Interview with Jean-Christophe Babin
Baselworld is an incredibly busy time for anyone in the watch industry, and this is especially the case for the CEOs who are here to meet customers, talk with the media and generally promote their brand at a time when everyone is completing for attention and space.
When I met with Jean-Christophe Babin he was nine hours into a day that was back-to-back with meetings- yet he still looked and sounded as fresh as he would have at 9am.
The impact that Jean-Christophe Babin has had at TAG Heuer is hard to over-state. At his speech to launch the Pendulum movement, Jack Heuer said he considered Jean-Christophe to be the “fifth generation” of his family to run the company- it’s hard to get a more meaningful seal of approval than this.
I had 30 minutes with Jean-Christophe and was keen to get his perspective on his time at TAG Heuer and what he wanted to achieve in the future. The resulting interview was illuminating and frank- I hope you enjoy it.
Calibre 11: It’s been 10 years since you joined TAG Heuer- what were your first impressions when you arrived?
Jean-Christophe Babin: A very dynamic, energetic company, especially in the field of design and advertising, which really attracted me to the company. I didn’t know too much about the real history, which I discovered later and was even more amazed.
But an observation from looking at the windows in the stores was there were apparently several different series, but they were all looking very much alike.
Therefore one of my first questions to the team when I joined was if we have many series, what exactly is the role? They said, “it’s price because we have the 1000, 1500, 2000, 4000 and 6000 and each is more expensive than the previous one”, and you say OK, but as a consumer what is the difference, because they have all the “six features”, they said “ah, but the quality is a bit better” [as you move up from a 1000 to a 1500 and so on].
The second thing that surprised me was that they were also quartz- all of them, except the re-editions like the first Carrera and Monaco, but these were very marginal at the time. And I felt that at around USD2000 having quartz-only could maybe be a handicap.
So I asked “what about the engines?” [the movements] to discover that everything was bought from ETA- quartz and mechanical. We had a glorious history of movements at the beginning of Heuer, in the 1940s and even more impressive in the 70s…and then….nothing.
So very rapidly I came to the conclusion that we had to come back with our movements, but at the same time to capitalise on our design, but to try and diversify design, digging into our history to find some shapes or styles that had a certain meaning a certain time ago and could probably be revived.
C11: My next question is about the movements- over the last 10 years you’ve focused a lot of movements- V4, Calibre 360, Calibre S and now Calibre 1887- what’s driven that? Consumer demand for in-house movements, or a desire for greater Independence
JCB: When I first arrived at the company I spent a lot of time taking to former CEOs to discover that the quest for precision had been a company obsession- at least until the 80s- and this was very important because there are hundreds of watch brands and they all have to express something in 40mm- a differentiation consistent with their heritage and also delivering ideally a vision.
I was a bit shocked that having pursued precision for 140 years, we had nothing in 2000 that was connecting with precision, and we decided that we should go back to what makes us different as a brand, which is the most precise brand on the market, the “king of chronographs”.
Therefore in 2001, six months after I joined, we decided to launch an all-out programme, and when I say all-out, I mean without any sacred cows from quartz to digital to mechanical, whatever it would be, to bring TAG Heuer back into movements, but especially movements which would get the company back to its roots, which is mastering the tiniest fractions of time.
The first move was the Calibre 36 which we borrowed from Zenith, because beating at 36,000 it was the first quick and easy step to that strategy because the development required to adapt the el Primero to our needs was pretty simple and this came already in 2002 with the Link and the Monza- we had a vintage one and we had a more contemporary one.
That’s when we started the [Calibre] 360 project which eventually saw the light in 2005 and was very impressive and at the same time we also started to challenge classical quartz chronograph to figure out how we could take them to 1/100th/ second from 1/10th/ second and now we could re-think them in a different way, because in the 1980s when they were born, they were a kind of architectural carbon copies of the mechanical- 3-6-9 [layout], or 2-6-10 to be more precise- but they were a carbon copy without any reason because with quartz you can do whatever you want.
So we launched the Calibre S project, which has those two objectives- to get to the 1/100th/ second which we believed was substantial and at the same time to have a very pure, minimalist look and we kept with that.
At the same time, with the world becoming more and more digital, so we launched the Microtimer project and the boundary that we fixed was a 1000th/ second.
And so to cut a long story short, we ended up by 2006 with 1/1000th/ second digital, 1/100th/ second quartz and mechanical with the S and the 360, 1/10th/ second with the Caliper- the Calibre 36 was beating at 36,000, but you wouldn’t read it and so with the calliper scale we were the first to be able to read 1/10/ second mechanical. Then this year, Zenith are presenting interesting news, which is without a calliper, with the central second hand, you can read 1/10th/ second as well, which is interesting, but TAG Heuer made it before they did with their movement!
Because if you master the tiniest fraction of time, in the human mind, you produce the most accurate brand, because if you can split time up into fractions of 1/1000th or 1/100th, if you put that together, probably your minute will be more accurate, which is the true essence of watch making: ultimate precision .
In parallel, we also started re-thinking watches, so instead of trying to go into the traditional watch complications, we decided to look at the chain, which is made of energy, transmission and regulation.
All of those concepts had been on the market for 3-4 centuries and never really changed. They were improved obviously, such as the tourbillion which corrects the impact of gravity on the hairspring, but eventually it’s still the same- so isn’t there another way? Not necessarily to replace, but to complement and to add to the glory of Swiss watch-making to re-think this chain.
Then we came up with the V4 idea which was addressing another way to do transmission and now it’s on the market and this year comes the Pendulum, which is probably the ultimate innovation. You know, it’s always arrogant to say that this is one of the “most important ever” or “greatest ever”, but the fact is that the hairspring and the escapement are considered to be the heart- the thing that makes anything alive or dead.
And so with the Pendulum, we’ve re-thought the heart of the mechanical movement substituting the traditional and proven successful hairspring with something totally different, but achieving the same goal with different advantages.
C11: I wanted to come back to the Calibre 360, because it’s an amazing movement, but you’ve only made about 1000 of those and we haven’t seen it again. Is it coming back?
C11: And this is a new in-house movement?
JCB: Entirely in-house, 100% TAG Heuer patents, which will come on the market probably Basel next year.
C11: One question that all collectors like to ask is about the re-editions. I guess there are two ways of thinking about re-editions: a modern interpretation of the vintage design themes or a faithful homage to the vintage model. How do you think about re-editions?
JCB: We do both. For example last year the 40th anniversary Monaco Calibre 11, which except for the materials, the sapphire crystal and the movement was 95% aesthetically speaking, a replica of the McQueen chronograph- it’s really a very faithful replica.
And we do the same this year for the 150 years with the Silverstone, which again has a different movement, but if you look at the new Silverstone compared to the historical one, OK its 1mm more diameter, but it’s a very close replica.
But we also do the first category which is elaborating re-editions – re-inventing them. So this year for instance one of our hero chronographs is the Carrera 1887 driven by the Calibre 1887, but at the same time we do a vintage Heuer version [The Heuer 300 SLR, which Jean-Christophe slides across the table].
C11: I wanted to ask you about this one, because it’s the first watch in a long time with only Heuer, but it’s not a re-edition
JCB: Yes, but it captures the spirit of the 1970s, so its more a Heuer than a TAG Heuer to that extent , but you’re right- it’s unlike the Silverstone which is an exact replica. It’s a new creation, but it could have been a replica of a model of the 70s.
C11: This is my favourite of the watches you’ve shown this year
JCB: I’m not surprised!
C11: What interesting is that in 2003 the Autavia and Targa Florio were branded TAG Heuer, but before LVMH took over the re-editions were branded Heuer- why the change?
JCB: In 2003 I decided that there was one brand only: TAG Heuer. Why? Because looking at what was then 140 years of history, 95% of the cumulative advertising had been done on the TAG Heuer name and only 5% on the Heuer name, so what was recognisable for most people was the TAG Heuer logo rather than the Heuer logo.
And so we turned the Monaco and the Carrera which were marginal replica’s into huge mainstream series and so this decision has been extremely successful, because it has positioned those time pieces not as niche replicas for collectors only, but as products that have a future, because if it was stamped TAG Heuer, it was a stamp for eternity and therefore they became mainstream.
This one [Heuer 300 SLR which Jean Christophe has managed to extract from my hands], it’s one shot and then it’s over. And the Monaco McQueen last year: one shot and then its over.
So, one brand only: TAG Heuer for everything, and so all Carrera’s are TAG Heuer, but there is one [The 300 SLR] because of the 150th which is Heuer because it has the spirit of the brand when it was the Heuer brand.
C11: And so how many of these [300 SLR] are being made?
JCB: Well, initially we had started with 1860, but I’m afraid that we’re going to make more. We have it for 3 days here at Basel and already it’s oversold, so we’ll push to another number.
I agree it’s amazing- and I love the contrast between the brown and the orange- it’s subtle.
JCB: No, I think we already have several series and they do exactly the job we ask them to do. What they have in common is the sports inspiration because they were all born initially as sports watches.
The Monaco was a chronograph for sports, the Carrera was in the same spirit, so they are consistent from the F1 to the Monaco with the sports inspiration, but their styles are complementary from very sporty (the Formula 1- very powerful and strong), to a bit less sporty( The Aquaracer, at least the normal Aquaracer- the 500m is more muscle), to sports and elegance (The Link), to more classical, (the Carrera) and to classical contemporary (the Grand Carrera and the Monaco). So style-wise we go from “sporty” sport to “classical” sport via “elegant” sport and “daring” sport like the Monaco, so the sportiness is the essence.
Accompanying the complementary style and inspiration, we also offer a very interesting scale in terms of pricing to dominate the world market anywhere from USD900 to USD7000. Formula 1 starts at USD800 and ends up at USD2500, Aquaracer starts at USD1000 and goes up to USD3500-4000, Link starts at USD1500 and goes up to USD6000 and so on. So with those series we also cover every hundred dollars between USD900 and USD7000- both overall and within each series.
And last but not least, in terms of “engines”, Formula 1 is quartz-only, Aquaracer and Link are quartz and automatic- you have the choice- and Carerra is automatic only, like Monaco is automatic only and Grand Carrera automatic is only. And they all come in Ladies.
So, it’s a very strong category management solution for any retailer between USD900-USD7000. If you start a new store from scratch and you want the highest traffic in that price range, you just put TAG Heuer in and you get 40% of the category traffic because of that variety of styles, of engines, of prices- but with the consistency of a brand that allow you to be very sporty to classical but without losing the soul of the brand which is sportiness.
C11: It’s been 10 years- so what are you going to do at TAG for the next 10 years?
JCB: Well, firstly I hope that the shareholders will trust me for another 10 years because I have a passion for the brand and it’s really in my blood. So when you have the chance- the privilege, the honour- to be the CEO of TAG Heuer and when you have the trust of a shareholder leaving you so much freedom in developing the brand with your own vision, and when I say with my own vision I mean with my colleagues of course , obviously it’s not a one-man show.
With a shareholder leaving you so much freedom to achieve the vision and when the potential to further grow the brand is so huge…geographies on the one hand there are some countries where there is a lot of upside, in movements- in mechanical we can grow much further where there are brands that are already 100% mechanical- we have a lot of mileage in mechanical. In ladies- initially we were a men’s-only brand, since the 1990s we had some smaller men’s sizes that we called Ladies and now with the Formula 1 ceramic we have true watches for ladies for sure.
From the first glance we still recognise a Formula 1, but it’s a hugely feminine piece
C11: I like the ceramic finish
JCB: Oh, it’s the best ceramic in the world: it’s really the best quality that you can find in ceramics.
C11: Do you think you can use ceramic on a Men’s style?
JCB: What would you suggest?
C11: You could do like Chanel have done with the J-12, which has both a men’s and ladies version…
JCB: Yes, I think it would be interesting to try on brushed steel with black, a men’s watch as a chronograph.
C11: Yes, and ceramic is great for a bezel
JCB: Ah, the bezel is not painted. It’s entirely ceramic which is very rare, because most ladies ceramic watches on the market have painted bezels.
This one is pure ceramic; the most difficult part to do in ceramic is the bezel, so that’s why the other brands are painting it. And this is ceramic as well [ceramic bracelet inserts], it’s ultimate quality, but it’s a Formula 1 as well, so the Ladies range has a lot of potential.
So geographical, mechanical and ladies have a big upside, and obviously I would be happy if I could be the guy who could take those further steps.
“Haute horology”, which will never be our core business, but which is a great business, is also something that we can develop further. I think that the V4 is interesting – it sells! So we are again killing a sacred cow that says if you are a USD1000 brand you can not sell a USD100,000 watch: wrong. If the USD100,000 watch is consistent with your DNA, if it’s innovative enough, if the design is daring enough and the brand is trust-worthy for its quality and its reputation, then it works.
So, I will never make TAG Heuer a “haute horology” company, it’s not our area, but I see TAG Heuer as the only prestige, mainstream watch company that also has a small division making exceptional time pieces- you have the V4, maybe one day we’ll have the Pendulum, so this is fascinating, because usually it’s either/ or. TAG Heuer can be both.
Not only this, but it can also be the world leader in men’s premium eyewear, which we are after eight years. In mobile we are just starting the adventure and apparently it’s not a bad idea- the first feedback that we have is very strong. It’s all watch-making [skills] except for the radio, I mean the sapphire crystal, the cutting [of the keys] , the finishing of the back is exactly like making bridges, so we are really applying to eyewear, to mobile our micro-mechanic skills that we have in making our own movements and making our own cases.
So unlike most of our competitors, TAG Heuer can also be much more than a watch brand only- and it’s also because people ask for it. Because the brand represents a lifestyle going beyond watches, which can be expressed consistently with products that are not watches, but like our watches combine artfully high technology and daring designs and which build on the legitimacy of mastering micro-mechanics.
And for those reasons, obviously I would be the happiest man on earth if I could be the leader for another 10 years.
C11: One last question: I know that there is one request that collectors would have, which is to do another Autavia- one that was more a replica of the famous 70s model.
And a lot of people are also asking me for the Monza again [The Monza re-edition from the late 90s] – the Monza is a unique piece and very legitimate.
And with that tantalising prospect, our time was up- or it was supposed to be, but we then discussed watches for another 10 minutes or so- just as any two watch fans would.
It’s clear that while Jean Christophe Babin arrived at TAG Heuer from outside the watch industry, he has developed a real passion for the company, its history and for its watches.
His personal favourites? Of the current line his personal preference as an enthusiast- not as a CEO- would be the Monaco 24 and the new 300 SLR- one avant-garde TAG Heuer and one model that looks back to the Heuer glory days, which is a pretty good metaphor for the progress that TAG Heuer has made under his stewardship and the renewed appreciation and respect for its heritage.