INNOVATION. That was the word on the lips of watch pundits earlier this year as they took in TAG Heuer’s latest timepieces at Watches & Wonders, the Swiss watch industry’s lodestar trade fair and media event in Geneva. It’s also the word used by TAG Heuer’s global heritage director, Nicholas Biebuyck, when asked to describe what TAG Heuer stands for in 2023.
“Innovation, for me, is a huge part of it,” says Biebuyck. “I think it’s very easy to talk about the ’60s, the golden period for the [Heuer] brand—the Autavia, the Carrera and the Monaco all launched in that decade.
“But with what we have planned for the future regarding movement developments, there’s stuff we’re gonna do that no other brand could do. We’re really starting to find our feet again.”
Historically, as a brand, TAG Heuer has been a little here, there and everywhere. For the first hundred years, Heuer—as it was originally known—was a family-run business with a pure focus on timekeeping equipment. There was then the golden era of the ’50s and ’60s under Jack Heuer, a true pioneer responsible for spearheading the release of the aforementioned iconic series of watches for which the brand became known. In 1985, Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG) acquired Heuer, helping establish a wider brand presence within the global watch market. And since 1999, under the umbrella of LVMH, TAG Heuer has seen a number of CEOs take the company in what can only be described as very different directions.
As a result, the brand has been “chopped up”, says Biebuyck, missing an inherent identity that’s prevented it from reaching its full potential. Biebuyck says the brand needed to look inward and interrogate where it’s been, and where it intends on going.
“It’s like we went to therapy and we reflected on who we are and worked out what we represent, what we stand for in this new age, and what levers we can really pull as a brand,” he says. “It’s easy to think of a watch brand as just the physical object but actually it’s much more than that. It’s about who we want to be.”
That’s where Biebuyck comes in. By now, you’re probably wondering what exactly it is that a heritage director does for a brand such as TAG Heuer. If you ask Biebuyck, he’ll tell you that his role is “quite new and luxurious” —he’s not some “old guy sitting in a dusty cupboard” going through the archives. Instead, Biebuyck’s role is pivotal in guiding the brand into the future.
“Really, heritage, it’s not just about looking at the past, but it’s what we’re doing right now and in the future,” explains Biebuyck. “We know that history repeats itself. If you can look backwards, you can learn some lessons that will help you today and tomorrow. I’m trying to create that red thread connection.”
To your typical watch enthusiast, this would appear to be a dream role; who wouldn’t enjoy tinkering with old watch references to help define what a brand like TAG Heuer is. But in the cutthroat world of luxury watches, the role also has a more demanding remit; an asset like Biebuyck is essential to achieving success in a market defined by relentless competition.
Growing up watching classic races like Goodwill, Silverstone and Le Mans with his father, Biebuyck developed an interest in the Heuer brand (and vintage watches) from an early age. Much more interested in horological history than mechanical engineering, Biebuyck was unceremoniously ejected from university because he “hated it”, only to land on his feet as an auction assistant at Bonhams, thanks to a fortuitous encounter with watch expert Paul Maudsley.
It was there that Biebuyck cut his teeth, learning the ins and outs of vintage watches and inevitably forging a passion for sports chronographs from the ’60s and ’70s, like the Heuer Carrera. “When you look at what Jack [Heuer] was able to do throughout the ’60s and ’70s, he laid down the foundations for a lot of what was to come in the watch industry,” says Biebuyck.
“It’s easy to think of a watch brand as just the PHYSICAL OBJECT but actually it’s much more than that. It’s about WHO we want to be.”
A foundation that really started with the Heuer Carrera reference. 2447—a timepiece conceived in the ’50s, made in the ’60s and one that to this day, remains one of the most important developments in the history of watches.
“Jack [Heuer] was trying to create something very pure, very clear, very easy for a driver to read,” Biebuyck adds. “And that was the birth of the [ref.] 2447. He’d been in the USA and he’d seen what the market wanted, and that’s where the Carrera came from.”
Biebuyck is now on the road celebrating 60 years of the iconic Carrera chronograph. The brand left no stone unturned in marking this monumental occasion. First off, it released a 60th anniversary Carrera watch that pays tribute to the original Glassbox 2447—“when you understand how we managed to take something that is very much inspired by the past but feels absolutely contemporary, that’s a very powerful thing,” says Biebuyck. Then there was a short film titled The Chase for Carrera starring its global ambassador, Ryan Gosling, which has been viewed over 22 million times.
While ambassadors like Gosling and Aussie actor Jacob Elordi add brawn to the brand’s glossy image, key players like CEO Frédéric Arnault and Biebuyck are the brains leading its innovative renaissance.
Biebuyck is currently wrapping up his Australian roadshow, in which a 12-kit ensemble of vintage Carreras were presented to media and VIPs to mark the watch’s special anniversary year. Within his curated presentation, Heuer watches from the ’50s and ’60s were on display, including pre- Carreras, first-gen Carreras, Carrera Datos and even a solid-gold Heuer Carrera 1158CHN from the ’70s. As for the remainder of 2023, TAG Heuer has no plans on ending its discussion around the ethereal Carrera.
“As a brand, we’ve been very good at moving onto the next story instead of trying to really instil a story,” says Biebuyck. “So, the decision was made that we’ll continue to tell the Carrera story. By the end of this year, we’ll really start to see people understanding what the Carrera represents and what we’re trying to achieve as a brand.”