June 2022 15 Min Read

INTERVIEW: Nicholas Biebuyck

By Randy Lai

In watch culture today, with values skyrocketing, perhaps the most precious commodity of all is knowledge, which makes Nicholas Biebuyck’s generosity with the stuff all the more impressive. Appointed Heritage Director at TAG Heuer in 2021, the Bonhams and Christie’s veteran has earned a reputation over his 10-plus years in the industry for being relentlessly well-informed and plain-speaking, sometimes to a fault.

Naturally, Biebuyck’s previous life in the auction houses, where it’s estimated he handled well over 10,000 individual consignments, and subsequently in the horological press corps, make him a dab hand at identifying rare and significant timepieces: ranging from cause célèbres like the Rolex ‘JPS’ Daytona to the more esoteric creations put out by independents. Yet, all along, the company formerly known as Heuer has been a personal favourite, embedded, as it is, deep within the historical fabric of Biebuyck’s other great passion: motorsports.

As the dust settles over another edition of Watches & Wonders, we found a moment to chat shop with Biebuyck and find out what the latest member of TAG Heuer’s brain trust has been up to since his appointment last year.

ACM: Let’s start with something heartfelt. In the past you’ve mentioned you shared a mutual, intertwining passion for motorsport with your father. What was it about that pursuit – especially taken in conjunction with watches – that fascinated you from such an early age?

NB: Funnily enough, growing up my dad had virtually zero interest in watches, and this remains the case – although he does send me the odd news article [laughs]. However, he was indeed very passionate about cars and motorcycles. I wasn’t raised in the most – how shall I put this? – financially enriched upbringing, so even though my family had a passion for this stuff that didn’t necessarily mean they were collectors.

Still, he had an old BMW motorcycle, I think it was a K100RS, when I was growing up, and most weekends (between the spring and autumn) we’d jump on it, having made our own packed lunch, and venture to Goodwood for Festival of Speed or Revival, or to watch the Silverstone Classic.

Biebuyck seems to have come full circle, from trips to Silverstone to taking a prominent position at a watch brand inextricably linked to the world of motorsport.

Whereabouts did you grow up?

In a town in Essex called Brentwood – joy of joys [laughs]. Essex has a particularly strong association with this terrible TV show The Only Way is Essex, but that aside, is in fact quite a lovely place to be. It has beautiful scenery and is located in convenient proximity to what’s known as the ‘Motorsport Valley’ of England, where most of the Formula One teams are based, with Silverstone race circuit as the hub. And then smaller tracks like Snetterton and Brands Hatch [in Kent].

It’s also relatively convenient to cross over to the Continent: I remember one year – I think it was 1994 or 1995 – my dad and I went to Le Mans on the back of his motorcycle. We slept on the side of the road; ate burgers on the in-field; all quite the experience.

I gather then that it would be fair to say your passion for motoring predates your interest in watches?

Oh, 100 percent. Cars and motorcycles were omnipresent in my youth: whichever house we lived in always had a garage or small shed connected to it. I’d spend an inordinate amount of time inside with my dad, looking at and poking around motorcycles. The interest was always there. However, the fact of the matter is – as you well know from our time in Hong Kong – that storing cars and motorcycles is not terribly easy, which partially is what led me to watches.

I remember, just before starting university, reading this article in the Financial Times about George Daniels. I only found out much later that he’s very passionate about cars, but the story primarily addressed this crazy notion that one man could sit in his house and make an intricate mechanical object from start to finish. At that time, I didn’t even really understand what a mechanical watch was or what they symbolised, but I was just so transfixed by the idea that one man could make something, quite frankly, entirely by his own hands.

Were there flickers of your own experiences in that story? Did the idea of making something mechanical, from scratch, closed off from the rest of the world, resonate with you?

Actually, it meant even more to me than that. There’s this constant back-and-forth in popular discourse about why people collect cars and watches; about why they’re connected. My personal view is that you’re either a ‘body person’ or an ‘engine person’ and we certainly see that paralleled in watch culture, i.e. you’re a ‘case person’ or a ‘movement person’, but the great joy of both these objects is that they’re vehicles for education.

I’ve gained so much knowledge that I would likely have no understanding of otherwise through watches and cars: weird and wondrous bits of socioeconomic history like the Nixon shock; the geopolitics and international trade that surrounds these industries – it all mutually intertwines with the luxury car and watches spaces. There’s so much perspective to be gleaned, beyond the fact that these are both mechanical devices, ticking away autonomously.

Perhaps the ultimate cross-section of cars and watches, Jack Heuer presenting timers to Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni, courtesy of TAG Heuer.

Prior to taking up the mantle of Heritage Director at TAG Heuer, you were a specialist at multiple global auction houses including Bonhams and Christie’s. In that time, what were some of the major developments you saw taking place?

I arrived in the auction business at a very strange time for the market. This was in 2010.

Should we take a quick sidebar to talk about that?

Looking back, I find the entire situation quite funny. Back then, I was studying mechanical engineering at the University of Birmingham, which I didn’t enjoy in the slightest. I’ve always gravitated towards object design (it’s one of my core working areas today) yet detested the hardcore maths that tends to accompany it. The possibility that I might spend the rest of my life designing an indicator stalk for Jaguar Land Rover was unbearable. Fortunately, I worked part-time at Apple in those days: that enabled me to nurture my interest in design, while generating enough income to keep my head above water.

Suffice to say, I wasn’t very interested in completing my studies. On the week that I was supposed to submit my dissertation I’d flown to Hong Kong to visit a friend. At 2 o’clock in the morning, I get a call from my university tutor: “Where are you? What’s that odd dial tone? Come speak to us the moment you get back.” Sure enough, upon returning to England, I went in to see the Head of Faculty and they said something to the effect of: “You clearly don’t want to be here; get out.” And after four years of study, that was that. As you can imagine, my parents weren’t terribly impressed.

Did the trip you took to Hong Kong in the late 2000s have any bearing on the work you’d later do?

Well, I did love the city, I vividly remember my first visit to all the watch resellers clustered around Champagne Court in Tsim Sha Tsui, so when I got the opportunity to return, I was all too keen to do that.

But going back to your original question: after university, I arrived in what was, back then, a rather hostile work environment. My first job was watches-adjacent, with a company in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter that was virtually Dickensian. They were a manufacturing operation who made civic honours for the Queen: MBEs, OBEs, that kind of thing. Luckily, I met Paul Maudsley at Bonhams soon after. I had no idea who he was or what he did at the time, but eventually, he helped me get my start in the auction world.

I came into the marketplace in 2010, with very little understanding of what the auction business was, fundamentally. I was still living at home with my family, commuting into Knightbridge every day. The salary was about £500-£600 per month net, so I was having to choose between my train fare or lunch most days. At the time, all my friends said, “You’re insane, there’s no money in this nonsense about cars and watches – go and get a proper job.” They’d all go on to become lawyers and financiers. But, as we know, the world has since changed dramatically: between 2010 and 2020, the luxury consumables market reached a kind of bizarre maturity and watches have transformed into a vehicle for investment. To all intents and purposes, I’ve often found myself providing financial advice: passion still underpins the market, but now a number of conventional portfolio management strategies have been folded in.

Jack Heuer speaking to Ronnie Peterson, one of the many Formula One drivers that were sponsored by Heuer at the time, and trusted the watchmaker with all of their timing needs, courtesy of TAG Heuer.

How did that manifest in the case of the vintage Heuer market?

As we all know, traditionally the primary vehicles for speculative investment have been sports models: notably Rolex (first vintage, then contemporary); Patek Philippe; Audemars Piguet; and nowadays, Richard Mille. Activity in this market really hit its stride between 2015 and 2016. Since I began my career in the industry, pump pusher ‘Paul Newman’ Daytonas have gone from around US$20,000 to $US300,000. Yes, condition and configuration both play in as factors, but to briefly generalise, we saw prices on these kinds of sports watches multiply tenfold in under 10 years. So, for Heuer, there was something of a trickle-down effect.

Nowadays, the closest thing to a vintage Daytona is a vintage Autavia or Carrera. Initially, there was a healthy groundswell of interest that was occurring holistically, but soon after, a few individuals realised that the market was sufficiently small for them to wield undue influence. The peak of this was in late 2017, when prices began to cool quite significantly after a meteoric rise. Even to external observers, it had become clear that demand wasn’t growing along a trajectory that was necessarily organic.

Personally, my honest belief is that these sorts of arrangements never last. At some point, the relationship between supply and demand returns to a kind of equilibrium, because the ‘market price’ is the market price. Today, that’s the situation we see with vintage Heuer: prices were relatively normal in the early 2010s, followed by a huge spike then a drop (albeit not back to pre-2010 levels). Now, once again, we’re seeing a growing interest in the brand. This time around the biggest focus is on condition: so much so that it’s functionally impossible to sell a sub-standard vintage watch, because collectors are obsessed with obtaining ‘perfect’ examples.

Just to expand on that, have we arrived at a situation where the wider watch community is confident in investing in vintage Heuer for the long term?

There are various dynamics at play. The answer depends entirely on which ‘generation’ of collector we’re talking about. I think we’ve discussed this before, but in my view, there are essentially three generations of collectors. In the 1990s, we had the antiquarian: an older gentleman holding a magnifying glass and pipe, looking at hand-painted scenes on the back of his pocket watch. The era until the mid-2010s was defined by the intellectual collector, somebody interested in complications and the growth of independent watchmaking. Then, during the ‘modern era’, let’s say, 2015 until now, we have what I like to call the ‘anthropological collector’. These are the sorts of people who are intrigued by what watches represent: the identity of those who wear them; its position within popular culture; the faces behind a brand and so on – the core theme being watchmaking’s ‘human’ element.

“I’ve always gravitated towards object design (it’s one of my core working areas today) yet detested the hardcore maths that tends to accompany it…”

Nicholas Biebuyck

Would you say that we’re still very much living through the age of the anthropological collector? Is that a niche that will continue to develop apace?

Absolutely. I think it remains highly underdeveloped. The current marketplace is rife with speculators who have got onboard because of hype culture, particularly on Instagram. If there’s a correction, we’ll probably lose the majority of those guys, but the fact is that some will remain. Those who do will gain a true passion for watches, and [the] incentive to learn more about their history and cultural value.

The good news is that this plays nicely into the vintage Heuer market because it’s predominantly an anthropological brand. In the golden era for Heuer, we were a marketing business with an underlying product that was comparable to Rolex, the only real difference being the name on the watch: dials from Singer; movements from Valjoux; bracelets from Gay Frères; cases, crystals and packaging by the same selection of suppliers; everything was basically playing off the same vibes. What differentiated us, especially under Jack Heuer’s leadership, was the partnerships we brokered with so many mythic personalities in the history of motorsport.

Today, Biebuyck stands at the centre of the TAG Heuer world, as the brand builds on its legacy.

We’ll come to Heuer’s long association with competitive racing in a moment, but first, I’m intrigued to hear what you, in your capacity as department director, think the role of heritage should be, in relation to a modern watch brand.

It’s funny you should ask. I recently penned this feature, which is going to be published in the near future, that asks the question: “Heritage, what is it good for?” Every luxury brand is obsessed with the notion of ‘heritage’. But what does it even mean? When a maison invokes that idea, in its marketing and messaging, what value does that add for the consumer? In answering this question, it appears so few people have gone back to first principles.

At TAG [Heuer], one of the heritage director’s foundational responsibilities is communication, from the most basic work, such as fact-checking press releases, all the way up to our initiatives with museums, travelling exhibits, and media engagement. Another core piece of the puzzle is preservation of the archive. As it currently stands, ours consists of several thousand watches – we don’t yet know the precise number, because we’ve never done a full-scale audit, so that’s a project that’s kept me extremely busy. Tangentially, we have our paper archive: thousands of physical assets – non-watch related – that require preservation and management. Finally, a big chunk of our day-to-day responsibility revolves around the work of authentication and restoration.

I wondered if we could speak a little more about the challenges associated with this kind of preservational work, because – as I’m sure vintage Heuer collectors have mentioned – there is a certain degree of incompleteness between the archives of the pre and post-TAG era.

Complete factual records can be a blessing, I don’t dispute that. However, they can also be a curse. For example, we’ve run into issues with archival transcripts dating back to the 1930s, because the system of recording required everything to be written in cursive. Then there’s the obvious issue of extracts themselves: there are several situations of the same watch having multiple extracts from different eras with different information displayed. So, while in theory it’s nice to have a complete set of records, if all we’re doing is certifying the correctness of an image, I have to ask myself: “Where’s the added value?”

Actually, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most in my career is just how much knowledge can be gleaned from reverse-engineering data on watches which have clear provenance, such as looking at case number ranges for gold ‘Paul Newman’ Daytonas). Often, you get a much more truthful account than if you were to rely solely on written records. So, you should avoid taking things at face value: defrauding is a persistent issue in collectors’ marketplaces, and the way in which we provide added value to the space is by developing a sensitivity to what feels original, correct, and properly put-together with data to back it up.

I imagine that the only way to hone that instinct is by spending hundreds upon hundreds of man-hours handling watches?

Put it this way, if we’re keeping track of time spent, I think I’ve cracked my 10,000 hours by this point.

One of the legendary drivers that jack Heuer was able to nurture a relationship with in this golden era of motorsport was Jo Siffert, courtesy of TAG Heuer.

There’s no shortage of watch brands that love to tout their credentials in the world of motorsports, but at TAG Heuer racing is very much ‘in the blood’. Historically, what do you think drew drivers like Jo Siffert and Mario Andretti to the brand, particularly in an era when ambassador marketing was still very much in its infancy?

If you look back at Heuer’s early days, at the turn of the 20th century, we were already heavily involved in the automobile and aviation industries. At that point our reputation had been for precision timekeeping: in 1916, the Mikrograph became the first mechanical chronograph capable of timing 1/100th of a second. But it was Jack [Heuer’s] entry into the business in 1958 that really accelerated our ties to motor racing. We know he had a passion for driving: taking part in events like Le Rallye de Genève; brokering relationships early on with Jochen Rindt and Jo Siffert; developing the Carrera line of watches after meeting the Rodríguez brothers at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1962. He was very much baked into the motorsport community.

Then in 1971, there’s the link that forms with Ferrari: a technical partnership whereby Heuer provides the Scuderia with sports timing, but also, gold Carreras for the drivers. Of course, that same year saw the release of Le Mans [in which Steve McQueen is prominently wearing a Monaco] and from there, the hits just kept coming. In celebration of Niki Lauda’s championship win for Ferrari, we released the Monza in 1976, a chronograph utilising these coated finishes that are familiar in the motorsport environment. [We then began] experimenting with titanium applications in the early 1980s; [introduced] the Formula One collection in 1986; and by that point, the deal [was] done. TAG Heuer is motorsport and motorsport is TAG Heuer.

Going back to your question, I think it’s Jack’s relationship with Jo Siffert that formed the nucleus of our brand. It’s why we’re so synonymous with racing today and, indeed, it registers as one of the earliest examples of a luxury partnership in the competitive motorsport space. Jo was a farm boy from Fribourg – not far from where Heuer was based at the time – who didn’t have a huge amount of money, so Jack was supplying watches for him to sell in the paddock to raise some funds for his racing. That’s how Heuer filtered out into the driver community.

I think the main reason these guys found the watches so attractive was because they provided exactly what was required for a racing driver: total legibility; ease of use; form factor considered large for the period. It feels like an encapsulation of everything they could want while competing.

As somebody whose journey in the watch industry arguably started with Heuer, you’re well-placed to offer insight into how best to collect it. What vintage models might a novice look at, in an effort to acquaint themselves with the brand?

The ideal place to start – and this shouldn’t be too hard for your readers to remember – is the trifecta of ‘A-C-M’.

The trifecta of vintage Heuer, according to Biebuyck, courtesy of TAG Heuer.

I see what you did there.

‘Autavia’, ‘Carrera’, ‘Monaco’: the three major families of vintage Heuer. We’ll start with the Autavia, because it technically arrives the earliest. The first reference (2446) came to market in 1962 and is recognisable by its large – for the period – subsidiary dials. These have now become US$150,000 watches and are extremely fun to wear; one of my all-time favourites. The archetypal 2446 is what we’d call a ‘third execution’ (nicknamed the ‘Jochen Rindt’). These possess a lovely, refined design and can be purchased for between US$15,000-$25,000. That, in my view, is a very reasonable amount of money, given how fantastic the watch is.

Then there’s the Carrera, which arrived in 1963 with the inaugural reference 2447. The triple-register version – more specifically, the SN – feels to me like the premier envoy of the Carrera family. [It’s] an extremely attractive chronograph that’s rare to find in good condition.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember reading somewhere that your first interaction with Heuer involved a 2447?

Right, I was bidding on one at Bonhams. The thing about the early Carrera references is that the cases wear ever so slightly small. If you’re being generous, they measure around 36mm, whereas the Autavia rings in at a very true-to-size 37.5mm. That said, the 2447 really does feel like a more elegant watch. The case geometry is much more complex, sporting sharp almost peaked lugs. So, where the archetypal Autavia is utilitarian, the Carrera embraces refinement, especially if we’re talking about the solid gold or ‘panda’ dial models.

The third piece of the puzzle, the Monaco, arrived in 1969. Obviously, we all talk about the ‘McQueen’ with its matte blue dial, but, for me, the earlier ‘Chronomatics’ – with their iridescent blue sheen and brutish rectangular hands and the so-called ‘transitional’ models – are a much purer distillation of what the Monaco’s about. By extension, around that same period, we see the Carrera and Autavia undergo a dramatic redesign. References 1153 and 1163 are fitted with these distinctive C-shaped cases, and even today you can find examples of the more common executions in decent condition for US$5,000.

“Every luxury brand is obsessed with the notion of ‘heritage’. But what does it even mean? When a maison invokes that idea, in its marketing and messaging, what value does that add for the consumer?”

Nicholas Biebuyck

I suppose that from here, the only logical follow-up is to ask which vintage Heuer reference you personally feel to be the most desirable.

I think my ultimate would be the Carrera 1158CHN, or ‘Champagne et Noir’. For starters, it’s an extremely important part of the company’s history. It’s enjoyable to wear and at 39mm is a good fit, even on smaller wrists. The CHN is predominantly known as the Carrera issued to drivers during the era of Heuer’s technical partnership with Ferrari. Sometime between 1970 and 1971, Enzo [Ferrari] called up Jack and said, “We haven’t won a championship in years, we think the ACO are cheating us at Le Mans, and we require the support of an independent timekeeper. Can you help?”

By then, we already had what is known as a Microtimer, a piece of precision equipment capable of timing 1/1000th of a second. Microtimer in hand, we seconded an employee by the name of Jean Campiche to follow Ferrari around the globe, first for endurance racing, then for Formula One. Campiche also set up a timing hut at Fiorano, marking the first time drivers and technical developments have been timed sector by sector. Then, in 1975, as I mentioned earlier, Niki Lauda won the Championship. The gold Carrera was what we were giving drivers during this era.

For some of the most successful drivers at that time – Mike Hailwood; Mario Andretti – the CHN became a good luck charm and source of celebration. It’s the reason why we’ve given one of our contemporary gold Carreras to Max Verstappen this year. There is really no way to describe the experience of wearing one, other than to say it’s heavy with gravitas, so much of racing culture is encapsulated in it. That and, of course, the fact that it’s powered by the first commercially available self-winding chronograph, the Calibre 11.

A central member of the watch community, Biebuycks knowledge has seem him become an authority on countless horological matters.

Also, that’s the namesake of one of the all-time great online resources for Heuer and TAG. To wrap up: as an industry veteran who clearly values strong interpersonal ties with collectors, how do you see TAG Heuer engaging with communities in the mould of Calibre 11 and OnTheDash in the coming years?

Firstly, I think it’s a good idea to talk about what will become of Calibre 11 going forward. I know that there was a bit of fallout arising from the announcement that the website is shutting down, but the fact remains that there’s still mutual respect between us and David [Chalmers]. We’ve just decided to go in different directions. The good news is we managed to broker a deal to acquire the entirety of Calibre 11’s ‘knowledge centre’, which is now in the process of being converted into a format suitable for tagheuer.com. So, we’ll have a dedicated online portal for historic models using David’s writing as a foundation, that is augmented by additional information we possess on the brand side.

As for OnTheDash, I can be extremely open and say that Jeff Stein, who I’ve known for over 10 years, is now retained as a consultant. I remember reading OnTheDash in its previous incarnation – back in the late 2000s, when it was the gospel of Heuer evangelists – and Jeff has done a tremendous job of contributing to that.

Beyond that, I foresee myself continuing what I’ve been doing already: answering messages on WhatsApp and Instagram; responding to impromptu emails, which are great; and speaking to more new collectors. Currently, I have a group of roughly 50 to 100 individuals from whom I’m always keen to hear more, and what I’ve been trying to do is to formalise those relationships with a bit more structure. One way is through the constitution of a ‘heritage advisory board’: 10 or so individuals who are focused on vintage Heuer, in addition to other brands, because I think there’s a lot of cross-learning we could benefit from. We’re also looking into the feasibility of a ‘collector’s circle’, consisting potentially of hundreds of people who are passionate about the vintage and contemporary aspects of the brand.

Through initiatives like the digitisation of our paper archive or introduction of our new authentication processes, I was aiming for the tail end of 2023, but it’s now looking like 2024. I want to make it clear to the marketplace that we have their best interests at heart. For me, it’s not about personal gain. What we’re really here to do is build new confidence in the TAG Heuer brand.

We would like to thank Nicholas Biebuyck for sharing his insights and the rest of the team at TAG Heuer for helping to make this interview possible.