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11/17/2015
 3 minutes

Legendary Watch Brands: Universal Genève

By Christopher Beccan
Universal Genève Tri-Compax Chronograph, Image: Bexsonn

As a watch brand, Universal Genève are probably not as widely known as the likes of Rolex, Omega or Patek Philippe, but this lack of awareness doesn’t mean that they haven’t created some of the most beautiful timepieces known to man—in fact, quite the opposite. The company was founded in 1894 by two highly capable watchmakers, Numa-Emile Descombes and Ulysse Georges Perret, who decided to embark on a mission to start a watch brand that specialised in making complicated watches.

Universal Genève first began as a manufacturer and retailer of cases, crowns, dials, and movements. The enterprise was a success and they were well received. Tragically, Descombes passed away in 1897 at the young age of 34, so Perret recruited Louis Edouard Berthhoud as a co-manufacturer of complications. For a brief period the company would operate under the registered name of Perret & Berthoud before using the name Universal Watch et Company Genève Ltd, after relocating to Geneva.

Universal Genève found early success when they created various pocket and trench watches for both sides fighting during World War I. In 1898, UG showcased a chronograph with a 30-counter, the Universal Watch Extra, and went on to release their first wristwatch chronograph in 1917. By 1925, Perret and Berthoud had created the brand’s first patented self-winding timepiece, the Auto Rem. It was a gentleman’s timepiece that featured an elongated octagon-shaped case with lozenge-styled hands.

Not long after the pocket watch era started to dwindle as tastes shifted in favour of the more convenient wristwatch during the First World War, Universal Genève decided to focus on wristwatches. In doing so they created a timepiece called the Compur in 1933. In 1936, shortly before WWII, Universal Genève introduced another wristwatch called the Aero Compax: the Aviator’s Compact Chronograph. The Compax was also produced in many other variations, including the Moon Phase, Medico, Tri, Uni, and Master Vortex. These wristwatches would see UG enjoy some success and impressive growth in business sales. Today the Universal Genève Tri-Compax is one of the most sought-after vintage timepieces worldwide.

It was not unusual for watch manufacturers to work with high-end luxury goods brands, so during this same period Universal Genève also worked with Hermes and created chronograph wristwatches especially for them. In fact, Hermes headquarters in Paris would act as a major sales hub for all of the Universal Genève timepieces until the 1950s. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Heri Stern Agency in Manhattan, which was also the distributor of Patek Philippe, would become an official Universal Genève dealer in North America. This only further enhanced the popularity of Universal Genève.

Universal Genève Polerouter Date
Universal Genève Polerouter Date

In the early 1950s, Universal Genève introduced what is arguably their most well-known timepiece of the post-war era: the Polerouter. No doubt you’ve heard of the famous porthole-design watches, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus. Both these watches share one thing: they were conceived by revered watch designer Gerald Genta, though not until the 70s. Looking further back you’ll see that early in his career he was recruited by none other than Universal Genève SA. It was here that Gerald Genta would design one of his first production pieces: the Polerouter.

Originally produced as the Polarouter in 1954, it appeared with a Cal 138SS bumper movement. The following year it was replaced with the innovative Cal 215 micro rotor movement. With minor changes and a name change (from Polarouter to Polerouter in 1958), it was produced until late 1969. In its initial fifteen years of production, the Polerouter was produced in many variations, including the Polerouter de luxe, Polerouter Jet, Polerouter Super, Polerouter Genève, Polerouter Compact, Polerouter “NS”, Polerouter III, and the Polerouter Sub diver’s watch.

Due to the quartz crisis during the 1970s, Universal Genève, like many other Swiss watch brands, struggled because the cost of producing such pieces was too high for the market. This proved to be economically devastating for UG, with a loss among its holding companies and inevitably the brand itself. But after trying times during the 1980s and 90s, Universal Genève was purchased by a Hong Kong investment firm, Stellux Holdings International, which also own Cyma. As of today, Universal is an active member of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. They maintain three offices in Switzerland and oversee La Chaux-de-Fonds-based watchmaker Cyma. Even today, Universal Genève vintage timepieces are still sought after—perhaps even more so than during their heyday!

Universal Geneve Tri-Compax
Universal Geneve Tri-Compax, Image: Auctionata

About the Author

Christopher Beccan

Christopher Beccan is the founder of the online magazine "Bexsonn," where he regularly writes about his two passions: extraordinary timepieces and whiskey. His work …

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