Heuer introduced the first automatic chronographs into world markets during the summer of 1969, with three models using its new Caliber 11 movements. Heuer’s existing Autavia and Carrrera were redesigned to accommodate these larger movements, which also allowed Heuer to update these models with a more modern look for the 1970s. In addition to offering automatic versions of the Autavia and Carrera, Heuer introduced an entirely new chronograph in 1969, one that was styled for the 1970s, the Monaco.
The Monaco was a very progressive design for 1969, the first chronograph to be offered in a square waterproof case. Dials were either midnight blue (with white registers) or charcoal gray (with gray or black registers), with the blue version receiving a boost when it was worn by Steve McQueen in the 1970 cult classic, Le Mans. While popular with the racing crowd, consumers weren’t too excited about the Monaco in the early 1970s, resulting in sluggish sales. The Monaco may have been too avant-garde for the time and the case too bulky compared to other watches. It didn’t help that Seiko introduced its line of automatic chronographs in the 1970s, with these models priced well below any of the Heuers.
The Monaco, Autavia and Carrera were relatively expensive compared with other early-1970s chronographs, and in 1972 Heuer created “economy” versions of the three automatic chronographs to improve their competitive position. The new Caliber 15 movement was a stripped down version of the Caliber 12 movement, deleting the hour recorder, and using less expensive components for the shock proofing, balance wheel and regulation system. Powered by the Caliber 15, the Monaco listed for $200.00, versus $220.00 for the Caliber 12 model.
Three-register manual-wind versions of the Monaco (powered by the Valjoux 7736 movement) were even less expensive, selling for $165.00 in 1972. The least expensive Monaco sold for $159.00, being a manual-model with a 12-hour recorder and date, powered by the Valjoux 7740 movement.
Still, the Monaco wasn’t living up to expectations, and became something of a “white elephant” in Heuer’s lineup. A March 1975 bulletin shows that Heuer was discontinuing the Caliber 12 and three-register manual Monacos, offering the automatic models to its dealers at a close-out cost of $93.50, with the three-register manual models wholesaling at $69.50.
Before abandoning the Monaco altogether, Heuer came up with a last ditch “Hail Mary” effort to save this unique model. It was the mid-1970’s by now and the military look was in, with several rivals introducing chronographs with a matte black military look. What better way for Heuer to catch the trend than take the least expensive model in the Monaco line-up (the one powered by the Vajoux 7740 movement) and offer it with a black-on-black dial, in a black PVD-coated case. Orange chronograph hands and needles, and bright white time-of-day hands, complete the style of the most dramatic Monaco chronograph.
While the concept of the black PVD Monaco seemed sound, the life-cycle of this watch remains something of a mystery. This model never appeared in a Heuer catalog or price list, and was never offered for sale in the United States, likely Heuer’s largest market at the time. It appears that Heuer pulled the plug on this model before the watch was in regular production, so that the black PVD Monaco never reached normal dealer channels.
Some suggest that Heuer didn’t even complete its first full batch of the black PVD Monacos, as the company was never satisfied with its ability to get the black PVD coating to adhere to the sharp edges of the Monaco’s square case. The naysayers believe that someone other than Heuer obtained the supply of parts, and assembled the black PVD Monacos. Although this idea persists in some circles, Jack Heuer himself has confirmed that Heuer did indeed produce the black PVD Monaco for at least some short period of time.
Almost 40 years later, we can say that the details of how and where the black PVD Monacos were produced have become less important, but its scarcity, dramatic style and perhaps even the mystery of its origins make the black PVD Monaco the most coveted piece among vintage Heuer collectors. Over the past decade, the community of vintage Heuer collectors has seen fewer than 20 samples of the black PVD Monacos, with these samples ranging from complete chronographs in new old stock condition to some samples that have been bought as “bits in bags.”
In December 2010, a black PVD Monaco achieved the distinction of the highest price paid for a Heuer chronograph at auction — other than a couple of Monacos worn by Steve McQueen himself — when one sold for $74,700 at the Bonhams auction of the Haslinger Collection. Some collectors suggest that this price was exceptionally high, as the worldwide promotion and publicity for this auction produced a near frenzy to acquire the pieces from this collection. Since that auction set the high water mark for the model, there have been reports of black PVD Monacos selling in the range between the mid-$30,000s for the best samples down to approximately $20,000 for any genuine sample.
Since the black PVD Monacos have become so valuable, there are duplicitous folks out there who have attempted to sell fakes (indeed, one can expect the crooks to be tempted when coating a stainless steel case in black PVD and refinishing a dial can triple the price of a watch). There are several ways to distinguish a real black PVD Monaco from a counterfeit, but there are two easy elements that allow collectors to confirm the authenticity of cases and dials. First, there is a “typo” in the reference number marked on the case, between the lugs. While ordinary steel Monacos powered by the Valjoux 7740 movement have the reference number 74033, the genuine black PVD Monacos ones are marked 740303. Second, on the dial, take a good look at the “12” and the “6” on the hour register and the “30” and “15” on the minute register. The black PVD Monacos are unique in having the “12” and the “30” higher than the adjacent numbers and the “6” and “15” lower. If all these numerals are on the same horizontal plane, it’s a telltale sign of a refinished dial.
Whether it’s the stunning good looks of the black case and dial, the mystery of their production, or the pure scarcity of the model, collectors will attest to the fact that the black PVD Monaco, once a “white elephant”, deserves its place as the most valuable of the vintage Heuers.