TAG Heuer’s Past, Present & Future – An Interview With Nicholas Biebuyck – Global Heritage Director for TAG Heuer

by Matt Clymo

Watch Advice had the privilege of sitting down with TAG Heuer’s Global Heritage Director last month, talking all things watches, the Australian market and what plans are in the works for TAG Heuer here and overseas.

Watch brands, especially Swiss brands are looking into their past more than ever before. The trend of vintage inspired and vintage re-issues isn’t slowing down, and for many watch enthusiasts, this is a good thing. Smaller case sizes, pieces that have legitimate history and designs that are more classic than contemporary, mixing vintage style with modern technology and materials.

So it’s not surprising that many brands now have Heritage Directors, or similar roles with similar descriptions, and these roles are fast becoming some of the most important in the business. The person who is essentially in charge of looking back into the archives, and working out which of these pieces, designs or styles will be the next big hit with watch buyers world wide. It’s both an envious and daunting position!

TAG Heuer is one of these brands. It’s no secret that TAG Heuer has had its share of ups and downs over the years, but in recent years, TAG Heuer has really re-focused its efforts on what it stands for, where it’s future lies and taking lessons from the past. A large part of this is thanks to people like Nicholas Beibuyck – TAG Heuer Global Heritage Director.

Global Heritage Director for TAG Heuer – Nicholas Biebuyck

Nicholas is one of the most down to earth humans you will meet, and this is quite refreshing in the world of luxury watches. For someone who has a position that is charged with digging into the brand’s history and heritage, looking for cues and inspiration that can help drive the brand forward, Nicholas seems to remain calm, collected and chilled.

Like most of us, Nicholas got into watches as a youth, and his journey with TAG Heuer started long ago, again, not too dissimilar to many of us who first look at getting a nice, Swiss luxury watch. From trying to buy his first Heuer watch at an auction and not winning it, to when he was able to pick up his first piece, TAG Heuer and vintage watches has always had a place in his heart.

Watch Advice sat down with Nicholas for a long talk over several coffees last month, and we got so engrossed in conversation that our interview almost took a back seat. But that is the beauty of this hobby and possibly a testament to the type of guy Nicholas is.

Nicholas with the vintage Heuer Carrera on his wrist

On The Brand

Nicholas is fortunate to have turned his love of watches, and for TAG Heuer into a career. But whilst he has a deep rooted love for the brand, he’s not under any illusions that TAG Heuer hasn’t had its share of challenges. “The fact is 99% of the time when someone walks into one of our boutiques, they’re not saying they want a Heuer or a TAG Heuer, they say I want a TAG, ‘cause that was the brand that was built through the 1990’s and gave us huge, huge visibility, so most people have become familiar with the company since 1990 effectively.”

“So as a result, what you think of is the series 2000, the series 1000 and in the modern times, a bit of Carrera, a bit of Monaco. But you understand that ‘96/’97 relaunch, but you don’t understand what that meant in the historic bit. You might go back and learn about it, and there’s been more story telling around that…But there’s a lot more education to do around this space.”

Throwback to the late 90’s with the TAG Heuer Link. Image courtesy of TAG Heuer

He goes on to talk about the brand’s potential, and now at this current time in the watch industry TAG Heuer could and should be up there with the likes of Rolex or Omega, and how this inspires him to do the role he does.

“I always said I’d never join a brand, but when you see a brand at the, you know, at the very bottom when it should be compared to the Rolex’s and the Omega’s of the world you feel kind of obligated to come and do something, and that’s the reason I push for projects like Only Watch, some of the future fine watchmaking things that are to come in the future…Also to work with the likes of Carole Kasapi or Edouard Minon, great to have resources like the TAG Heuer Institute, we’ve a really great team internally who have a passion for watch design and development, engineering, production – it’s great, great fun!”

A man at home with his craft and a brand he loves…

Story telling is also a major part of the watch industry. For many people, the story and the heritage of the brand can give one brand higher perceived credentials over another. It’s one reason people buy a brand, especially if that story is linked with something else a person is passionate about. Asking him about this point regarding TAG Heuer, he agrees and reiterates his previous point.

“I mean the fact is we have so, so many stories to tell, I mean you can see from last night [referencing the TAG Heuer Carrera Heritage Dinner in Melbourne we attended] I spoke for about 30 or 40 minutes, I can speak for hours on any topic, you know, not because it’s something I know particularly well, it’s the fact that we have so many stories to tell, they keep going.”

“The other thing I always say is that watches are a vehicle for education. Things I know around finance, economics, world history, politics this and that, it’s all come from watches. They’re just there as a vehicle for education, to learn about these things. And for us, to position ourselves not only as Heuer or TAG Heuer the brand, but how we fit into the eco-system at that particular moment in time, and how we fit in around the whole global situation at the time. It’s super, super, super important”. Perhaps he’s right.

The Intrepid which won the America’s Cup in 1967 and birthed the Skipper in 1968 is just one of these stories to tell

On The Australian Watch Customer

We in the watch industry can sometimes be somewhat removed from the average watch consumer. As journalists and enthusiasts, we scrutinise brands and watches to the finest detail. However, we often forget that the average watch buyer is just that – buying a watch, usually their only watch to wear each day, and they’re not looking at the ins and outs of the watch, the movement, finishing, what era that vintage throwback is associated with etc. They are buying it because they like the brand, hold it in some sort of esteem and because they simply like the watch.

The newly released TAG Heuer Carrera Skipper and earlier this year, the TAG Heuer Carrera Glassbox are prime examples of this. They were launched to much acclaim at both Watches and Wonders in late March, and the Skipper last month which is based off the Carrera Glassbox platform, similar praise mostly due to the design, style and sizing. We in the watch community love that, but is it what the Australian watch buying public want?

The recently released TAG Heuer Carrera Skipper

Nicholas weighs in: “It’s a good thing to discuss as at the end of the day what we want to be as a brand, and who we want to be selling to, vs where we have been historically and who we’ve historically sold to are quite far apart. It’s very easy for us to sit around as enthusiasts and say 39mm is the perfect size, but I can tell you the amount of people who walk into the boutique and say I love the watch but it’s too small proves the fact that the critic for the industry plus the enthusiast space is a very small part of the market place!”

“When you look at the Australian public, and look at who’s wearing our watches it’s understandable they’d be interested in something bigger. As an example, we did a workshop with some collectors in Sydney earlier in the week, and yeah a lot of the younger guys were like “39mm is perfect for me” but then there was almost like a generational shift where older guys were “I love 42, I wouldn’t wear anything smaller than that.” So finding this kind of balance is kind of another step we have to get through”

The TAG Heuer Carrera Glassbox launched at Watched and Wonders in March this year is a perfect 39mm – or so we thought!

This last point he makes is an interesting one, and one that the industry and the brands within does need to tackle: The critic vs the consumer. Just like a movie that is made to win Academy Awards and hailed by critics is quite often not a huge box office success, the box office blockbuster is a fun filled action flick like The Avengers or Fast & The Furious. Some are made for the enthusiasts, others are made for the wider public!

Crowds line up eagerly awaiting the opening of the TAG Heuer Boutique in Adelaide early this year. Image courtesy of Shopping Centre News

But Nicholas sees this as an opportunity for TAG Heuer.

“I think we’re in such a unique position as a brand with TAG Heuer we can appeal to a very wide market segment. If you look at the Carrera now, the smallest size is 28, then we go up to a 32, then we go to 36, then we go to 39, then to 42 and up to 44 and 45. So you can see in that stretch from  28 to 45, clearly there’s a massive segment that we can appeal to with that spread, and particularly when you look around the centre – from 36 to 42, so many good options”.

One of the many TAG Heuer Carrera’s in the wide line-up

“So for us, to continue to leverage that, and we know there’s a big gap in the Carrera line up that been a hot commodity for a long while, which is the extreme sports with the open worked dial, so that will see a re-emergence in the not too distant future. It means we can have this more classical aesthetic and this more contemporary aesthetic that balance stuff out.”  

A Balancing Act

Mixing classic, vintage, the past and modernity is not easy when it comes to watch design, and blending this with consumer wants and needs then adds another layer of complexity to this. We spoke to Nicholas about this balancing act, and how he and TAG Heuer achieve it.

The good thing is it’s not binary, it’s very much a sliding scale, many shades of grey between two extreme points, and it’s really about us iterating and considering the design. I mean the number of 3D prints we would do, the number of renders we would do is huge! That’s the bit that no one ever sees, is kind of how the sausage is made.”

“At the end of the day it’s totally subjective. I’m not the oracle deciding what watches to spit out as at the end of the day, if you make watches for one person…I mean it’s not specific to TAG Heuer, but you see watches that were clearly made for one person, because the CEO insisted on it, but they were total commercial failures. As the moment you try to appeal to a very narrow market segment they have very, very limited commercial appeal about it. All you can try and do is create something that has, not say that the brand becomes so diluted it becomes grey porridge, you have to create something with enough character that speaks to who you are as a brand but at the same time, resonate with a very, very broad spectrum of people”

The TAG Heuer Aquaracer is one of those watches designed to have mass appeal

When you think about this, mass, commercial brands do need to address this. Small independents, especially those that are in the high horology market have the luxury to an extent of designing what they want, and due to the watchmaker, like an F.P Journe, or Rexhep Rexhepi,  they can make tens of watches at a high price point and there will be a market for these. When you talk about brands like Omega, Breitling and of course TAG Heuer, this isn’t something they can really entertain. When you’re making hundreds of thousands of watches each year, you need a certain formula that people know and will buy.

“When you get to our end of the spectrum, it’s hundreds of thousands of watches. So, how many people we have to appeal to, and  even engaging with new clients and existing clients to buy more watches from us, that’s a very different conversation to flying around the world, or even inviting people to Switzerland to tell them one specific story vs do a marketing campaign with Ryan Gosling which is seen by 22 million people on YouTube, we’re not even talking about the same industry.”

In case you missed this…enjoy!

It’s a complex problem to have. But TAG Heuer seems to have a decent handle on how they can take the words mass and luxury and blend them together, even though to Nicholas’s own admittance, they’re still very much on a learning curve in this area.

“The fact is as a brand we’re still learning to do that in a better way. We were so marketing driven as a company, we were so focused on these big high level sponsorship agreements and ambassadors that actually we didn’t talk about our Savoir Faire, we didn’t talk about our know how, the institute, the lab, the manufacturing side of it. We didn’t communicate about all these topics that make TAG Heuer and the product what it is today.”

Surprisingly, this is one of the main issues we hear about TAG Heuer, and refreshing to hear that TAG themselves understand this and are putting things in place to help rectify this. Talking to Nicholas the night before, he does mention that TAG Heuer have really stripped back their commercial sponsorships and partnerships by somewhere in the realm of 70%-80% and are now looking at how they communicate their story and craftmanship with the watch buying public.

One of the many celebrity partnerships from the late 90’s and early 2000’s

“You can talk about or competitors in our rival group, the fact is they talk about making their own stuff. Well the fact is they have a centralised production facility for a lot of their movements, but we genuinely have, particularly with the TH20 and the Heuer 02, it’s made in Chevenez. We have full flexibility. Yes we work with AMT, Le Joue Perez and Kinissi for three of our movements, but the chronograph is so important to us, that is exclusively for us, that is not for anyone else. And to have these kind of expertise at our disposal is very, very special! “

The Future

Looking at where TAG Heuer is heading, you get sense that they’re on the right course. As a brand, they have some big hurdles to overcome, and a fair bit of negative brand sentiment from staunch watch enthusiasts from their heavy marketing days of the 90’s and 2000’s. But this is a problem they are tackling head on, and as a starting point, they are letting their watches do much of the talking – Breaking new ground with new pieces they’ve never done before and just putting their money where their mouth is, they’re are slowly changing the narrative.

“How we communicate that to a broad market that historically didn’t even care what movement is inside an Aquaracer, that is a big, big shift for us and that’s something that’s going to take a few years to achieve and with Only Watch, we now have this kind of Trojan Horse to break through this space and open it up and prove that we are a legitimate high end watch maker. When you look at the nuts and bolts of what we have as a business it’s just so, so impressive, we just need to open the door a little bit and have that conversation and share that.”   

TAG Heuer’s entry into this years Only Watch 2023

And when you look at their entry into Only Watch later this year, you can see this in the metal, or the Titanium as it were! The Only Watch Monaco Split-Seconds a first for TAG Heuer – an automatic split-seconds chronograph, one of the most complicated chronograph complications on the market today, housed in a re-designed case inspired by the original 1969 model constructed from texturised Titanium and a fully skeletonised movement made from Titanium as well. This was a piece that was two years in the making, and went through multiple design and prototype phases, developed by TAG Heuer at the TAG Heuer Institute.

“We poured a preposterous amount of resources into the project. It was so much fun! We were very fortunate that we had senior management that were supportive of this passion, you know they could see it. So when it eventually came out and you’re physically holding the piece, they were like this is insanely cool. Even if you don’t understand fine watchmaking, when you hold this watch in your hand, you’re like holy shit, this watch is cool!”

The titanium dial and movement of the TAG Heuer Only Watch 2023 up close, complete with a Rattrapante complication

TAG Heuer’s entry to Only Watch is a clear indication of where the brand is heading, a blend of heritage, honouring this and those pieces that made both the Heuer and TAG Heuer brand famous, with both innovation and pushing the envelope on where the brand can head. Nicholas sums this up well:

“We have to be very respectful of, very protective of the legacy of the brand and these icons, so we have to bare that in mind, but at the same time, innovation is in our name – Techniques D’Avant Garde. We are an Avant Garde manufacturer, so we have to balance these things together and that’s really what’s driving us further forward right now.

A perfect example of the Avant Garde design philosophy mixed with the classic Monaco shape

The Only Watch is the perfect example of this, or even the new Glassbox Carrera, we’ve taken all these fantastic codes and foundations we’ve had in the past, whilst integrating the very latest in manufacturing technology. And what we’ve done at the TAG Heuer Institute is blend this in a progressive balance.”

You look at the Glassbox Carrera, you’ve got the blue, you’ve got the reverse panda. One is more modern, one is contemporary. You look at the Monaco, you can still go out and buy your Steve McQueen look alike, but you can also go out and buy a Titanium skeletonised version as well. So to be able to have this broad spectrum is what is so powerful for us as a brand. And I can genuinely say hand on heart, no other manufacturer can do what we do in that capacity.”

The 2023 Glassbox Carrera in both variants is one example of the balance TAG Heuer have between their past and their future

This last point sums it up perfectly for TAG Heuer, and you can see this eventuating over the past few years and with the releases that they are bringing out, like the new Carrera Glassbox, and the newly released Skipper. But this is what the watch enthusiasts want. The general buying public maybe not so much, when you think back to Nicholas’s earlier point. But then this is why TAG Heuer still produce those bigger pieces, and can appeal to this market segment, and maybe why Australian’s gravitate towards the brand more so here than in other countries – they have something for almost everyone.

When you talk to people like Nicholas, who are one of the pivotal people driving the business and brand forward globally, and people like Van Mulryan, GM of TAG Heuer Australia, leading the brand’s charge locally, you get a strong sense that TAG Heuer will keep pushing and evolving for the better. They’re on a long journey, and this is just the start.

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