A couple of weeks ago I travelled from Scotland where I now live to my home country of South Africa to visit my family. It’s the first bit of international travel I’ve done since before the pandemic hit back in 2020. As it happens, the final pre-Covid trip I took had also been to see my family back in February of that year. As with all of us, my life has changed in many big and small ways in the interim and the odd bookended quality of these South African visits gave me more cause than usual to reflect on all of those changes.
One such development (a minor one, to be sure, but a development nonetheless) has been my headlong spill into the world of watches. I got really into them during the span of the pandemic — a very literal manifestation of me clockwatching my way through lockdowns — but it’s an interest that has steadily kept on ticking ever since.
As it happens, watches proved to be something of a recurring theme on this visit. My theory about mechanical watches acting like a honing device for discovering horologists out in the wild was certainly borne out on this holiday. I quickly lost count of the number of times a family member or new acquaintance would point at my wrist, say something like ‘nice watch!’ and then launch into a spirited chat about their favourite timepieces. Having only recently gotten interested in watches myself, this was a novel experience for me but one I was all too keen to embrace.
This being a trip to South Africa, these watch conversations almost always turned to the subject of TAG Heuer. This is all but inevitable when talking about watches in that part of the world since ‘TAGs’ (as all of my compatriots referred to them in our chats) are a huge deal over there. There are, I was told, a number of reasons for South Africa’s longtime Heuer-based hankering.
It has a lot to do with a selection of TAG Heuer offerings being relatively attainable within an upper-middle-class budget, all while still having the full range of connotations you might want from a pricey Swiss watch — things like quality, reliability, a sense of status, and the promise of a good investment. Local suppliers and TAG Heuer themselves are well aware of this, meaning that the brand is readily available across the country and that a sizable swathe of advertising has been deployed within the region for a long time. It meant that when I was growing up you could scarcely pick up a magazine or glance at a billboard without having some smouldering celeb or sportsperson with a TAG in hand staring back at you. It was an effective enough strategy that as a young, fledgling watch enthusiast, TAG Heuer was almost certainly the first upmarket watch brand I became aware of, well before the words ‘Rolex’ or ‘Omega’ had ever passed my lips.
Another big point of connection, of course, is sport — a pastime in all of its many forms that South Africans are, as a rule, roundly obsessed with. TAG Heuer, in turn, has been linked to the world of sport nearly as far back as its inception in the nineteenth century, more than a hundred years before ‘Heuers’ ever became known as ‘TAGs’.
Uhrenmanufaktur Heuer AG, as it was first known, was founded by Edouard Heuer in Saint-Imier, Switzerland in 1860. Heuer quickly established its niche in making chronographs used in the timing of sporting events, initially as dashboard clocks used in cars and planes, but soon after in stopwatches and, beginning in 1914, in wristwatches.
One of Heuer’s key inventions in those early days was something called an oscillating pinion, which was patented in 1887 and is still in use today. It allowed the time-keeping chronograph to start and stop instantly with the push of a button and represented a major leap forward in the accuracy, function, and manufacture of chronograph mechanisms.
The importance of accurate timekeeping in a range of sporting activities is paramount, so Heuer’s superlative instruments were in high demand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially thanks to the arrival of the Heuer Mikrograph in 1916. It was the first mechanical stopwatch with the ability to measure elapsed time to within 1/100th of a second. It paved the way for Heuer becoming all but synonymous with timed sporting events across the board.
Throughout the next decade, for instance, Heuer served as the official timekeeper in the Olympic Games held in Antwerp (1920), Paris (1924), and Amsterdam (1928). It further branched out into everything from water sports to alpine events, and even space flight. In the latter instance, on America’s first earth-orbiting space flight in 1962, astronaut John Glenn had none other than a Heuer chronograph strapped to his wrist timing every second of his 4 hour, 56 minute flight. Then, in July 1969, while the Apollo astronauts famously all wore Omega Speedmasters, it was another Heuer stopwatch doing the essential work of timing The Eagle’s descent onto the lunar surface.
Of course, there is no competition TAG Heuer is more closely associated with than motor sport. By the 1960s, Heuer was so thoroughly embedded in the world of racing that you would be hard-pressed to find a photo taken at the time of a Formula 1, Indy, or GT race that doesn’t include a Heuer logo embedded somewhere in the frame. Heuer Autavia and Carrera chronographs were especially popular among drivers, but perhaps the definitive Heuer driving watch — the square-dialed Monaco model which was first introduced in 1969 — arrived on the world stage on the wrist of none other than Steve McQueen, who immortalised it in the 1971 film, Le Mans. It may have featured a revolutionary design and a groundbreaking automatic chronograph, but it was undoubtedly McQueen who turned the model into a superstar, enough so that it continues to be commonly referred to as the ‘McQueen Monaco’.
With the Hollywood sheen offered by McQueen notwithstanding, the 1970s proved a difficult time for Heuer. Along with the rest of the watchmaking establishment, it suffered heavily during the quartz crisis of the time. It eventually meant that after four generations of family ownership, the brand went up for sale before being acquired in 1985 by the holding company Techniques d’Avant Garde. Hence the birth of TAG Heuer, although the recently-rebranded label would again go up for sale in 1999 when it became part of the LVMH empire courtesy of a $740 million buyout.
It’s a price tag that speaks volumes about the caché of TAG Heuer as a brand. Its catalogue of wristwatches includes such classics as the aforementioned Autavia, Carrera, and Monaco, in addition to Aquaracer, the Link series, and the slightly more budget-friendly Formula 1 series.
Unsurprisingly, nearly all of these have been discussed in feverish tones by myself and my fellow South African watch enthusiasts in recent weeks. Now that I’m back in the UK, though, we’ve had to content ourselves with migrating these conversations over to text threads and group chats. Regardless of the medium changing, however, the content remains much the same: We still mostly talk about sport and watches, and, in both instances, there is a great deal of TAG talk. And let me tell you, as a born South African and especially as a watch fan, I wouldn’t have it any other way.