After years of being deeply out of fashion among enthusiasts, traditional yellow gold cases are beginning to return to watchmaking at large in 2023. The bold, maximal charm of gold is spreading across brand catalogs throughout the industry, but for enthusiasts unwilling or unable to offer up five figures (and sometimes more) for a solid gold case from a major brand, options are arguably far bleaker than they have been in previous watchmaking “golden ages.” While two-tone remains a viable, visibly distinct option for some, the modern age of watchmaking has more or less eliminated the entry point into real gold for many buyers. The vintage side of the market remains a treasure trove for these types of watches, however, and this bold champagne-dial 1971 Heuer Camaro ref. 73445 CHT is a punchy, stylish reminder of how enjoyable well-maintained gold-plated timepieces can be.
My personal affection for gold plate comes partly from a deep, unapologetic affinity for vintage pseudo-luxury materials — I also love space-age vinyl furniture and ‘60s/’70s-era General Motors faux-wood interiors, for example — but also for its genuine material benefits over many modern equivalents. In the modern age of watchmaking, gold plating is essentially a thing of the past. In its place, buyers searching for a yellow gold look at a more reasonable price can choose from a variety of heavily marketing-inflected processes, most of which either boil down to gold PVD or gold tone. On paper, gold PVD is a far better material for actual day-to-day use than gold plate, with a much more durable surface and improved wear resistance. What this doesn’t take into account, however, is that gold PVD almost never contains real gold in any amount. Most PVD processes use a titanium nitride coating to simulate a yellow-gold hue, offering scratch resistance but none of the depth and luster of real gold. Gold tone is an even more nebulous term, which simply amounts to something having a vaguely yellow gold-esque hue with no requirement of actual gold whatsoever. By contrast, gold plating requires an actual layer of gold, generally between 20 and 40 microns thick, to be bonded to the base metal case via electroplating. In terms of overall weight, it’s a smaller proportion compared to cap gold or gold vermeil (both of which are also vanishingly rare in today’s market), but it does give the watch the actual appearance of yellow gold as opposed to a simulacrum, and when properly looked after it can last for many decades without visible wear.
The 1971 Heuer Camaro ref. 73445 CHT is a crisp, splashy case study in how much fun these vintage gold-plated pieces can be in the right condition. Named after Chevrolet’s stylish, sporty answer to the Ford Mustang and designed as a bolder companion to the manual-wind Carrera, the Heuer Camaro only lasted in the brand’s catalog from 1968 to 1972. During that time, though, it racked up an impressive array of dial variants, movement options, and case finishes. The ref. 73445 entered the collection in 1971 as a more eye-catching complement to its stainless steel counterparts, without the associated price jump of a solid 18K gold case. Like the rest of the series, the Heuer Camaro ref. 73445 CHT measures in at a compact, slender 37mm wide, with a cushion case design that gives the watch more wrist presence than the numbers would imply. Like its larger square-edged sibling the Monaco, the Camaro’s case is deceptively complex, with arcing polished chamfers along the case edges that add a sense of elegant curvature to the squarish silhouette. Matching arced case side undercuts help to alleviate some of the visual weight of the polished vertical case sides, as do the airily slim, sharply angled straight lugs. It’s the upper case surface where the Camaro truly shines, however, with a deep, finely detailed sunburst finish that stretches from the domed acrylic crystal to the polished outer chamfers. Especially in this gold-plated guise, this sunburst graining imparts a more complex, intricate feel than simple brushing, with a vibrant series of highlights and shadows on the wrist. The Camaro’s gear-toothed chronograph pushers are a vintage Heuer staple, appearing on everything from the Monaco to the Carrera in this time period and visually tying the Camaro back to the rest of the brand’s lineup. It’s here where this particular Camaro’s condition really shines through, however. Gold-plated cases, particularly ones this old, are often used, abused, and visibly tarnished, but this example shows absolutely none of the wear usually seen in similar cases. The crown, the undersides of the lugs, and even the contact points with the stainless steel caseback are all pristine and golden, without any signs of wear or discoloration.
Not to be outdone, the Heuer Camaro ref. 73445 CHT’s dial ratchets up the visual drama with a matching gold-on-gold finish. The gleaming gold base dial surface sports a heavy, vertically brushed finish with a wealth of contrast and visual detail, breaking up an otherwise monochrome surface and highlighting the visual complexity of gold. Likewise, the tight azurage on the subdials and their sloping outer chapter rings create bright focal points at nearly any angle. Heuer continues this bold, maximalist style through the Camaro’s dial hardware. The applied gold indices are tall and compellingly blocky, adding a sense of muscularity to the design and keeping the relatively diminutive chronograph from coming off as delicate or effete. The hands, however, present a bit of a mystery. All documentation on the Camaro ref. 73445 CHT shows this dial with narrow polished gold baton hands, featuring a central black contrast stripe. However, this example uses the chunkier, wide baton hands used for gold-cased Calibre 11 Carreras, with black outlines and a matching wedge-style black chronograph seconds hand. While chances are this was a careless replacement during servicing at some point during this watch’s life, they fit the bolder visual theme of the gold Camaro well, and there is a remote possibility this is an obscure sub-variant — it’s estimated less than 600 gold-plated Camaro examples were ever produced, and broadly speaking, the Camaro line is far less well-documented than the more famous Carrera, Monaco, and Autavia chronographs produced during this period.
Heuer powers the Camaro ref. 73445 CHT with the classic Valjoux 7734 hand-wound chronograph movement. Developed from the equally famous Venus 188 platform, the 7734 graced a wide range of models through the ‘60s and ‘70s, including watches from Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton, Tissot, LeJour, and many others. Despite its age, this is still a stable, relatively easy-to-maintain powerplant, with a light, precise pusher feel and a charmingly vintage 18,000 bph beat rate. To soften this all-gold look, I’ve fitted this Camaro on a custom distressed warm gray leather rally strap from The Strap Tailor.
In a year where yellow gold watches are on the rise (and not one, but three gold Heuer chronographs appeared in the biggest film of the summer), it’s a natural time for enthusiasts to seek out gold timepieces of their own. For those who can’t shell out for a solid gold model, however, modern options can be underwhelming. Well-maintained vintage gold-plated models can offer an ideal middle ground for the savvy collector, and this pristine Heuer Camaro ref. 73445 CHT is an example of just how much fun these gold-plated timepieces can be on the wrist.