A Heuer Before it was Tag

The Horologium September 24, 2002 admin



In the days before it was Tag Heuer, it was Edouard Heuer. Founded in 1860 in Edouard’s St. Imier workshop, the company quickly became known for timers. Over the first  century of its existence, Heuer was known primarily for hand and wrist timers, and in 1911 became well known for the first automobile, dash-mounted timer. Five years later, in 1916, Heuer produced the first chronograph with 1/100th second resolution, and in 1933 produced the first dash chronograph for use in race cars.

While Edouard Heuer was responsible for these early innovations in chronograph design, for most of the 20th century the company was not a movement manufacturer. Instead, Heuer produced a variety of wrist chronographs using the movements of Hahn Landeron, and especially Valjoux (including the calibers 69, 71, 72, 69, 92, 230, and VZH).

It was not until 1969, with the introduction of the caliber 11 (jointly developed by Heuer, Breitling, and Hamilton), that Heuer could be said to have produced a movement of its own. Later in the 20th century, with the 11 out of production, Heuer once again turned to other movement makers, notably Lemania and the caliber 5100.

Regardless of the source of the ebauches, Heuer produced a large number of fine wrist chronographs like that illustrated left. A classic Swiss castle-wheel design operated by two case pushers, this movement is typical of mid-grade production of its day. By today’s standards, however, it is a very high-grade piece of work. In an 18K case, such a movement may be commonly had for less than US$1,000, a bargain in today’s market. Comparable or better quality in a contemporary chronograph would require the expenditure of many thousands of dollars.



The inside of the 18K case back shows service marks scratched into the gold, a common practice until later in the 20th century. The ink mark (“BX5”) is now a more common practice and preserves the integrity of the piece.

In the classic Swiss chronograph, it is the castle (or column) wheel (right, 1) that coordinates the various functions of the chronograph. The beaks of the start, stop, and reset-to-zero levers (2) either fall between or land on top of the wheel pillars. Because the castle wheel rotates as one piece, the coordination of functions is assured. Note the castle-wheel activation lever at 3.

At left, a close-up of the castle wheel reveals a nicely made, if not truly excellent, mechanism. The beak of the start lever (1) has fallen between pillars, while that of the brake lever (2) is lifted by a pillar to release the brake. It is thus that the castle wheel coordinates the start, stop, and reset functions of the chronograph.




The chronograph center wheel (1) with its reset heart-cam (2) is shown right, and below…





…engaged with the chronograph intermediate wheel. The intermediate wheel powers the chronograph center wheel from the fourth wheel. The large, straight-cut intermediate wheel teeth and fine center wheel teeth are characteristic of traditional chronographs. On starting, the uncertain engagement of these teeth accounts for the commonly seen hesitation or jump of the center sweep hand.

The fourth wheel (1), intermediate wheel (2), and chronograph center wheel (3) are illustrated left. Note the two eccentric screws (arrows) that adjust the travel of the intermediate wheel bridge (and thus depth of engagement of the wheel with the center wheel) and the minute totalizer (4).

The very elegant, single reset-to-zero lever (1) and its nicely made spring (2) are shown below. Note also the brake lever (3) and the generally very nice finishing of parts. Such construction is seen only in the finest contemporary chronographs.

True vintage chronographs are not to everyone’s taste, in part because they often require some repair and restoration. Factory parts are often not available. In the example at hand, a broken jumper spring required the fabrication of a new steel part, a two-day job accomplished by hand.

For those with the time and inclination, however, vintage chronographs are an opportunity. The Heuer pictured here, and numerous other chronographs from mid-line manufacturers such as Breitling, Universal, Eberhard, Zodiac, Pontifa, Delbana, Bovet, Excelsior Park, and Mido, offer a relatively affordable and interesting glimpse into an important segment of Swiss horological history.