Not without justification, TAG Heuer’s Baselworld showing in March this year surprised a lot of people. It is very unusual for one of the world’s biggest watch brands to show just two watches at the spring fair. Was there really nothing more than the new Autavia and a version of the Connected smartwatch themed around golf? No. There wasn’t. But that was the point. Behind the Autavia was a story big enough on its own.
How big? The clue is in the word ‘Isograph’, printed on the dial of the new Autavia models. It refers to TAG Heuer’s new, in-house developed, in-house produced hairspring, which is made of carbon composite, a material the company says is immune to magnetism, gravity and shock, three arch enemies of mechanical watches.
There are two threads to the story. The first is the context of this development, the other the technology itself and the real-world benefits it brings consumers.
To the context first.
Nicholas Hayek and the Isograph
TAG Heuer, it has to be said, has hiccupped its way to this point. Where Rolex and Omega have walked a pretty straight path to the point where, respectively, Calibre 3255 and the suite of calibres stamped Master Chronometer are collection mainstays and segment leaders, the Isograph hairspring’s birth has been more serpentine.
The backstory starts not with TAG, but with Nicholas Hayek, the late founder of Swatch Group. In the Noughties, he announced his ETA and Nivarox businesses would stop supplying brands outside the group – his competitors. As bizarre as it sounds, he claimed the arcane Swiss law dictating he was compelled to supply anyone who knocked on his door was anti-competitive, giving him a monopoly on movement creation. He also suggested that obliging his competitors to invest in movement manufacturing would spark creativity and be good for the industry.
Not for the first time, he was right. Those competitors – Breitling, Tudor, Hublot, IWC, Vacheron Constantin and many others – spent fortunes on development, and over the last decade have introduced dozens of calibres with longer power reserves, greater accuracy and significantly improved resistance to nasties such as magnetism and wear and tear. Progress has made watches more expensive, but it’s also made them better.
TAG Heuer’s False Start
TAG Heuer, part of the LVMH group of watch brands and one of Swatch Group’s competitors, went on the journey, too. By 2014, it had sunk a reported CHF 40m into facilities, machinery and know-how, helping it to develop Calibre CH80, a slimline chronograph movement with an 80-hour power reserve that came with a bigger price tag than previous models powered by Hayek’s third-party movements.
But before it could get to market, CH80 was shelved. The chief executive lost his job and Jean-Claude Biver swept in, returning the brand to high-octane partnerships and the old slogan: Don’t Crack Under Pressure.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. At the same time, the industry moved into a fallow period and exports dropped off a cliff. Chinese anti-corruption laws, austerity, the Umbrella Revolution – there were lots of reasons. Swatch Group cooled on its decision to withdraw its supply, but at the same time told TAG Heuer it would no longer have access to its Nivarox hairsprings. TAG found a new supplier in Atokalpa, but observers began to speculate that it would need to create its own hairspring in order to sustain growth.
The Prophecy Fulfilled
Such projections were prescient. In January this year, TAG Heuer announced the Carrera Calibre Heuer o2T Nanograph Automatic, a carbon piece that looked more like a concept watch than a production model. Inside it was a new proprietary hairspring made of carbon-composite with a nanoscopic (one million times smaller than a millimetre) carbon molecular structure that made it precise and durable.
Developed in-house by a team led by Guy Sémon, CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute, and made at TAG’s base in La Chaux-de-Fonds, it impressed. News was that TAG had tested watches with the new hairspring up to 5,000G and dropped them from one metre onto a hard surface, and was claiming that while metal hairsprings bent and silicon hairsprings broke, its carbon-composite hairspring remained completely intact. It came with a number of other benefits, all of which made it more accurate.
Although this was just one piece, with a big retail price on it by TAG’s standards, it was clear it was a John the Baptist watch, pointing to a much wider application.
Back in the Current Day
Which brings us to Baselworld and the new Autavia. A sort of retro spin on the model that’s barely got a look in since it was discontinued in 1985, the collection is powered entirely by a version of TAG’s Calibre 5 tuned with its clever new carbon composite hairspring. It’s a landmark moment for TAG Heuer.
Two questions arise from this. The first is what does Isograph do for the consumer; and second, what does it do for TAG Heuer?
All things being equal, the consumer won’t much notice. The new Autavia dials carry the word ‘Isograph’, which isn’t particularly pretty, and you suspect will soon disappear as word gets around (although Omega still applies the words Co-Axial Master Chronometer liberally to its watches). Every piece has a solid case back, so no chance of catching a furtive glimpse of the hairspring, even when the watch has stopped. But what consumers will get, assuming the science lives up to its promise, is a more precise, more durable watch that should prove a better companion over time.
A new chapter for TAG Heuer begins?