The world of vintage watch collecting can seem intimidating for those starting out. From the outside, it can feel like an exclusive club with the insiders hoovering up all the good pieces for themselves. Sometimes it all seems too risky, with a high chance of a first-timer making an expensive mistake on a broken and perhaps fake watch. This Vintage Heuer buying guide is written to help would-be collectors get started on the journey to owning some truly outstanding watches at what are still reasonable prices. Very few brands can match Heuer’s glory period of 1960-1985, an era of watches that forms the basis for the modern TAG Heuer range.
This is not a theoretical guide- it’s based on 20 years of collecting and a turnover of almost 50 Heuers. That 50 includes a few perfect NOS watches, a couple of dodgy late-night eBay specials and the odd project watch that required 6 months of searching for the right parts. It also includes a few near-misses.
It all started with a Carrera 1553N (above) bought from a Brazilian seller on eBay back in the mid- 2000s. Having debated the pros and cons of the watch and seller with the legendary Chuck Maddox, the watch was bought and arrived a couple of weeks later. Not bad for a first attempt! The dial is a beautiful vivid blue, with the unusual silver bar running from the 9 o’clock market to the 3 o’clock sub-dial. The dial had a couple of hairline scratches, but all up it was a great watch.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is the only vintage Carrera that I’ve ever owned and there was no real strategy behind choosing this model, other than I liked the design. When you think about where to start a collection, it helps to understand the four eras of vintage Heuers.
The Four Eras of Vintage Heuer
Heuer was founded in 1860 and remained family run until 1982 when the Swiss banks effectively forced out Jack Heuer and sold the company to a consortium led by Piaget and Nouvelle Lemania. The new owners held the brand for only three years before selling to the Middle Eastern investment house Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG), who renamed the brand “TAG Heuer”. Sparked by new management, TAG Heuer completely revamped the brand and the model range, introducing watches such as the Formula 1 and S/el, the success of which laid the groundwork for the company today.
Generall, when people refer to “vintage Heuer”, what they mean is pre-1985. But don’t think that this means there is a 125 year period of watches to collect. As you’ll soon discover, vintage Heuer collecting is really a period that spans no more than 25 years.
Era 1: 1860- 1960
Yes, the first era lasts a cool 100 years! This is not your author simply being lazy- the reality is that there are few watches around today from this period. There are some gems among those that have survived from Heuer’s first century, but they are few and not that highly sought until we get to the 1950s, when models such as the Mareograph, Twin-Time (above) and Solunar appear.
Combine this small supply of watches with the scarcity of information to verify those that do exist and you start to understand why pre-1960s Heuers only form a small part of the vintage Heuer collecting universe. If you do find a pre-1960s Heuer, you also have to accept that finding any parts for the case or dial will be almost impossible, even though the movement can be repaired and serviced. Don’t buy a beaten 1930s Heuer with the aim of restoring it, unless your great-grandfather has a secret stash of parts hidden in a bank vault.
Era 2: The 1960s- Jack Arrives
Having dealt with the first 100 years in two paragraphs, let’s move on to the 1960s which is where the interest really starts. Make no mistake, this is THE hot period for collectors at the moment, and it’s no accident that this coincides with the arrival of Jack Heuer, who joined the family company in 1958. There is an aura about Jack’s time at the company that is more than just marketing hype- it is indisputable that his leadership of Heuer from 1962-1982 saw the period of greatest creativity in the company’s history.
The decade starts off with an attractive range of “Pre-Carrera” models, such as the Ref 2444. Slightly more angular than the Carrera, the 2444 also shares several traits with the Autavia, which was launched in 1962. These early Autavias have been the big price movers in recent years and are now among the most coveted Heuers.
Only one year after the Autavia, we have the launch of the Carrera, a wonderful design in a now-iconic 36mm case. Just as with the Autavia, it is these early Carrera models that draw collectors today and as a result values for the first-generation Carrera are very strong.
The last major 1960s model is the Camaro from 1968. The Carrera and Camaro ranges are in effect brother and sister series- they share the same range of movements, offer many of the same dial colour variations and use the same design bracelets. While the Carrera gets all the attention, regular readers know that it’s the Camaro that represents the better value, and arguably, more unique style.
The good news is that most of the watches from this era are powered by Valjoux manual-wind movements. These are relatively easy to find and repair, so don’t worry too much if the watch that you are looking at doesn’t work- it can generally be fixed.
Era 3: The 1970s- Chronomatic Period
The watches of the 1970s are marked out by the use of Heuer’s Chronomatic movement, arguably the world’s first automatic chronograph movement. While only the very first series of Calibre 11 watches carried “Chronomatic” on the dial, we’ll use the term here to capture all variants of that movement- Calibre 11, Calibre 12, Calibre 14 and Calibre 15. Launched in 1969, Heuer used the occasion of its new movement to launch new designs for the Carrera and Autavia, as well as a third model designed to shock- the Monaco.
There are effectively three segments within this era- the early Chronomatic period (Monaco, Second-generation Carrera and Autavia), the expansion period (Silverstone, Montreal, Calculator) and then the final period, with more obscure models such as the Daytona, Jarama, Cortina, Kentucky. Roughly speaking, the early period watches are worth the most, with the late 1970s pieces being the least-collectible. There are some nice watches in this last segment, but values have hardly moved in the last 10 years
Until we get to the late 1970s, almost all the ’70s models use the Chromomatic movement, although there are also Valjoux manual-wind options that are typically rarer, yet less valuable than the automatic models. Be careful of watches using the rarer Valjoux movements, such as the 7736/ 7740/ 7741- nothing wrong with the movements, but parts are harder to find than for other Heuers.
The 1970s also see the early days of quartz, with the ground-breaking Chronosplit launched in 1975, followed by more reliable- if less exciting- ESA quartz models in the late 1970s.
Era 4: 1980s- The Last Days
The only traditional Heuer to survive into the 1980s in any meaningful way are the Autavia and the Calculator. The 1980s Autavias defy gravity somewhat, being in some cases some of the more valuable Autavia models, for example the Autavia Diver 100 shown above. Some of these watches are assembled today by watchmakers with access to old genuine parts.
The other 1980s Heuers such as the Heuer 2000 and 844/ 1000 dive watches are nice pieces, but haven’t really moved in terms of being sought out by collectors.
Also unique to this period are the Lemania-powered watches, including “Silverstone”, “Cortina” and “Carrera”- the inverted commas are because these watches bear no resemblance to the classic 1970s models of the same name. Again, the values of these haven’t really changed over the last 5 years, despite the popularity of the Lemania 5100 movement and some interesting designs. Be aware that Lemania gave these designs to a range of other brands, so it can be hard to make sure that you are buying a genuine Heuer.
How much to Pay?
This is not a price guide as such, more advice on how to think about price and the strong advice is this: don’t go looking for a bargain. I would always recommend buying the best example of a vintage watch you can find. There are very few true bargains out there these days- there are watches that are cheap for a reason and watches that are expensive for a reason, whether it be condition, provenance or originality of parts.
Unless you have access to parts and you can fix a problem with a “bargain” watch, start with the best and avoid the headaches.
Where to buy?
Not where I’d recommend to start. Yes, they sometimes have some great finds, but the reality is that they also won’t know enough about Heuer to know whether what they are selling is 100% correct. These dealers tend to be expensive- there are better places to go until you know what you’re looking for.
Chrono24 is simply a platform for dealers- something buyers often don’t understand. Chrono24 gives no real protection to buyers and simply aggregates the offerings of multiple sellers, which means that it is a good place to go window shopping. They do have a “Trusted Checkout Service”, but in most instances you are buying direct from the seller and have no recourse to Chrono24 if things go wrong. As they say themselves: “Chrono24 will give no warranty about the quality of goods sold and bought through the site. Negotiation of all terms and conditions of a sale are the sole responsibility of the respective buyer and seller”.
Also be aware that Dealers who pay more have their watches prioritised in any search- you pay more and you get better placement.
There used to be a large number of fake or unoriginal Heuers on Chrono24, but pleasingly this has improved over time.
Everyone loves to look down their nose at eBay, but it’s a wonderful place to find watches and parts. Yes, some of their terms are not as friendly as the used to be, but you’d be making a big mistake to ignore eBay. Learn what sniping is, because everyone does it, even if it is not in the spirit of an auction. It is allowed on eBay, despite complaints.
By far the best way to buy a great watch- buy it from an existing collector, some of whom are now semi-professional specialist dealers. You can find these collectors on Facebook groups and the protection that you have here is reputation. Everyone knows everyone in the Heuer world, and no-one wants a reputation for selling a dud watch. Examples of these specialists include:
More and more watches are being sold through Instagram, giving another reason to sign up and starting “Liking”.
Another one to avoid in most situations. If you want to buy the Monaco worn by Steve McQueen, or one of the great pieces sold by Arno Haslinger back in 2010, then you will have to buy it at auction, but for most “normal” Heuers, you’ll get a better watch for less buying from another collector.
The commissions charged border on outrageous (taking a “premium” from both the buyer and the seller in many cases) and there have been too many examples of (smaller) auction houses being willing to go ahead selling Heuers of questionable provenance, even after being alerted to the problems. Having said that, some larger houses known their Heuers very well- but most don’t.
How to Avoid Fakes
Many people are intimidated by collecting vintage watches, because they are scared of making a mistake. The mistake that you won’t make is to buy a replica- this is a modern disease that doesn’t impact the vintage market. But there is good news: 90% of fakes can be picked by a young child who is incentivised with a little cash.
Remember those “spot the differences” games where you have to look at two pictures and identify the differences? Offer your child $10 for every difference they find and you’ll save yourself plenty of heartache and dollars. You can find plenty of images of original watches here as your basis for comparison.
As an example, take a look at the two Heuer Monaco images below. The dial on the watch on the left has been refinished and is not original. Putting aside the logo and script, which are wrong and we’ll cover shortly, note the incorrect hands and “waffle” hour-markers. Look even more closely and you spot the different “4” used to the original.
The correct original dial is on the right.
You don’t have to know anything about watches to be able to spot these differences- it just takes a little time and a little diligence
OK, what about the other 10% of the “fakes”? Often the problem is a refinished dial. It’s a little harder to pick a repainted dial, but the key again is to focus on the details. The photo below shows the serif script used on the Autavia and Heuer logo- this is incredibly hard to reproduce, and most refinishers don’t even bother trying. Go back and look at the three Monaco examples above and you’ll now notice the differences in the script.
The last error you could make is the hardest to protect against- is the movement original? Many sellers won’t/ can’t remove the case back and there are so many parts that it can be hard to spot a rogue component. For most watches, buying a good example with incorrect components is not the end of the world.
On the scale of sins, it’s minor compared to buying the Blue/ Blue Monaco above without consulting with your 7-year old daughter on a game of “spot the difference”.
Parts and Accessories
Box and papers are a nice addition to a vintage watch and certainly add to the value, especially if the papers are correctly filled in. Having said that, the value of the Red box you see above is out of control, with a simple box commanding around USD1000 for a good example.
Even watches from the late 1970s/ early 1980s that came in Blue boxes like the one below, it’s not unusual for the box to be worth more than the watch. Crazy.
There are some sellers of reprinted warranty booklets on eBay, so beware. For extra points, there was also a plastic sleeve that holds the booklet.
In general, parts are hard to find and getting more scarce, as collectors hunt them down and hoard them for the future. TAG Heuer themselves are running low on parts, especially bezels for the Autavia.
Until a few years ago, I would never have recommended getting a watchmaker to restore your watch. Very few had the knowledge, parts or patience to do a sympathetic restoration, and many of these jobs permanently damaged a watch that would be otherwise be worth a lot today.
Today I do think restoring a watch is viable, and it’s thanks to the work of Abel Court from HeuerTime. I bought the Autavia 11063GMT you see above (left) from eBay and sent it off to Belgium. What you see above right is the watch when Abel had worked his magic.
The easiest parts for an expert to repair is generally the case and the movement. Even badly beaten up cases can be repolished and brought back to their original glory- but I stress again, that only an expert can do this.
So when shouldn’t you attempt to restore? If the dial is damaged, little can be done. Yes, sometimes what looks like a damaged dial is only a damaged crystal (there was no work done on the Autavia dial above), but if the dial is faded, or oxidising, it can’t be fixed. It can be made to look better, but not fixed.
The other hard part, for an Autavia, is the bezel. The one above is NOS and looks fantastic, but it is actually damaged (note the printing of 14, 16 and 18). These bezels are almost impossible to find, so don’t buy a watch and then hope to find a bargain bezel, because it won’t happen.
Your other option as of 2020 is to send your watch to TAG Heuer, which has recently upgraded the services that it provides from its Vintage Department. You can read about those services here.
What about New Old Stock?
New Old Stock, or “NOS” are supposedly watches that have never been worn. As evidence of this, they usually retain the original Red sales sticker on the caseback. Beware people offering “nearly NOS”- it either is or it isn’t NOS, and as you’d expect NOS watches command a strong premium.
My personal advice is only buy NOS if you know before you buy that you either intend to rip the sticker off the back and wear it daily, or you are happy to sit it in a safe unworn for the next 10 years. I have owned 3-4 NOS pieces and sold them quickly, because I couldn’t bear to damage that silly red sticker.
Go for Mint condition, not NOS.
In many ways, this should be the starting point. Do you really want a vintage watch, or just the style of a vintage watch? TAG Heuer made an excellent range of re-edition watches in the late 1990s/ early 2000s, and even today you can buy a TAG Heuer Monaco Calibre 12 that looks pretty close to the “real” thing.
Personally, I love vintage, but its not something I would recommend to everyone, and you should at least consider whether it wouldn’t just be easier to buy a modern re-edition.
What to look out for
Here at Calibre 11 we have a range of guides for specific models that take an in-depth look at the history of some of Heuer’s key models- check out our “Ultimate Guides” which are growing by the week.
Specifically, here are a couple of key things to watch for on several of the better known Heuer series.
- Polished case
- Damaged/ faded bezel (GMT and Diver 100 bezels very hard to replace); watch for aftermarket bezels
- Refinished dials (especially for Siffert models)
- “Tropical” sub-dials which turn brown
- Bracelet and end pieces very hard to find for 11063 models
- Incorrect hands
- Fake/ re-finished dial (check for lack of date window)
- Damaged bezel
- Polished section of case is often scratched
- Upper case should have starburst finish- is often polished away
- Incorrect hands- Camaro hands are complex and often the correct hands look like they might be wrong
- “Put together” watches with some genuine parts
- Heuer made the Carrera for other brands, many of which people try and turn back into a “Heuer”
- Refinished dials
- Damaged movement (beware any message that it doesn’t work “but may just need new batteries”)
- Plenty of case/ bracelets are available (coming from broken donor watches!)
- Broken integrated bracelet
- Damaged dial (pitting)
- Movements are fragile and not designed to be repaired
- Chrome plating on the case chips away
- Damaged bezels (especially the Black PVD bezel- almost impossible to replace)
- Broken integrated bracelet
- Worn gold-plating
- Damaged dial (typically edges of the dial)
- Missing lume dots
- Re-finished/ fake dial
- Gasket damage (melting rubber seal seeps onto the dial)
- Polished case edges (should be sharp)
- Case back missing Tool 033 engraving
- End-pieces for bracelets are very hard to find
- Re-finished/ fake dials (typically Blue dials)
- PVD case wears easily- some try and remove the PVD and pass off as a Chrome-plated model
- Re-applied PVD rarely looks right
- Damaged lume strips on inner flange
- Put-together Lemania Silverstone (genuine watches should not have a Heuer crown or Heuer logo on the rotor)
- Herringbone-dial Lemania Silverstone is fake
- Damaged dial (pitting)
- Damaged/ missing bezel
The final word of advice is one that you may not want to hear: don’t buy vintage Heuers because you see them as a good investment. If a return is your primary goal, you’ll be better off investing in something else. That doesn’t mean that the outlook for values is poor, more that there is no certainty that values will continue to hold or increase. It is true that 10 years ago there were very few Heuer collectors, and the watches were something of a secret, but that is no longer the case. Currently they are flavour of the month with collectors, but that could change.
Buy the watches because you love them and because they look great and let the future increased in value of your watch be an added bonus, if it comes to pass.