Three days past Christmas and thoughts of the Wise men’s gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh for the infant Christ led me thinking about the 2014’s seminal TAG Heuer Monaco V4 in rose gold, ruthenium and ceramic. This in turn, led me to consider the other Monaco V4 watches that have come before and after it; I began to question the preponderance of the Monaco V4 watch in my mind – Why was such an important horological milestone so underappreciated? How on Earth can other watches claim to be a machine on wrist when the TAG Heuer Monaco V4 was literally the embodiment of that ethos? Perplexed, I drove (pun intended) into the subject matter with gusto and this is what I concluded:
The TAG Heuer Monaco V4 is Seriously Underappreciated
“Why did you give them the gold first? Did you see her face when I gave her the frankincense? I felt like an idiot.”
“Well, at least you weren’t the one that gave them myrrh.” – Christmas joke
A joke of Christmas 2013 from a little geek comic strip called Penny Arcade but it still reigns supreme in my mind, because while myrrh was worth its weight in gold back in the day, its relevance as an anointing oil and embalming perfume today is surrounded with some measure of mirth (yes, intended).
That said, there was a particular watch brand christened by Revolution as a sort of rich man’s “masonic handshake” – I won’t disagree only to say this – the price paid for the once ground-breaking timepieces are directly proportional to the size of your ego. In simpler terms, they’re currently overpriced. Sure, the high net worth club is a small but elite circle, but defining your worth with the price tag of your watch is not just symbolic of what a circle-jerk it has become but also that past a certain point, your mind has lost sight of what’s truly valuable, in short, the “secret masonic handshake” is potentially just “visual shorthand” for a lack of business acumen (when it comes to weighing cost and value).
History of the Monaco V4
A polyvalent hard “white” metal, ruthenium is in the platinum family of metals and here in Rose Gold and paired with Ceramic, TAG Heuer’s 60-piece limited edition of its transmission belt-driven Monaco is symbolically and metaphorically a timepiece fit for a King (disclaimer: Deployant is not making any assumptions that Lord Jesus is a watch collector or into luxury goods for that matter). But let’s get to the beginning.
Launched at BaselWorld 2004, the V4 was the world’s first, double-patented timepiece with mechanical belt drives and a linear rewinding system. More importantly, it was high-tech, avant-garde watchmaking in the form of a classic Steve McQueen Le Mans Monaco case. Indeed, TAG Heuer had unveiled the Calibre 360, the Pendulum and the Mikrograph that year but it was the Monaco V4 that stole the show.
Yet, it had its naysayers and critics. The high-yield mechanical belt drives while innovative was first doubted for its reliability. Second, you had a highly commercial brand that while well marketed, was not previously considered a manufacture of haute horlogerie. What could they possibly know about “real watchmaking”? A great deal as it turns out.
Jean-François Ruchonnet and Philippe Dufour both endorse the Monaco V4 but what happened?
A few months after its incorporation into LVMH, then CEO Jean-Christophe Babin had one focused objective- reclaiming the brand’s watchmaking street cred. For that to happen, he needed to not just conceptualise and build an in-house movement, he was going to re-invent the watchmaking wheel. And to do just that, Babin put together a top notch team with a design head responsible for the Cabestan vertical tourbillon: Jean-François Ruchonnet.
The Cabestan Nostromo was technical savoir-faire defined and Ruchonnet would bring that masculine aesthetic to the table. Working together in the initial stages with master watchmaker Philippe Dufour, the rich racing heritage that was the raison d’etre of the company would serve as his muse and inspiration- a new type of movement driven by belts instead of gears. Just how much of the watchmaking wheel was re-invented? First, gone was the rotating oscillating weight and in its place a tungsten ingot that slid on rails, turning the flanking gear system and winding the four barrels set at a V angle much like the cylinders of a V6 engine. Second, there’s a reason why gears and pinions are used, they’re lighter and less prone to friction. They chose to use gear-toothed belts. Third, to deal with friction, synthetic rubies are traditionally used but for it to keep its ‘automotive’ outlook, micro ball-bearings had to be used. From case to plates and wrap-around sapphire crystal, everything was made, machined and then hand assembled at TAG Heuer’s La Chaux de-Fonds workshop, the only thing that was supplied were the belts. And yet, it was still only a highfalutin concept.
Like most high horology concepts which reinvented mechanical principles, the TAG Heuer Monaco V4 was embraced with great excitement but it took a long time to be delivered – Five years to turn from haute concept into a working commercial product. Even with a watchmaking grandmaster’s endorsement (Dufour), there were problems in the early days and guests to Baselworld 2004 would recall that the prototype wasn’t functioning optimally.
Five years is a long time when you have a series of watch fairs and new novelties to contend with, by the time the consumer production model of the V4 was eventually released the aesthetics had morphed and became more refined while retaining the spirit of the mechanical artpiece. Finally, it was released for the “Only Watch” auction in September 2009. Price tag? 100,000 Swiss Francs. Therein lies the quandary – CHF 100,000 is a lot of money for a TAG Heuer. At that price range, one enters a rarefied air of haute horlogerie and prestige that is often breathtaking and awe-inspiring. But it is also at that price range, that even the most ardent fan of TAG Heuer would balk, much in the same way most watch aficionados, accustomed to the sub $300 Seiko 5 or the sub $1000 Seiko Presage would balk at the sums needed for a Grand Seiko.
There is no doubt that the TAG Heuer Monaco V4 (in any variation) is fit for kings, the real question is whether one ignores the halo of prestige and embraces the innovative and re-inventive mechanics for what it truly is, rather than what it projects. Luxury watchmaking will forever be a field intertwined with the class and status aspects of social mores and until collectors can perceive a watch for what it is rather than what it could potentially represent about your wealth, social standing and status, there will always be watches like the V4 being seriously underappreciated.
Do let us know in the comments if there will ever be a time when “perceived prestige” stops being a factor when making a watch purchase decision.