The TAG Heuer Carrera and the pleasure of three-handers

Ken Kessler extols the virtues of pared-back watch design, with the TAG Heuer Carrera Three Hands the latest leading the way in optimal legibility

Watches & Jewellery 3 Dec 2021

TAG Heuer Carrera Three Hands 41mm watch, £2,400

As much as wristwatch-loving fanboys lust after timekeepers rich with ‘complications’ – those functions beyond mere time-telling – the default purchase for most of us is what is called ‘the three-hander’. This describes the type of watch that does precisely what timepieces were designed to do, which is to show us the hours and minutes, with the seconds, too, if needed.

One mild bit of horological humour suggests that the seconds hand is only there to show you that the watch is actually running. Without it, you’d have to stare at it for at least a minute to ensure that the hands are moving. Sarcasm aside, the majority of watches sold feature just the aforementioned three indications, with a date window being the next most likely addition. And if you look at any list of all-time classic wristwatches, the majority share this preference for minimalism.

Even if a watch has another role, for divers or pilots or soldiers, three-handers offer something which is sacrificed when extra functions are added: instant legibility. As much as the digitisation of the world wants us to move toward time displays of ever-changing numbers rather than analogue dials, we still appreciate that time can be told swiftly just by noting the angle formed by the hour and minute hands, while the seconds hand reassures us that our watch is ticking away.

TAG Heuer Carrera Three Hands, 41mm watch, £2,600

Sometimes, three-handed models follow complicated predecessors, rather than the other, more usual way around, when basic timepieces are modified to include extra operations. For fans of Jack Heuer’s masterpiece, the original Heuer Carrera of 1963, the irony is palpable. Here is a milestone of modern chronograph design, and yet it entered the 21st century, as TAG Heuer inaugurated a programme of reintroducing classics such as the legendary Monaco, with a three-handed sibling.

Those first Carrera chronographs, with two or three counters on the dials, delivered stopwatch functionality in a tidy case, with a clear, uncluttered look. The Carrera design was so svelte that Jack Heuer was even able to dress it in gold, not in just the more purposeful stainless steel. It became the go-to watch for sporting gentlemen from the moment it first appeared. When the time came to launch the three-hander, it had to adhere to the original purpose of the earliest Carreras if it was to share that evocative, race-bred name: to serve as a sleek timepiece to bridge the gap between track and office and cocktail party, or anywhere else one might wear a watch.

Twenty years on from the first of the Carrera three-handers, TAG Heuer has transformed it into an extensive range of its own, with a massive 13 variants from which to choose. All share the same look, and all are automatics, with case sizes in 29mm, 39mm and 41mm. There is a choice of strap or bracelet, with date or day-date and a choice of dial colours. But there’s more irony for devotees: the coolest model in the three-hander Carrera line might just be the TAG Heuer Carrera Twin-Time, aimed at travellers, as it shows two time zones. Deliciously, it bears not three hands, but four.

Discover the TAG Heuer Carrera Three Hands collection, from £1,900;