Breitling took us all by surprise when it announced its acquisition of Universal Genève on December 12th. I wasn’t so much the fact that someone would try and bring UG back to its former glory that was unexpected. On the contrary, that was long overdue. Rather, it was Breitling’s involvement that came as a surprise. But now that we know, admittedly, we are filled with a mix of excitement, trepidation, and expectation.

There will be quite a lot of time between the announcement and the first new watches under the Universal Genève brand. That offers me ample opportunity to offer some cheeky, unsolicited advice on how I would approach the challenge. I will combine those with some expectations based on what we currently know. Let’s get stuck in!

Universal Genève models we will surely see again

Let me kick things off with the obvious. Of course, a revived Universal Genève must be built on a strong foundation of important historic models. Two main categories spring to mind first — chronographs and the Polerouter.

Starting with chronographs, the most recognizable name to use as the coat hanger for a new collection is Compax. Of course, it is predated by others like the Compur, but I feel the Compax name offers a lot of flexibility for building out a brand-new collection. For starters, the Compur is a distinctly old-world chronograph line. It will be very hard to reimagine without going the overly vintage-inspired route. The Compax, however, took UG into the ’60s and ’70s, and it could provide a great platform for some modern reinterpretations. I would expect a bunch of variations under recognizable names like Tri-Compax, Uni-Compax, etc.

The second obvious collection would be the Polerouter. As one of Gérald Genta’s earliest designs, it is an absolute highlight in Universal Genève’s history. I would approach this as a high-end GADA watch. The original perfectly combines adventure and formality, which would surely land in fertile soil today.

“Nina Rindt” — Image: Bazamu

Contemporary Universal Genève rooted in history

I think it is safe to conclude at this point that Breitling will have the revived Universal Genève lean heavily on its history. Simply put, why else would you buy a historic brand? My biggest piece of unsolicited advice would be to refrain from going overboard on the vintage vibes. Luckily, Breitling showcases that it can maintain that balance rather well, so I have high hopes.

The thing is, if UG becomes an overly sentimental and backward-facing brand, it will become a fashionable gimmick rather than a serious horological player once more. There are plenty of revived heritage brands operating as microbrands today. If Universal Genève is to rise above those, it needs to dare to look forward.

The way I would do that is through evolved design. Simplified, that means taking significant historical references and mimicking the decades of evolution that they never got to go through. As a designer, you ask yourself how the same challenges would be approached today. Many of the most solid brands today followed this route. Think of Rolex, for instance. The modern-day Submariner looks like a contemporary, evolved successor to its 1950s ancestors. Still, it doesn’t look remotely retro. I feel this approach is most likely to lead to lasting future success.

Aero-Compax — Image: Amsterdam Watch Company

What price segment will Universal Genève occupy?

If we are going to make any predictions and express wishes regarding reissues, we need to think of where UG will sit within the market first. I have seen several people express hope for something a little more affordable. Many people suggested that Universal might compete with Longines and Tudor.

This seems highly unlikely to me. Universal Genève was always quite posh. The brand used to be referred to as “l’Aristocrat,” as my fellow writer Gerard recalls. I very much expect Breitling to pursue that elevated status for UG once more. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind. I would just like to make a very strong plea for making the watches worth the money, whatever segment they will occupy. So many watches nowadays are expensive rather than valuable. I do not mind paying a lot for something valuable, but I do not consider something valuable just because it is expensive.

I feel this, like striking the right balance in vintage-versus-contemporary design, is crucial for the future of the brand. As it stands, only the informed community of aficionados knows about UG. That also happens to be the crowd that knows when a watch brand is spewing BS. If Breitling approaches it like a cash grab, selling reskinned Breitling models at double the price, the future of UG looks bleak. If they are genuinely high-end, beautifully made watches, there is always potential. Please, Breitling, keep it real!

Image: Those Watch Guys

A modern-day Polerouter

The model that my hands itch most to update would be the Polerouter. I would love to team up with designer Max Resnick and bring its design into 2024. I know that is a bit pretentious as Breitling will surely put together an all-star team to do it. But one can fantasize, right?

I would position it as a higher-end alternative to the Aqua Terra and Explorer/Datejust. If you could combine the ruggedness and dependability of those watches with a beautifully decorated micro-rotor movement on display and the highest level of surface finishing, you may be onto something — the gentle(wo)man’s adventurer’s watch, so to speak. In keeping with the original, its style would be subdued and timeless. A key point of focus that I would urge Breitling to maintain is slimness. This is where the Polerouter could beat the literal bulk of the competition.

I think the Polerouter offers ample opportunity for evolved design. It is quite timeless as is. Minor tweaks here and there would bring it from the ’50s to today. Versions are floating around on Gay Frères bracelets in UG-exclusive styles. I am sure that one of them lends itself to an aesthetic and technical update. To me, at least having the option of a bracelet is mandatory for a watch like this. The tuxedo dial would, of course, form the starting point at all times.

Tri-Compax 8811001/01 “Clapton” — Image:

A modern-day Universal Genève Compax line

Nina Rindt and Eric Clapton are significant names for vintage watch geeks. Both refer not only to famous figures but also to historically important Universal Genève Compax models. Both offer a chance to bring a contemporary chronograph rooted in history. From a design perspective, the challenge is a bit bigger here, though.

If you look at the “Nina Rindt” ref. 885103/02, for instance, you see a lot of familiar design elements that people may no longer associate with Universal Genève. The dial and bezel look a lot like the more famous Rolex Daytona from the same era. A chronograph with lyre lugs will most likely instantly trigger associations with the Speedmaster. Remember that the Speedy didn’t get lyre lugs until 1964, ten years after the Polerouter. Whether to reclaim these elements as UG’s own or to navigate around them are crucial design decisions.

There are two design elements, however, that UG can most certainly claim and evolve. The panda dial and the oversized, broad baton handset have the potential to be iconic of the brand. What fills me with hope is how Breitling has managed the Navitimer. It shows that the brand’s designers know how to evolve a classical chronograph.

Polerouter Sub — Image: Amsterdam Watch Company

Looking into the crystal ball

As you can see, it is all just speculation and wishful thinking at the moment. Honestly, I envy whoever gets to run the project. I cannot think of many greater and more important challenges in the modern watch world except for making the industry more sustainable — an endeavor in which Breitling is rather active as well.

If I could express only two wishes, they would be for evolved designs and watches that thoroughly justify their price tags. I truly feel that these are two absolute prerequisites for Universal Genève to cement its position on the horological firmament once more. An overly sentimental approach to branding and design or overly inflated prices could cut the revival short.

There you go — some advice that nobody asked for! Isn’t that the greatest kind? I am sure you, Fratelli, have a thing or two to add. Feel free to do so in the comments section! Oh, and don’t roast me for implying these might get expensive, okay? It is just a hunch I have.