How Tudor Reboots With The Heritage Black Bay Chrono

The king of reinvention.

BY Robin Swithinbank | Sep 26, 2017 | Feature

Image from Tudor, 41mm steel on steel bracelet SGD4,850

Here’s how it goes now: another year, another traffic-stopping watch from Tudor. It might sound glib but Tudor’s good form is increasingly predictable and not the curiosity it might be. Only a decade ago, the brand looked washed-up. Its products were tired and sales were in retreat. How quickly we forget.

And yet here we are, with Tudor a frequent resident in best-of round-ups, plumped up by peachy designs, a good product-to-value ratio (yes, marketing speak, but bear with) and heck, David Beckham as a brand ambassador. How did that happen?

Well, let’s get this out of the way first. The nub of it is Tudor is owned by Rolex. Backed by Rolex green, it stormed back into the market in 2014, usurping the competition. A glossy marketing campaign with a slick TV ad followed—it was like Tudor had never been away.

But, to give Tudor credit, all that would have been for nothing if the product had been duff. Which it wasn’t. It was great. Right-thinking British watch fans had been clamouring for its return for years, swayed by the brand’s run of Heritage chronographs and then the launch of the Heritage Black Bay in 2012, a diver’s watch that rebooted one of Tudor’s most famous ’50s designs. When it came, Britain was ready for Tudor’s rebirth.

And Britain more than most. One of the great tenets of Tudor’s story is value which we’re alright with. The Tudor name was trademarked in 1926 but only became an entity in its own right in 1946, by which time Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf had confirmed he needed a brand that aped Rolex’s quality but carried what he called “a more modest price”. He bought in movements from third-party specialists to save on manufacturing costs, and set about wooing a new customer. It worked.

For decades, Tudor soared, treading a parallel path to Rolex. Early Tudor models carried the Rolex name as a quality signifier and later shared model names—Oyster, Prince, Submariner. The simple trick was trading off the reliability of the Rolex name and its product.

But by the turn of the century, the concept had grown stale and Tudor sales had crashed. Buying a Tudor that looked sort of like a Rolex but was cheaper was suddenly like driving a Toyota MR2 because you couldn’t afford a Porsche 911. Its watches disappeared from shelves all over the world in 2004.

All seemed lost until 2007 when the company rebranded, scrapping the visible Rolex ties and running instead with new watches that had their own names and looks. Fresh designs such as the Pelagos, Ranger and North Flag all enjoyed critical success but Tudor didn’t forget its past; in an industry where heritage matters, that would have been suicide.

Alongside the new models came vintage-inspired pieces. One such was the Heritage Black Bay, a diver’s watch that borrowed its design cues from one of Tudor’s most heroic archive pieces, the Oyster Prince Submariner of 1954. Aside from being the product of 21st-century manufacturing, the only salient difference between the two was the “snowflake” hour hand introduced in 1969 to help divers distinguish the hands on their watches more clearly, now a Tudor hallmark.

This year’s Chrono continues the story. According to Tudor designer Ander Ugarte, it is a Tudor’s greatest hits watch, alloying its diving and driving watch backstories into one. “The watch’s design elements are taken from several historical Tudor chronographs and diver’s watches,” he says. “It has the famous snowflake hand and a dial layout typical of the first chronographs Tudor made in 1970. You get a 45-minute counter and screw-down pushers inspired by the first generation of Tudor chronographs.”

All true but only half the story. Underneath that “neo-vintage” design, as Ugarte calls it, is a movement made not by Tudor, nor by a specialist movement manufacturer, nor even by Rolex, but by Breitling. The two companies announced a movement-swapping programme earlier this year through which Tudor gets Breitling’s Calibre B01 chronograph movement, while Breitling gets Tudor’s MT5612 three-hand date automatic.

A good deal? If you’re buying the Tudor, certainly, as it costs considerably less than a Breitling with the same movement (almost the same; Tudor has tweaked it but without stripping performance). Therefore, the Heritage Black Bay Chrono is a chronometer-certified unit with a column wheel, a vertical clutch, a silicon balance wheel and a 70-hour power reserve which, translated from watch-speak, is a highly accurate, resilient and responsive chronograph that will run for three days if fully wound.

“The customer gets unmatched horological value for money with a Tudor watch,” says Ugarte. Hard to argue with that. Another great watch from Tudor? Of course. What did you expect?

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, September 2017.