Baselworld 2015 is the first watch trade show that sees Jean-Claude Biver at the helm of TAG Heuer as “interim” CEO, and one of his most important new products for this year is the TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 01 watch. I feel as though the genesis of this watch, its purpose as I see it, and how it will impact the TAG Heuer brand overall is something worth talking about, because without a little discussion, I don’t think this a product that most people will understand.
Let’s step back to the early 2000s, when Jean-Claude Biver was hot off of his sale of Blancpain to the Swatch Group and eager to do something new. He purchased the failing Hublot brand which was originally founded in the early 1980s. Thanks to the Big Bang watch and the hype machine that Biver transformed Hublot into, it became a powerhouse watch company and he later sold it to the large luxury group LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy). Jean-Claude Biver didn’t just sell Hublot to a large group and leave, but rather, he stayed aboard as the CEO to keep running things and continuing to grow the brand.
Eventually, Jean-Claude Biver wanted to slow down a bit and transitioned to being the Chairman of Hublot and installed his long-time number two man Ricardo Gaudalupe as the CEO. And just when people thought Jean-Claude Biver was going to retire to enjoy his success and cheese making, he decided to oversee the entire watch making operation at LVMH that included Hublot, Zenith, and TAG Heuer. Oddly enough, that didn’t include the Louis Vuitton watch company or Bulgari.
As the strategic head of the watch division of LVMH, Mr. Biver enjoyed a pretty interesting job having no official office or even title – which actually meant he still spent a lot of time doing Hublot things. Part of his mandate was to help TAG Heuer - which was originally purchased for its heritage and rapport with younger consumers. TAG Heuer, however, for a series of reasons, started to abandon its strong position as an entry-level Swiss luxury brand and kept creeping up in price. That turned out to be pretty bad for business in the long term, and it was decided that TAG Heuer needed to “return to its roots.”
In late 2014, TAG Heuer announced a reduction in its workforce and consolidation of its efforts focusing on some in-house movement production as well as using movements from third-party suppliers such as Swiss ETA (which it has been doing for a long time). TAG Heuer’s then CEO Stephane Linder was let go (he is now at Gucci, of all places), and without a strong leadership option, Jean-Claude Biver announced that he was stepping in. I fully anticipate his time as TAG Heuer CEO to be relatively short (perhaps a few years). His position at TAG Heuer was always meant to be temporary, and I think once he puts the brand in a good place, his intention is to hand over the reigns to those who will continue pushing the brand in the direction that he is now putting it.
So the real questions are: what exactly is Jean-Claude Biver doing to TAG Heuer, how will brand loyalists feel about it, and what of his experience and success at Hublot can we anticipate will be replicated (in one way or another) at TAG Heuer?
The TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 01 fits into at least part of that – and my feeling is that it answers the question Mr. Biver has been asked for a long time, “can you built a less expensive Big Bang?” Like it or not, that is what I can surmise is part of the near-term future direction of TAG Heuer. So what exactly did Jean-Claude Biver do at Hublot that was so successful? Two major things, in my opinion. First was to create news that allowed a lot of people around the world (interested in watches or not) to be aware of the brand, and second was to create visually fascinating and masculine watches that got people excited about contemporary luxury watch design. Again, not all of this has gained Mr. Biver praise from the traditional watch industry, but his success speaks for itself.
I suppose the bad news is that at least part of TAG Heuer’s future will be in the release of watches that traditional fans of the brand will not be receptive to. A lot of TAG Heuer fans are actually Heuer fans and keen on purchasing watches that remind them of the brand’s rich history of not only products but also of involvement in activities such as motorsports. The problem is that the young millennial demographic that TAG Heuer is seeking to attract has no idea (nor do they care) who Steve McQueen is or what TAG Heuer was doing in the 1960s.
TAG Heuer may not entirely abandon their mature fan base, but they must employ a totally different strategy if they are going to once again be the type of brand that attracts younger watch buyers. This means that TAG Heuer needs to be very “right now,” with a focus on things like the social media generation, fashion, music, and modern sporting events. I have to agree that such a tactic is in many ways much better for business than what they were doing before that simply wasn’t speaking loud enough to the people who are looking to buy really nice circa $1,000 watches.
One of the things I have a feeling will occur at TAG Heuer is the deployment of a strategy that I will just call “Hublot-Lite.” That means an emphasis on wide-reaching marketing initiatives as well as products that are bold and easy for younger (or younger-minded) watch lovers to approach. In some ways, that is literally taking what worked with the Hublot Big Bang watch and all of its iterations and offering more accessible versions at TAG Heuer – that, my friends, is what the TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 01 is all about, in my opinion.
Let’s discuss the TAG Heuer Calibre Heuer 01 movement for a second. What you need to know is that structurally it is more or less an existing in-house produced TAG Heuer caliber 1887 automatic chronograph movement. However, it has been skeletonized a bit and given some new colors (such as the eye-catching red column wheel) and turned into the Heuer 01. It won’t replace the 1887, but just add some spice to it in models starting with the 2015 TAG Heuer Calibre Heuer 01 watch.
I have to admit I was hoping the Heuer 01 would be more closely related to the still-on-hold in-house made and designed TAG Heuer caliber CH 80 – but we will have to wait for that into the future. It does feel a bit “marketing-ish” to make a new movement name out of what is essentially an 1887 in new clothing. I get it, but it doesn’t feel as satisfying as it should, However, the result is an impressive and highly wearable concept that offers so much of what people like about skeletonized versions of the Hublot Big Bang at a fraction of the price. For that reason, I think the TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 01 will sell very well.
Let’s not forget that also upcoming for TAG Heuer are things like an Android-powered smartwatch as well as a (mere) 14,900 Swiss Francs tourbillon in the Carrera collection that uses the same case as this Carrera Calibre Heuer 01. Mr. Biver has a lot of exciting things planned which will offer affordable and interesting timepiece creations sure to get the buzz he wants for the brand. A lot of it is marketing, but it is marketing the Biver way, and even if you don’t like the result, it is entertaining to see it unfold.
With its black, steel, and red case, the 45mm-wide TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 01 watch didn’t look as good in pictures as it does on the wrist. The bold Big Bang-inspired skeletonized dial and hands are cool looking, and the overall design is fun and exciting like a TAG Heuer hasn’t been in a while. The magic of a mechanical watch circa 2015 is in the mechanical movement and smart companies know how to show that movement off to enthusiasts.
I will admit that if this watch was priced at $10,000 I would not have taken as long to talk about it nor would I have included the TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 01 watch on our list of the Top 10 watches of Baselworld 2015. It is the relatively low price combined with what else Mr. Biver is doing at TAG Heuer which makes me feel that this is so relevant. Mr. Biver isn’t ignoring the upcoming world of mainstream smartwatches nor is he putting all of his eggs in that basket. Mr. Biver understands that the youngest generation of luxury watch buyers want it all.
They want contemporary modern technology that is nevertheless a lifestyle indicator. They want cool traditional watches in an accessibly-priced package, they want a brand which participates in things which are relevant to them, and they don’t want a brand that tells them what to get but rather gives them choices. It is entirely possible that I am reading a bit deep into what Jean-Claude Biver is doing at TAG Heuer, but after meeting with him, seeing the new for 2015 TAG Heuer products and exploring their upcoming partnership and event plans, this all seems rather clear to me.
I am also someone who happens to like the Hublot Big Bang, but probably can’t see myself spending $20,000 or more on one as I don’t fall into that buyer income demographic. I am, however, really intrigued by something that is a fraction of the price and seems to offer a similar experience. I think a lot of other people are going to be as well. The 2015 reference CAR2A1Z.FT6044 TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 01 watch will be available soon at a price of 4,900 Swiss Francs. tagheuer.com