A Week On The Wrist: The 40mm TAG Heuer Aquaracer Could Be Your Only Watch
Is there such a thing as a watch for everyone? Could this be it?
Over the last decade, TAG Heuer has found itself caught between two worlds: That of the deep-cut enthusiast and the entry-level, first-time watch buyer. Over time, it’s developed an offering that satiates both groups. On one side, there’s been a bevy of limited-edition Heuer throwbacks, from the HODINKEE Skipper LE to various Carrera and Monaco vintage reissues (or reinterpretations). On the other, you can walk into basically any big-name department store and find all manner of TAG Heuers in the Aquaracer range – both automatic and quartz – at fairly accessible around-$2,000 price points.
The brand sometimes catches a bit of flack from enthusiasts for its broad reach. Words like “mall watch” get bandied around quite a bit. And to be honest, that commentary is pretty unfair. The watch hobby should be inviting, accessible, and fun. And accessibility to one watch can open up the world of watches … should one choose to take the leap. And frankly, most watch brands don’t offer that opportunity.
And we’ll take part of that blame! We’ve spent our own share of time lamenting that TAG’s Aquaracer offering came basically in a 43mm sizing for years. Eventually we came to the realization that the brand’s dive watch collection simply wasn’t for “us” but rather the mass-consumer. That was until March of 2022 – during LVMH Watch Week when TAG took its two worlds and forcibly collided them.
Enter the 40mm Aquaracer 200 Outdoors – the watch that knocked our proverbial socks off (and maybe our literal ones too, had we not been wearing shoes when we saw the watch for the first time). A 40mm TAG Heuer sounds obvious enough – because it once was super-prevalent – but it’s proven to be a size option missing from the brand’s collection for much of the aughts, all of the teens, and subsequently, the early part of the ’20s. So when it arrived and we were presented with it – both in automatic and quartz form – one sentiment came to mind: TAG Heuer, the Swiss entry-level brand, is back.
At the mini-trade show in Midtown Manhattan that was LVMH Watch Week, beneath bright office lighting, I spent a couple of hours with the 40mm Aquaracer in its grey dial configuration. I got to know the dial, the bracelet, the caseback, the wrist-feel, and the general offering. I saw the black dial quartz model in all of its date-less glory. But one thing that bummed me out was the absence of the blue dial variant with its punchy use of color and generally exciting vibe.
So when the blue dial Aquaracer made its way to me, I realized I needed something more than the hands-on treatment I gave the grey variation. I needed more than a day, more than a few days … a week, perhaps?
Making Sense Of A Seemingly Simple Release
If you look back to the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s, TAG Heuer had a much larger presence on wrists, generally. We’re talking about a name brand with a wallet-friendly collection of tool-adjacent watches. The Heuer, and then post-acquisition TAG Heuer Professional series were about as ubiquitous as a Submariner. You need only look back at our episode of Talking Watches with Keegan Allen in which he recalls the story of his late father’s Red Submariner. He talks about how his dad did everything in his Sub, from spending time outdoors to fishing. And then one day, he traded it in for a new tool watch. And what watch was that, you ask? A quartz TAG Heuer Professional. Allen’s father wore that watch as much as the Sub, and Allen himself cherishes it as it carries fond memories.
This is all to say that TAG, for all of the “mall watch” talk, has as many bona fides as the original Heuer brand. We often leave out the late ’80s and ’90s because they weren’t as romantic an epoch in the story of watches – but to do that is to miss when TAG had its greatest impact – the time when the 40mm TAG Heuer diver was the coolest kid in class.
So when it came time to really buckle down and assess the new TAG Heuer Aquaracer 40mm in its proper context, I needed to ask the question: Who is this for? The answer wasn’t quite so simple. Obviously this release was the answer to those of us who had been shouting from the rooftops to see the brand return to its roots. But at the same time, in its sub-$3,000 price point, the Aquaracer 40mm is every bit for the novice collector or first-time watch buyer. And the most exciting thing is that that new buyer will be strutting around town in a wearable, 40mm watch, as opposed to a 43mm or larger water-resistant behemoth (there’s absolutely a time and a place for a watch that large, but I will die on the 40mm hill).
What’s more interesting in analyzing this idea, is trying to figure out what these different watch buyers are looking for in a watch like this. I think it’s safe to say that a collector or enthusiast is after a combination of quality and history. From the historical standpoint, the Aquaracer 40mm is the spiritual successor to the Professional range from decades ago. From the steel bezel to the closed caseback, I think this plays into the “do less” style that many of us look for in a modern watch and hardly find. Speaking of modern, this is modern with a capital M (I suppose I could have just made the “M” capital in the first place). The design is fresh and clean with no hint of vintage affectation. The enthusiast loves a good vintage watch, but will also appreciate a modern one done thoughtfully – which is very much the case here.
The first-timer, conversely, is open to learning what it is they like. They’re invariably attracted to something that looks good and appears to be good quality for all the money they’ve saved up. Here, there is visual interest in the dial – along with the vibrant blue color – and a bit of flash in the bracelet by way of the polished center links. The size also adds versatility because a watch like this is sporty enough to hang by the pool, but has the right balance of style and construction to make it a perfect match for work attire. It’s TAG Heuer’s version of the “only watch you’ll ever need.” And every brand needs one of those.
But so much of this analysis is an intellectual exercise. I’m here guessing what hypothetical groups of people would like (this what I do in my spare time, apparently). But I also spent a week with this watch getting real feedback on what I like. In that time, I must say, it surprised me.
A Week On The Wrist
The first thing I noticed is also the most obvious selling point of this new Aquaracer – the size. This is 40mm of stainless steel, or as James Stacey might say, one unit of watch. And it wears no larger and no smaller than its size suggests – it’s true to its measurements. In fact, putting this on my wrist, I got the immediate feeling that it was a watch I’d worn before. Of course, it wasn’t, but it just instantly felt right, and that doesn’t happen often in this world. Most times a watch looks good in photos, in the hand, or even resting on a table. But the second you get it on wrist – well, that magic dissipates. Here, the party continues from the hand to the wrist.
I think that has something to do with the overall aesthetic presented here. Instead of maintaining the ceramic bezel design from the 43mm models into the 40mm – TAG Heuer kept things simple, and the watch is better for it. The brushed steel bezel with contrasting black numerals is inarguably the coolest component of this all-steel party of a watch. Keeping the bezel steel allows it to gel with the overall modern design language baked into the watch. It completes the pseudo-industrial look. Sure, ceramic would have worked, but steel works better. Conversely, if TAG Heuer had opted to throw things back to an aluminum bezel offering, we’d be having the “vintage-inspired” talk. And luckily, we don’t have to. Save that for the Heuer-only models.
And then there’s that dial. While I was sufficiently impressed with the grey variant, this bright blue smoked example was vastly more fun. The coloration peaks at the center and falls to almost a stark black at the edges. In indoor environs it’s a nice, pleasant blue – but get this thing under direct sunlight, and the blue reads as almost neon. It’s the sort of effect you don’t want to take your eyes off of, and I rarely did when wearing this one.
The applied markers in a stark white explode off the dial, making it extremely legible no matter the lighting conditions. In fact, in total darkness you can see the dual-color luminescent treatment in Super-LumiNova. The dial itself is textured with horizontal lines. I mentioned this in my introductory post but it gives off something of a Patek Nautilus vibe, although less so in the blue fumè example I spent a week with. The visual interest train keeps on rolling when you get to the step chapter ring for the minute markers. The Aquaracer wordmark and TAG logo are situated near 12 o’clock and the depth rating near six. Look a bit deeper and you’ll find the date window squarely at six o’clock.
As far as date apertures go, this is about as good as it gets because it pleases everyone. It’s nicely integrated and matches the black outer edges of the dial. And the best part is that it doesn’t utilize the cyclops magnification found on the 43mm model. Of course, the quartz variant of this watch has no date window. And while I think an enthusiast would prefer a no-date execution, I appreciate the inclusion of it here for two reasons: One, it’s an inherently useful complication, and two, it allows the first-time buyers, who would likely prefer the date, to enter the world of TAG via a mechanical watch. It’s a win-win.
The general shape of the steel bezel is dodecagonal, giving the Aquaracer a slightly different look from the dive watch design we see over and over again from basically any brand that makes a diver. The brushed nature of the bezel matches that of the case and feeds right into the bracelet, which features polished center links. Would I prefer the brushed look that the 43mm models have? Maybe. Historically though, the TAG Heuer Professional models came on jubilee-style bracelets which created a mixture of sport and elegance. I think of this brushed/polished execution as the modern version of that ideal. It’s a bit utilitarian with just enough fanciful elements. The clasp is pure utility, offering on-the-fly micro-adjustments.
Turn the watch over and you’ll find a closed, engraved caseback. In terms of the Aquaracer line at large, this is nothing new – only now the engraving has even been updated from a diving motif to a compass. That’s because this model isn’t marketed so much as a dive watch as it is a multi-purpose adventure watch. The engraving is fine, I don’t care for display casebacks so it works for me. Behind the compass engraving is the TAG Heuer Caliber 5 (ETA base) offering 40 hours of power reserve. It’s not the best movement out there, but it’s more than you’ll ever need and helps keep the price down.
In my A Week on the Wrist video review, I did a little cosplay as different buyers for this watch. As a result, I had a few different outfits or costume changes. No matter the clothing choice, I found that the watch wore great. The bracelet is comfortable, the case is well-proportioned, the dial legible, and the wearing experience fun. I could conceivably see myself buying this watch and having it as a carefree alternative to some of my other divers that just won’t stop going up in value.
Speaking of other watches, here’s a list of some other budget-friendly divers you may come across if you’re looking to purchase a 40mm Aquaracer.
You simply can’t have a discussion about value-packed, pitch-perfect-sized dive-style watches without mentioning the Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight. I actually think there’s a rule against it. With the Tudor, you’re getting a Rolex-quality product with an insanely well-made bracelet and an in-house movement for less than $4,000. Unlike the Aquaracer 40mm, this watch is all about the vintage cues. The dial is gilt, the bezel is gilt, and the markers have hints of faux-patina. Like the Aquaracer, it features a closed caseback. It also comes in under the 40mm mark, at 39mm. There’s about a $1,000 price difference between these watches so it ultimately boils down to what you like, and what you’re willing to pay for.
Here it is, the James Stacey special. The Seiko SPB143 came out in the middle of 2020 and has since become something of an icon in its own right – or at the very least, a horological darling. It ticks the 40mm box perfectly, and even has a steel bezel (though it’s treated to appear black with contrasting white numerals). This watch is yet another exercise in advancing by simplifying. Seiko pulled from the design of its earliest divers to create a modern execution that’s hard to deny. Add in Seiko’s in-house caliber 6R15, which might not be the most accurate (but who said tool watches need to be?) and at $1,200, it presents a value that’s truly hard to argue with.
In this price segment, when it comes to blue dial divers, it’s impossible not to think of the Oris Aquis. Here we have the caliber 400 model – the brand’s in-house movement – in a 41.5mm example. This is certainly a larger watch and it will wear as such, so it’s not so much competition in the wearability department as it is for those really looking at comparable TAG alternatives from a price and use-case perspective. Of course, that movement comes at a premium, in this case $3,500. But at that price, with a manufacture caliber, excellent brand history, and a uniquely modern design – it deserves at least a look.
The Super Sea Wolf 53 is something of a deep-cut choice. In fact, I think you really need to be “in the know” to even have Zodiac on your radar. For those who do know, however, what you get with a watch like this is the brand heritage, a distinctly vintage design ethos (which isn’t overdone in this case), and downright affordability. This example shares the steel bezel aesthetic with the TAG Heuer Aquaracer 40mm and comes in at 39mm. It has a STP (Swiss Technology Production) 1-11 automatic movement which is a Selitta base and not too far off from the ETA 2824 base in the Aquaracer. It’s about $1,500 less in price, too, so it boils down to personal preference.
Wearing the TAG Heuer Aquaracer 40mm for a week really cemented the idea that the brand has truly created a great watch for everyone. Collectors and enthusiasts alike can revel at TAG’s return to 40mm form – and as a result, I hope to see more of my counterparts in the industry giving this one a shot. Those new to the hobby can enter via a reasonably sized, though no less modern option. Could this be a sign that the big watch trend is finally coming to an end? I won’t go that far (large watches have their place in this industry, too), but I will say this: It’s important to give any watch out there a chance. I never thought a 40mm TAG Heuer would rank among my favorite releases of the year. But it does – and I’m not mad about it.
The TAG Heuer Aquaracer Professional 200 Date. Reference 40mm stainless steel case. Unidirectional bezel in steel. Water-resistance of 200 meters. Blue fumé dial, six o’clock date. Automatic TAG Heuer Caliber 5 (ETA 2824-2 base). Stainless steel bracelet with micro-adjustable clasp.