Swellboy on… Tag Heuer’s ties to boxing and the sea

Time and tides wait for our man

Tag Heuer Muhammad Ali watch, £2,250
Tag Heuer Muhammad Ali watch, £2,250

I am not a huge boxing fan, but I have a weakness for the history of the sport and prize fighting played an important part in Gentlemen & Blackguards, a book I wrote about gambling in the 1840s. The theatre surrounding the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila is something that I look back on with great nostalgia and even now I can hear the lilting tones of David Frost, who was at the fight, rhapsodising about the charms of Kinshasa in what was then Zaire.

Zaire is now Democratic Republic of Congo and alas both Frost and Ali are no more, but Tag Heuer is doing its part to keep the memory of the bee who floated like a butterfly alive, with the launch of a special watch.

The caseback pays tribute to the boxing legend
The caseback pays tribute to the boxing legend

When it comes to Ali and watches, I was surprised to learn that he once wore a Cartier Tank (well, I suppose that is one way of testing the shock resistance). Ali was certainly a courageous man. I am far too afraid of breaking my Cartier, and am always careful to remove it whenever I am competing for a world heavyweight title or even just sparring for an hour in the boxing ring that I have erected in the back garden of the ancestral hovel. As a student of the science of pugilism, I am aware that repeatedly thumping someone with a clenched fist is far from ideal for a delicate mechanical watch movement. In fact, I sometimes think that my love of fine watchmaking has somewhat held me back as a pugilist. Who knows, perhaps had I not been so precious about my watches it might be my name rather than that of Tyson Fury on the lips of connoisseurs of fisticuffs.

Anyway, Tag has form in the ring. Back in the 1950s, it invented the Ring-Master, a stopwatch with seven interchangeable scales that permitted the timing of, among many other things, boxing matches, ball games, industrial production and respiration. If there was any human activity inadvertently omitted, Heuer, as it was then, thoughtfully included a “Hobby” ring “for personal calibration”. I am trying to work out how to calibrate it for my own personal hobbies (quaint word) of cigar smoking and backgammon.

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Now with the return of a Ring-Master-inspired watch, I hope that Tag Heuer will revive some of its other great activity-specific timepieces. There is the 1890 launch of the Cattle Counter, for instance; the Heuer Pregnancy Calculator (for the management of human gestation); or a skydiving timepiece from the 1970s.

However, top of my list for revival is the Heuer Mareograph, a self-styled “multipurpose chronograph” that was born out of a request by the outfitter Abercrombie & Fitch. This was way back when Jack Heuer, now in his 80s, was still at school and long before Abercrombie became a place of T-shirts and muscular male models.  

The Ali watch is inspired by Tag Heuer’s 1950s Ring-Master
The Ali watch is inspired by Tag Heuer’s 1950s Ring-Master

Abercrombie wanted a watch for sailors that gave the times of tides. The request was put to Jack’s father who, as he recalls, “had not seen the sea for quite a few years and was not at all familiar with the subject of tides. He scratched his head and admitted he had no idea how to do it. I told my father that my physics teacher at school, Dr Heinz Schilt, was a genius and I was sure he would be able to find a solution. Indeed he could, and he performed all the calculations for the wheels and cogs needed for a watch to predict high tides at a given location. Thanks to him and my intermediation we were able to create our first tide watch, the Solunar, and later the Mareograph-Seafarer. This was my very first involvement with the creation of a watch.” Propitiously, two rather fine examples of this watch are coming up for auction on Tuesday December 6 at Christie’s in New York.

The Mareograph (or Seafarer, as the Abercrombie model is known) is a brilliant timepiece that was marketed at yachtsmen, fishermen and hunters. It delivered the usual chronography, as well as moonphases, starting times of regattas, solar time, duration of cruise, position of the moon, solunar periods and even time of day. It strikes me that this is just the watch for practitioners of all sorts of solstice-dependent druidical activities, as well as members of another demographic sadly neglected by modern horological marketing: mushroom pickers.

Tag Heuer Mareograph-Seafarer, estimate $10,000-$15,000
Tag Heuer Mareograph-Seafarer, estimate $10,000-$15,000 | Image: Christie’s

Apparently, Jack’s father thought it would be useful to have a watch that showed the phases of the moon, because while mushroom hunting he had observed that morels seemed to spring up in greater numbers during a waxing moon. I confidently expect Tag Heuer to start sponsoring druidical happenings and mushroom-picking expeditions, but just how this will fit with its maxim of not cracking under pressure remains to be seen.  

However, for the moment, mushroom picking and mistletoe ceremonies must wait. Now that Tag Heuer has brought out its Muhammad Ali timepiece, I feel that the time is right for me to take my boxing a little more seriously. As a start, I have already downloaded the complete Rocky oeuvre, of which I intend to make close study, and I have asked Connolly to begin work on a Vaumol leather punchbag.

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I have just one question regarding the new Ali watch: should I wear it over my boxing glove (in the manner of a second world war aviator or as Agnelli used to wear it over his shirtcuff) or is it considered better manners to keep it tucked out of sight inside the glove? While it may be less showy to wear the watch inside the glove, I cannot help thinking that it might be a bit tricky in the middle of a particularly violent series of jabs, left hooks or haymakers if I have to break off to unlace my glove in order to consult my watch.

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