Under the Radar: Universal Genève

Under the Radar: Universal Genève

| 12.07.23

Universal Genève is one of the most important companies in modern watch collecting — though this wasn’t always the case. 

Ten years ago, virtually no one outside of dedicated watch collecting circles had heard of the brand, its heyday being long in the past. Today, however, awareness has been raised by the likes of watch websites such as HODINKEE as well as by retailers such as Analog:Shift. Indeed, once you learn a bit about the firm’s contribution to the greater watchmaking world, you’ll quickly understand the appeal of this most innovative maison

A Brief History of Universal Genève

Universal Genève new factory in Les-Ponts-de-Martel - (Image by Universal Genève)

Universal Genève was founded as Universal Watch in 1894 by Numa Descombes and Ulysse Perret, two horology students living in Le Locle. Tragically, just three years later, Descombes passed away suddenly, leaving Perret to partner with Louis Berthoud, with whom he relocated UG to Geneva shortly thereafter in 1919. Although the brand thrived domestically under the leadership of Perret and Berthoud, its global presence had yet to be established. Following Perret’s death, his son joined the firm, bringing in a variety of investors who helped to expand the reach of the Universal Genève manufacture and turn it into the industry leader we recognize today. 

The first of the milestone watches came in 1934 at the company’s first Baselworld exhibition, where it released an early dual-pusher chronograph wristwatch utilizing a double-column wheel system — the very first generation of the iconic “Compur” line of chronographs. In 1936, following the tremendous success of the Compur, UG expanded its offerings, including the “Uni-Compax” — a dual-register chrono that would soon replace the Compur completely — and the Compax, the very first watch to include an hour totalizer. Today, of course, many chronographs feature triple-register displays with hour counters; at the time, however, this was a novel concept that was quite revolutionary. 

Perhaps the best way to comprehend the magnitude of UG during this period is to recognize that their headquarters was located directly between that of Rolex and Patek Philippe, where it stayed for decades. (Image by Universal Genève)

Through the 1930s and 1940s Universal Genève expanded its offerings to include a number of additional chronographs with minor refinements. It also added complications, such as a complete calendar in 1943, and the Aero-Compax model with four-register layout. In 1944, in celebration of a half-century of business, the maison released the Tri-Compax, a triple-calendar chrono with moon phase. This unique design became, for a time, the brand’s best-selling watch.

Universal Genève | Made for Scandinavian Airliners System: Polerouter Deluxe, Ref. 10234/1 yellow gold wristwatch circa 1955 - (Image by Sotheby's


In the early 1950s, UG released the Polarouter, later named the Polerouter. This special watch, from the mind of legendary designer Gérald Genta, was issued directly to Scandinavian Airline Systems (SAS), which needed an anti-magnetic timepiece for use in its new North Pole-crossing international routes. In 1955, the brand developed a micro-rotor movement with Buren Watch Co. that later outfitted certain Polerouter models — the movement type for which the model is now known. 

Universal Genève Polerouter ($3,390) - IN THE SHOP

The Polerouter design was striking and unique, with twisted lugs; a simple, rounded case; and classic dial layouts, often divided into sectors. This design recipe worked beautifully for an everyday, dressy-yet-sporty watch — qualities that are as beloved today by collectors as they were by casual buyers in the mid-20th century. Other versions followed in its wake, such as the dive-ready Polerouter Sub, the elegant Polerouter Jet, and the advanced Polerouter Electric from 1962. Meanwhile, beginning in 1963, UG began fitting its popular chronograph models with Valjoux movements; this era also coincided with their being worn by celebrities such as Nina Rindt and Eric Clapton.

Ultra-thin automatic such as the Genta-penned Golden Shadow appeared in the late 1960s, while 1968’s Unisonic was produced in collaboration with Bulova. However, the onset of the Quartz Crisis in the 1970s wrought havoc on the brand, and it appeared on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1989, it was purchased by Hong Kong-based Stelux Holdings International Limited. While it continued to do business, its current-production watches haven’t lived up to the legendary pieces of the 1930s-1960s. 

Although the brand isn’t really a player in the modern watch market, its heritage in chronographs and micro-rotor based designs helped to establish its presence as a standout leader in the world of vintage watches. At Analog:Shift, we stock myriad Universal Genève offerings at any given time, spanning multiple categories, price points, and aesthetics. Enjoy a smattering of them below, split into three categories: Polerouter variants; vintage chronographs; and other miscellaneous picks. 


Universal Genève Polerouter Date “French Import”

Universal Genève Polerouter Date 'French Import' ($8,500) - IN THE SHOP

This particular Universal Genève Polerouter captures the essence of the collection beautifully. Souped up slightly with its rose gold case, the classic hallmarks of the Polerouter are preserved with fantastic clarity. Somewhat unique on this variant is the round date aperture versus the square display we typically find on this model. Meanwhile, the minute track is defined with small rose gold dots, and rose gold appliqué ‘stick’ indexes sit atop a silver ring on the dial surface.

For a piece dating to the 1950s, this is an excellent example: Its lugs are razor sharp, with the original maker’s hallmarks entirely intact. Additionally, while this watch may not be large by today’s standards at 35.5mm, it’s not nearly as small as many vintage pieces of the era. This sizing remains entirely wearable and in style today, particularly with its broad lug presence. 

Universal Genève Polerouter Date “Tropical”

Universal Genève Polerouter Date 'Tropical' ($7,200) - IN THE SHOP

This next pick is yet another classic Polerouter with a slight twist: This example features a ‘tropical’ sector dial. What's best about this variant, however, is its excellent condition. Patinated or ‘tropicalized’ watches often come in well-loved cases with signs of hard use. In this case, it almost seems like this example sat in the sunlight for decades, aging without becoming overly worn. A Reference 204503/2, it’s one of the most emblematic Polerouter references of the 1960s. 

This is a brilliant example, and paired with a brown strap, the dial pops. As with the other Polerouters, it features a reliable micro rotor movement, hashed chapter ring and sword hands. The tropical dial on this piece makes it a bit more casual than the previous example, but it' still a highly versatile piece. 

Vintage Chronographs

Universal Genève Compax

Universal Genève Compax ($4,500) - IN THE SHOP

Our next pick, a Compax from the 1940s, comes from the early period of Universal Genève’s storied chronograph production. An excellent example of the firm’s strides in popularizing the wrist-worn chronograph, it stands out for its clean design, highly legible dial, and excellent sizing. We’ve previously covered the important contributions the brand made to the space, and this model pays testament to that legacy. 

While there are a number of Compax iterations out there, each with its own identity, this reference 22498 exists somewhere between a dressier chrono and a tool watch. Its dial, with countdown hashes on the subsidiary seconds display, is somewhat sporty. Simultaneously, however, this piece has more delicate leaf hands, no lume, no rotating bezel, and no screw-down crown, lending a more elegant aesthetic befitting of a dressier model. Once again, the 35mm case is situated somewhere between classic vintage sizing and more contemporary dimensions. In short, the story of this watch is balance: Balance of dress and casual and balance of vintage and modern — a theme that rings true to a number of the watches made by the brand. 

Universal Genève Uni-Compax

Universal Genève Uni-Compax ($4,900) - IN THE SHOP

This dressy Uni-Compax Reference 12445, fashioned from yellow gold, is further proof of UG’s prowess in crafting dressier versions of classic tool watches. Housed in a 34.5mm case, its simple, dual-register layout with 45-minute and running second counters is complemented by an outer tachymeter track in blue, a 1/5th-seconds track in black, and a lovely, gold ‘feuille’ handset. Applied gold ‘Arabic’ numerals and the blue in the tachymeter scale pair beautifully with a supple blue Cervo leather strap, making for a watch that can be worn every day or with more formal attire.

Powering this Uni-Compax is Universal Genéve’s own hand-wound Calibre 245 movement — confirmation of the brand’s horological bona fides as well as its design acumen. Not many brands were so adept at fashioning both robust tool watches in the classic mold as well as dressier takes on useful complications — UG certainly stands out from the crowd in this respect. 

Universal Genève Compax ‘Nina Rindt’

Universal Genève Compax 'Nina Rindt' ($32,000) - IN THE SHOP

This next variant is the UG equivalent of the Rolex ‘Paul Newman.’ An incredibly attractive panda-dial chrono with an externally mounted tachymeter bezel, this piece does indeed feel like the combination of Rolex’s Daytona and Omega’s Speedmaster. Produced in the 1960s, the 36mm piece became especially famous when it was worn by model Nina Rindt, wife of Formula One legend Jochen Rindt. 

Nina Rindt wearing her UG 'Compax' at a race track. - (Image by Universal Genève)

Although this watch is most definitely not a Polerouter, some consistency in design exists, with a similar bezel size and proportionality, plus the recognizable ‘twisted’ lugs. Unlike the previous chronos we’ve highlighted, this Reference 885103/02 features pump pushers. An extremely attractive, collectable, and significant reference, it represents one of the grails of Universal Genève collecting.

Universal Genève Compax ‘Evil Nina’ MK I

Universal Genève Compax 'Evil Nina' MK I ($17,850) - IN THE SHOP

While you can buy a Compax in many forms, one of the most sought after is a 1960s-era reference dubbed by collectors “Evil Nina.” A reverse-panda version of the aforementioned panda-dialed model worn by Nina Rindt, it features a black dial with white sub-registers and a striking red seconds hand. Add to this the unique handset, outer tachymeter bezel, and hand-wound Valjoux 72 movement, and you’ve got yourself the recipe for a hit.


This particular Mark 1 Evil Nina’ — evidenced by its applied 'U' signature at 12 o'clock — comes paired to a handsome, burgundy leather Ralstra rallye strap. In excellent condition with a well proportioned ‘twisted-lug’ case, it’s the perfect accessory to accompany a day at the track.

Universal Genève Tri-Compax Moonphase

Universal Genève Tri-Compax Moonphase ($39,390) - IN THE SHOP

Next up is the natural extension of the previous piece. Leaning further into the sport category, the Tri-Compax Moonphase Reference 881101/63 combines the chronograph function of many of our previous models with a complete calendar (month, day, date, and moonphase). Once again, we see the twisted lugs that are a hallmark of the brand. 

Universal Genève was never a massive producer, and this variant, with its navy blue dial and white subsidiary dials, is extremely rare. To add to the equation, for every production run of a particular variant from the mid-20th century, relatively few will remain in collectible condition, further highlighting just how spectacular this particular example is. It’s truly a beautiful representation of the more complicated side of Universal Genève’s production, and as vintage UG continues to become more and more desirable by the year, we can only expect such pieces to become more and more coveted by the global collecting community. 

Miscellaneous Pieces

Universal Genève Field Watch Ref. 7480

 Universal Genève Field Watch Ref. 7480 ($2,750) - IN THE SHOP

Branching Universal Genève beyond its most recognizable contributions to the watch space, we arrive at an early wristwatch from the brand’s historical archive, the Reference 7480 field watch. Dating to the late 1930s, this 32mm piece, with its ‘railroad’ minutes track, beautiful lumed blue hands, and evenly patinated radium dial, beautifully captures the essence of field watches from the era. 

Despite its small size, its placement on a Bund strap effectively allows it to wear more comfortably in a modern context. Furthermore, its captive crown, stepped lugs, and delicate handset combine with its more utilitarian features for a wholly unique result that appeals to all sorts of collectors. For any military or field watch enthusiast, it’s a guaranteed hit, and it's also priced incredibly well considering its condition and beauty.  

Universal Genève J.E. Caldwell and Company 

Universal Genève J.E. Cadwell and Company ($2,350) - IN THE SHOP

This next offering is an example of one of UG’s simpler models outside of the Polerouter range. Produced specifically for J.E. Caldwell and Company, a retailer of Universal Genève products, this watch isn’t immediately recognizable as a UG model beyond the company beyond the crest below 12 o’clock. 

That said, taking a closer look, we see the same twisted lugs and button crown of the Polerouter — indeed, the DNA is entirely there even without the signature. This particular example was manufactured in the 1950s and features one of Universal Genève’s ‘bumper’ automatic movements; furthermore, it’s extremely affordable. You’d be extremely hard pressed to find a watch this cool, in this price range, in such condition!  

Universal Genève Steel Dress Watch

Universal Genève Steel Dress Watch ($1,550) - IN THE SHOP

Finally, as we move into more recent times, we begin to see UG experiment with some completely different designs, producing some especially interesting dress watches in the 1970s. The Reference 842123 we have here is, interestingly enough, similar to Patek Philippe’s Ref. 3919 on a bracelet — we see the same lugless case, ‘Roman’ numerals, simple handset, and pure white dial. 

In many respects, this aesthetic became the look of dress watches in the industry for a time. However, provenance and case metal means that this UG is worlds more affordable than the Patek 3919. If you appreciate the overall aesthetic and want a high-quality, dependable, manually-wound dress watch made by a strong brand, it’s difficult to fault this option. It may not be a Polerouter or a Compax, but in a different context, this is a fabulous value!