We’ve all, at some point or another, been tempted to click buy on that vintage watch on eBay. But anyone who’s given in to the temptation and subsequently tried to get the timepiece serviced would have faced the same predicament: many companies refuse to take it back, while others might not have the exact supplies to replace damaged components. TAG Heuer recognised this problem a few years ago and established a restoration department, hiring six watchmakers solely in charge of restoring vintage watches to their past glory.
In charge of this department is heritage director Catherine Eberlé Devaux. Formerly from a luxury fashion brand, Devaux also leads the heritage department and curates the important archival pieces for the museum. In Singapore for two days, she chats with Esquire about her role and the significant moments in the 159-year-old Swiss watchmaker’s history that have impacted its present course.
ESQ: Are you the first heritage director hired by TAG Heuer?
Catherine Eberlé Devaux: We’ve had mostly women working in this department, but I am the first to be working on the restoration workshop, where we [restore] vintage pieces to the condition they were in when they first left the company. It’s important to our heritage as our watchmakers have direct access to our archives, and can check in the catalogues the size, colour, execution and all details that are important for a collector.
ESQ: I’m sure many of the suppliers the company worked with in the past are no longer there. How do you go about that?
Catherine Eberlé Devaux: Some exist, some don’t. For some components, we still have technical sketches, for some we don’t. The worst scenario is the one that we prefer because that’s more fascinating and fun. If we have nothing, we take a component from a watch in the museum, we do the mapping and we reproduce it internally with the prototyping department.
It’s not a workshop with the same kind of process as a regular after-sales team.
We really have to work on the movement and it’s not just about making the watch tick again. It’s about putting it in its best condition. We discuss a lot with the collector beforehand about what he wants: does he want to keep the patina, does he want a refurbishment? We give him some advice, but he’s the one to decide.
TAG Heuer is one of the few brands to do this restoration to this extent. More and more brands are trying to get into it as collectors are more educated and picky on the details. This is what makes the value of the watch.
ESQ: Can you tell us about Heuer before it merged with TAG (Techniques d’Avant Garde) in 1985. What was the spirit of Heuer back then?
Catherine Eberlé Devaux: There are a lot of similarities: we are a chronograph brand since the beginning of history and we are still known for that today. We have deep links with motor racing, and we’ve always looked towards new disciplines of sports and ways to time them.
The thing that’s different is actually quite common with other luxury brands that have this type of history: before TAG Heuer became an LVMH brand, it was a family-owned company. They had to run a family business and make things work otherwise they’d go bankrupt. They were pragmatic, and creativity was there to serve the business. The philosophy of the four Heuers who have been at the head of the company before it became TAG Heuer was really to think about what kind of service this stopwatch or timer will bring to the end customer.
ESQ: And that’s something you still continue to do—making timepieces that are practical for today’s users.
Catherine Eberlé Devaux: We never did pieces that you would have bought to place in a safe as an investment or as a precious watch to wear on certain occasions. Even ladies’ watches were the same as men’s, but smaller. They were worn by scientists, adventurers, nurses.
ESQ: Can you give us examples of the sports and disciplines that TAG Heuer timed in the past?
Catherine Eberlé Devaux: For instance, the stopwatches that were sold in the beginning of the 20th century in the UK were for greyhound races. We launched Mikrograph in 1916, which was accurate to 1/100th of a second. The dogs in greyhound races all arrived together, so they needed this type of precision to be accurate in saying who’s number one.
ESQ: TAG Heuer and motor racing have a very close link as well.
Catherine Eberlé Devaux: Yes, the Heuer family bought one of first cars in Switzerland in about 1904. This not only shows the modernity of the family and their wealth and success in business, but it was also a matter of speed and having most modern devices.
ESQ: When did TAG Heuer become entrenched in motoring? Was it with the Time of Trip dashboard clock in 1911?
Catherine Eberlé Devaux: Yes. That was starting point. We had only stopwatches and watches before that. It was the first timer to be placed on a dashboard. The innovation was that you had a clock—a big, very nice one, with a button that you could press to start the counter. You press it when you start the car and stop it [when you end your journey]. You would then know how long you’ve been driving for. This was important for the racing spirit and also because for these cars, there was no specific dial on the dashboard to know the gas reserves. If you knew you could drive for five hours without putting gas in the car, you’d have an idea when to [fill up the tank again].
ESQ: What do you look for in heritage pieces?
Catherine Eberlé Devaux: They should be pieces that I don’t already have in the collection, which is becoming rare as we already have a lot. But we are still missing some. Then, historical pieces that belonged to or were worn by important people.
And lastly, exceptional ones—for instance, recently I bought back a regular Autavia from 1968. This one came with a letter signed by Jack Heuer because the owner was not happy with the watch. The movement had a problem and he wrote a very nasty letter about the brand, and not only about the watch.
So Jack answered: sorry about that, we will service it, etc, but please don’t consider that the brand is bad because of this experience. Full stop. Would you say that Rolls-Royce is a stinky brand?
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