There aren’t many watch companies today that don’t speak of their heritage- sepia photos of the famous watches from the past, the technological achievements and of course the stars who owned them. All of this is nice, but in the end meaningless unless the company of today is building watches worthy of that legacy and not just milking an old name.
And that’s what I like about TAG Heuer today- yes, there are the heritage models from the great legacy, but there are also genuine breakthroughs and innovations, such as the Monaco V4, The Calibre 360, the Pendulum- and now this watch: the Carrera Mikrograph (ref. CAR5040.FC8177).
As always, official photos are one thing, but it’s really hard to know what a watch is really like until you get to see it in person and play around with it- something that I was lucky enough to be able to do to bring you this review of the first of TAG Heuer’s 2011 models.
The origins of the Mikrograph may well stretch back to the famous stopwatch of 1916, but the modern history of the watch starts in 2005 when TH introduced the Calibre 360, the world’s first automatic chronograph capable of 1/ 100th second accuracy. This was possible due to the amazing 360,000 beats per hour of the Chronograph module- 10 times faster than the legendary El Primero (Calibre 36) movement. The Calibre 360 was a modular movement made up of 230 components that was a combination an automatic ETA 2893 base module and a manual-wind, in-house chronograph movement.
The movement made its first appearance at Basel 2005 in the Carrera Calibre 360 Concept, which came to market in late 2005 as the Limited Edition Vanquish. Only eleven pieces of the Vanquish were made, all sold in Switzerland.
The next watch to use the Calibre 360 movement was the Carrera Calibre 360, a series of four Limited Edition watches announced at Baselworld 2006. The Carrera 360 set a new price level for TH, with the model below (Rose Gold Carrera 360) having a retail price of around USD18,000. There were four versions of the Carrera 360- stainless steel (360 watches), white Gold (100), Rose Gold (500) and Black PVD (10).
While the movement was also used in the Calibre 360 LS Concept of 2006, it was never used again in a production watch. While the movement was able to achieve the stated accuracy, it was limited by its origins as a module Chronograph- it was a little like dropping a Ferrari engine into a VW Golf- the car may still be able to reach 300 km/h, but with not without straining the other components that were designed for a more normal life. But although TAG Heuer moved its focus to developing the Monaco V4, the intention always was to further refine the Calibre 360.
The Mikrograph Movement
The Mikrograph owes a lot to the basic layout of the Calibre 360- two different assortments (balance wheels, escapements and transmission systems) operating at different frequencies to make sure that the chronograph doesn’t unduly impact the usability of the time-keeping function. However unlike the Calibre 360, the Mikrograph movement is an integrated movement, with the whole movement specifically designed, developed and manufactured in-house by TAG Heuer. Not one part from the Calibre 360 is carried over.
(ignore what look like gold vertical lines on the movement above- that is just reflected light- the back plate is pure black)
The key stats of the new movement are:
- COSC certified
- 62 jewels
- Power Reserve: 42 hours (Watch); 90 minutes (Chronograph)
- 2 Balance Wheels: 28’800 vibrations per hour (watch); 36,000 vibrations per hour (Chronograph)
Of course, the party-trick of the watch is watching the central blue Chrono hand complete a full revolution every second- take a look below at the official video to see the watch in action.
Like the Calibre 360, the Chronograph function must be manually wound, which is why there is a power-reserve indicator showing the percentage of the 90-minute worth of Chronograph power that remains.
What surprised me about the Sweeping hand was how smooth the movement was- the Calibre 360 used to make an amazing sound as the little hand buzzed around the small register, but this is a lot calmer.
The Mikrograph was designed by TAG Heuer and is manufactured in-house at an internal prototyping unit- a small workshop that hand-builds the Monaco V4 and now the Mikrograph. This is totally separate to the Cortech facility that manufactures the Calibre 1887.
As always with the watchmaking industry, specialist sub-contractors are used- CEO Jean-Christophe Babin had no hesitation in mentioning the role that Atokalper (part of the Sandoz foundation) and Dubois Depraz play as sub-contractors, with TAG Heuer itself making components, including the complex plates, as well as building the watches.
While the majority of TAG Heuer’s innovations are introduced through avant-garde designs, the Carrera Mikrograph goes for a classical style- classic, yet is not a re-edition. It’s a beautiful design, with lots of great touches- for example, note the way that the brown inner-circle flattens at the top to match the shape of the Heuer shield.
The case itself is pure Carrera- a solid Rose Gold 43mm case, but one without any special design flourishes, except perhaps the crew-down chrono pusher, which is not a normal feature of the Carrera line.
The individuality of the watch is in its dial, which takes its cues from the layout of a stopwatch. Rather than being set out to show the usual twelve 5-minute intervals, the Carrera Mikrograph dial shows the twenty increments of 5/ 100ths that go into every second. This layout makes using the functionality of the watch infinitely easier than trying to read the small sub-dial of the Carrera 360.
The other functions on the dial are as follows:
- Chronograph minutes counter at 3 o’clock
- Chronograph second counter at 6 o’clock
- Small second counter at 9 o’clock
- Chronograph power reserve percentage indicator at 12 o’clock
Overall I love the design of the watch- a classically simple case combined with a great-looking dial. What I like even more is that the form follows function- the design is set up to make sure that you can actually use the 1/100th second ability of the watch.
On the Wrist
The Carrera Mikrograph is no lightweight- not surprisingly for a solid gold 43mm case, its got a nice hefty feel to it. The dark brown strap is reinforced at the top to make sure that the watch doesn’t move around on your wrist, and apart from my fear of bumping into a table while wearing a $50,000 watch (more on that later), it felt great to wear.
The thickness of the case is about what you’d expect from the current Carrera 1887- again, not a slim-line design, but it doesn’t feel unwieldy.
Price and Availability
Ah yes. Price. There is no way to sugar-coat it: the watch costs USD50,000 and there will be 150 made over the next two years, only 50 this year.
I spoke with Jean-Christophe Babin about the price and his rationale was simple: this is a hand-made manufacture watch that has a vastly higher cost of production than a watch like the Carrera 1887. Not only will TAG only make 50 this year, but each of its suppliers is effectively hand-making its components as well, such is the small number of units produced. Factor in recouping at least some of the R&D investment made into the movement, and it’s easy to see how the costs add up.
So where does this leave TAG Heuer? A USD100,000 Monaco V4, a $50,000 Carrera Mikrograph- and then stretching down to the Formula 1 series that starts at under USD1000. Again, Jean-Christophe Babin’s clear view is that the pricing works because the high-end models are technological breakthroughs that are genuinely developed and made by TAG Heuer. There are some brands who operate in a similar part of the market to TAG that have released watches at this high price point that have totally commissioned from outside suppliers. Babin feels that this approach not only won’t justfy such a high price, but will do nothing to create a halo-effect on the rest of the range, because it’s clear that the knowledge to produce these watches sits outside the company.
So will TH produce a more affordable Mikrograph? Perhaps, but not today. The clear focus today is to get the production of the Calibre 1887 up to full capacity. Once that has been achieved, TAG Heuer would evaluate adding the Mirkograph as a production movement- it’s hard to see that there wouldn’t be demand for a high-end, but not out-of-reach, Monaco Mikrograph for example.
Of course USD50,000 is a scary proposition for many TAG Heuer owners, but the reality is that many of the watches being shown here in Geneva this week exceed that price- I have no doubt that all 150 will be sold without any problems whatsoever.
The Carrera Mikrograph is more than worthy to wear both the Heuer Carrera and Mikrograph names- truth is, it pushes the technological boundaries far farther than any beloved Heuer Carrera ever did. As well as having great engineering, I like the fact that the watch is not trying to be a re-edition, but has its own classic look that is set up around the movement- a true “tool watch”. There will be many more than 150 people who would love to own one, even though most of us will have to wait until the more-affordable production Mikrograph appears in a few years.
For more photos of the Carrera Mikrograph, click here