Held every other year since 2005, the “Only Watch” charity auction is a celebration of the watch industry.  Participating brands create one-off watches that are sold in the auction, with all proceeds going to an organization that conducts scientific and medical research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).  The previous eight auctions have raised over 70 million euro.  Watches included in the Only Watch auction go on a world-wide roadshow, with the auction itself being an industry gala.  The 2021 version of Only Watch includes 54 watches and will be held on November 6, 2021, in Geneva.

Today, TAG Heuer has introduced the watch that it will contribute to the Only Watch auction, a Monaco in a carbon fiber case that pays tribute to one of the legendary vintage Monacos, the Reference 74033 N (which many collectors call the “Dark Lord”).  With this watch, TAG Heuer has created a watch that captures the very best of the brand’s unique heritage, while using materials and a style that look to the future.  In this posting we’ll take a look at the “formula” for producing this exceptional chronograph and also consider how TAG Heuer may follow this same approach in creating watches “for the rest of us.”.

Start with a Classic

The TAG Heuer Only Watch Carbon Monaco begins with one of the legends of the brand’s heritage catalog, the Monaco Reference 74033 N, a manually-wound Monaco housed in a black-coated stainless steel case.  The “Dark Lord” was introduced around 1975, as Heuer made a last-ditch effort to find a version of the Monaco that would meet with commercial success.  Black-coated stainless steel cases were popular in this period, offering a military look.  See the OnTheDash Gallery for photos and detailed information covering the Monaco Reference 74033N.

Known as the “Dark Lord” in the community of collectors, the Reference 74033 N has always been the subject of mystery.  The model was never included in a Heuer catalog or price list, was never seen on the wrist of a racer, and in the early days of the online community debates raged about whether and where the model was even offered for sale.  Today’s collectors have found Reference 74033 N Monacos in some interesting places, sometimes as complete watches and sometimes as bags of parts.  There are colorful stories about the life some of these watches have led.

While the Dark Lord’s origin may have been clouded in mystery, the model has always had a strong following among collectors.  The contrast between the black of the dial and case, the bright orange of the hands, and the beige of the painted markers gives the Monaco Reference 74033 N a distinctive and dramatic look, which is very different from the midnight blue and charcoal gray of the more common Monaco models.

The watches often showed their wear, with the thin black coating easily being rubbed of the case over time and the luminous markers deteriorating to the point of falling off the dials.  To find a sample with strong black coating and 12 luminous markers in place is the collector’s dream!

The Reference 74033 N Monaco was powered by the Valjoux 7740 movement, providing an hour recorder on the left side of the dial and a minute recorder on the right side of the dial, with a date at 6 o’clock, but no running seconds recorder.

The new Only Watch Carbon Monaco effectively incorporates the black / orange / beige colors of the original Monaco.  The orange accents on the main time-of-day hands and the orange hands of the chronograph registers offer excellent legibility, as well as strong contrast with the black / carbon of the case and dial.  With their metal edges, luminous inserts and orange tips, the main hands of the Only Watch Carbon Monaco evoke the hands of the “standard” McQueen Monaco, Reference 1133B, or even the hands of the “Orange Boy” Autavia, Reference 1163, rather than following the style of the “Dark Lord”, with solid cream-colored hands.

House It in a State-of-the-Art Case

Starting with the Dark Lord’s look, which incorporated an emerging style of the mid-1970s, TAG Heuer has jumped forward to house the Only Watch Carbon Monaco in a thoroughly modern carbon fiber case.  We have seen other TAG Heuer Monaco chronographs in carbon cases, notably the limited edition created by Bamford Watch Department, in 2018.  The Bamford Limited Edition incorporated the company’s signature “aqua blue” highlights, a departure from the historic Heuer Monaco portfolio.

The Bamford Limited Edition Monaco was well-received by enthusiasts, selling out quickly and currently changing hands in the secondary market, at a substantial premium.  The distinctive “Bamford blue” may have had a strong appeal to collectors, but it seems that the carbon case was crucial in attracting the watch’s following.

Like the Monaco chronograph, carbon fiber has always been associated with racing, making it a natural material for the Monaco collection.  In addition, the lightness of carbon offers a comfort that may be especially appreciated on a relatively  large watch like the Monaco.

Power it with the Superb Heuer 02 Movement

The Heuer 02 movement has become TAG Heuer’s go-to movement for a three-register chronograph (offering a 12-hour chronograph display, as well as minutes and seconds), with the movement offering excellent operation (stop / start / rest) and timekeeping accuracy.  The 80 hour power reserve of the Heuer 02 movement is also a plus, allowing the user to switch between watches for a couple of days, without having to wind or reset the watch when it goes back on the wrist.

The Heuer 02 movement incorporated into the Only Watch Carbon Monaco has been improved through the use of a carbon hairspring, developed internally by TAG Heuer.  This represents the first use of a carbon hairspring in a Heuer 02 movement and it promises exceptional levels of anti-magnetism, shock resistance and stability across temperature ranges, as well as geometry that will offer excellent chronometric performance.

Add Some Decoration

TAG Heuer’s Only Watch Carbon Monaco incorporates a skeletonized dial, which is also made of carbon fiber.  The dial shows interesting architectural shapes, some resembling bridges and others struts and other components of a race car.  The three registers – for hours (at 9 o’clock), minutes (at 3 o’clock) and running seconds (at 6 o’clock) – are formed of galvanized brass plates, and they appear as stable platforms, mounted above the skeletonized dial elements.  There is a sense of motion to the skeletonized elements, with the three registers appearing to be solidly fixed in place.

A look at the movement shows a continuation or even acceleration of the Carbon Monaco’s elaborate decoration.  The movement incorporates 10 types of hand finishing, with a checkered flag motif – appropriate in view of the Monaco’s racing heritage — being the most prominent of the styles.  Other hand finishing techniques used for the movement include anglage, black polishing, circular graining, straight graining, perlage sandblasting, chevron engraving and sunburst finishing.  The newly-designed rotor incorporates the Heuer shield, which is decorated with a gradient orange-to-yellow stripe, these being the colors of the Only Watch 2021 auction.  This gradient “stripe” was painted by dial artist and micro-painter Andre Martinez, who is based in Le Locle, Switzerland.

The leather strap is an additional decorative element for the Only Watch Carbon Monaco.  Made of leather, the strap is injected with silicon and then been heat-stamped with a mold so that it takes on the shape of the metal link bracelet.  This leather strap evookes the style of the metal link bracelet used by Heuer on the original Monaco chronographs from the early 1970s, although this particular style of bracelet was never used on the vintage “Dark Lord”.

Make It All Visible

I wouldn’t normally dedicate a separate section of a posting to the construction of the case-back, but the work done by TAG Heuer on the rear window of the Only Watch Carbon Monaco is truly exceptional.  In order to provide maximum visibility of the movement, the rear “window” has been enlarged, with the “frame” around the sapphire crystal made as thin as possible, being held in place by a screw at each corner of the case-back.  Yes, if you have gone to this effort to decorate a movement, you owe it to yourself to show it off to the world, and TAG Heuer accomplishes this with a unique case-back.

Shroud It in Mystery

The carbon fiber case of the Only Watch Carbon Monaco, as well as many of the interior elements of the dial and movement, are mottled, with areas of black, charcoal gray and light gray.  This adds to the mystery of the watch, as we can expect it to appear from a mid-gray to a deep black, depending on the lighting and the angle from which the watch is viewed.  The mottled finish of the carbon fiber further contributes to the sense of motion conveyed by the Carbon Monaco.

The original Dark Lord, from the 1970s, had its own mysterious look, as the coating of the case faded from black to charcoal over the years.

Show Us the Formula for the Future

Seeing the  watches in the Only Watch catalog can produce a bittersweet reaction.  Yes, they are brilliant watches, but the terms of entry into the auction dictate that we will never see another of these watches available for sale to the public.  TAG Heuer enthusiasts can be encouraged, however, that the brand will be able to use many of the elements of the Only Watch 2021 Monaco to offer fantastic watches for the rest of us.  Perhaps more importantly, we can be confident that the team that designed and built the incredible Only Watch Carbon Monaco will be able to design new versions of the Monaco and other TAG Heuer models to be offered as standard models in the TAG Heuer catalog.

The formula going forward, for a standard production version of the “Dark Lord”, might consist of a black carbon fiber case, a solid carbon fiber dial, and hands and markers that are closer to the style of the “Dark Lord”.  With the incorporation of the black / orange / beige colors of the Dark Lord, the solid dial may offer even stronger legibility than the Only Watch Carbon Fiber model.  When the design teams opts to incorporate a more “architectural” look, we can hope that in the same way that the Only Watch Carbon Monaco incorporates structural elements reminding us of the Monaco’s racing heritage, we will see interesting arms, rods, struts, cams, gears and piston-type elements in additional models.

More than offering a formula for a specific watch, however, the Only Watch Carbon Monaco should give TAG Heuer enthusiasts reason for optimism about the future of the brand.  We can be confident that the TAG Heuer team that was able to design and build the Only Watch Carbon Monaco will be able to design “standard” and limited edition watches for the TAG Heuer catalog that will incorporate the same blend of heritage and modern elements.  The recent successes of two particular Limited Edition Monacos — one with a dial in racing green and the other with a titanium case — are encouraging.  Both models were well-received by both vintage Heuer and modern TAG Heuer enthusiasts.

The Only Watch Carbon Monaco shows a deep knowledge of the brand’s heritage, with the ability to incorporate the best of this heritage into modern models.  The “Dark Lord” offered the team at TAG Heuer the perfect starting point for a thoroughly modern watch that would incorporate state-of-the-art materials and styles. The team was successful in moving from the mysterious Dark Lord of the 1970s to what will become the new Dark Lord of 2021.

There will only be one sample of the Only Watch Carbon Monaco, but the playbook that TAG Heuer used to develop this one watch offers an approach that can be used to develop an infinite variety of interesting and exciting heritage-based models.  The fact that the team at TAG Heuer has written this new playbook and has used it successfully to produce the Only Watch Carbon Monaco bodes well for the TAG Heuer brand.

Jeff Stein
July 1, 2021