Railway watches are a special kind of cool. There are no two ways about it. This Swiss-made classic for Italian railway workers goes a long way in proving my point. Allow me to set the scene… You look down at your watch, its fine, pale enamel dial greets you, glistening in the gloom of the railway station as the sub-seconds hand laconically moves closer to 60. It marks the arrival of an ETR 250 Arlecchino train, translated to English as “Harlequin.” You smile at the train’s handsome livery as it comes to a stop under the embrace of the broad, arched metal roof of the train station. It’s the 1960s, and Italy is booming. 

I imagine this is the sort of scene that my watch may have once experienced because this is no ordinary civilian timepiece. Today, we are taking a look at the vintage Universal Genève Ferrovie dello Stato, or “FS” as it has become known among enthusiasts and collectors (Ferrovie dello Stato translates to “Italian State Railway”). 

Vintage Universal Genève Ferrovie Dello Stato "FS"

A post-war boom

The 1950s and 1960s were a heady time for Italy. Leisure travel was fast becoming mass tourism. According to the late historian Tony Judt, Italians owned just 342,000 vehicles in 1950 (less than the number of cars in Greater London at the time alone) but had two million vehicles by 1960 and over ten million by 1970. People wanted to move, and a significant part of this was using the revitalized Italian railway system. 

Italian railway workers needed watches as part of their role. This was still a time when mechanical watches were tools and not simply luxury objects. With help from the US Marshall Plan, which helped fund the reconstruction of Europe after World War II, the Italian railway system was being rebuilt and expanded to meet the needs of the nation’s citizens. From pocket watches to wristwatches, the purpose of design (high legibility) tends to lead to quite striking results.

Vintage Universal Genève Ferrovie Dello Stato "FS"

Universal Genève steps in

In the early 1960s, Swiss watch company Universal Genève, already a popular brand in Italy, became a go-to supplier for the Ferrovie dello Stato. But rather than the complex chronographs for which Universal Genève made a name for itself during the era, these watches were specially made and simply elegant timepieces for Italy’s rail workers. 

Vintage Universal Genève Ferrovie Dello Stato "FS"

These vintage Universal Genève FS models come in three series (or marks), and they were in production from the early to mid-1960s right up to the mid-1970s. The watches needed to be highly legible, with a white dial, Arabic numerals, and sub-seconds at 6 o’clock. Universal Genève fitted these watches with its caliber 64, a non-hacking movement. Estimates vary, but around 80,000 Universal Genève FS watches are thought to have been made, with the second series being the most common of the three. The Universal Genève FS MK I had a smaller 34mm case, with the later MK II and MK III versions coming in 36mm cushion cases. The MK I and MK II had enamel dials, while the MK III had a silver dial. 

Vintage Universal Genève Ferrovie Dello Stato "FS"

The subtle beauty of enamel

This brings me to the first really cool thing about these vintage timepieces — the enamel dial. It is hard to describe without seeing one of these in the metal, but the way the enamel dial plays with light in day-to-day life is simply enchanting. As stated before, the first two series of these watches had enamel dials, making them quite unusual. 

Vintage Universal Genève Ferrovie Dello Stato "FS"

Even better is the fact that the Arabic numerals raise off of the dial. They have been stamped, creating a three-dimensional popping effect in outside light. The numerals themselves have a mysterious font that I love (though I’m not sure of its origin). The open “6” on the MK I’s sub-seconds dial is an extremely subtle but cool detail that is absent from my MK II. The more you look at these deceptively straightforward dials, the more nuances present themselves. 

The font on the first two series pictured in this article is also endearing. If anyone can tell me what font it is, I would love to know. On the MK I, the sub-seconds dial has numerals printed radially, with the “15” and “45” sideways. This adds another little quirky and cool detail that also differentiates it from the MK II. Turning to the back of the watch, we see the “FS” stamped on the case back with the serial number beneath. As you can see from the simplicity on display here, this is a tool watch first. 

Finding the right one

Now that I might have piqued your interest in the vintage Universal Genève FS, the adventure for getting the right one may well begin for you. I was lucky that a friend of mine is somewhat of a Universal Genève expert and was able to help locate one (in Italy) for me. 

Take care when looking for these as they should have a Universal Genève logo on the crown. Due to servicing through independent watchmakers, many for sale these days no longer have the original crown. Also, make sure to pay close attention to the condition of the enamel dial. These dials can suffer chips, scratches, and cracks from undue care.

Final thoughts

So there you have it — a little journey into what is simply a very cool watch. I’m now chasing a MK I like my friend Jack’s (who was kind enough to provide his for the photos) because I find these enamel dials highly pleasing to look at. This was not meant to be an exhaustive history of this watch. Indeed, there are other articles out there that explore them in further detail. Rather, I intended it as something of an expression of appreciation for a vintage timepiece. And that’s before we even explore some other companies that made watches for Italian Railway workers, such as Perseo.

What do you think of this simple and striking design? And can someone tell me what font those numerals are? If you have a gem you feel is underrated like these vintage Universal Genève FS watches, please let me know in the comments.

You can find me on Instagram here: @onhenryswrist