How did TAG Heuer revamp its 1990s leader model, the iconic Link, for the 21st Century? Find out in this feature from WatchTime’s Design Special 2019.
As decades go, the 1980s and ’90s, an era in which quartz-powered and digital timekeepers were in ascendance while traditional Swiss mechanicals were largely in hibernation, are not nearly as rich in watch design milestones as are the 1960s and ’70s. However, there are always exceptions that prove the rule, one of which is the sporty model that TAG Heuer released in 1987: the TAG Heuer S/El, which evolved in 1999 into its more well-known and popular incarnation, the TAG Heuer Link.
Introduced just a few years after the venerable Heuer watch company, headquartered in the Swiss watchmaking hub of La Chaux-de-Fonds since 2001, was acquired by Luxembourg-based holding company Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG), becoming the TAG Heuer firm that we all recognize today, the S/El – shorthand for “Sport Elegance” – was the flagship of a new generation of timepieces launched under the Swiss watchmaker’s new ownership and was meant to embody a set of six sporty features that would define TAG Heuer’s products in the 1990s. These included 200-meter water resistance, a screw-down crown, double safety-clasp bracelets, unidirectional rotating bezels, sapphire crystals and luminous details. The S/El, in all of its various incarnations, which included mostly quartz models, some digital, along with a handful of automatics, became TAG Heuer’s best-selling timepiece of the era.
Conceived by prolific watch designer Eddie Schopfer – who also created TAG Heuer’s 2000 Series watches and would go on to design numerous popular models for TAG Heuer as well as a variety of other brands – the S/El was notable for its highly unconventional and instantly recognizable bracelet, made up of interlocking double-“S”-shaped links, each composed of two curved steel ingots, which integrated seamlessly with the case and whose soft rounded edges were ergonomically designed for wrist comfort. TAG Heuer had, in essence, created the first watch that could be instantly identified not necessarily by its dial design or case shape but by a single bracelet link.
In 1999, with the mechanical watch renaissance just beginning to gather steam, TAG Heuer revisited the S/El, renaming it the Link to reflect the collection’s defining feature, and making a handful of small but significant aesthetic changes. The rounded pebble-like edges of the case and bracelet links were slightly squared off, the S/El’s “Mercedes” hands were replaced by sword-style hands, oversized Arabic numerals were added at 12, 6 and 9 o’clock, and baton indexes supplanted the rounded, luminous indexes at the other hour markers. The Link – offered in both quartz and automatic versions – would be the last new product launched by TAG Heuer before it was acquired in 2001 by luxury group LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), a transaction that would prove significant both for the Link collection and for the older, mostly dormant heritage models that it had largely replaced as the brand’s dominant sporty collection by the end of the 20th century: the Carrera and Monaco.
The Link, which did not feature the “Link” name on the dial until 2002, continued to evolve throughout the aughts. In 2004, it gained a smoother, flatter bezel, thinner hands, a two-sector dial, and, in the chronograph versions, stylishly redesigned pushers, all in the service of pushing the watch to a higher level of luxury. The chronographs’ tachymeter scale was moved from the dial to the fixed bezel in 2006, and sapphire exhibition casebacks began appearing on Link models in 2007, reflecting an increased use of Swiss mechanical automatic movements in the watches, such as TAG Heuer’s Calibre 16 (ETA 7750 base), Calibre 5 (ETA 2824-2) and Calibre 6 (ETA 2895). The 2011 models added a cushion-shaped bezel, a vertical-striped motif on the dials, redesigned crowns and pushers, and thinner S-shaped links.
While all this was happening, however, the iconic Carrera model, first launched in 1963, was quietly reclaiming its place as TAG Heuer’s preeminent sports watch collection. The company’s new leadership under LVMH had lured Jack Heuer, scion of the watch company’s founding family, back into the fold as Honorary Chairman, and the result was a renewed commitment to reviving his most legendary brainchild, named after the tortuous Carrera Panamericana road race, as a leader model for the 21st century. The success of this endeavor meant that the Link would fly under the radar in the following years, making space in the portfolio for new iterations of the Carrera, as well as the also-iconic Monaco (famously launched in 1969 as one of the first self-winding chronograph wristwatches but which had, like the Carrera, been relegated mostly to nostalgia status throughout the ’80s) and avant-garde products like the Heuer 02-T tourbillon and the TAG Heuer Connected Watch.
TAG Heuer, however, was not prepared to abandon the model that had essentially carried the company through the challenging transitional years between Quartz Crisis and Mechanical Revival. The first hints of a revamp for the TAG Heuer Link sprung up in 2016, with the somewhat quiet launch of a new Link model for women, the Link Lady, which introduced a modernized version of the classical Link case that deftly merged a cushion-shaped base, bearing four softly edged corners, with an enlarged, overlaid bezel ring. TAG Heuer also further streamlined and squared the edges of the S-shaped bracelet links. Measuring a dainty 32 mm in diameter, the watch was offered in both stainless steel and, for the first time in the Link collection, ceramic cases. Several dial colors, including a blue-gray mother-of-pearl and, in the black ceramic model, a cloudy black mother-of-pearl, were offered, as well as several diamond-set versions.
The revival of the Link has also been helped along by a dose of celebrity star power. TAG Heuer has become known in the modern era – especially under the reign of current CEO Jean-Claude Biver, which began in 2014 – as much for its youth-oriented marketing campaigns as for its diverse product portfolio, and one of the brand’s many celebrity partnerships includes the one established in 2017 with supermodel Bella Hadid. When TAG Heuer was developing a specially designed watch for Hadid, to be presented to her at the grand opening of the company’s flagship boutique on Oxford Street in London, it was the redesigned Link Lady that was chosen as the template. The watch, which is limited to 500 pieces, has the same black ceramic case and black MOP dial as the standard edition but adds 12 diamond indexes and 48 diamonds set on the bezel as well as a special caseback engraved with Hadid’s signature.
Also in 2017, TAG Heuer celebrated 30 years of the Link on the market (designating the S/El’s launch year of 1987 as the starting point), with a redesigned version for men. The TAG Heuer Steel Link for Men Calibre 5 retains the bracelet that debuted on the Link Lady, with two rows of S-shaped links, each rounded on the top, bottom and sides. The steel bracelet, with its combination of brushed and polished finishes, integrates seamlessly and fluidly into the case, which measures 41 mm in diameter and features a scratch-resistant, nonreflective sapphire crystal.
The movement, as proclaimed on the dial and in the model’s name, is TAG Heuer’s self-winding Calibre 5 (based on either the ETA 2824-2 or the Sellita SW200), which powers the watch’s simple three-hand time display with date indication and which is visible through a clear sapphire caseback. Three dial colors are offered: silver-plated, black and blue with a sunray finish. Each features baton-shaped steel hour markers and steel hands, all coated with white Super-LumiNova. An appliqué TAG Heuer logo appears at 12 o’clock, and the date is in a window at 3 o’clock. The Steel Link Calibre 5 carries a retail price of $3,000.
TAG Heuer has been known for its chronograph expertise since the very early days of Uhren Manufaktur Heuer, which the company was called when it was founded in 1860 by Jack Heuer’s great-grandfather, Edouard Heuer, inventor of the oscillating pinion device that has become a standard component in mechanical wrist chronographs to this day. Thus, the next step for the revitalized Link collection was probably inevitable. At Baselworld 2018, the brand introduced a new range of Link chronographs, outfitted with TAG Heuer’s Calibre 17, based on the ETA 2894-2. The chronograph models share the same case design and dimensions (41 mm) as the Calibre 5 men’s models and come in two dial variations, black and blue, with sunray finishes. The watches feature a classical three-register layout, with running seconds on a subdial at 3 o’clock, elapsed chronograph minutes at 9 o’clock and elapsed hours at 6 o’clock. The subdials have a subtle snailed motif that reflects light and lends them contrast with the main dial. The hands and indexes are rhodium-plated, faceted, polished and filled with white Super-LumiNova, and the date appears in a tilted window at 4:30. The Link Chronograph is priced at $4,500.
Truly a “link” between the tumultuous days of the Quartz Crisis and today’s vibrant marketplace of high complications, vintage revivals and smartwatches, TAG Heuer’s postmodern Link collection occupies an important niche between classical sport and high-design luxury – a niche perhaps not yet fully defined but sure to continue taking shape as the family continues to grow and whose design, perhaps, continues to evolve.