was the focus of the brand in this decade. An important area of improvement was represented by water-resistance of wrist chronographs. From 1939 on, this was significantly improved by progressively replacing bar pushers with round buttons as it was easier to equip them with rubber seals.

Heuer advertising - 1941

The excellent reputation of Heuer chronographs kept growing also in the 1940s. General Eisenhower, later to become the 34th president of the United States, bought a Heuer chronograph ref. 2447 with a steel case in 1945. This chronograph still had not the round pushers enhancing waterproofness and the Heuer shield logo like the following ref. 2447s.

The watch was driven by a precise Valjoux 72 movement equipped with a column-wheel enhancing its reliability and resistance to wear and tear.

An example of Heuer 2447s column-wheel chronograph. At 38 mm of diameter this was considered pretty large at the time - Courtesy of Amsterdam Watch Company

Heuer Advertising showing a Heuer triple calendar chronograph - circa 1950

Together with other personalities of the time, even Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, wore a Heuer triple calendar chronograph in gold (ref. 2558 from 1947).

Launched in 1948, the 'Auto-Graph' model was a wrist chronograph featuring a tachymeter scale on the dial and a hand that could be preset to a specific point on the scale. Different uses were possible. A rally driver or navigator could use it to determine whether the car was achieving the desired pace, over a measured mile. But, as suggested by a Heuer advertisement, this hand could also be used to count golf scores or other events.

Innovation continued with the introduction of the first Solunar, a watch with an additional register to display tide movements. It was produced on request of the American lifestyle retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. that reported the demand for a watch that could show high and low tides.


The Solunar was followed in 1950 by the remarkable Mareograph - known as the 'Seafarer' in the United States - the world's first chronograph with a tide level indicator and dial for regattas. The colourful dial of this model could also be used to track the phases of the moon.

The Mareograph and, on the right, the same model produced for Abercrombie & Fitch and distributed in the United States market with the Seafarer name

Heuer continued to manufacture timepieces for the dashboards of automobiles, aircrafts, and boats. A new line of dashboard timepieces launched in 1958 included the Master Time (8-day clock), the Monte Carlo (12-hour stopwatch), the Super Autavia (full chronograph), Sebring (60-minute, split-second timer), and Auto-Rallye (60-minute stopwatch). 

A catalogue presenting the Rally-Master line of dashboard timepieces lines 


Heuer continued to manufacture these dashboard timepieces into the 1980s when they were discontinued. 

1958 was remarkable also because Jack Heuer, Charles-Edouard Heuer's son, joined the company. As we will see, Jack, the fourth generation head of the company, will be responsible for the development of some of the most important products in Heuer's history.

Jack Heuer and his father Charles-Edouard Heuer in the Heuer workshop - 1958

The Heuer building in Bienne in the 1960s

In the autumn of 1961, Jack Heuer decided to create a new wrist chronograph with a turning bezel, a first for the Swiss brand. He chose to name it “Autavia”, just like the 1933 ancestor. 

The first generation of the Autavia was launched in 1962 with models characterized by a classic 38 mm steel case with soft, flowing lugs as well as a simple black dial featuring luminescent hour markers, oversized white sub-dials and dauphine hands.

The first generation Autavia - 1962

While the Autavia was easily recognizable for some recurring details like its rotating bezel, its large snailed counters and the excellent legibility of its black and white dial, the Autavia made its name thanks to its numerous variants. Two or three counters, different scales on the bezel, a GMT model, a diving version and military variants, all these facets made the Autavia even more fascinating to the eyes of collectors.


The ambassadors of this timepiece were the greatest Formula 1 drivers of the 1970s: Jo Siffert, Jochen Rindt, Derek Bell, Jacky Ickx, Emerson Fittipaldi, Clay Regazzoni and Mario Andretti, among the others.

You can read more about the history and the various Autavia models in our dedicated article "The Autavia, brief history of a legendary motorsport chronograph"

Jo Siffert wearing a third generation Autavia

On February 20th 1962, an important milestone was achieved: the astronaut John Glenn orbited the Earth three times aboard the Mercury mission Friendship 7 spacecraft. He wore a Heuer sports stopwatch ref. 2915, making Heuer the first Swiss watch brand in space.

The watch was modified with elastic bands to fit over the sleeve of Glenn’s spacesuit and it was selected by NASA also for its ability to withstand the high G-forces of lift-off.


The original Heuer 2915 A worn by John Glen at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum 

The Heuer 2915 A on the wrist of John Glen 

This original stopwatch is now at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, the replica is kept at the TAG Heuer Museum at La Chaux-de-Fonds.

In the spring of 1963, at the Basel fair, Heuer launched the Carrera chronograph that will quickly become an international success and, probably, the most famous wristwatch of the brand. Taking its name from the legendary week-long "Carrera Panamericana" road race held in Mexico, the Heuer Carrera was expressly designed for drivers with ergonomics and legibility as priorities.

A two-counter Carrera and, below, a model with three-counter Panda dial


The wide dial opening featured clear indexes, a 1/5th of a second scale on the flange and slightly recessed counters. The simple 36 mm steel case had a large rigged crown for daily winding and easy-to-use push buttons.

Just like for the Autavia, Heuer developed many variations of the Carrera, with a wide range of cases, dials and colours.

This Carrera Heuer 3147N “Dato 45” was the first wrist chronograph with a digital date display printed on a disc - 1965

From a vintage advertising presenting the Carrera

In these early years of the collection, the Carrera was powered by Valjoux and Landeron movements but a major breakthrough was on the horizon.



___________________


By Alessandro Mazzardo. 
First published on December 5, 2019.
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Time and Watches | The watch blog: History of TAG Heuer
History of TAG Heuer
TAG Heuer history. The TAG Heuer's heritage is one of the most important of all the Swiss watch brands. Founded as Heuer in 1860, and renamed TAG Heuer in 1985, , the Swiss brand has played a key role in taking watchmaking to new levels of accuracy and performance. The complete history of TAG Heuer
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