The TAG Heuer Monaco: The Story Behind The World’s Most Iconic (Square) Watch
To mark the 50th anniversary of the watch, Tag Heuer launches Limited Edition 1969-1979 Monaco timepiece at the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix based on the legendary event that gave the watch its name in 1969.
It was on a flight back from Lyon – which, by the way, has to be the chicest airport in Europe – when I noticed the man next to me in seat 2A, a window seat, was wearing a TAG Heuer Monaco watch, introduced in 1969 as the very first automatic chronograph. How did I know? Well, even if you don’t know your day from your date, your bezel from your Baselworld, you know the TAG Heuer Monaco, mainly because it is square rather than round. Its unusual, now iconic shape always requires a double take and a closer inspection: it’s an indicator that the wearer isn’t your usual grail-seeking, cuff-lifting, profit-flipping hypebeast.
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In fact, apart from the Monaco, the man in 2A that day couldn’t have been dressed more like an off-duty white-collar French exec on the way back from a (successful) client pitch. This is a good thing, BTW. He looked like a serious man who took his individuality even more seriously. He didn’t want to fit in so much as stand out with elan; his teal cashmere sweater was, probably, Loro Piana, his shirt was bespoke from Jermyn Street and his shoes were a laceless leather trainer from Berluti. If his watch was worn to be noticed, the rest of his wealth was set to stealth mode.
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So, what gives the TAG Heuer Monaco such enduring appeal to our inner peacocks, our quiet sense of rebelliousness, a watch that this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary? No doubt there will be a fair few being flashed on wrists this weekend at the Monaco Grand Prix, and it’s clear from wearers such as “Mr 2A”, and also the likes of Guy Berryman – bassist from Coldplay, no less, and all-round refined petrolhead, who recently posted a snap of his very own TAG Monaco – that this watch is having something of a renaissance. Even Rocketman himself, British GQ cover star Taron Egerton, was spotted wearing a Monaco last month.
Why? Well, two reasons: a reconnection with the weight, heritage and craftsmanship of the TAG Monaco itself; and secondly, blame a move away from Route One trad style. The Gucci-fication of all womenswear is finally, it seems, having an impact on CEO-level men’s trends. Clothing and accessories that would, a few years ago, feel somewhat gauche now seem perfectly in line with our newfound fondness for style that is maximalist and “likeable”. Less normcore more hardcore. The TAG Heuer Monaco is that highly combustable mix of a bona fide icon of watchmaking history. It’s style alchemy at its most sophisticated.
The original watch, designed by Jack Heuer in honour of the Formula One race, was introduced simultaneously in Geneva and New York City on 3 March 1969. (I know this as it’s my birthday on 3 March – although I’m a decade off half a century, thank you very much – and each and every year I have dropped innumerable hints to pretty much all members of my family about how serendipitous, not to say delightful, it would be to receive a TAG Heuer Monaco. As yet, no dice. Or TAG Heuer watch box in my stocking. Yes, anyone reading, this is another hint.)
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The watch uses the Calibre 11 mechanism – the Chromatic – and, as mentioned, was the first self-winding chronograph and the first square-cased and water-resistant chronograph. Jack Heuer writes in The Times Of My Life of the unusual case shape: “One day, a representative of one of our most reliable watch case suppliers, a company called Piquerez, located at Bassecourt in the Jura, came to us on one of his regular visits to show us Piquerez’s latest samples of watch cases in mock-up form.
“He drew our attention in particular to a new patented square case Piquerez had developed, emphasising the fact that it was fully water-resistant. We immediately knew this was something special because, until then, square cases were used only for dress watches because it was impossible to make a square case fully water-resistant. We immediately took a liking to the special square shape and were able to negotiate a deal with Piquerez that secured us exclusive use of the case design for chronographs.”
Although the watch was received well enough on launch, it wasn’t until a certain actor, one Steve McQueen, wore a TAG Heuer Monaco in motorsport movie Le Mans (1971) that provided the fairy dust to see the desirability of this timepiece seriously fly. The pairing was down to the endeavour of a man called Don Nunley, a chap who had been recruited by Jack Heuer to help place their watches on the high-profile wrists of top-level Hollywood talent.
Below Jack Heuer remembers the moment McQueen picked his square watch to sit on his wrist throughout the movie: “The film company had hired two professional racing car drivers to coach McQueen to drive the unbelievably fast Porsche 917. One was Derek Bell and the other was Jo Siffert, who was under contract with us. McQueen and Siffert got on like a house on fire, perhaps because they had both started their lives in humble circumstances and had gone on to become superstars in their respective professions.
“The day before shooting was due to start, one of the film’s production executives, Robert Rosen, went up to Steve McQueen and said, ‘Steve, tomorrow we start shooting for real. So far you’ve worn several types of racing overalls but now you’ve got to settle on how you want to look.’ Apparently, McQueen pointed towards Jo Siffert and said he wanted to look exactly like him. Siffert then ran to his caravan to fetch one of his white racing overalls which had the Heuer logo on the heart side and handed it to McQueen. Then Don Nunley went up to McQueen and said, ‘Now you have to choose a watch – here’s a nice Omega!’ Apparently, McQueen then handed the Omega back to Nunley, saying, ‘Not an Omega, they might use my name’ and instead he chose a Heuer ‘Monaco’, never having heard of us. Don Nunley says he had to offer the Monaco because it was the only watch of which he had three identical models.
“He needed three because one model would be used in the live racing shots, one would be used in the still photography and one was needed as a spare in case the others got damaged. Furthermore, if Jo Siffert’s racing overalls were emblazoned with a Heuer logo, film continuity demanded that the driver should also sport a Heuer chronograph on his wrist!”
The rest, as they say, is a slice of horological history, with more being made this weekend no doubt. Whatever the outcome for the drivers this Sunday, however, in terms of legendary status, the TAG Heuer Monaco has cemented its place at the very top of horology’s podium. Be there or be… well, quite.