While the last decade and a half have seen a slow and inexorable upward creep of the cost of luxury watches, there have also been, more recently, some rather disruptive pricing strategies as well. Montblanc, for instance, introduced a steel perpetual calendar in 2014 which is just $12,800 (of course “just” is relative, thirteen grand is indisputably a lot of simoleons for us working stiffs, but you know, still). This year, Longines fielded an annual calendar for under $3,000. And in 2016, TAG Heuer introduced the TAG Heuer Carrera Heuer 02 T replica watch– a tourbillon chronograph priced at $15,950, about which Patek Philippe’s Thierry Stern said, very bluntly, “(it’s) nearly a joke to me…if they’re willing to try to kill the quality of the Swiss product, I think they’re on a very good track.”
As much as it might have aroused ire in some quarters, however, the race to bring in traditionally very expensive complications at lower and lower prices does make an interesting point, which is that given sufficient economies of scale, and with modern manufacturing techniques, it is possible to produce working, reliable versions of traditionally extremely expensive complications at surprisingly – even shockingly – low prices. You give up things like time-consuming hand finishing, of course, and you have lower expectations in terms of things like case complexity and dial quality, but at the current prices for a well-finished perpetual (for example) from one of the Big Three (or Four, if you want Lange in as well) this alternative approach means an awful lot of people can get into high complications today, who couldn’t have five years ago.
In any event, the Tourbillon Chronograph 02T seems to be here to stay (although the price has oonched up to $17,000, I notice; still a Low! Low! Price! by the standards of modern quote fine watchmaking unquote). As a way of sweetening the pot, this year TAG Heuer has released a new version of the watch, which is a certified chronometer. And it’s not just any ole’ run of the mill COSC cert; instead, the watches will be certified by the observatory at Besançon, France – not far from the northern border of the Swiss Jura.
Besançon at one time had a thriving watch industry which, at its peak, employed over 20,000 workers; now only about 1,500 people work in the watch industry there, which collapsed thanks to the Quartz Crisis – most markedly with the closing of Lip, in 1975. The observatory there was, like the observatories at Kew in England, and Geneva, engaged in the certification of chronometers and it still occasionally does so today. The specific mark of certification by the Besançon observatory was, and still is, the so-called Tête de Vipère – the Viper’s Head. Besançon certified its first chronometer – a marine chronometer – in 1897, but got out of the business in the 1970s; in 2006, however, it began accepting watches for certification again, and since then about 500 watches have received its approval as chronometers.
If you weren’t a fan of the original design in 2016 – however much you may be wowed by the price – the Tête de Vipère is not likely to change your mind; an open dial, ceramic bezel-and-case sports chronograph with tourbillon (and of course, a somewhat inside-baseball chronometer certification) doth not scream Everyman watchmaking from the rooftops.
I am bound to say, however, that in-the-ceramic, I was pretty impressed with the execution – the case is razor sharp and the dial, though the design may raise your hackles, is clean as a whistle. It looks pretty jazzy on the wrist, too; not the kind of watch towards which I’d normally gravitate but as with another of TAG Heuer’s releases this year – the much-argued-over Bamford Monaco – I surprised myself by liking the cut of its jib much more than I’d have thought possible, and I do think the Besançon association is kinda neat. The testing procedures sound more or less identical to COSC; 16 days at Besançon and 15 at COSC (a chronometer is a chronometer is a chronometer) but why not have a little terroir avec votre chronomètre, n’est-ce pas?
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