It all began with a race. A race whose three contenders – Zenith, Heuer-Breitling and Seiko – were intent on changing the shape of watchmaking by producing the first ever automatic chronograph calibre. The year was 1969 and time was of the essence. “We agreed with Breitling to fix the official launch date of the Calibre 11 movement – and our new chronographs using it – for 3 March 1969,” writes Jack Heuer, now TAG Heuer Honorary Chairman, in his autobiography, The Times of My Life. “From Heuer we would be unveiling three new models using the new movement: self-winding versions of the Carrera and Autavia and our revolutionary-looking Monaco in the square case.” Even if Heuer and Breitling did have the ground cut from under their feet by Zenith, which presented its El Primero movement at a press conference a few weeks before, experts agree that the Monaco was the first automatic chronograph in a water-resistant square case.
Apart from its movement, the Calibre 11 Chrono-Matic that was presented by a consortium of Breitling, Heuer-Leonidas, Hamilton-Büren and Dubois Dépraz, the Monaco owes much of its fame – and continued success – to its avant-garde design and specifically the square case that is now its signature. Jack Heuer recalls how “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. 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. At Heuer a decision had been taken around 1941 to produce only water-resistant chronographs.”
As worn by the King of Cool
The Heuer Monaco was an instant success in professional circles. Not only was it powered by one of the first automatic chronograph movements – a revolution in 1969 – its square shape and sharp corners broke the mould in an era of round watches. Cut from steel, other attributes include a metallic blue dial swept by a bright red chronograph seconds hand and punctuated by two square counters, under a domed plastic crystal. Unusually, the crown is positioned on the left while the two pushers are conventionally located on the right.
And so it would seem the planets had aligned to make the Monaco an icon among watches. It didn’t hurt that Jack Heuer was a man with sharp business acumen, intent on putting the Monaco ahead of the pack thanks to sponsorship deals – a strategy rarely seen in the watch segment before then. As of 1970, the brand was sponsoring driver Jo Siffert, who wore a Monaco while racing. However, the ultimate endorsement would come the following year when the Monaco shared star billing with “King of Cool” Steve McQueen in the cult racing movie, Le Mans.
The Monaco has changed little since 1969. The mechanics are still the famous Calibre 11, now an optimised version of the original chrono launched 50 years ago. The three-part case (since 1998) was given a squarer shape in 2015 and closed with four screws. The two pushers have adopted a rectangular form and the lugs have been slightly enlarged. The crown is still on the left and an exhibition caseback now offers a view of the engine inside. A sapphire crystal has replaced the plastic crystal since 2009. The petroleum blue dial features two white counters, a date window at 6 o’clock, diamond-polished horizontal indexes and the vintage Heuer logo. Water-resistance, a hallmark of this watch, is guaranteed to a depth of 100 metres.
That the Monaco has stayed true to the original model hasn’t prevented several very special editions, such as the Monaco V4 concept watch, revealed in 2004. Its revolutionary belt-driven transmission and linear winding earned two worldwide patents. The Monaco’s bold design has also lent itself to variations on a theme, including in 2018 a Gulf special edition in the oil company’s colours. This year, TAG Heuer is celebrating the Monaco’s half-century anniversary with a series of five limited editions, revealed one by one. The first, a tribute to the 1970s, was unveiled at the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix. The second, representing the 1980s, was unveiled at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Three more anniversary editions will complete the line-up this year, tracing the epic story of a watch that has lost none of its legendary aura. Avant-garde when it was launched, contemporary today, its square silhouette still has plenty of drive.