Why the 50-year-old TAG Heuer Monaco was way ahead of its time

In the late 1960s, watchmakers across Switzerland (and Japan) were vying to be the first to launch an automatic chronograph. Automatic watches had become commonplace since the end of the war, and the popularity of the chronograph was booming, but combining the two posed heady challenges. Nevertheless, as the end of the decade neared, several brands were on the cusp of announcing their breakthrough.

The largest such effort came from a consortium of four watch brands: Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton and Buren. As the project (Project 99, as it was codenamed) neared completion, Jack Heuer realised that his collaborators would soon become competitors once more, so started thinking about a way to differentiate his new watch from their offerings.

The sixties had been epitomised by the rise of the “sports watch” – for divers especially – and advances in waterproofing were being made across the board; screw-down crowns and helium release valves are two well-known innovations, but less talked about is the work done on the cases themselves. It was an era when watchmakers still relied exclusively on third-party suppliers for cases and bracelets, and one of the most interesting at the time was a family firm called Piquerez.

Founded in the 1880s, the company had a brief diversion as a bicycle manufacturer, but by the mid-fifties was flourishing once more as a casemaker. It had patented a dive watch innovation known as the “compressor” case in 1955, a construction that made use of the increase in water pressure outside the watch to increase its water resistance, as the two-layer case compressed a rubber gasket, sandwiched between two plates of metal, to render the watch impermeable.

Piquerez was one of Heuer’s favoured suppliers, and as the chronograph race neared its end, Jack Heuer heard news of a breakthrough on Piquerez’s part that, he realised, would be the perfect modern showcase for his new watch: they had patented a water-resistant square case.

Although some of the earliest attempts at water-proofing watches had come in square and rectangular watches (early Omegas, for example, used a rectangular ‘exoskeleton’ in 1932, and Rolex’s groundbreaking Oyster case from 1926 had a cushion-shaped case), their water resistance was very poor compared to what could be achieved by the round cases of the fifties and sixties. And while a chronograph from the period – without screw-down pushers – would have pretty average water resistance by today’s standards, Heuer had decreed some years before that no chronograph it produced would be marketed without at least a degree of protection against moisture.

Piquerez had designed a case (with as few parts as possible) that could withstand significant water pressure with a square gasket, as opposed to a circular one within a square case. Jack Heuer liked what he saw immediately – it would be like no other watch on the market – and immediately signed a deal granting Heuer the exclusive rights to the design. As he wrote in his autobiography: “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. This way we could be sure that Breitling would not produce a chronograph housed in a similar case when we all unveiled our new products using the Calibre 11 microrotor-based self-winding mechanism that was at the heart of Project 99. The revolutionary square case would be the perfect housing for our avant-garde ‘Monaco’ wrist chronograph.”

A suitably modern dial design was conceived, with square subdials and horizontal hour markers. With its crown on the left, rather than the right (as the advertising campaign had it, “to remind you that this automatic watch never needs winding”) and its angled chronograph pushers, the Monaco, waterproof to 30 metres, stood out as Heuer had wished. Unfortunately for the brand, it was not a runaway sales success; after six years in the catalogue it was pulled from production, and would only become the prominent pillar of the brand that it is now after its relaunch in the late nineties.

Today, however, it seems as though the Monaco is having the last laugh. It is far better remembered than the ‘Chronomatic’ watches from Hamilton or Breitling that were otherwise mechanically identical; and although Heuer did in fact also launch the revolutionary new movement in versions of the more traditional Carrera and Autavia, it is the Monaco that ended up associated with this landmark in the company’s history.

What began as a piece of practical innovation has ended up a stylistic masterstroke, and as TAG Heuer celebrates the Monaco’s 50th anniversary, the range of commemorative models released in its honour show the versatility of the eye-catching silhouette that despite all manner of modern advancements in case shapes, has a brutalism to it that is all its own. For 2019, TAG Heuer has equipped the Monaco with its latest chronograph movement, the Calibre Heuer 02, which although it lacks the left-hand crown, has an 80-hour power reserve. And of course, the watch is water-resistant to 100m.

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