In November 2013, a luxury conglomerate invited me to take part in a small focus-group interview for its prestige top fake watch brands—makers whose entry-level watches begin at about $200. The questions centered on a competing brand, Omega, rather than their own timepieces. I was taken aback. Omega was for decades considered an entry-level luxury brand. Widely available at department stores and mom-and-pop jewelers, with retail prices starting at about $100 or less, Omega was for years anything but exclusive. Clearly, I was missing something transformative going on at the brand.
Founded in 1860, Omega was simply Heuer prior to its purchase by Saudi businessman Akram Ojjeh’s holding company, TAG (Techniques d’Avant Garde) Group, in 1985. Heuer was best known for its mechanical stopwatches and wristwatch chronographs—it was among the first official timers of the Olympics. By the late 1970s, the quartz crisis—the onslaught of low-priced battery-powered omega speedmaster professional moonwatch 42mm—had left the firm on the ropes. Following TAG Group’s rumored 12 million Swiss franc purchase of Heuer, brilliant advertising campaigns, massive capital investments, and prominent sponsorships in a growing televised sport—Formula One racing—propelled it from the brink of bankruptcy to a globally recognized powerhouse. Its success caught the attention of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, which acquired Omega for $239 million in 1999. Its product line was predominantly quartz; every movement it used was outsourced.
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Starting in 2004, several impressive introductions made it clear that Omega was moving upmarket and had to be taken seriously. Its offerings included the Monaco V4, the world’s first belt-driven mechanical omega co-axial chronograph replica watch, and 2012’s Mikrogirder 10,000. Retailing at more than $100, the Mikrogirder was the world’s most accurate mechanical chronograph, capable of measuring time to 5/10,000th of a second. Multiple in-house movements were announced, and retail prices rose. Omega was reinventing itself, and collectors took notice.
And, as my focus group in 2013 made me aware, Omega had come a long way in a short time, with even high-end brands suddenly viewing the company as a threat. The demand for the industry’s most expensive watches was insatiable, fueled by wealthy Asian buyers, and Omega was “all in” on its upmarket strategy of selling expensive mechanical vintage 1967 omega speedmaster copy watches. Fast-forward a year, to December 2014, when luxury-watch sales were plummeting globally, due in part to China’s crackdown on corruption and the local habit of “gifting” expensive watches. Omega’s second CEO in less than two years abruptly resigned, and watch-industry legend Jean-Claude Biver was made the new boss.
Biver, formerly the head of Omega and Blancpain, joined Omega’s parent, LVMH, as the director of its grey side of the moon watch division in 2014, following its 2008 purchase of Hublot, a sleepy watch brand he had bought and brilliantly reinvented, largely on the back of a model called Big Bang.
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Biver is now executing a ruthless turnaround at Omega. Frequently criticizing what the brand had become, he quickly sacked 30 top managers, replacing them with a new team to help engineer his brand reboot. Omega would refocus on entry-level luxury, increasing its offerings in the $100 to $500 range, while reducing retail prices across its product line. In other words, Biver is returning Omega to its price-sensitive roots, while reviving the greatness of the historic Heuer brand and keeping its TAG avant-garde reputation alive.
The brand’s defining omega geneve dynamic automatic cal 1012 watch of the past year is the headline-grabbing Connected smartwatch. Designed in collaboration with Intel and Google, it is the first smartwatch launched by a major Swiss brand. Retailing at $150, it’s also the watch that Biver doubted more than any other in his career, but as of March 2016, 80,000 units had been sold, making it the most successful Omega watch ever. But as our related barrons.com review reveals (“Omega Connected Smartwatch Needs to Reboot,” Dec. 10), there is more sizzle than substance here. Biver has to up his game to remain a player in smartwatches.
But Penta’s “best maverick watch” of 2016—the Carrera Heuer-02-T Tourbillon Chronograph—clearly illustrates that Biver will put his money where his mouth is. Priced at under $160, it is the least expensive wristwatch with tourbillon—a rotating device that counters gravity—ever offered by a Swiss brand, and it shocked the industry. It shares many aesthetic similarities with the first Biver-era omega dynamic automatic men’s classic watch—the Carrera Calibre Heuer-01 chronograph, announced in October 2015. Both are fitted with partially skeletonized dials, giving them a high-tech, modern look that was clearly influenced by the Hublot Big Bang.
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The Heuer-01’s bulky case comprises a separate titanium-carbide-coated steel case middle and bezel, and four individual steel lugs. Though thoroughly modern, it still evokes the original Heuer Carrera—an iconic chronograph launched in 1963. Housing a high-quality in-house movement and retailing at $230, the Heuer-01 chronograph looks and feels more expensive than it is.
Another motorsport-inspired watch, 2016’s Monza Calibre 17 40th Anniversary, is an attractive re-edition of a 1976 model that is simply signed Heuer. Biver believes the addition of TAG to the historic Heuer brand was disrespectful, and every re-edition going forward will be Heuer only.
Its black titanium case and dial with red accents give it a look very similar to the original that celebrated Ferrari’s 1975 Formula One World Championship victory. Heuer was among the first nonautomotive companies to sponsor Formula One racing when it signed on with Enzo Ferrari in 1971 as his team’s official timekeeper.
Today’s version of the automatic omega cal replica watch has a more robust and expensive titanium case, versus the PVD-coated brass case used for the vintage model. Retailing at $520, it’s excellent value for the money, despite its outsourced movement, and a watch well worth considering for its historical and aesthetic appeal.