Just the previous night, Tag Heuer had thrown one of the biggest parties at Baselworld 2010, the latest edition of the world’s biggest watch fair. The fair, held in the Swiss city of Basel, traces its ancestry to an exhibition first held there in 1917 and is the biggest date on the watch industry’s calendar. Some of the world’s most prestigious watchmakers spend millions of dollars in Basel each year putting up lavish booths—some as big as aeroplane hangars—and throwing spectacular parties. And it’s not just for the kicks. Many brands book as much as 60% of their annual sales over the course of a week of glitz and glamour in Basel.
The “Tag party” was one of the signature events in March at Basel. The company had leased out a huge warehouse of a venue—complete with 6ft-tall blonde Nordic maidens and 6ft-wide Turkish bouncers—and roped in actor Leonardo DiCaprio to unveil the “Pendulum”, an innovation to mark 150 years of Tag.
Timeless timepieces: Heuer’s two favourites are the Carrera 360 and the company’s special gold chronograph that he presents to F1 drivers inscribed with their names. Jayachandran/Mint
The next morning, Jack Heuer, great-grandson of company founder Edouard Heuer and honorary chairman of Tag Heuer, called the Pendulum “the first real innovation in watchmaking to happen in over a hundred years”. Maybe it was marketing spiel. Basel is a haven of suave multilingual marketing and sales types in sharp suits.
Or maybe he really meant it. Heuer instantly comes across as someone without a single insincere atom in his body. Built short but strong, with thinning grey hair and an earnest smile that is delivered without restraint, Heuer is a charming host.
The meeting with Heuer, in the company booth, was one of several he had scheduled that day, and definitely not the first. Several of his minders feared aloud that things “could get exhausting for the 78-year-old”.
But, in fact, Heuer seemed to be coping much better than the posses of pretty young things that swarmed around Basel’s booths.
While a video camera was being set up, Heuer spoke, with some wonderment, about how difficult it was to star in a promotional movie that was screened during the party. “They tell you to look at the watch in your hand and react to it. But there is no watch! I have to act as if it is there. Very difficult.”
So what did it feel like to be associated with a company celebrating 150 years of existence? Especially when you share a name with it? “I can’t deny there is a certain element of satisfaction. But it isn’t overwhelming. To be honest when you have a brand which is so well known and carries your name, after a while you get used to that and you get indifferent about it.”
Does that mean he is being forced to attend parties and act in videos by some corporate communication mandate? Heuer clarified before I could ask: “But it is nice to be able to talk about where we come from. And explain this heritage to people associated with the brand, which is part of my function. It is nice for someone with the origins of the company in his blood to talk about this. Rather than a hired outsider.”
But what exactly is Jack Heuer’s function?
Heuer’s professional history with his Swiss family business started in the 1950s, with an attempt to do something, literally and figuratively, a world away from watchmaking: management consulting in the US.
After graduating in electric engineering—“I never wanted to learn watchmaking, at least in the conventional sense”—and then completing a master’s in production and management in Switzerland, Heuer decided to go to Boston: “I had an offer from Arthur D