TAG Heuer Monaco
1969 was the year Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon; when Jimi Hendrix performed to a mud-soaked crowd at an overflowing Woodstock; when the needle-like supersonic Concorde took its maiden flight. It was also the year Jack Heuer started to look for investors for the TAG Heuer brand, then known as just Heuer. Something truly special was needed, something that would make the headlines in such an eventful year. That something was the TAG Heuer Monaco.
Watch our video review of the TAG Heuer Monaco CAW211A.EB0026 and CAW211B.FC6241
The story of the Monaco starts with the Valjoux 72. This trusty hand-wound movement had been the backbone of the chronograph watch since 1949—used by Heuer, Rolex, Breitling, Longines, Eterna and many more besides—and by the late 1960s was getting a little long in the tooth. A collusion between Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton and a few others resulted in a plan—the development of the world's first automatic chronograph movement. 'Project 99' was underway.
The original blue and grey dial colours side by side
Project 99 was approached in two stages: the first to build an automatic movement with an embedded micro rotor, and the second to develop a chronograph unit to sit atop it. This is arrangement is known as a modular movement.
Competitor Zenith, however, had just bought out movement manufacturer Matel and was working on something very similar. This first came to Jack Heuer's attention early in 1969—in the local newspaper, no less. He was stunned to read about the upcoming release of Zenith's new integrated—rather than modular, like Heuer's movement—automatic chronograph, the 'El Primero'—'The First'. Zenith's intentions were clear. The race was on.
It was obvious to Jack at this point that the movement on its own was not going to be enough. The new calibre was due to launch inside modified Carrera and Autavia cases, but Jack knew he needed something more, something never previously seen. He turned to friend and case manufacturer Ervin Piquerez—creator of the famed Supercompressor case—to make him something unique.
The bi-compax square dial has become an icon in watchmaking
A little aside: at this point in time, watchmakers made very little of their own watches. Cases, dials, movements—virtually everything—was supplied by third party manufacturers. In this day and age of the self-sufficient watchmaker, what we see is the result of brands simply buying all those third-party suppliers up. Even Rolex sourced its movements from outside its own halls, from a manufacturer called Aegler, which Rolex only finally bought outright in 2004. Rolex managed to maintain the appearance of being larger than it was by dressing up the Aegler facility with Rolex branding in early marketing artwork.
Even the sub-dials are square to reflect the unusual design of the case
But back to the Heuer, and Piquerez had just the thing. It was the world's first water-resistant square case, which used a notched system to create a seal with tension. And it was big, very big, with a surface area some 50% greater than the equivalent Rolex Daytona. It was the impact Jack needed, and he negotiated an exclusive deal for it.
Come the Baselworld watch fair two months later, when Jack announced the Monaco, he was relieved to see only one working El Primero example on the Zenith stand, where Heuer had multiples of its own. His achievement was congratulated by Seiko president Ichiro Hattori, who, unbeknownst to Jack, was quietly releasing his own automatic chronograph, the 6139, exclusively in Japan. Whether Hattori beat the Swiss to it, no one knows.
There were two Monaco models on display at Baselworld 1969—the 1133B and the 1133G. The 'B' was the blue dial, the 'G' for grey, like these re-editions. The '33' in the model number can also be seen on the case back of the original, and is a reference to 'Tool 033', the unique device needed to remove the movement from the watch. The '11' in the model number was the title given to the new movement beating inside—the Calibre 11.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The original 'Heuer' logo is used to commemorate these special editions
Sometimes it's a good idea to take a step back and realign our expectations. Today, there's so much noise and fuss about in-house this and manufacturer that, that it can be easy to forget just how some of the world's most iconic watches came into existence. Without shared movements and off-the-shelf parts, the Monaco—and many other watches like it—would have never existed at all.
Looking for a TAG Heuer watch? Click here to shop now
Other watches you may be interested in: TAG Heuer Monaco CAW2111.FC6183 TAG Heuer Monaco WW2110.FC6177