The design philosophy that shaped TAG Heuer watches in the 1990s was the absolute dedication to what the company called the “Six Features”.
While each model in the 1990s TAG Heuer range had its own design and movements (from quartz to COSC Automatic), all the watches had the Six Features.
The Six Features were initially a big success and were a key part of establishing TAG Heuer as new brand, distinct to the old Heuer. However, the mistake was to see these six worthy features as more than just “things a sports watch should have” and instead as a philosophy applied across every watch. The result, not surprisingly, was a range of watches that, at first glance, all looked the same.
I’d argue that it was TAG Heuer’s inability to offer distinctive, high-end offerings throughout the 1990s that created a perception problem that has only been overcome through concept innovations such as the Monaco V4 and Grand Carrera Pendulum and new up-scale series, such as the Grand Carrera.
However, without the sales success of the mid-range watches in the 1990s, TAG Heuer probably wouldn’t be around today, so lets look at these Six Features that helped save the company to fight another day.
The Heuer design philosophy in the 1970s was simple- a range of innovative, colourful sports chronographs powered by a family of quasi in-house Chronomatic movements. Square cases, round cases, digital- it was an eclectic range.
The watches themselves were typically named after either Formula 1 race tracks (Silverstone, Jarama, Monza), glamorous cities (Monaco, Cortina) or places synonymous with famous sporting events (Kentucky, Daytona). This philosophy was backed up by Heuer’s sponsorship of sporting events- principally Formula 1 and Sailing races, with the iconic images being the sponsorship decals on the Ferrari F1 cars.
When the banks forced the sale of Heuer in 1982 to the Piaget/ Nouvelle Lemania consortium, it was clear that changes were needed, although sadly these changes began with the naming policy, with Heuer moving to simple Reference numbers rather than names, meaning good-bye to Silverstone, Monza, Cortina and Carrera and hello to (respectively), Ref 510.403, Ref 110.511, Ref 510.513 and Ref 510.508.
Despite this lack of imagination, the Piaget/ Lemania era produced a great range of watches using the Lemania 5100 movement, even if many model designs were shared with other brands.
It wasn’t until the sale to TAG that things really changed- not just the name, but the philosophy behind the company. TAG Heuer was still a sports watch company, but one that produced the 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000, 6000 series- each design a little different, a little more expensive and a little better made as the series number became larger. And at the centre of this new range were the Six Features, a concept first introduced in the 2000 series of 1982.
The Six Features
The extract below comes from the 1995 TAG Heuer catalog and sets out the view that:
“Technology determines function and function creates the design. This philosophy is expressed by the 6 unique functional features of each TAG Heuer watch”
The Six Features are all self-explanatory and are illustrated below with images from the same Catalog
Water Resistant to 200m
Screw in Crown
Double Safety Clasp
Impact of Six Features
The positive aspect of the Six Features philosophy was that it clearly established TAG Heuer as a leading modern sports watch brand, as each watch had the full list of features that buyers expected from watches in this category. Just as in the Heuer days, the new philosophy was backed by sports sponsorship and by selecting brand ambassadors, almost always from the sporting world.
The downside? Take a look at the photo below. At a glance, can you tell the difference between these models? (From Top left: 6000; S/el; 4000; 2000; 1500 and F1)?
This point was noted by Jean Christophe Babin, reflecting on his first impressions of joining TAG Heuer ten years ago:
“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”?”
Where this really had a negative impact was at the top end of the range- a 6000-series typically cost 4X the price of the 1500 series, but only offered marginally different looks and movements. Where was the “halo” model? Where was the distinctiveness? After all, not all sport watches need a rotating bezel, as the Carrera and Monaco clearly demonstrate.
Moving Beyond Features
Ironically, the first series to break with the Six Features was the Classics Series released in 1996- it took going back to the Carrera and Monaco to realise that the real “feature” of TAG Heuer was its ability to blend the heritage of iconic watches with an “avant garde” flair for modern design
Today, many TAG Heuer sports models still have the six features, but they are no longer the sole foundations upon which watches are designed. There was never anything wrong with the features themselves, just that they shouldn’t have represented a straight jacket to innovation.
Of course, it’s always easy to look back at the 1980s- 1990s and judge harshly the watches from this era- not just those from TAG Heuer, but also from Omega and others.
The reality is that at best, Swiss watch brands suffered a near-death experience in the 1980s and it took a long time for the design-mojo to return and for the market to once again appreciate high-end chronographs. So, the Six Features philosophy needs to be looked at in that context- appreciation both for the fact that it kept TAG Heuer alive as well as for the fact that its firmly in the past.