WT: In what ways over the 50 years has that watch evolved? And has it ever evolved in ways that you, as the originator, didn’t agree with?
JH: When I brought out the first Carrera in 1963, I had just finished my University degree and I was very much into modern architects like Charles Eames, so I wanted a very clean dial. Also, remember that the watch needed to have a plastic crystal because sapphire crystals didn’t exist yet. Because plastic crystals tend to be porous, someone invented a little tension ring, placed around the dial, which pushed against the crystal and against the wall of the case to improve the waterproofing. I decided to add the scale, with the 1/5-second divisions, to the ring rather than directly onto the dial — we were the first in the industry to do that — which allowed us to keep the dial very clean.
Those are the basic codes we use when we make a Carrera, and we don’t stray too much from them. We’ve tried to be clean and simple, use the divisions on the ring to take as much off the dial as we can, and use very clear design rules on the thickness and lengths of the seconds and 1/5-second indexes. There were no digital instruments used to make dials when I started, just very clear design rules about analog dials as far as proportions and legibility. I drove our designers nuts because I was so finicky on this, but, ultimately, it makes a hell of a difference.
In 1996, the company pulled the original Carrera out of our collection and relaunched it, basically just copying the existing model; they did the same with the Monaco a few years later, and that was an enormous success. I believe TAG Heuer was the first to simply reproduce a historical model and make it saleable. Now everybody in the industry is doing this. In that sense, the Carrera was a good model because we could develop it further. It was a watch that lent itself to being updated, though we did adhere to certain design rules and codes, at least when I was involved.
WT: You were also one of the first to embrace sports-related marketing in the watch business, particularly in the area of auto racing. How do you feel when you see so many other brands adopting this strategy, even ones that don’t have as much of a history with racing?
JH: It’s a form of flattery, I guess. I suppose it means I did something right if so many others are trying to copy [those ideas], because we were quite successful with them. We’ll let them spend all that money, which I didn’t spend at the time!
WT: You were there for the rise of the quartz movement and inexpensive watches from Japan in the 1970s. Did you believe at the time that this was the death knell of the Swiss mechanical watch, and did you ever expect the mechanical watch renaissance that came about several years ago?
JH: That’s a very interesting question. I fought 25 years of my business life to make a watch more accurate. Today, nobody questions whether the watch is accurate or not. It’s not longer a sales point; nobody talks about it. Here we were back then, tweaking the movements, getting them tested for COSC certification, which is minus-four/plus-six seconds, which is ten seconds per day; in a week, even a COSC-certified watch loses a whole minute! Once, I got reprimanded by a superior because he missed his commuter train by one minute, because the chronograph I’d given him was a minute late. So, logically, I did think that may have been the end of the mechanical watch, because it was so much easier for a quartz watch to be more accurate. I never would have believed there’d be a comeback. However, the quartz era did change the industry. Switzerland used to make 70 million watches a year, all mechanical. Today we make 30 million, of which 10 million are Swatches, which are quartz. So that’s 20 million mechanical watches out of 1.5 billion. Switzerland produces only three percent in units of the world market. We are still at the top end, but we used to have a market share of maybe 40 or 50 percent before the war.
WT: And, of course, TAG Heuer never totally abandoned quartz.
JH: Yes, because quartz is a very good solution for a sturdy, low-end watch. It’s always on time, you don’t have to open and close the crown, it can be very water proof. You can get a very good-quality watch, which the brand will stand behind, for a good value. Also, there is a significant market for women’s watches and TAG Heuer is a very big part of it. It’s important to listen to what people want in terms of product. Right now, in the American market, women are not demanding automatic watches. I know a lady, the wife of one of my friends, who is handicapped. She can’t wear her Cartier mechanical watch because it always stops because she doesn’t move enough. This is a case when a quartz watch from a luxury brand is a good option.
WT: In the past few years, TAG Heuer has been experimenting with some concept watches with very innovative mechanical technology to improve accuracy — pendulums, magnets, et cetera. How involved are you in these types of projects and will we see any of these technologies in upcoming Carrera models?
JH: I have always been involved in research and development. [Former TAG Heuer CEO] Jean-Christophe [Babin] asked me for an update every quarter from the R & D department. Without patting myself on the back, I can say that I was the one who made sure the Pendulum model came out for the 150-year anniversary. The engineer who had the idea originally wasn’t getting support from his boss, who didn’t fully understand it. So he called me at home, and I understood what he was talking about: the notion that after 235 years of using hairsprings, could we make a watch without the hairspring. I helped push for the money on the development side, and we got the help of a university and even got some government support for the project. So, yes, you could say that I was behind that one. And I am very happy that Guy Sémon, our R&D guy, is doing what he’s doing, because this kind of strong innovation had been lost for 25 years… not lost, really, but it was virtually… what is the word?
JH: Yes, it was sleeping. The company had totally neglected something that had been very much in the DNA of our brand. We have always been an innovative brand. The first really new thing was the Monaco V-4, which made Jean-Christophe realize that you can get lots of press coverage, on a worldwide basis, for something that everybody bets will not work! So, once the world became interested in our company again, it was now very important that, above all, we had to make it work. We did, and we’ve been very innovative ever since. We’ve won eight Grand Prix prizes for innovation in the last 12 years.
WT: So it’s fair to say that you have been a supporter of new technologies and that TAG Heuer will continue to experiment with them?
JH: I lived through the semi-conductor revolution, and it’s been an amazing experience for me personally, how this world has changed. Moore’s Law says that transistors on integrated circuits double every two years, but technology has made leaps beyond that. When Fairchild invented the LCD technology, they decided the easiest application for it was a quartz watch, which cost about $19.95, with just enough memory to show the seconds. Eighteen months later, according to Moore’s law, they doubled the memory capacity to make a watch with a date, and four-year cycles. Eighteen months later, it doubled again and they could make chronographs with split seconds. And 18 months after that, they made the first calculator and forgot about the watches and simply made more sophisticated calculators. Then, about three to six years later, they made their first computer. That’s how it went. The electronics companies, which were totally killing the Swiss watch industry, quickly lost interest in it. Ironically, that may have helped Swiss mechanical watches to get back in the game, because that started becoming the more innovative technology in watchmaking. It’s somewhat amusing.