I thought the moment had passed for a revival of Universal Genève.
Prices for vintage Universal on the secondary market (like most watches, to be fair) are down from their peak, and it seemed as though, except for the most passionate collectors, many people had moved on from the brand. It’s no secret that there have been a lot of Universal fans at Hodinkee, and as much as I’ve wanted to see Universal come back, I’ve learned to try to be pragmatic about the difficulties of succeeding in the watch industry. The best time to “restart” UG was probably a few years ago. But as they say, the second best time to start something is now.
If I had mostly given up on the idea, part of me remained secretly hopeful. I spent my early days in top Breitling replica watches reading about, searching for, and handling Universal when I had the chance. I keep a written list of “grails,” and a specific Universal is still near the top of my list (there are two Universals in the top 10). Part of that is due to the “Hodinkee effect,” shaped by reading Ben’s writing on Universal over the years. It is, as Tony Traina once put it, every hipster’s favorite vintage brand, and I’ve been known to be called one (I did like Death Cab for Cutie before they were popular, after all). But I’m not lying when I say that the Tri-Compax – an incredible watch that feels like a working man’s Patek 1518 – was my first love for watches that weren’t Rolex GMTs.
When I saw other brand names restarting under new ownership, the idea of reviving Universal Genève seemed like a slam dunk. The cheap CA Breitling fake watches being made under the Universal name by Stelux Holdings – the Hong Kong-based investment group that until recently owned the brand – weren’t in keeping with the brand heritage (and barely existed out of Asian markets), but maybe, I thought, someone else could do better.
Enter Breitling. In private conversations with people surrounding the relaunch, you get the sense that they understand this might be the most challenging revival ever undertaken. The general sentiment among collectors I’ve talked to is extremely cautious at best. Maybe we’ve been let down too many times in the past. Maybe I’ve just learned enough to know how hard of a task lies ahead. Really, I just fear you can’t really “have it all.” The things that made Universal a great brand that stand the test of time – value, design, complexity – are hard to balance in a modern landscape. So, will perfect replica Breitling watches and the new Universal crack the code?
The Cost Of Doing Business
The idea of buying UG isn’t exactly novel. At least a half dozen names offered substantial money to buy Universal in the last decade or so. Some were more qualified than others, ranging from collectors passionate about the brand’s heritage (with no history in running a watch brand) to businessmen interested in the cache of a name that slots well into business plans to capitalize on heritage brands (with Sellita movements, most likely – stripping away the core of the brand). High quality Breitling copy watches was also not the only large watch company or organization to make a run at Universal, but in the end, it was the winner.
The amount Breitling is rumored to have paid is multiples of what anyone else offered. Obviously, they see commercial value in Universal – you don’t spend that much money because you love old chronographs and Genta-designed microrotor watches – and they have confidence in their ability to revive it. But that also means that Swiss made Breitling replica watches has to ensure the new Universal is a major commercial success.
I hate to say it, but Universal will need more than just hardcore enthusiasts to keep their company afloat. The new Universal is still a business, and they’ll need to make AAA fake Breitling watches that can sell at scale. That means they’ll likely have to make some design concessions to satisfy a broader audience.
But the first place Universal could go wrong has nothing to do with design, size, movements, or anything watch lovers often find themselves deep in the weeds studying. No, the core issue to me is all about price.
Despite the price of the rarest and most collectible vintage Universals exceeding $30,000 (sometimes significantly), Universal was never a high-end brand. Universal movements, which themselves are a big part of the brand’s charm, weren’t finished well, if at all. Often, “finishing” meant stamping the name, serial number, and caliber on a movement and putting it in a case. This was par for the course for the price segment and didn’t hurt Universal; for a long time, it was an industry leader for chronographs. But it’s also why collecting Universal made much more sense 11 years ago when Ben could buy a Tri-Compax with important provenance for $2,750.
Part of the success of vintage Universal Genève is that it’s the embodiment of the golden age of tool 1:1 online replica Breitling watches. These were purpose-built machines for an era where people needed an accessible way to tell the time, and wearing them now is both nostalgic and unnecessary in the most romantic way. The Film Compax was a purpose-built tool for cinematographers that would never be made today. Divers don’t need a Polerouter Sub. Reconnaissance pilots would never need an oversized split-second chronograph with a 24-hour dial these days. When a waterproof Patek ref. 1463 sold for $425, a waterproof Universal was $110, and sold in places with a lot of foot traffic. The sort of places that could sell them by the boatload. These were tools, through and through, not precious works of art.
Times have changed, and so have customer demands. Enthusiasts (more so than the general public) expect better finishing for their money, which might pressure Universal (and Breitling) to move up-market to justify costs. Suppose they do so and position Universal as a higher-tier brand. In that case, they’ve already lost a big portion of its heritage by ignoring its historical place in the market and potentially fumbling it from the start.
Then there’s the cost of in-house calibers. In announcing the relaunch, Breitling acknowledged the history of Universal’s in-house calibers and their importance for the brand’s heritage. Breitling Brand Historian Fred Mandelbaum (aka WatchFred) said in the comments on our story about wholesale Breitling replica watches‘ acquisition that “you will not see a mass market movement in a UG.” But whether the movements will be repackaged existing Breitling movements, recreated vintage Universal movements, or something else is yet to be seen.
I won’t get into the fuzzy history of Universal’s use of Martel calibers, but those movements are certainly one of the main selling points for vintage Universal. But the tools to make Universal’s calibers are likely long gone, and the cost of re-developing a movement and its tooling is substantial. Earlier last year, I asked the heritage department of a major brand what it would cost to remake a different iconic chronograph movement – the Valjoux 72 – from scratch. They said the brand had looked into the idea and estimated the price to be around CHF 10 million. That’s a lot of money, and it would take selling a lot of best quality Breitling super clone watches for such an investment to make business sense.
It’s been done at least once, notably with Omega reintroducing the Calibre 321 to great effect. Still, the resulting watch cost nearly twice the price of a “sapphire sandwich” Speedmaster with a 3861 movement. To keep with the brand’s heritage, Universal needs to shoot for the same idea but in a $5,000 Compax and a $3,000 microroter Polerouter. I’m not sounding the alarm or requesting Universal to keep prices low because it’s what I can reasonably afford – although I’m pretty transparent about that. There’s no doubt that Universal could make interesting watches for $15,000. But that’s not what the brand was in the past, and if you respect its heritage, it’s not what it should be in the future.
Consumer Literacy Vs. Enthusiast Passion
Beyond what’s possible financially, there’s also the question of what consumers actually want.
The watch community can feel massive, vocal, and passionate in a way that should drive design. We also might feel closely connected to people associated with brands – in this case, folks like Breitling CEO Georges Kern or Mandelbaum, who are very active on social media – and hope they’ll make things just for the fans because we feel like friends. But all these factors pale compared to the wider watch market, the vast majority of which are buyers who have never heard of Hodinkee, Revolution, “WatchFred,” etc. Unfortunately, I don’t think Breitling replica watches for sale (and Universal) can recreate nostalgia with a new watch for the “fans” and act on the blind hope that the average consumer will like it – they very well might not understand it at all.
If general consumer literacy has shown anything when it comes to watches, the average buyer (and if you’re reading Hodinkee, you’re probably not the average buyer) at a mid-level price doesn’t think all that much about in-house calibers, high-end finishing, and minute details of heritage design. After having conversations with dozens of retailers and executives, I’ve learned that the average person purchasing a watch at $5,000 (or even $10,000) doesn’t care nearly as much about these factors – not at least until a much higher price point.
I’ve heard plenty of stories about customers who return to retailers thinking their new watch is broken when, in reality, they didn’t know that it needed to be wound. Sure, the Speedmaster is an example (yet again) of a manually-wound watch that has found commercial success even now, but it’s not the rule. A Polerouter, with a new in-house microrotor movement, might be a home run, but Universal can’t be (and never has been) a one-trick pony.
Consumer demand often diverges from enthusiasts in two other places that go hand-in-hand: size and durability.
We’ve seen this with one of my favorite vintage China Breitling fake watches, the Datora, which was brought back in 2021 and upscaled from the original 35-36mm to 42mm and an incredible 15.35mm thick. Including a display caseback and 100 meters of water resistance certainly didn’t help keep the watch in line with the vintage Valjoux 72C or Venus 191 Datora measurements. I wanted to love the watch with its beautiful salmon dial, but it was a complete miss when I put it on the wrist. Breitling isn’t alone in this; including a date on the Breguet Type XX is another example of where market demand trumps historical design, according to executives at Breguet.
Heritage is, unfortunately, not what general customers are looking for – or at least, not in the way enthusiasts are. Instead, they’re demanding easy-to-use watches with a size that looks and feels substantial on the wrist and durable movements with long service intervals. That last part probably contributes somewhat to why we don’t see Valjoux 72C movements remade and cased in a watch like the Datora. Instead, the movements need to be more robust and reliable (while I think some enthusiasts would probably give up that robustness for compact size).
Modernizing Universal caliber 281, 285, or 289 movements to have five to seven-year service intervals might be enough of a challenge. But will customers demand an automatic movement and ruin the size and balance of a Universal chronograph? I certainly hope not. But I don’t think there’s a good “one size fits all” solution here.
Who Are They Designing For?
Design seems to be the most hotly debated topic around the acquisition of Universal Genève, and it seems enthusiasts are split. It’s also probably worth its own conversation entirely. Some people don’t want the new Universal to spit out homage after homage. Others beg to keep the brand in line with its heritage, which I read as hope for tasteful recreations at affordable prices (count me in that camp until I see something that makes me excited for the alternative).
Restarting a brand that has a pause in its heritage and development is no small task. Designers either have to imagine essentially fifty-or-so years of design evolution that didn’t happen or commit themselves to the idea that, like with the iconic Speedmaster or Submariner, things haven’t changed all that much over the years. On the other hand, they could potentially make a watch that is modern, with small nods to the past that risk being divorced from the originals. Either way, there will undoubtedly be some people who are unhappy – that’s just how the watch world works – but I’m curious to see how Universal will navigate that decision.
The brand also has to be careful about where they draw their inspiration. Watches like the “Nina Rindt” Compax are loved for their bold design and celebrity association, but there’s not much “Universal” about them. They use Speedmaster-style cases, Valjoux movements, and Singer dials. The same goes for a lot of the more bold favorites like the exotic dials. People might clamor to have these top replica Breitling watches remade, but to me, that misses the point. While they’re fun watches, they certainly aren’t what made Universal special in their glory days.
This is where I’ll try to be the most hopeful, though. There are two schools of thought with Breitling; either their Swiss made Breitling super clone watches are too big and out of touch with their history (in a way that should scare Universal lovers), or Kern and company have done a great job bringing heritage back to the brand. I’ve thought about it a lot since the announcement in December, but the reluctant optimist in me leans toward the latter.
Despite my issues with the Datora, I think Breitling has, at times, shown an understanding and appreciation of their history in a way that many brands have been slow to adapt to. They’ve also done so with varying degrees of modernization; sometimes, the 1:1 quality replica Breitling watches have been updated with a light touch, even sometimes starting from scratch.
Breitling’s Classic Avi 765 is a relatively faithful recreation of the original vintage 1960s models, though lacking a bit of the charm you only get with a vintage watch. It’s undeniable that their Swiss best fake Breitling Navitimer watches has the same things going for it as you could say about the Speedmaster. While it’s not the “moon watch,” there are plenty of models (like one of my favorites, the Navitimer Cosmonaute reissue with the 24-hour movement) that continue a lineage to great effect. The SuperOcean Heritage line also doesn’t get enough credit for being a modern version of an under-appreciated classic. And while most of these collections have – to some degree – more than a few misses, they at least show what Breitling can do in acknowledging history.
It’s possible that we could see Universal Genève go the route of the Swiss movements Breitling Premier replica watches. The Duograph is a fantastic price for a split-second chronograph at sub-$11,000, but it suffers from the same issue as the Datora in thickness. Interestingly, it is only two millimeters thicker than Patek’s 5370 split-second chronograph.
Realistically, I think we’ll get a bit of both worlds.
“As excited as we are, we are also fully aware of the task at hand and the profound heritage we are set to uphold,” said Kern in the announcement of the acquisition of Breitling. Despite my natural incredulousness, I’m inclined to believe him.
Let’s be honest: there is a lot of ink spilled for such a new endeavor, and likely, none of it is news to Breitling replica watches shop and Universal Genève. They’ve done the studies, and they’re aware of the challenges. It’s also far too early to expect specifics, and what little we’ve heard from the brand publicly and privately is enough to give me hope that Breitling and the team are doing their best to get this right.
Not knowing what comes next, we probably got lucky that Universal Genève wasn’t turned into another restarted brand with Sellita movements. It will most likely be at least three or more years before we see a new Universal. In that case, let this be a love letter to the brand from myself (and whatever fans agree with me). To Mr. Kern and the team at Universal: we’re watching closely and looking forward to what comes next.