Its square case is instantly recognisable, its name will forever be associated with one of the Kings of Cool – Steve McQueen – and it certainly doesn’t look 50 years old. The TAG Heuer Monaco has become one of the most iconic watch designs of the last century, up there with Rolex’s Submariner, Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak and Omega’s Speedmaster. It is also the watch that launched the world’s first self-winding chronograph. Very little of the Monaco’s design has changed, the biggest difference is that when it first launched, it was a flop.
Back in the 1960s, Jack Heuer, great-grandson of founder Edouard and then managing director, was intent on making the world’s first automatic chronograph. He partnered with Buren, a leading manufacturer of thin automatic movements; chronograph specialist Dubois Depraz; and Breitling, because it could share costs and knew its way around a chronograph. Project 99, as it was known, resulted in Chronomatic Calibre 11 – an automatic chronograph with a base by Buren and chronograph module by Dubois Depraz.
The first watch to use it was the Autavia, however, Heuer was after something more unusual to house this achievement. Step forward Erwin Piquerez, owner of a Swiss casemaking business and recent filer of a patent on the world’s first water-resistant square case. Heuer was sold on the idea and even got Piquerez to sign over exclusive rights to the design – more to scupper Breitling’s chances of getting its hands on the tech than for any altruistic reasons.
On March 3 1969, in Geneva and New York simultaneously, the Monaco was launched. It was available in two dial colours, blue and grey, with a crown on the left to indicate it didn’t need winding and “Tool 033” engraved on the back to denote the only tool able to open the case. The name was a nod to the F1 Monaco race and the racy chronograph counters emphasised that automotive influence. The very first Monacos also bore the name “Chronomatic” on the dial, which it soon lost when Heuer sold the name to Breitling.
From 1969 to 1975, the Monaco went through various iterations – the Calibre 11 was replaced by the 12 and then 15, with its strange continuous-seconds counter at 10 o’clock. A hand-wound version with right-hand crown even appeared, powered by a Valjoux movement. However, by 1975 production ceased. The very thing that had made it so disruptive – the square case – just didn’t prove that popular with the buying public.
In 1985 TAG (Techniques d’Avant Garde) Group acquired a majority stake in the ailing watch brand changing, the name to TAG Heuer. This new-old brand started modernising and also reviving the back catalogue including, in 1998, the Monaco.
Launched in a limited run of 500 and featuring images of Steve McQueen from his Le Mans era, the CS2110 was a huge success and the Monaco hasn’t been out of production since.
What Makes It Great?
Aside from the history and that it was the watch to launch the world’s first automatic chronograph, the Calibre 11, the obvious answer to this lies in the patronage of one man – Steve McQueen. The story of how the watch ended up on McQueen’s wrist is almost as cool as the man himself.
To summarise (for the full story head to page 104 of Jack Heuer’s hilarious autobiography) it involved a Hollywood property master called Don Nunley, a car full of watches and timing devices and an attempt to get the lot past French border control that resulted in a substantial fine. McQueen allegedly rejected the Omega he was originally offered because he wanted to look like exactly like Swiss racing driver Jo Sifferet who was an ambassador for the brand and fortunately had Heuer sponsorship on his racing overalls.
The rarity of a square case made the watch stand out in both the movie and on the posters and, when the images were used for the its revival, it ensured that the Monaco would forever be associated with one of the coolest men of American cinema. When you’ve got an association that amazing, what the watch looks like or is made of is almost incidental, but it doesn’t hurt that the Monaco just happens to be one of the design icons of the 20th century.
“The Monaco was radical when it launched,” explains Bamford Watch Department founder, George Bamford. “It was a contradiction in the watch world when all watches were designed circular. The Monaco broke the mould and represents a really innovative time in design.”
Aside from watches, 1969 was a radical year in terms of design and artistic endeavour – it was Concorde’s first flight; Gaetano Pesce released his now-famous Up series featuring a chair that resembled the female form and the Beatles unveiled the mind-bending Yellow Submarine. All of that radicalism is bound up in the Monaco. Everything about it challenged convention – it was square, powered by a chronograph that didn’t need winding, had a crown in an unusual place, was water resistant and was also one of the earliest examples of what product placement could do.
The revived version has retained that unconventional spirit. The dials are invariably boldly stripped, it was rarely seen in anything other than steel, until the yellow-gold 2008 Monaco CW5140 – about which purists are still not happy – and its automotive ancestry combined with a singular aesthetic means it won’t be pigeonholed as either sports or dress, managing to tread a fine line between.
How To Wear It
With its name and its origins, everything about the Monaco points to it being a sports watch that should only be worn at weekends, when the suit has been ditched and the driving gloves come on. However, this is where the square case lends it an advantage over other auto-inspired timepieces because the shape adds some dress watch elegance.
Obviously any Monaco with punched leather straps is more on the casual spectrum (though Mr Porter has styled it with a rather lovely cord blazer) but the single-colour versions on complementary alligator make a compelling case for pairing with relaxed suiting. Or you could just do a Steve McQueen and wear with driving overalls. White, of course.
The Best TAG Heuer Monaco Watches
With a dial as blue as Steve McQueen’s eyes, this is the classic Monaco that ticks all the important boxes. The crown is on the left, it is powered by the Calibre 11 and you’ve got the vintage Heuer logo on the dial. It’s one concession to modernity is the sapphire caseback, so you can see history in motion.
You can argue that this is a sports watch and so should be retired before cocktail hour. However, this smaller all-black quartz version makes an eloquent argument for being allowed to stay up past its bedtime. Pair with separates for a 21st century take on evening wear.
Want your own twist on a Monaco? Head over to Bamford and customise away. You get to make the decisions on everything from the colour of the dial and the Heuer logo to what shade to make the tips of the hands. Go crazy or keep it classic – the choice is yours.
Although the original 2005 Gulf was red and white, inspired by McQueen’s driving suit in Le Mans, it is the orange and blue livery – a reference to McQueen’s sponsored Porsche 917 – that has become iconic. It’s the ideal timepiece to accompany those Sunday drives where you imagine you’re overtaking Lewis Hamilton on the Massenet.
The Anniversary Editions
To celebrate its 50th birthday, TAG Heuer has released five Monacos – one for each decade and inspired by the styles of that particular time. We’re massive fans of the industrial stylings of 1989-1999 version. Unfortunately, with only 169 worldwide, it’s already sold out. Time to keep a close eye on the preowned market.