Watchmaking with no taboos

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February 2008


Recently, at the Grand Prix de l'Horlogerie in Geneva, one of the awards was not given out. According to the event’s organizers, the ‘prize for the electronic watch’ was not granted because of a lack of competitors!
The angry reaction was swift on the part of one man—Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of TAG Heuer. Babin had good reason to be unhappy since his ‘Calibre S’ had an excellent chance of winning this high-level prize. As a reminder, the Calibre S is a new generation calibre that unites the best of mechanical watchmaking (with 230 component parts) with five bi-directional micro-motors. This allows it, in the ‘Aquaracer Chrono Regatta’ version, to display not only a retrograde date with a perpetual calendar, but also to have three modes—hour, tenth of a second chronograph, and regatta countdown, all indicated by the same three central hands and activated by a simple push on the crown. These three modes thus offer incomparable in-tuitive readability—enough to make the difficult reading of traditional small timers definitively outdated.
The Calibre S is a mechanical movement—or largely mechanical—but it has the precision of quartz. It is a hybrid, as in the automobile industry, that will certainly foreshadow a large part of what the future holds for timekeeping.
Apart from TAG Heuer, we know of only one other major global brand that is exploring new technologies. With its suberb Spring Drive ‘mecatronique’ line, Seiko is also combining electronic and mechanical technologies, but in a different manner than TAG Heuer. On the electronics side, the Japanese brand uses a tri-synchro regulator and an electromagnetic brake, while the energy is created and stored using a mechan-ical rotor and barrel.
These accomplishments have come about undoubtedly because neither Seiko nor Jean-Christophe Babin is constrained by watchmaking ‘taboos’. In the case of Seiko, its watchmakers are free of these restrictive taboos because, in the first place, they are Japanese—and watchmakers for over 100 years—and secondly, because they have already seriously shaken up the Swiss watch industry once before when the company launched the quartz movement.
In the case of TAG Heuer, Jean-Christophe Babin has a different perspective probably because he is not originally from the watch industry or from the fashion world. Much of his career was spent with the consumer giant, Procter & Gamble, followed by Henkel where he successfully managed the detergent division in Italy and then in Germany. His experience, far from being a handicap, has allowed him to approach watchmaking without worrying about the industry’s ‘taboos’ that too often paralyze those who know only this milieu.
“I don’t feel that I am in a mental prison,” says Babin, “and I think that Swiss watchmaking must open up and liberate itself. Quality is not reserved only for the Swiss and luxury is not confined only to mechanical watches.” Babin explains these words, which others dare not utter, based on what his journey has taught him. “You must start with the consumer rather than with the product,” he says, adding that the same holds true for quartz, for example. “I have observed that many consumers, including men, appreciate the precision and the ease of use of quartz. Why should we deprive them of this? I have noted this desire and want to demonstrate that quartz must not be considered as lacking nobility, just like the mechanical piece should not be viewed as something that is more than noble,” muses Jean-Christophe Babin. “It is like in the automobile industry. Mercedes and BMW have shown that a luxury car can also be a diesel.”
A lesson to be learned.

Photo: Calibre S by TAG Heuer

Source: Europa Star February-March 2008 Magazine Issue