In-Depth: The Provenance Of The Steve McQueen TAG Heuer Monaco Being Auctioned By Phillips
One of the six watches worn by McQueen in the now-iconic film Le Mans is coming to Phillips on December 12th.
Last week, the WSJ Magazine (online edition) announced that Phillips would, on December 12th, auction one of the six Heuer Monaco 1133Bs worn by Steve McQueen in the 1971 film Le Mans. Since then, much of the hubbub has focused on the story of how ‘The King of Cool’ came to be associated with the watch. Fair enough. As told by the film’s property master, Don Nunley, it’s a fascinating story.
The image of McQueen hovering over a table laden with the finest chronographs available at the time, then telling Nunley he didn’t want to draw attention to himself before selecting the eye-riveting Monaco is entertaining, easily raising a wry smile. Nunley also observed that among film stars he worked with, McQueen possessed an uncanny ability to “dress the part,” assembling just the right outfit for the personality of his character and ensuring the maximum screen presence.
For a few moments, though, can we concentrate on the watch? Later we’ll return to McQueen.
The Myth Of This Monaco
Jack Heuer, in his 2013 autobiography The Times Of My Life, recounts the story of the development of the Monaco. In 1967 Heuer and Breitling combined forces to speed the realization of an automatic chronograph and were soon joined by Buren and movement module specialist Dubois-Dépraz. The quartet dubbed their efforts Project 99.
After receiving the shocking news that their competition – both Seiko and Zenith – were also nearing the production of automatic chronographs, the Monaco with its Calibre 11 micro-rotor-based self-winding mechanism launched simultaneously in Geneva and New York on March 3, 1969.
Okay, that’s enough of the business history. Let’s drill down into the watch itself. (Obviously, that’s only a figure of speech. Anyone found drilling into a Monaco would face a long stay in a locked room where the only sound is someone dragging their fingernails across a blackboard accompanied by screeching car brakes and offkey bagpipes.
The Monaco Is A Watch Of Its Time
The Sixties were a decade of technological advancement (Kevlar, the ATM, the computer mouse, and of course, the Apollo moon landing) and cultural upheaval (the Civil Rights Movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, assassinations, free love, and drug experimentation). Fashion abandoned the conformist styles of the 1950s in favor of a defiant look-at-me attitude: miniskirts and Native American jewelry for women, beards and Nehru jackets for men. Gone were the sober hues of the past, replaced by intense primary colors.
The Monaco fit right in. First off, on the technical side, the Calibre 11 is the most obvious advancement. And secondly, regarding design, there is the sometimes overlooked innovation of the square case. As Jack Heuer recalled in his book, “One day a representative of one of our most reliable watch case suppliers a company called Piquerez…came to show us sample watch cases in mock-up form. He drew our attention in particular to a new patented square case Piquerez had developed, emphasizing the fact that it was fully water-resistant.”
Until then, square cases lacked adequate water-resistance, making them impractical for tool watches like chronographs. So, Jack closed an exclusive deal with Piquerez and said, “The revolutionary square case would be the perfect housing for our avant-garde Monaco wrist chronograph.”
It’s All In The Details
The next detail to consider about the Monaco is the placement of the crown on the left side of the case. Jack admits that this decision looked “weird” but added, “By having the crown on the left we would in effect be saying: ‘This chronograph does not need winding every day because it is automatic.’”
The square case and placing the winding crown on the left are two of the look-at-me elements of the Monaco that locate the design ethos of the watch indisputably in the 1960s. The third is the use of two primary colors: using blue for the dial, red for the hands, and then a contrasting white for the sub-dials when most hand/dial combinations at the time were a more subdued variation of black, white, and silver.
Of its time, daring, striking, and simply gorgeous, the design of the Monaco is also something else, timeless. The watch rates a place next to such design classics like the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, Coco Chanel’s little black dress, the Eames chair, the double-breasted navy blue blazer, the Birkin handbag, the Arco lamp, the Vespa motor scooter, and the Fender Stratocaster.
Steve McQueen Mints An Icon
Now, as promised, a return to Steve McQueen. ‘Cool’ was not McQueen’s only prominent quality. He was the perfect star for the ‘60s. Both unconventional and unapologetic on and off-screen, McQueen was an anti-hero at a time when traditional heroes were unpopular. Before Le Mans, he portrayed two characters, Thomas Crown in The Thomas Crown Affair and Frank Bullitt in Bullitt, who gleefully thumbed a nose at the establishment.
As Don Nunley noted, McQueen almost certainly chose the Monaco for Michael Delaney, his character in Le Mans, because of its stand-out appearance. But maybe, just maybe, the rebel in McQueen recognized the rebelliousness in the watch.
One thing is for sure, McQueen happily gave one of the six Monacos he wore in the film to his mechanic Haig Alltounian. So, the final word of this story belongs to Haig.
While researching the WSJ Magazine article, Haig told me how much he appreciated McQueen generosity and admired the watch, then added: “It’s time to let someone younger enjoy it.”
Those words are another way to say that the Monaco and the story of McQueen’s kindness are timeless. For more information on Phillips' Racing Pulse auction, visit their website.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)