The TAG Heuer S/el came to symbolise the revival of TAG Heuer in the late 1980s/ early 1990s as the first watch in a new generation of models. The brand had suffered from a lack of investment during the Piaget/ Lemania years and it was only when TAG acquired Heuer in 1985 that we began to see new ideas and watches appear. It’s debatable which was the first true TAG Heuer watch- yes, the Formula 1 was released in March 1986, but given that TAG’s acquisition of Heuer was only completed on 1 January 1986, it’s likely that early development work was carried out before TAG’s time. But with the S/el there is no debate- it was conceived and born under the new red and green banner.
The S/el was a huge success during the 1990s, going on to be the best-selling TAG Heuer watch of its era. The series continued through to 1999 when it was renamed the “Link”, still today a core part of the TAG Heuer range.
But despite its distinctive design and the important part that the S/el played in TAG Heuer’s revival, today the S/el seems unloved by the majority of watch collectors, often for the very reasons that it was popular in the first place- its design and that bracelet.
Origins of the S/el
The name “S/el” derives from “Sports Elegance” and was designed by the same man who earlier drew the 2000 series- Eddie Schopfer. Some 25 years on, Schopfer is still designing watches for major Swiss brands, for example being responsible for the Breitling for Bentley line and the 2013 Chronomat and Emergency Breitling.
The series was one of the first to explicitly be designed with the “Six Features” that came to define TAG Heuer in the 1990s:
- Water resistant to 200m
- Screw-in crown
- Double safety clasp bracelet
- Unidirectional bezel
- Sapphire crystal
- Luminous markings
Sticking so closely to a prescriptive set of features did help define the new TAG Heuer brand, even if it eventually proved detrimental as the range began to look the same.
The idea with the S/el was to take the range upmarket and position the watch above the mainstay models of the day- 1000, 2000 and Formula 1. The idea behind the series was that it was “designed to be worn with a diving suit as well as a dinner jacket” and until the arrival of the 6000 series in the mid-1990s, it was the flagship of the TAG Heuer range.
The bracelet of the S/el was without doubt its defining feature. How many other watches can you identify from seeing just one link of the bracelet? It is one of the most distinctive watch bracelets ever designed and, arguably, one of the most comfortable, with each large, chunky link made up of two curved ingots
The watch case itself seems to have been designed around the bracelet and on the early models the case wouldn’t accept a traditional leather strap, as the ends of the case were designed for the link to act as an end piece. Whether you like the S/el, the watch is a wonderful piece of integrated design, with the watch case and bracelet working together perfectly.
The rest of the watch continued this soft, organic look, providing a contrast to the blunter edges of the existing TAG Heuer range of the time. The bezel had a saw-tooth finish, while the case and bracelet were available in a range of finishes, with the plated gold/ stainless steel combination being the signature look of the era.
The dial and hands were relatively conventional, using the “Mercedes” hands offered throughout the rest of the TAG Heuer range.
TAG Heuer S/EL Range
The S/el was in the TAG Heuer range from 1987- 1999 and during this twelve years there were seven major model lines: Watch, Chronograph and Digital Chronograph (all quartz), Watch, Chronometer and Chronograph (automatic) and the S/el Leather series. Let’s take a closer look at each of these in turn.
S/el Quartz Watch
The S/el was launched as a quartz-only range, with the 3-hand watch taking centre stage. There were three sizes offered (Men’s, Mid-size and Ladies) and various dial options, including a short-lived Roman numeral option. There were stainless steel cases, combination Steel & plated gold and rare black chromium and Gold models. Check out the strap below which has an embossed link pattern- clearly, TAG Heuer were enamoured with their new bracelet design.
Indeed if you did want a leather strap, you could only get one that had a link at the end.
The S/el was the first TAG Heuer watch to make use extensive of contrasting finishes to help lift the “premiumness”. For example, the white dial watch below has a sand-blasted steel case with a polished bezel and contrasting polished/ matte links.
Around 1990, the dials were updated slightly, adding “Professional” to the dial (early dials only have “200 Meters”) and when looking to avoid replicas, note that the name S/el never appears on the dial of any model.
The quartz watch range was updated in 1995/6 with the two-level dial used on the automatic range, as shown below.
S/el Quartz Chronograph
The quartz chronograph was added to the S/el range in 1990 and offered 1/ 10th second precision. The layout was dictated by the ETA 251.262 movement, which had a sort of “2-6-10” placement, with the top two registers sitting higher than usual. A tachymeter scale features on the inner flange, which helps give the chronograph models more visual depth than the watch-only variants.
All chronograph models have “Professional” on the dial and a “double baguette” marker at 12 o’clock.
The quartz chronograph was updated in 1997, with metal rings placed around each sub-dial and a triangle replacing the double baguettes at 12 o’clock. You don’t see many of these around, as the second generation S/el Chronograph was only on sale for a couple of years.
Also part of the quartz chronograph range from 1990 were these digital/ analogue models, which added two digital windows at 4 and 8 o’clock. The digital chronograph offered 1/ 100th second precision and was the favourite watch of Ayrton Senna, who wore reference S. 25706C, which is a bi-metal model with an egg-shell-coloured dial.
The dial of these models was unique, with a 1-100 scale added to the dial. The digital chronograph was unchanged throughout its life and was discontinued around 1998.
S/el Automatic Watch
An automatic watch was added to the range in 1991, a year when TAG Heuer began to reintroduced mechanical options back into its range. It also introduced a new dial design- a stamped dial with a two-level design. This was initially offered only on the automatic range, but was extended to others over time.
Note the small “60” above the 12 o’clock marker.
The automatic range was phased out around 1995, effectively replaced by the S/el Leather than we’ll cover shortly.
At the same time as the automatic watch was launched, TAG Heuer also offered a Chronometer version of the S/el, with the same two-level stamped dial offered as an option. The Chronometers are individually numbered and stamped on the caseback and were the flagship of the S/el range.
The look was refined in 1997 when the second generation S/el Chronometer was launched, with all dial colours getting the two-level dial, a monochrome applied TAG Heuer logo, numerals at 6 and 9 o’clock and a white surround on the date window. New dial colours were also added, including a deep blue (Ref. WG 5114 below) and black (WG 5211).
This was rectified in 1994/5 when the S/el Leather range was launched with both quartz and mechanical models. The key change here was to the lugs, which now allowed a traditional leather strap to be fitted. Some of the straps have an unusual central stitching and there was a broad range of bright colours offered.
In effect, the S/el leather replaced the standard S/el automatic.
S/el Automatic Chronograph
The mechanical revival continued in 1996 when an automatic chronograph S/el was introduced. Most of these models have a wonderful 2-part dial with “azurage” finish in both the centre of the dial and inside the 3 registers. Like the second-generation Chronometer, these watches feature an applied TAG Heuer logo
While a variety of movements were used across the range, especially with the smaller women’s models, the key movements used in the men’s range are as follows:
– Watch: ETA 955.112
– Chronograph: ETA 251.262
– Analogue/ Digital Chronograph: ETA 251.265
– Automatic/ Chronometer: ETA 2892 (today called the Calibre 7)
– Automatic Chronograph: ETA 7750 (today called the Calibre 16)
S/el Special Editions
There were a number of special edition S/els over the years, and today these can make a good choice for collectors, as the values for the S/el series are very reasonable. My favourite of these is the S/el Chronograph made for West McLaren Mercedes shown above, which looks fantastic with its contrasting sub-dials and black tachy flange.
It isn’t the only McLaren S/el, with a quartz Chronograph (Ref.CG1117) released in 1998. There are two versions of this watch: one with the signature of Ron Dennis, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard on the caseback, and a second that adds the signature of Mercedes Motorsport Chief Norbert Haugh.
One of the more interesting models is this S/el Jo Siffert edition, likely made in 1996 to mark the 35th anniversary of his death. Siffert was a Swiss Formula 1 driver who played a key role in introducing Heuer chronographs into the Formula 1 paddock. Only 200 of these were made.
It’s also the first time that I can recall seeing a clear caseback on a TAG Heuer watch, with the LE number engraved on the rotor. The text “Serie Limitee en Memorie de Jo Siffert” (Limited series in memory of Jo Siffert” is engraved as well.
Moving away from motorsport is this 1995 limited edition (Ref. WL1110) made for Chris Dickson’s America’s Cup Challenge in 1996. The watch is a limited edition of 500.
Collecting the S/el
While a hugely popular watch during its time, the TAG Heuer S/el is somewhat friendless when it comes to collectability today. The soft-edge case has fallen from fashion, and the large links that defined the watch are seen as too much like a bracelet today. Ask people why they don’t like the S/el and the answer tends to be that the design is “too 1980s”. When thinking about this I read an interesting comment from Jonathan Scatchard of Vintageheuer.com who rightly pointed out that we’ve seen this sentiment before.
There was another Heuer series that was deemed to be “too 1970s” and sat unsold in watch stores for many years after it had been discontinued. Even moving them on the second-hand market for more than a few hundred dollars was tough, because the sharp edges of this model just weren’t in fashion. It was odd, because the watch was loved by Formula 1 drivers, just like Senna loved his S/el. Of course, Jonathan was talking about the Heuer Monaco, which until the late 1990s was something of a pariah in the second-hand watch market- but unlike the S/el, Heuer couldn’t even sell these when they were new!
Not for one minute do I (or Jonathan) expect the S/el to be “tomorrow’s Monaco”, but the parallels are interesting, with both watches being designs of their time. Maybe fashion will be kinder to the S/el in the future.
However, what this does mean is that S/els represent great value today, and you can pick up many models for less than a thousand dollars. The limited editions mentioned earlier and some of the chronographs can be a little more, but you get a lot of watch for not much money.
The S/el is unfortunately the first TAG Heuer series to attract the interest of the Replica industry, so there are quite a few fake S/els out there. However, the quality on these early replicas is poor, so it shouldn’t be too challenging to tell real from fake.
Of course, while the S/el finished in 1999, the series continued today as the TAG Heuer Link. Over time those bracelet links have become squarer and flatter, but you can clearly still see the DNA of the S/el in today’s Link. It was odd that in 2012, the 25th anniversary of the Link/ S/el, TAG Heuer did not mark the occasion with a special edition- you’d think being the first “true TAG Heuer”, we would have seen some mention of the S/el, but I guess this reflects the way that the S/el is seen today- a fine watch to be sure, but one forever part of the 1980s.
To continue the S/el story, you can read the Ultimate Guide to the TAG Heuer Link here.
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