There is no doubt that vintage mechanical watches are (still) hot right now. So much so, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to buy a historically significant piece without parting with a small fortune. As with anything in life though, if you dig a little deeper, you can always find one or two hidden gems.
The Universal Genève Polerouter is one such example. Designed by the legendary Gérald Genta in the early 1950s, the Polerouter quickly became a big success. It was considered on par with similar models from the likes of Rolex and Omega. Luckily for collectors, you can still find good quality examples for 1,000 – 2,000 euros.
The Universal Watch company was first established in Locle, Switzerland in 1894 by Numa-Emile Descombes and Ulysse Georges Perret. Sadly, Descombes died just three years later at the early age of 34. As a result, Georges Perret entered into a new partnership with Louis-Edouard Berthoud in 1897. Thanks to its forward thinking approach to watchmaking, the “Universal Watch” company quickly developed a favorable reputation in Europe and the two Americas. In 1919, the company was relocated to Geneva and research on self-winding systems for wristwatches began in earnest.
After the death of Georges Perret in 1933, his son Raoul took over management of the company. New investors were brought in and in 1934 the company changed its name to “Universal Watch Co. Ltd. Genève.” Several chronographs were developed and released to great acclaim during this time and the Universal Genève name quickly became synonymous with quality and innovation. In fact, they were so successful that the factory in Geneva could no longer meet demand for its popular “Compur” and “Compax” models and so a new chronograph factory was opened in Pont-de-Martel in 1941. This was followed by the release of the Tri-Compax model in 1944, another hugely successful model for the company.
Gérald Genta Design
If you’re reading this as a watch enthusiast, it’s probably safe to assume that you’re already familiar with the name Gérald Genta. After all, the Swiss-born designer has been behind some of the most recognizable watch designs in modern history, including the Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet, the Nautilus from Patek Philippe, and the Ingenieur SL from IWC. Nearly twenty years before Genta dreamed up the iconic Royal Oak for AP, however, he was approached by Universal Genève.
At the tender age of 23, Genta was asked by the Swiss watchmaker to design a watch to commemorate Scandinavian Airlines Systems’ (SAS) polar flights from New York and Los Angeles directly to Europe. That may not seem like something worth commemorating these days, but back then it was a big deal. It was the first time any commercial airline had flown over the geographical North Pole; the polar circle “shortcut” enabled SAS to cut the flying time from Copenhagen to Los Angeles down to around 24 hours (excluding a three-hour stopover in Canada).
Flying over the North Pole came with its own set of challenges, however. The most notable one being the extreme magnetic fields that completely disrupted SAS’s navigation and timing instruments, including the wristwatches worn by the pilots and crew. SAS was able to design a new navigation system to overcome the first problem, but it had to turn to the airline’s official watch supplier, Universal Genève, for help with the timekeeping issue.
Already well-versed in the ways of anti-magnetic timepieces, Universal Genève brought in Genta to design a watch that would become the airline’s official pilot’s watch. The first of these featured the SAS logo on the dial and was presented to the crew upon the successful landing of the maiden voyage to LAX. It was for this reason that the watch was originally known as the Polarouter, though it would later be renamed the Polerouter, and thus a legend was born.
Following the creation of the special series for the SAS flight crew, the Polarouter was officially launched to the public in 1954. The first models were fitted with the same automatic calibre 138SS as the SAS versions, featuring a pendular mass oscillating between two shock absorbers. Within a relatively short period of time, the watch was renamed the Polerouter and updated with the calibre 215 “Microtor,” a new automatic movement with a very innovative micro-rotor winding system.
Caption: The Calibre 215 “Microtor”
The Calibre 215 “Microtor” as well as the Cal 218-1 and 218-2, which came later, are arguably some of the best-known movements ever produced by Universal Genève and were the forerunners to the now-legendary Cal. 69. Heralded as the thinnest automatic movements of their time, the micro rotor was able to wind the mainspring in both directions, enabling more energy to be stored which resulted in an impressive (especially for the time) power reserve of 60 hours. The rotor was plated in pink gold with a “Colimaconnage” finish, whilst the movement itself was rhodium plated with a fine “Fausses Côtes de Genève” decoration.
At the same time, the Buren Watch Company was working on a similar concept together with the Hamilton Watch Company. Consequently, even though Universal Genève introduced the Calibre 215 “Microtor” in 1955, the company was not able to patent it until 1958 due to a prolonged legal skirmish that ensued. Therefore, movements from the first few years of production are stamped with “Patented Rights Pending” beneath the rotor.
Over the ensuing decade and a half, several other Polerouter models would follow. In addition to the classic case with “Bombe” lugs and an inner index ring (Polerouter, Polerouter de luxe, Polerouter Date), new models with different case designs and dials were also introduced (Polerouter Jet, Polerouter Super, Polerouter Genève, Polerouter Compact, Polerourer “NS,” Polerouter III, Polerouter Sub). With all these variations, it’s hard to choose a favorite, but personally, I think I can narrow it down to the Polerouter Date and the Polerouter Sub.
The Polerouter Date
The Polerouter Date is a classic dress watch in every sense of the word and at the height of its popularity, it was considered in the same league as the Rolex Oyster Date and Omega Seamaster Date. Presented in a 34-mm case, the Gérald Genta design is still as timeless now as it was then. I love the asymmetrical date window and the clean layout of the dial. Versions from the 1950s are typically powered by the 218-2, whilst later models feature the famous Cal. 69.
The Polerouter Sub
Following the success of Polerouter dress watches in the 1950s, the Polerouter Sub was launched in 1961 and remained in production till around 1968. Also designed by Genta, the Sub was a larger, sportier tool watch intended for recreational divers and sailors. Broadly speaking, there are two main versions of the Sub: the dual-crown Super Compressor, which is considered quite rare, and a single crown model. Several variations were created of the latter, which featured a variety of dial/hand combinations, bezel colors and materials, as well as variations in the shape of the crown. Interestingly enough, the single crown models also came in both symmetrical and asymmetrical case shapes. However, all models were fitted with the Cal. 69 caliber — the 1962 successor of the Cal. 218-2 — with the exception of the dual-crown Subs; those still used the original Cal. 215. Over the years, the Polerouter Sub has enjoyed an increase in popularity, making them harder to find today.
So, there you have it. If you’re in the market for your first vintage watch, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with a Polerouter from Universal Genève.