Breitling just bought Universal Genève. Now what?

Breitling just bought Universal Genève. Now what?

Borna Bošnjak

Just in time for the holidays, Breitling announced what could become the most significant news piece of the year, revealing their purchase of Universal Genève, a legendary watchmaking house of yesteryear, for a rumoured US$70 million from Hong Kong-based Stelux Holdings who had acquired Universal Genève in 1989. A brand whose revival has been eagerly awaited by many, myself certainly included, almost feels long overdue, with numerous whispers and rumours talking about Stelux finally selling their prized possession. Georges Kern, Breitling CEO, seems acutely aware of the mammoth task ahead, stating that, regardless of excitement, the brand is “also fully aware of the task at hand and the profound heritage [they] are set to uphold.” This is promising to hear, but what exactly does it mean, and what are the next steps? While it will almost certainly take some time for those things to materialise, here are the three key points I believe are crucial for Breitling to not just capture the essence of Universal Genève, but also take it in the right direction for the future. All I can say is – I called it.

Respect the icons

Universal Geneve Golden Shadow advertisment 1966

Having recently been experiencing sort of a revival themselves, Breitling is actually quite well-positioned to take on this task, and would do well to pay proper tribute to Universal Genève’s storied past. This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s so important to point out. First of all, nobody wants to see a re-branded Breitling with a Universal Genève-inspired dial stuck on top.

universal geneve polerouter micro rotor
My Polerouter Micro-Rotor

No disrespect to Breitling, of course, they’ve been re-branding the right way by consulting long-time brand enthusiasts. Universal Genève just requires a completely different touch from the brawny, hefty vibe their new partner brand usually goes for. Another important consideration are the dials themselves – I’m surely on record somewhere for believing that the Polerouter is the most beautiful watch in existence. I’m hopeful we won’t see any unnecessary date windows in unsavoury locations or huge spec sheets printed on the dial.

Universal Genève Compax 885108 Exotic Nina jpg
A 36mm Universal Genève Compax ref. 885108 ‘Exotic Nina’. Image courtesy of Oliver & Clarke.

The more difficult aspect of this will be the wearing experience. When have you last worn a new watch that has the same vibes as a vintage one? Not in the way that it’s a little flimsy – à la vintage Jubilee bracelet – but actually has the dimensions and old timey charm that makes vintage watches so appealing. Kern promises a completely new team to work on UG “to allow Breitling and Universal Genève to operate as separate maisons.” That’s absolutely the right call.

Universal Genève Compax R885103 02 Nina Rindt jpg
The collector-iconic 36mm Universal Genève Compax ref. 885103/02 ‘Nina Rindt’. Image courtesy of Oliver & Clarke.

If Breitling choose to go the reissue route, which makes sense and doesn’t seem that far-fetched, I do not want to see 40mm diameter, 12mm thick Polerouters and 40mm x 15mm Tri-Compax chronos. And that’s going to be difficult. Modern movements, especially complicated chronographs that were UG’s bread and butter, are often chunky, and if they’re not, well then they’re a fair chunk of change.

Don’t alienate the enthusiasts

Breitling Universal Geneve 01 Article about the Universal Geneve Polerouter published in Europa Star in 1965

That nicely brings me to my next point. Looking at some recently revived brands, there are a lot occupying the micro space – think Guillaume Laidet’s work with Nivada Grenchen, Vulcain and Excelsior Park. At the other end of the spectrum, brands like Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta have risen from the dead with the help of Louis Vuitton’s ultra-high-end watchmaking division La Fabrique du Temps.

Breitling’s press release very much reads as if UG is slated to be a luxury brand, with Georges Kern describing them as “the couturier of watchmaking” and whatnot. That’s all well and good – that’s exactly what a conglomerate like the one behind Breitling can do, rather than say, an independent. What I’m worried about is just how high-end this is going to be.

universal geneve chronographs advertisments

I can only hope that UG will sit somewhere in between, escaping the compromises of using off-the-shelf movements, but still providing a relatively affordable entry point that won’t discourage all but the watch collecting 1%. After all, I see this revival as an opportunity for Breitling to have a boutique, IYKYK brand in their arsenal, catering mostly to an enthusiast crowd. It wouldn’t be fitting for a new, entry-level UG to retail for, say, US$30k. In fact, the most expensive Tri-Compax models of the ’60s only retailed for around US$150, around US$1,500 adjusted for inflation. And yes, I’m acutely aware that vintage pricing cannot dictate today’s prices, but considering a less complicated Daytona of the era would sell for around US$200, it would pleasantly surprise me to see a Universal Genève at a similar price point, though that may be wishful thinking.

Capitalise on the hype

universal geneve cabriolet 1928

This may be the most important one for long-term success. What this could look like, I’m not quite sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a revival of an iconic model to start with, continuing to serve as the new Universal Genève halo product. The images supplied with the press release tease a few curious choices and aren’t overly focused on any one model. I was most surprised to see the vintage ads include a Cabriolet and some award-winning jewellery models. Now, that’s not to say that these are definitely the watches that will be revisited in the first releases, but it could be a fun Easter egg. In the case of the Cabriolet, it also kind of makes sense considering it’s a model that actually has a modern counterpart, fitted with a modern micro-rotor movement. I’ll spare you from looking at an image of this 2008 mishap, and instead prompt you to gaze at this wonderful 1920s model that could serve as inspiration to finally doing the Cabriolet justice in a modern scenario. Whatever their first model is, it needs to be something desirable that will keep enthusiasts on the hook and engage new ones. As much as we may dislike it, hype is a precious thing, and I hope Partners Group does not waste it.

Despite my cautiousness, it’s impossible to hide that I’m really excited to see where this goes. Breitling and their parent conglomerate Partners Group are well-positioned to take on this mammoth task, and would do well to pay proper tribute to Universal Genève’s storied past. A recent conversation at T+T brought up the matter of Universal Genève’s revival, and I quipped that the brand may be better off dead. If you know me, such a cynical comment is par for the course, but Universal Genève has amassed such a mythical status – especially recently – that any new attempt may seem sacrilegious if not done exactly right. Is Breitling the right brand to restore them to their former glory? Honestly – I have no idea. But I sure as hell hope so.