It is a rare occasion that finds a time-only watch (that isn’t a diving or aviation model) on our cover. No one on the team can even recall the last issue we did that. Well, we’ve gone and done it this issue, and it is perhaps fitting that our choice was the TAG Heuer Autavia. This watch was introduced as one of seven references in a brand new collection this year – one that does not include a complication but does include a bronze model. As a result, we have a bronze beauty on the cover that happens to be one of the most accessible watches we’ve ever featured. As it happens, WOW has been quite keen on the Autavia since we saw it at BaselWorld in 2017 – how can that be when it is a brand new collection? As with all things in watchmaking, the answer is rather complicated, but charming.
To begin with, the contemporary era of the Autavia began in 2017, with a sort-of reissue of the 1966 Ref. 2446 chronograph; it was more a contemporary reimagining of the legendary watch, given that the proportions were reconfigured for the new 42mm size. It was also a somewhat special timepiece, arising as it did from a collaboration between collectors and TAG Heuer. In reality though, thanks to this unusual arrangement, the TAG Heuer Autavia of 2019 represents the true start for this collection in the contemporary era. Why? Simply because a three-hand watch with date is entirely new for the Autavia, with no such watch being present in the archives. Obviously, no bronze version ever existed either. To go beneath the dial, the new Autavias feature a brand new version of TAG Heuer’s Calibre 5, now with a carbon-composite hairspring, otherwise known as a balance spring. See what we mean by complicated but charming.
To make the Autavia coverage more useful, we have actually broken it up into a few different segments, spread across this issue. In this section, we’ll be getting into the history of the Autavia watch, including some background on Jack Heuer, and the old Heuer company’s motoring timekeepers and credentials. It will also delve into the important changes to Calibre 5, which is relevant to more than just the new Autavia as other models use this staple too. Finally, we’ll also be looking at the Autavia collection overall, noting all the iterations of the three-hand time-only model.
Details about the Autavia on the cover can be found in our cover watch story, as usual, while a more languid and leisurely drive into bronze country can be found in our extensive pages on bronze watches this issue.
To get down to business and supply the full picture here, we have to do the usual thing, and invite you on a journey into the past, which we will go post-modern on and reconstruct from our own versions of this story, originally published in issues 45 and 46. You might think that this is a bit much given that this story has already informed you that the three-hand Autavia is an all-new watch, and normally you would be right. TAG Heuer has named this watch Autavia for a reason, and includes the 2017 chronograph in the collection, so it is worth spending just a little time visiting with the ghosts of timekeepers past.
The story of the watch begins, if one cares to go way back, in 1933, with a dashboard instrument created for both automobiles and aircraft. One could go back further, to 1911 when Heuer launched its first dashboard chronograph, again for both aircraft and automobiles, called ‘Time of Trip.’ As is well known, the name Autavia is a combination of the words “automobile” and “aviation” and this origin story sums it up nicely. On that note, the brand we know as TAG Heuer was simply Heuer (at least on the dial) at that time, and the name Autavia is credited to company bosses Charles-Edouard and Hubert-Bernard Heuer. It would be awhile longer before that name made its way to a wristwatch though.
Going from dashboard clock to wristwatch is a hell of a leap but that’s the jump Jack Heuer proposed and finally made in 1962. At that time, Jack was building up the market for Heuer in the USA, and he targeted racing drivers. This is understandable as Jack was himself a racer and, when he went to the USA in 1959, he must have found it easiest to target birds of a feather, so to speak. His experiences in these early days of the USA venture gave Jack an idea of what the audience was looking for – what kind of design worked for them, in other words. Amazingly, one of those winning design features was the rotating bezel, which the Autavia of 1962 sported; it was the first time a rotating bezel featured on a chronograph.
It must have started with a name because the Autavia was the first model in Heuer’s assortment that had a proper name. Certainly, Jack was responsible for bestowing this name on the wristwatch and he must have found it helpful to humanise the watch; previous models in Heuer history all used reference numbers according to Jeff Stein, noted collector and all-round authority on TAG Heuer.
By his own account to Hodinkee and others, Stein said that he met with TAG Heuer boss Jean-Claude Biver in 2015 and raised the issue of bringing the model back into the assortment. This eventually resulted in the Autavia Cup, an online poll organised by TAG Heuer. Basically, people went to a website to select a design from 16 options – curated in part by Stein – and TAG Heuer promised to issue the new Autavia in that form. The legendary 1966 Ref. 2446 Mark 3 “Jochen Rindt” model beat the field with the most votes, and was thus the reference for the 2017 Autavia.
One of the big winners of the 2017 watch fairs, and a real treat for collectors, this is literally a watch made by collectors for collectors. You can immediately tell that because it is not TAG Heuer that appears on the dial but Heuer. The watch that inspired it, Ref. 2446 Mark 3, was in fact an evolution of the 1962 original (hence the Mark 3 of the name). It became famous for its connection with tragic F1 champion Jochen Rindt, who made the Autavia the watch of choice for F1 drivers. The 42mm 2017 chronograph features an engorged bezel in honour of status of the 1962 original, but of course differs in important ways to its historical antecedents. Most notably this is seen in the new size and the automatic Calibre Heuer 2 movement, but also in other details.
Given that the new Autavia Isographs are just that, new, it begs the question why call them Autavias? Well, we didn’t just get into this history lesson for no reason, but we need to look at a few details about the new watches first. Each of the seven new Isographs are 42mm rounded watches that share the same design profile as the Autavia chronograph. Unusually for a three-hand ticker, the Isographs all sport bidirectional rotating bezels, which TAG Heuer must be using to link the watches to the most historically significant bit about the Autavia. All three hands are coated with SuperLuminova and so are the rhodium-plated hour markers, which are all contemporary touches but TAG Heuer explains that this is a reference to the Autavia’s reputation for great legibility. The caseback is solid, which is a shame given the significant technical developments here, and sports the same engraving as the 2017 Autavia chronograph; this might be another signature for the contemporary Autavia.
The size alone makes the new Autavia fully contemporary, but the styling brings to mind watches of various historical eras. One needs only look to the plump Arabic numerals on the dial to get that image. Alongside the oversized crown, this is what makes observers remark that the Isographs are more a tribute to aviation watches, or even the Autavias of the past that were informally known as “Fliegers.” In fact, the 2019 Autavia Isograph watches do have design cues from several iterations of Autavias past.
The Autavia era came to a close in 1985, not counting an ill-fated 2003 version, so the references in the new watches will not be obvious to casual observers. Stein himself notes that while the new Autavias are indeed without precedent, there are subtle links with the past, including the Arabic numerals that distinguish the watch – and separate it from the 2017 chronograph. Such numerals appeared on Heuer watches from the 1930s, and one particular Autavia model from the 1970s uses a full suite of Arabic numerals, not just a 12 or 6. The fade-to-black dials you see on the new Autavias were used in the 1960s and 1970s, as confirmed by TAG Heuer product director Guy Bove in an interview with Hodinkee. Interestingly, this is the same style of fade-to-black that is gaining favour amongst watch brands overall. The railroad track is also a feature common to Heuer chronographs from the 1930s. While you might guess that the over-sized crown too is also a reference to an older model, we’ve not seen an example like this. It might just be a retro touch, just like the bronze cases.
What’s definitely not retro, or a throwback of any sort, with the Isograph is the movement, which is basically the TAG Heuer standard Calibre 5, but with a twist. As aficionados will all know, Calibre 5 is TAG Heuer’s version of the automatic Selita SW200 or the ETA 2824-2 (which are basically interchangeable). Earlier this year, TAG Heuer revealed a new carbon-composite hairspring, in the Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T Tourbillon, and it is that same hairspring that now finds its way into the Calibre 5 models powering the Autavia Isographs. See our interview with Guy Semon for more details on this.
While an exhibition caseback would have been very welcome in the Isograph, there is plenty of precedent for keeping it from view. As everyone knows, Rolex has yet to expose their movements, other than in pictures for magazines and specialty websites. For now, if you want to see the new hairspring (and balance wheel) in action, you will have to seek out the tourbillon watch…
Watches are simple instruments. In a mechanical watch, a succinct explanation goes something like this: a steady power supply sends energy to a delicate system consisting of a sensitive spring and a wheel that surrounds it. The expansion and contraction of this spring delivers precise regularity to the to and fro motion of the wheel. The resulting signals are then transmitted to the hands of the watch, or wherever they are needed. There are plenty of details that connect the dots in this picture, but that’s the gist of it. This system was in play, in one form or another by the 17th century, largely thanks to the work of the legendary Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens. The challenge facing watchmakers since that moment in history has been in finding improvements in this system to deliver the most accurate measurement of time possible.
In a watch as pure as the Autavia Isograph, the measurement of time certainly takes centre stage, hence the prominent seconds hand. As mentioned, there’s a brand new hairspring in play within the automatic Calibre 5 that powers the Autavia Isograph. Here are a few basics on what this is, and what it means.
A team of scientists, mathematicians and engineers at the TAG Heuer Institute came together to create the new carbon-composite hairspring; the TAG Heuer Institute is an LVMH company that specializes in cutting edge horology to benefit the entire LVMH group of watchmaking firms. The main benefit to the new hairspring is its ability to deliver better concentric oscillations than regular Nivarox and silicon hairsprings. Paired with an aluminium balance wheel, the resulting regulating organ provides the movement with more precise regularity, according to TAG Heuer’s official release. The hairspring is apparently produced with the collet already attached so that will definitely make the job of the watchmakers assembling the escapement much easier.
Instead of trying to blunder through an explanation of this complex subject, we sought out the advice of Guy Semon, the CEO of the TAG Heuer Institute and technical maestro at LVMH. Semon helpfully fielded the questions of our Digital Managing Editor Jonathan Ho. Answers have been edited for clarity.
What was the rationale behind the carbon composite hairspring? Just how much better is it over silicon?
If you look at the market, 100% of watchmaking brands say that they’re manufactures. A very limited number (less than 5%) have mastered the base of timekeeping. Since 1675 the heart of the watch beats by means of (the interaction between the) spiral and the balance wheel. All watchmaking brands have used the same principal since Huygens’ invention. LVMH is exploring new ways to change, modify and improve on this very old principle. The first application is focused on the spiral (also known as the hairspring) with a new material replacing metals, which is what most watch brands use. LVMH is the only group in the world which has its own materials for the regulating organ. TAG Heuer is the first brand to use it, and we are expecting other applications very soon.
Compared with Elinvar and silicon materials, the new composite provides huge benefits. In terms of both accuracy and performance. The carbon composite material is non-metallic, resulting in stronger shock resistance (making it less fragile than its metal counterparts); and a customised shape increasing accuracy (geometry, thickness, personalization). It also allows for manufacturing under normal atmospheric conditions (no clean room needed); easier assembly processes; non-magnetic behaviour; and simpler chemistry.
Is it merely the expression of watchmaking technology, using a different material?
At TAG Heuer, we don’t use new materials for marketing purposes, but only when mechanical requirements call for special features. The carbon composite is the perfect solution to hairspring problems. The carbon composite isn’t a simple material. It is based on two carbon allotropes: graphene and single carbon atoms. The technology we are using is completely industrial (making it suitable for large production volumes).
You’ve used aluminium for the balance wheel. Why?
The performance of a watch regulator (hairspring and balance wheel) results from the balance between stiffness (the hairspring) and mass or inertia (balance wheel). Secondly, we have to take into account the thermal behaviour (dilatation) of the materials. The normal material used for the balance wheel (a copper alloy) doesn’t balance the carbon composite features. The right candidate we found is an aluminium alloy, but it should be possible to use other alloys. Basically, something lighter than a copper alloy.
What does this mean for the consumer in terms of servicing 20 years from now?
The material patented by TAG Heuer mixes two carbon allotropes forming a non-isotropic structure based on atomic covalent links. The behaviour of the composite is similar to the polymer providing metallic structure. The fundamental benefit is the fatigue behaviour (no fatigue, no creep strengths), very good elastic behaviour… The lifespan of the hairspring doesn’t depend on the number of years in service but other variables involved in its properties and features.
Please come back to us in 20 years! (this interview was done remotely but Semon indicated that a smile and a wink should go along with this statement).