5 minutes

Universal Genève – A New Old Face in the Watch Industry

By Barbara Korp
Universal Genève

Universal Genève

There are plenty of vintage watch brands out there, but the surge in interest that Universal Genève has generated in the past month or so is the exception, not the rule. When Breitling acquired the brand, Universal Genève suddenly re-entered the minds of many a watch lover. All the UG models that had made history in the past suddenly become hot topics in collector and enthusiast communities. But what’s the real story behind the brand? And which models are worth checking out? We’re exploring the answers to these questions and more.

Brand History

The history of Universal Genève dates back to 1894, when watchmakers Numa-Emile Descombes and Ulysse Georges Perret founded a company with the intention of producing complicated timepieces. At the start, they mainly crafted movements and other components for larger watch companies, but soon they also ventured into manufacturing their own watches. Their creations were met with great success, and Universal Genève made its mark on watchmaking history. From new patents to new designs, Universal Genève was a household name.

But Universal Genève also succumbed to the next chapter of the industry’s history: the Quartz Crisis. During this period, sales plummeted, and the brand was barely holding on. A few attempts were made to revive the brand, but most failed before gaining any momentum. Today, you won’t find Universal Genève in any boutique display cases, but only at collector events and vintage shops. Will this be the brand’s fate forever more? Is it going to be a story of triumph followed by defeat?

Universal Genève Compax Chronograph Ref. 22409
Universal Genève Compax Chronograph ref. 22409

Nope! Not if Breitling has anything to say on the matter. The Swiss brand stepped in and took over what was left of Universal Genève in 2023. Will the revival work this time around? Well, Breitling certainly has the expertise required to reposition a brand and make it a big player in the industry. If the past few years have shown us anything, it’s that Breitling is skilled at reinventing itself, boosting its following, and striking the perfect balance between past and future. The two brands share a love of chronographs and generally sporty aesthetics, which are complemented by more elegant models. The next few years will reveal what’s in store for Universal Genève, but we suspect things will be looking up. There’s no good reason why new editions of some of UG’s classics wouldn’t become bestsellers, in our humble opinion.

Universal Genève Chronographs

There are few watch manufacturers that have ties to the chronograph like Universal Genève does. From the Compax to the Tri-Compax collections, the watchmaker not only delivered highly-advanced chronograph movements, but also helped shape the category’s overall look. Typical subdial arrangement? The term “tricompax”? We owe it all to Universal Genève! In fact, the Tri-Compax was so popular, it even found its way into the Oval Office. Former President Truman owned an 18K yellow gold Tri-Compax that he sported on several key occasions, including the Potsdam Conference in 1945.

Universal Genève Compax Tri Compax Ref. 22297-1
Universal Genève Tri-Compax ref. 22297-1

Universal Genève and the Micro-Rotor

Micro-rotors are enjoying a moment among watch enthusiasts, but did you know that the mechanism was first patented by Universal Genève back in 1955? The idea of integrating the rotor into the movement itself was novel at the time. It enabled manufacturers to build even thinner calibers, because the rotor no longer sat atop the existing movement. The micro-rotor wasn’t just technically innovative, it was also aesthetically pleasing. Since the rotor isn’t integrated into the very center of the movement, it gives each caliber with a micro-rotor an interesting asymmetry.

Universal Genève Microtor White Shadow Ultra Thin Automatic Ref. 566101
Universal Genève Microtor White Shadow Ultra Thin Automatic ref. 566101

Watches with a micro-rotor were sold under the name Microtor. These often measure 34 to 36 mm and are, thus, great for both vintage watch lovers and those with more delicate wrists. Every Microtor timepiece blends understatement with an undeniable classic elegance, making them a daily beater of a different kind.

Universal Genève Dress Watches

Alongside the invention of the micro-rotor, Universal Genève’s overall watchmaking prowess meant they were able to craft very thin movements. This led to the introduction of what was then the thinnest watch movement in the world in 1966: the Golden Shadow. This collection, together with the White Shadow, is probably the brand’s most famous dress watch line. Could it be relaunched? We certainly hope so! Flat dress watches are a favorite for many enthusiasts as they make ideal business and work watches. How flat can they get? Who knows, but seeing as Universal Genève managed to hold the world record for the thinnest movement once already, it isn’t inconceivable that they’d do it again.

Universal Genève Microtor Golden Shadow
Universal Genève Microtor Golden Shadow

Universal Genève Polerouter

And now for my personal favorite: the Polerouter. This timepiece was designed by none other than famous Gérald Genta – the man behind icons like the Nautilus and Royal Oak. When it first came to the market in the 1950s, it immediately became a huge success. The history of the model is also a selling point for a good few buyers. The timepiece was initially intended to mark the advent of Scandinavian Airlines Systems’ (SAS) direct polar flights from New York and Los Angeles to Europe. It was the first time you could fly over the North Pole in a passenger aircraft – an aviation milestone!

Universal Genève Polerouter Date Ref 869102/11
Universal Genève Polerouter Date ref. 869102/11

While the flight route saved a lot of time, it brought with it a number of challenges. The North Pole’s strong magnetic fields strained the equipment, including clocks and watches. Fortunately, Universal Genève was well-versed in anti-magnetic technology, enabling them to easily design a new service watch for SAS pilots. Thus, the Polerouter was born; a legend that will hopefully see a resurrection in the near future.

Final Thoughts

While we can’t say what exactly is in store, there’s one thing we do know: Universal Genève is in good hands at Breitling. The brand will certainly be made fit for the future there. Of course, it’s fun to dream. I, for one, would love to see a modern take on UG’s classic chronographs with various complications, reimagined dress watches with micro-rotors, and, more than anything else, a new edition of the antimagnetic Polerouter pilot’s watch. But until we see some new life coming from the brand, be sure to check out Universal Genève’s vintage offerings. If you are looking for a chronograph with history or one of Genta’s original designs, you will find what you’re looking for in Universal Genève’s archives. The range is as varied as it is impressive. Enjoy the hunt for your own vintage wonder and add a new exciting chapter to its history!

About the Author

Barbara Korp

The moment I learned that watches were a lot more than just simple jewelry, I was hooked; I become enamored with the elegance of timekeeping. But there was one small hitch: most models were just too big for me to wear! That didn't discourage me, however. In fact, I developed quite a niche interest.

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