Interview with Jack Heuer
Jack Heuer is one of the legends of the Swiss watchmaking industry, having led Heuer through it’s most dynamic- and turbulent- era.
The watches today that we think of when people talk about their love of vintage Heuer watches were all created under Jack Heuer’s leadership- Monaco, Autavia, Carrera, Monza, Montreal, Daytona, Silverstone- and many more.
Having cut his ties with the company following its forced sale in the early 1980s, Jack Heuer went on to a successful “second career” in the electronics industry, before returning to TAG Heuer in 2001.
But Jack is not just a link to the past- he has helped shape some of the TAG Heuer’s that we see today.
He is much-loved at TAG Heuer and played a key role at the event to mark TAG Heuer’s 150th anniversary, where he gave the opening address.
As well as finding out more about Jack Heuer’s early days in charge of Heuer, I wanted to show Jack several photos of famous Heuer models to get some of his memories about these watches and his perspective on TAG Heuer today.
Calibre 11: I wanted to start back in 1962 when you found out that your uncle was selling his shares in Heuer- that must have been a defining time in your career?
Jack Heuer: Yes it was, because he had no successor and we were still not in black figures in America, so he saw his losses piling up. So on a Thursday night I got a telegram in my apartment at 10 o’clock at night from my father saying, “My brother wants to sell his shares and we have a family dispute”. And so I went to the airport, found a plane that had arrived late and so it left late, so I got on the flight and the next morning I was in Switzerland asking my father what had happened.
And within a week we managed to solve that. I was a young engineer from the top university in Switzerland, I was tri-lingual and in those years the bank would give you a loan if you had that background, because at the time it was one of the good backgrounds that you could have. Being tri-lingual [English, German and French] was very seldom for an engineer to be fluent in all three languages, so they gave me enough credit so that I could buy the shares from my uncle. I bought enough shares so that I would have the majority and then my father gave me 40% and I bought 12% from my uncle.
C11: You were very young at the time , so what were your ambitions? One week you are in the US and the next you are back in Switzerland owning the company…
JH: …It was very simple because I told my uncle, “Listen, either you sell and that is the end of my career in the watch industry- I didn’t break my back for two years here in New York to have the rug pulled out from under my feet, so either [you sell to me] or I go back to what I was originally going to do”. I had an offer from Arthur D. Little to go to Boston as a consultant, so that’s why he gave in and so then I could call the shots.
So very shortly after that we merged with Leonidas. We couldn’t buy Leonidas, we merged, in other words we paid him in shares, so I would have lost the majority….so I had to borrow more money. I was able to pay back my initial loan before we took over [Leonidas], so then I borrowed again to keep the majority – that was my concern.
C11: That 10-year period from 1964 from the release of the Carrera was probably the most creative in the company’s history…
JH: …yes, absolutely. I can say that from 1964-74 the Federation Horlogere had a comparison to give the key figures at the end of the year. We were the fastest Swiss company in the watch industry. We were a little company when I took over, we had turnover of CHF2 million and 10 years later we had CHF28 million, so it was quite a spectacular growth period…but then we fell down a lot.
C11: Specifically I wanted to ask you some questions about the Monaco. Everyone knows the link with Steve McQueen, but what about before that- how did you develop the Monaco?
JH: It was quite simple: we were working for 3-4 years on this Calibre 11 movement, the world’s first automatic chronograph, and we knew that would be a major event. Our Swiss chronograph exports starting tumbling, because in the late 1950s the automatic watch became the call of the day. Knowing this, we prepared in 1967-8 the line that we would be launching in 1969 for the Basel fair.
So we decided to make a Carrera, because the Carrera was already a very good model in non-automatic. We made it in self-winding, but this movement [Calibre 11] was quite a bit thicker, so we had to change the shape a little bit. And then we decided that we need something for our Automotive-Aviation market, so we made the Autavia and we said now we have covered our key markets, why don’t we do something a little more “out-of-the-box”?
In those years it was the case makers, such as Piquarez who would be the creative people. They would have a designer who would make dummies in brass, in a softer material to see how we liked it. So, one day he comes with a square, waterproof case. And he said, “look I have a patent on this waterproof square case,” which had a new system.
Chronographs when they took water, it was a terrible drama because everything rusted and it cost a fortune to get clean. Once they had invented the water resistant push-buttons, we never made any non-water-tight chronographs any more and therefore would couldn’t play with the shapes, because square watches weren’t really water resistant. He had a very clever system, so I negotiated with him an exclusivity- that was my point. I had the exclusive rights in the chronograph market for the square case, as I wanted something that Breitling or somebody like that couldn’t take suddenly.
So, he gave me this exclusivity and then we launched the product [the Monaco]…and it was basically a failure.
C11: Too radical for the time?
JH: It was too radical for the time and the other thing was that unfortunately Seiko came out with a self-winding chronograph the year afterwards and then in 1970 the US dollar started to float, so suddenly the retail price doubled, so that’s why we made the Calibre 15, without losing face we could drop the price a little bit.
C11: There are a few of your famous watches that I wanted to show you and get your recollection and memories about those watches.
Firstly, this PVD Monaco that came out very late- vintage collectors love this one
JH: I don’t really remember- you see, the military black became the fashion in the late 1970s and we were some of the early users of military black- it didn’t cost that much to take your existing case and have the PVD added, so we had to enlarge the collection as maybe someone would buy some more of the Monaco, but I don’t remember when we did it.
C11: This Monaco is very rare- maybe there are only 15-20 pieces…
JH: …exactly, maybe we said let’s make 100 pieces to try it, but it wouldn’t have been 15- if we make it, we would make 100.
C11: The next one is the “Siffert” Autavia- what are some of your memories of this watch?
JH: Well the Autavia non-automatic was a watch that the automotive world liked- Jochen Rindt had one- it was the one thing that people in the automotive world liked to carry. And so therefore this one [The Chronomatic Autavia] we made both in white and black, as you know, and so because it was called Autavia, we said to Jo [Siffert] that this is the one that you should wear most of the time, so that was the idea.
Jo as you may know from his background, he was a very poor guy and he was a born ”wheeler and dealer” and he would always have a collection of watches, and he would place them with all of his friends on the circuit, between wholesale and retail [prices], and we didn’t mind of course because it was in public and so actually the Formula 1 circuit, if you looked around, they all wore a Heuer Chronograph….
C11: …all bought from Jo!
JH: All from Jo! So we supplied him- he paid for it, right, but he got wholesale. We were very supportive of that trading activity because he put it exactly in the right hands of those in his world.
C11: And here is another one..
JH: Yes, this of course is the one that I gave all of the Formula 1 drivers and it was engraved with the name on the back and the blood type- not sure if they all have the blood group, but some had.
One of the reasons that we put the name in the back was so that they wouldn’t re-sell it, because these drivers would change team- they didn’t stay very long with their team- let’s say they were two years with Ferrari and then he [Enzo Ferrari] threw them out and then another guy came, so over the nine years that we were with Ferrari we had 15 different Ferrari drivers and they all had the chronograph and interestingly enough it worked. Niki Lauda remembers his watch- it was stolen from somewhere in his garden, in his house.
When we relaunched the Carrera in 1996, some of the Formula 1 drivers came and they would all come with their gold chronographs to show me, so there is a lot of emotion to that.
One thing that I’ll never forget is that 5-6 years ago it was the Grand Prix of Monaco and Gilles Villeneuve’s son, Jacques, he had this big boat and he had his mother on the boat, and so he gave a little reception on the boat and we had to go up these stairs to get to the top deck where we had the reception and at the top of the stairs was his mother who received guests. When I was introduced to her, she said “You know that I still have the watch that you gave to my husband” and so you nearly cry, it’s so emotional to think that she cherishes this gold watch, so these are some of the memories…this is one of my favourite watches.
We didn’t sell it with the gold strap- it was the Americans who put it on afterwards.
C11: This one, I know that you went across to the US in the ‘70s to look at what was happening with electronic watches, so this one was a real revolution.
JH: Yes, the world’s first…the world’s first. You see, I was involved as an electrical engineer in the semi-conductor development and we [Heuer] were very touched directly, because the stopwatches were bigger, before miniaturisation had gone all of the way, you could make a stopwatch relatively easily, so we made the Microsplit, the big red box, the world’s first in 1/10th/ second. We made our own custom chip in California and then shortly after with the 1/100th second and then the semi-conductor industry started making standard watch chips, so it was easy to make- you could just buy it from around the corner.
So, I took my stopwatch chip and we took the watch chip and we made two modules on the same plate- we had a factory where we had people doing all of these things. We mounted the two technologies because there was no other way to do this with LCD- we didn’t have the chip yet. This is the watch that Ferrari had made with their logo.
And then the year later it was LCD/ LCD because we had the stopwatch chip- two digits- it was only 1/10/ second as you saw and then we had the 1/100th second with two LCD displays.
C11: The last one is very interesting…
JH: Yes, very interesting…
C11: ….because the diver watch which turned into the Heuer 100 and then the TAG Heuer 1000 started here, but the company must not have been certain about how it would be received, because the first watches were out-sourced to Monnin.
JH: Not quite true. You must see, where did we sell our sports timers? We would go the world’s sporting-goods fairs and our importers would go the local sporting-goods fairs because the sporting-goods dealers would buy stopwatches.
And in these fairs we would have a stand and also show wrist watches, because in those years we were happy for any sale, we didn’t care about distribution in the late 70s in the middle of the crisis!
And so people came from the skin-diving companies and they said that we have problems getting a good quality skin-diving watch- they couldn’t get it from a big brand, they didn’t want to allow them to buy it with the [Skin-diving] brand, and so we started making and double-branding with some of the big names in skin-diving equipment, such as Spirotechnique.
And would you believe it, these watches started selling like crazy! The company came out of trouble because of these watches. You know, Bo Derek wore one; we have it now in the museum. Somebody sent back to the factory two of these models from Colombia [USA] and we couldn’t repair them and didn’t have them in the Museum, so we offered the guy one new TAG Heuer if he left the watches with us.
Actually, the company started getting out of trouble because of these watches and we had the guts to be a little bit like Rolex, and actually Rolex tried to give us a hard time but they couldn’t because it [some of the design elements] was now in the public domain. The market which exploded was Japan. I took a new agent in Japan and he started in the sporting goods and it suddenly took off. He went into the area of Tokyo where the young people would go and that’s how the company took off again in 80, 81, 82, this was the thing that was growing.
So, some we didn’t make them ourselves, so yes once we sourced from France, but we also sourced from Switzerland, so yes, we did source from France, but not in the beginning, because we designed the outside and the dial also.
C11: I now wanted to move forward- I know that in the 1980s after you left and went into the electronics industry, so what was it like in 1996 when you started to see the re-editions of the watches that you’d built 20 years earlier?
JH: I didn’t give a damn…I was still angry.
C11: So what changed with later re-editions when you came back after LVMH bought TAG Heuer?
JH: That was different approach. Jean-Christophe [Babin- TAG Heuer CEO] was very smart because he would tell everybody “listen, I don’t understand this industry, explain it to me” and then he invited me also, because he wanted to see the people who used to run the shop and somehow it clicked, we got along- I gave him some recommendations and it work, so it just clicked, so that’s nice.
C11: My last question is how you are involved with the company today- which of the current designs have you been involved with?
JH: Well, I’m not operationally involved- at all, but I do get- or used to because I’ve slowed down now that I’m getting older- a briefing every quarter or 2-3 times a year on what was being done in R&D, because Jean-Christophe felt that it was quite good if I talked to these young engineers who were hired by the group, so I would sometimes give them some recommendations or point out little details, which they appreciated- some didn’t, which is fine.
So that’s one thing and then when there were major product developments they would ask me what I think, and I’d give my opinion- but it’s only a recommendation and one opinion- its important to put it in context.
But I did get involved in the Grand Carrera, because there was another name at first that I didn’t like [“Vanquish”]- and I did not like Vanquish and they said, well there is an Aston Martin called this, but I just didn’t like it for a watch. So that was one of the few times that I made some resistance. In the end they didn’t ask me about the name Grand Carrera, but of course I was delighted.
We went through about three design processes for the Grand Carrera and we got stuck- they would show me all the time- and one of the things that I pointed out, the key was that something was missing – look at the Carrera bezel- the depth of the bezel is so important in a dial. And they suddenly put in the inner bezel and the Grand Carrera looked totally different – it added to the depth, so there I made a contribution, but that’s one of the very few cases.
The Pendulum I contributed to- I pushed that. The engineer who had the idea, he called me up and I liked working with these “out-of-the-box” ideas. He already had the mock-up in wood. He called me up at home and said, “What do you think about the idea”? And I said that it was a terrific idea, if you manage to get it working it will be sensational.
And then I helped him to get a budget and they were able to prove that it was feasible and then TAG Heuer had to put a lot of money into it! But I can say that I did push Jean-Christophe to bring it out for the 150th year anniversary, I said, “Listen, this is such a major thing that it will shake up the industry and people will have a hell of a lot of respect for us having tried, to think out of the box like that”.
Of course, I would happily have discussed these vintage Heuer watches with Jack for another few hours, but there were customers to meet- everyone wants to meet Jack Heuer. What I liked was that the “out of the box” spirit that Jack said drove the original Monaco is the same spirit that he saw in the TAG Heuer Pendulum. The watches may have changed, but the passion and desire to push the boundaries have not.
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