The weekend of June 14 to June 17, 2019 was a big one for celebrations.  On Friday, June 14, TAG Heuer introduced the second in its series of five Monaco 50th Anniversary Limited Edition chronographs; on Saturday, June 15, our daughter celebrated her 21st birthday; Sunday, June 16 was Father’s Day, a four-generation celebration in our family; and Monday, June 17 was our 35th wedding anniversary.  The occurrence of these important events on back-to-back-to-back-to-back days, and some time in airports and on flights, gave me an opportunity to think about how we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and other important events, in the real world and in the watch world.

It’s a particularly good time to consider how we celebrate anniversaries in the watch world.  1969 was a year of major innovations for watches, which means that 2019 is the year for the 50th anniversaries of these milestones.

In 1969, Heuer and Breitling introduced the first automatic chronographs (including the first Heuer Monacos), Zenith introduced its El Primero automatic chronograph, and Seiko not only offered its first automatic chronographs, but ended the year by kicking off the quartz revolution, with the Astron wristwatch.  For Omega, 1969 was not so much about the launch of new watches as it was about the Speedmaster chronograph being the first watch to be worn on the moon.  In addition to all these “golden” anniversaries, in 2019 we have A. Lange & Söhne celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Lange 1.

With all these anniversaries in the watch world, it seems timely to consider how the watch brands should celebrate these milestones.  What type of party should a watch brand stage to celebrate an important anniversary?  Who should be invited to the party?  What types of “gifts” (using the term loosely) should a watch brand offer to mark the occasion?  How should the brand incorporate its history into today’s celebrations and how can the celebration itself lay the groundwork for the future?

The Parties – Monaco and Le Mans

In May 2019, TAG Heuer announced that, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Monaco, it would produce five Limited Edition Monaco chronographs, with each model (called a “Special Edition”) celebrating a decade in the life of the Monaco.  The five Special Edition Monacos would be released over the course of the year 2019, with TAG Heuer offering 169 samples of each of the models.

The first Special Edition Monaco (for the 1970s) was introduced on May 24, during the Monaco Grand Prix weekend, and the second Special Edition Monaco (for the 1980s) was introduced on June 14, during the 24 Hours of Le Mans weekend.  These are two perfect venues to celebrate the heritage of the Monaco, with the watch being named for the principality in 1969 and Steve McQueen having put the Monaco “on the map”, when he wore the watch in the movie Le Mans, which was released in 1971.

TAG Heuer certainly got all the points for these two parties.  As a heartthrob actor and serious sports car racer, Patrick Dempsey might be the closest person we have to a Steve McQueen for the modern era.  Dempsey presided over the festivities at Monaco and Le Mans, with Monaco guests of honor including Red Bull Formula One racer Max Verstappen, models Bella Hadid, Jourdan Dunn and Winnie Harlow, and surfer Kai Lenny.

Notwithstanding regular announcements by Jack Heuer over the last several years to the effect that “this time, I am really retiring”, it was good to see TAG Heuer feature a video interview with Jack Heuer during the Monaco weekend.  Currently 86, Jack Heuer joined the family company in 1959 and directed the development of the Monaco and its introduction in March 1969.  It was fitting that he share some memories, as part of the 50th anniversary celebration.

VIPs at the 24 Hours of Le Mans included Steve McQueen’s son, Chad McQueen, Formula E driver Jean-Éric Vergne and five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell.

Just as Jack Heuer bridged the 50 years from the introduction of the first Monaco, Derek Bell could take the same role, having been one of the racers who drove with Steve McQueen in Le Mans, back in 1970.

The Albums – Postings from Monaco and Le Mans

Looking at some of the beautiful albums that were posted by those attending the celebrations in Monaco and Le Mans, I realized that the “purpose” of these events was not to focus on the watch that was introduced 50 years ago.  TAG Heuer and the assembled media spent relatively little bandwidth showing off the vintage Monacos (or those who collect them).  Instead, the purpose of these parties was to show the new generation of watch enthusiasts the romance of Monaco and Le Mans.  [Image below courtesy of Hodinkee; used with permission].

This new generation would see the bright colors of the cars and crowds, hear screaming engines on two legendary circuits, and feel the tension of teams trying to run their cars flat out for 24 hours.  (For an excellent Monaco album, see this posting on Hodinkee.)

Both the party-goers and those of us flipping through the albums would see that the watch most closely associated with these races was the Heuer Monaco.  [Image below courtesy of Hodinkee; used with permission].

This watch embodied the exuberance, the excess, the energy of these events, both in 1969 and in 2019.  Back in the 1960s, the American car manufacturers fielding stock car teams tossed around the slogan, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday”, and for a brand like TAG Heuer, being closely identified with events like the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans is today’s form of “winning”.   The Monaco wins with its unique shape, very visible size and bold colors, and Monaco and Le Mans provide the ideal backdrops to showcase the watch.

The Presents – Special Edition Monaco Chronographs

Parties, celebrities, albums and the media are important parts of a birthday or anniversary celebration, but after the guests have left, there comes the moment of truth when the birthday girl faces the pile of presents.  She has been dreaming of her birthday “haul” and now is the moment when we see whether the lasting emotion of the day will be excitement or disappointment.

As a collector of vintage Heuer chronographs, I will admit to some disappointment at the approach that TAG Heuer took to the 50th Anniversary Limited Edition Monacos.  The idea of capturing a different decade in each of the Special Editions is interesting, but the approach of reflecting the culture or style of the decade seems too generic.  Any watch brand can celebrate the culture, art and style of a decade, but it seems more fitting for TAG Heuer – with its unique history in motorsports — to celebrate the imagery specifically related to this heritage.

We start with racing and the racers, consider the technology incorporated into the cars, imagine the legendary race tracks, and we see Heuer associated with all of them.  Whether captured by colors, stripes or technology, by gears, belts, pistons or calipers, when I look at the Monaco chronograph, I want to see elements that evoke racing and racers.  We can leave it to other brands to make watches that incorporate the imagery of album covers, movie posters, or popular styles and designs of any particular decade.  [Image below courtesy of Hodinkee; used with permission].

There is also the question of whether the first two Limited Edition Monacos are “worthy” of a 50th anniversary celebration.  For wedding anniversaries, we see the progression from silver for the 25th anniversary, to ruby and sapphire for the 40th and 45th, and then gold for the 50th.  Looking at other watch brands, we saw Omega offer a solid gold Speedmaster for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, with 1,014 pieces selling quickly at the 32,000 CHF price.  Breitling created a near one-for-one copy of its legendary Navitimer 806 (circa 1959), incorporating an entirely new movement, and the 1,959 pieces were sold out within days.  And Zenith, the rival to Heuer in 1969 that is now a companion LVMH brand, marked the 50th anniversary of the El Primero by offering 50 boxed sets of three chronographs, each at the easy-to-remember price of $50,000.

Creating five Special Editions of the Monaco, each in a batch of 169 pieces, and selling these 845 watches over the course of the year seems to lack ambition (or perhaps confidence).  TAG Heuer used a case and movement that has been in its catalog for a decade, with the dials being the only new elements of the watches.  Some collectors familiar with the history of the Monaco, and the companion Autavia and Carrera chronographs, hoped to see a 12-hour recorder, as on the first models.  TAG Heuer enthusiasts who enjoy the reliability and feel of the Heuer 02 movement hoped to see a Monaco powered by this favorite movement.  But instead of these more significant (and costly) undertakings, when we boil it all down — based on the first two Special Editions — we seem to have TAG Heuer marking the 50th anniversary of the Monaco by creating five new dials.

Once again, we can turn to real world birthdays and anniversaries to explain what might have happened.  You see, birthdays and anniversaries don’t always come at the “right time”, and perhaps the 50th anniversary of the Monaco didn’t come at the best time for TAG Heuer.  Jean-Claude Biver stepped down as CEO of TAG Heuer in September 2018, and since then Stephane Bianchi has become the brand’s new CEO and Guy Bove its new product director.  We have to allow TAG Heuer’s new leadership team to develop its strategy for the brand, and creating the 50th anniversary Monacos was a big first project for the new team to face.  Strange to say, but perhaps the vintage enthusiasts owe the new team a “pass” on the these 50th anniversary Monacos.  Perhaps it proves that creating parties and albums is much easier than creating the watches.

After the Parties

When I wore the 1970s Special Edition Monaco for a few days, and showed it to some local watch enthusiasts and office friends, I realized quickly that this new Monaco does appeal to watch enthusiasts who may not be steeped in the history of the Monaco.  My approach to this very informal focus group was simple.  I took three Monacos to my office – my “Paintless Wonder” Chronomatic, a standard issue blue and white “McQueen Monaco” and the 1970s Special Edition Monaco – and had them positioned on the corner of my desk.

From time to time, as my colleagues would spot them, I asked for their reactions.  The 1970s Special Edition Monaco was clearly the most “noticed” of the three watches and the reactions were very favorable.  Typical comments were “That’s a cool dial”, “The green one is neat” or “How did they make that dial?”.

The same way that the celebrations at Monaco and Le Mans were designed, in large part, for those who will view the postings and albums, the new Monaco Special Editions introduced at the two events may also have been designed for those far removed from the original Monaco chronographs from the 1970s.  In the luxury watch and fashion media that is over-crowded with the launch of new watches and the celebration of old anniversaries, TAG Heuer succeeded in having the watch, motorsports and fashion media notice its two outrageous new Monacos.

The 1970s Special Edition Monaco featured an electric green dial, with a deep texture that radiates brown and yellow tones, as the light and angle of view change.  The 1980s Special Edition Monaco took an even bolder approach, with a blood red dial that had only two tones – red and redder.  More than merely noticing these two watches, the media and influencers applauded these watches and celebrated the heritage and imagery of the Monaco.

These two watches were not designed for the vintage enthusiasts.  In fact, these two watches were not really targeting the 338 people who might be fortunate enough to buy them.  Just as the parties were created to convey the spirit of Monaco and Le Mans to distant viewers, these two Monacos – the presents for the 50th anniversary — were made to attract new enthusiasts and spread the Monaco imagery to a new generation of collectors around the world.

Would a one-for-one copy of Steve McQueen’s original Monaco have attracted this attention?  Doubtful.  And what about the most cherished of all the vintage Monacos, the original midnight blue “Chronomatic” from 1969 or the black-coated “Dark Lord” model from the mid-1970s?  Still doubtful.  But with the crazy green dial that throws light in every direction and the red dial that screams for attention, the new Monacos were featured and applauded in media around the world.

As a vintage Heuer enthusiast, watching these celebrations from a distance, realizing the purpose of each celebration was the key to enjoying it.  No, TAG Heuer was not designing a Special Edition Monaco for the vintage enthusiasts or stuffing its state-of-the-art Heuer 02 movement into a Monaco case.  But in spreading the gospel of the Monaco to a new generation of enthusiasts, TAG Heuer has set the stage for this new generation to embrace the style and mystique of the Monaco.  Getting noticed may be the first step.  Being seen as “cool” or “neat” may be the next.  And we can hope that walking into a store and having a look at the Monacos in the showcase will be the next step.

Yep, fifty years later, we can still say “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”, and with the launch of the first two Special Edition Monacos, we can see that once again TAG Heuer has won at Monaco and won at Le Mans.  Just like Heuer enthusiasts Lauda, Peterson, Rindt and Scheckter won at Monaco in the 1970s.  And just like Ickx and Bell won at Le Mans.  Invoking the imagery and memories of these sacred motorsports venues, TAG Heuer has kicked off the Monaco’s 50th anniversary celebration in good style.