The news from Dec 12th 2023 that Breitling bought Universal Geneve instantly captured the collective watch world's attention. From minute one this acquisition was met with the hope that one of the greatest vintage watch brands will be revived to old glory. An early Christmas present from Georges Kern. But what does it actually mean for us collectors, customers and enthusiasts? What challenges are ahead of this new-old-stock brand?
December 20, 2023
Does History Repeat? - Universal Geneve & Breitling
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
The news from December 12th 2023 that Breitling bought Universal Geneve instantly captured the collective watch world's attention[1-4]. From minute one this acquisition was met with the hope that one of the greatest vintage watch brands will be revived to old glory. A new-old-stock type of of Christmas present from Georges Kern.
A little back-story on the acquisition: Universal Geneve was hit hard by the Quartz crisis and after a long winding fall from its vintage glory ended as an afterthought in the hands of the Hong Kong based Stelux Group in 1989. They kept making watches but unfortunately failed to revamp the brand back to their power-house status. Rumors have it that several people and groups made moves to buy the brand but finally it was Georges Kern, Breitling and the Partners Group that succeeded.
In the words of 1942 Universal Geneve: "Faithful Control of your Destiny"... Who wouldn't want to see such a lineup coming back to life? Universal Geneve and mid-Century design at its best! Advertorial Courtesy of HIFI Archiv.
While still joyous from all the possibilities, we're also standing in front of the big void asking: what comes next? The idea of having mid-Century UG back at retailers is a tremendous outlook but what will it look like? Will that even be possible? And what can Breitling bring to the table? It's without a doubt that the first "new" Universal Geneve watch, collection and lineup will come with the baggage of greatness and compassion for the 70 year old role-models...
Thus, to understand both brands and where they come from we want to take a more systematic approach in comparing them to see what we might expect. We want to see what these brands historically have in common that might transcend into the revival of Universal Geneve in 2023.
Breitling - systematically bringing back their glorious designs since at least 2021. Photo (Breitling Duograph) Courtesy of Breitling.
1) Historical Chronograph Makers
We start with the obvious here... both Universal Geneve and Breitling have a rich history as pioneers and innovators in the field of the stopwatch complication. Breitling introduced their first (wrist-)chronograph in 1915, the first with a separate push-piece. Universal Geneve followed in 1917. In 1934 both brands then launched the next evolution of the genre by - independently - putting a second push-piece to the functionality[5-6].
Both, Breitling and Universal Geneve, built on their reputation and prowess to get a strong footing in the emerging field of aeronautics. Breitling's Chronomat (1941) and Navitimer (1954) collections as well as Universal Geneve's Uni-Compax (1937) and Aero-Compax (1940s) collections marked important cornerstones in civilian and military aeronautics and navigation.
A gigantuous (46mm) Universal Geneve ref. 22430 - nicknamed the "Universalone". This jumbo-sized reference is the perfect example for a watch combining utility/legibility with style. The Universal Geneve way of life. Photo Courtesy of Shuck The Oyster.
Here, an important question emerges... Why would Breitling acquire Universal Geneve in the first place? A competitor to their core business model? Because it is not unthinkable that a newly revamped UG will come out with one or the other modern Compax version. According to Georges Kern and Alfred Gantners press release the two brands should exist as quasi-independent entities and will cater to very similar tastes.
2) Price Points
This brings us to the next section - the price. A potential and necessary dissociation between Breitling and UG might come with the price. Breitling has for some time tried to gain traction in the 15,000-30,000$ horological luxury segment taking some share from the likes of Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin and Breguet. It's been tough so rumor has it that a fresh start with UG might be the logical next step.
A high-end iteration of a 1940s Uni-Compax with a yellow gold case made by Spillmann. Is that what Breitling might be after? Photo Goldammer Archives.
But I must say this distinction appears rather arbitrary. Yes it might be but how do you add value to models of a brand that historically has been aiming for the same customer base? For example in the late 1940s a Breitling Chronomat in steel - one of their most complicated pieces - would set you back 100$. At the same time Universal Geneve Aero-Compax models in steel - even eclipsing the Chronomat in complications - would be 125$, a mere 25% more. These pieces have first and foremost been about utility and aren't really compatible with our modern view of fine watchmaking. A price increase from Breitling -> Universal Geneve doesn't make sense unless...
3) Universal Geneve has been more than Chronographs
The advantage vintage Universal Geneve holds over Breitling is the versatile portfolio. Breitling's most recognizable vintage collections are the Premier (a chronograph), Chronomat (a chronograph), Navitimer (a chronograph), TopTime (a chronograph) and the SuperOcean (oh a diver!). Thus, the modern time-only variations are mainly rebranded chronos or survivors from the Ernst Schneider era (pre-2017).
A brief glimpse at the cornucopia of designs that come with the Universal Geneve brand. Several shapes, designs and functions. Photos from Goldammer Archives.
This is the ultimate advantage that Universal Geneve brings to the Breitling/Partners Group Holding portfolio... and would bring to any modern watch brand frankly. UG is far more than the Compax. It adds shapes, designs, innovations and one of the most important names in the business - Gerald Genta.
Genta has done so many good thing for and with Universal Geneve - several Polerouter, Shadows, & Disco Volantes - that it will easily stir the competition. He is today viewed as a horological demigod and building on his reputation can bring a brand to the next level (see Audemars Piguet, ignore IWC here).
If I'd have to bet I'd say releasing a new Micro-Rotor movement should be very high up on the to-do list at the new Universal Geneve brand. Photos from Goldammer Archives.
Just mentioning Genta in a watch release is an asset. But I go further and say that several functions of legendary UG models grant a unique selling point. Beyond chronographs, calendars, and designs there's the Micro-Rotor. It doesn't sound like much at first but this is a technology where you can immediately add value and combine it with historical relevance.
Bear with me here for a second. First, Universal Geneve and Gerald Genta were the first to master the technology of a decentrally placed weight to wind an automatic watch - so you got the legacy factor. Second, look what Piaget did with similar Micro-Rotor movements starting in the 1960s. Due to the reduced height thicker dials - stone, intricately finished and decorated - could be used in overall very wearable and aesthetically pleasing watches. Third, Patek Philippe for example mastered the Micro-Rotor and is a role model in what is possible in terms of finishing.
Arguably not the biggest success story from a modern collector's perspective but an important chapter in Universal Geneve's history nevertheless... The (Golden) Shadow collection. The first to employ the Microtor movement in serial production. Photos Courtesy of Christie's, Le Floc'h & Antiquorum.
I would thus propose that an ultra-slim Microtor collection is a possibility - at least in my fever dreams. If executed well it might compete with Vacheron's Patrimony and some of Patek's entry-level Calatrava's. On the other extreme such a collection might become an interesting hybrid between Piaget's modern Polo collection and vintage Rolex Day-Dates of the 1970s. A dressier slim collection alongside a new Polerouter *yeah!* would make a lot of sense and people happy. The technology holds the potential to ladle customers away from the established brands in the sector.
4) Why it might become a commercial success under Breitling*
And this brings me to the last segment comparing Breitling and Universal Geneve - both vintage and modern. It's fundamentally interesting that exactly Breitling & the Partners Group Holding acquired UG. Given the specific challenges with Universal Geneve it is however a brand that shared a very similar fate with Breitling throughout the last Century.
Figure 1. Estimated** Annual Production Volume for Breitling and Universal Geneve between 1930-1978.
Looking back at the historic production numbers we can easily make out the correlated trajectories. Both UG and Breitling have been faring well (production-wise) during the war years - the demand was high. Both saw the rise of the chronograph popularity in the 1960s with increased production. Both were hit hard by the Quartz crisis and ended in new ownership during the 1980s with a special take on their heritage.
In other words, from the chronograph side of things, Breitling and Georges Kern may already know how to pull Universal Geneve out of oblivion*. The position of the brand is different though. At least Breitling was still making quite a few watches and had some brand recognition with folks not deep down the vintage rabbit hole. So let's see how and if it will be marketed to the broader audience.
How cool would a new Polerouter collection be? Photo Goldammer Archives.
5) The Conclusion
And this brings me directly into summarizing my thoughts on the new Breitling/UG brand. In Chris James Hall's words - there are things to be happy and to be cautious about. First, Breitling and UG chronographs are virtually catering to the same customer base. It's really unclear what we can expect in that sector and how the approach of the two will differ.
Second, can a Breitling-UG establish a higher price point? Ultimately, the Breitling B01 movement is quite dated and already used in Tudor's chronographs undercutting Breitling prices. It's unlikely it can successfully be utilized at an even higher price. There's a lot of development that needs to be done but that also grants potential to develop Breitling along with it.
What we easily forget today is that Universal Geneve has always been driven by both design and technology. And that sentiment predates Gerald Genta's work and legacy. Advertorial Courtesy of HIFI Archiv.
Third, it might be tempting to think that with so much overlap between vintage Breitling and Universal Geneve - particularly in the chronograph sector - that modern UG will be a sure-fire success. Stelux, the former owner, wanted to do the same in 1994 and 2005 as well and both tries ended rather quietly. We shall not forget that brand recognition of Universal Geneve - outside the horological media bubble - is limited and far inferior to Breitling in 2017.
Fourth, the most interesting sector for the new Universal Geneve might lie outside the ubiquitous chronograph segment. Bringing names like the Polerouter, Gerald Genta and the first Micro-Rotor to the table yields potential beyond imagination (imho). It can access what's en vogue (and thus in-demand) today and versatile enough to develop into something original.
Or maybe we will even be absolutely surprised by a new brand positioned to attack the market of women's watches? It's a growing market as well... Advertorial Courtesy of HIFI Archiv.
Like so many others I can only speculate... and that's why this news has been so thought provoking and engaging over the last week. We all have expectations and wishful thinking immediately associated with this acquisition. So why not take UG mainly to the collectors and less to the broader public? I still hope that the new management takes on the challenge to sell the idea of well balanced and executed vintage Universal Geneve to a broad 21st Century audience. But we now can only wait and see how much new and how much old there'll be in the first Universal Geneve watch...
* Let's not speak about design here...
** Estimated because (a) for Breitling there's an overlap between time-only and chronograph serials. I used the chronograph brackets. (b) Similarly, for Universal Geneve production is only available in 100,000 steps with year-brackets. According to "The Polerouter" average UG production between 1967 and the early 80s did not eclipse 80,000 units annually.
 Breitling Just Announced the Acquisition of Universal Geneve; Roger Ruegger, WatchTime; [Link]
 The Fourth Wheel - Issue 82; Chris James Hall; [Link]
 Breitling Acquires The Universal Geneve Watch Brand; Anthony Traina, Hodinkee; [Link]
 Breaking News: Breitling Acquires Universal Geneve; David Bredan, A Blog To Watch; [Link]
 How Much Do You Know About Vintage Breitling?; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches; [Link]
 Universal Geneve Models; Mr. A, Universal Geneve Info; [Link]
 A Deep Dive Into Gerald Genta's Design Legacy; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches; [Link] The Polerouter; Andrew Willis & Mattia Mazzucchi, Time Honoured Limited; [Link]
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