Universal Geneve watches have been high in demand over recent years. But why is this? To understand what makes Universal Geneve watches so desirable right now, it is first good practice to understand a little about the brand. The long-extinct watch brand was once renowned for creating a very iconic watch named the Uni-Compax. Its design was somehow able to overshadow the bold and brash aesthetics that the 1970s brought along with it, but at the same time, remain true to the minimalist styling that became so popular during the 1960s.
The surge in Uni-Compax watches today is partly to do with the resurgence of vintage watches. This vintage boom has reached far and wide across the globe, unearthing archives that watch collectors never thought they would see again. As a result, we’ve seen a renaissance in extinct watch brands like Universal Geneve – a company that once sat alongside big names like Patek Philippe. Here’s a look at one Swiss brand’s story that details one of the industry’s most tragic losses to the quartz crisis, yet one that will forever be remembered for an iconic design in particular - the Uni-Compax watch.
Founded in 1894, Le Locle-based watchmaker, Universal Geneve began writing its own story. Under a different name back then, it began its horological journey assembling various watch parts in a small workshop. This process involved acquiring ebauche movements, inspecting them, encasing them into watches, assembling the dials of watches and packaging them up for shipment. By 1919 Universal Geneve has relocated to Geneva, completing its transition into the brand name we now all associate with expert watchmaking today.
Some milestones to mention were Universal Geneve’s first patented 24-hour indication watch, not to mention the timekeeping instruments it produced for use during the First World War. The watchmaker had developed its first automatic watch by 1925 with a distinct octagonal shaped case. After producing its first Aero Compax watch, short for Aviator’s Compact Chronograph – Universal Geneve realised the functionality and the use of this stopwatch mechanism, especially for combat exercises and for training purposes, thus it implemented the chronograph complication into more designs including the Tri-Compax, Moon Phase, the Master Vortex and, of course, the Uni-Compax.
During this time, Universal Geneve watches gained a very large and loyal following and was associated with some big names in the industry. The brand collaborated with Hermes who later became a huge sales centre for these watches. Henri Stern Watch Agency – the agency known for introducing the US to Patek Philippe watches – was also distributing Universal Geneve watches. The company had also been sourcing its movements from Martel since 1918 – the watch company that eventually acquired the legendary chronograph manufacturer, Zenith – thus Universal Geneve really did have its name next to all the right people. When the quartz crisis swooped in, however, many prestigious independent watch manufacturers fell victim to its crushing effect. Many turned to manufacturing quartz wristwatches to keep up with consumer demand. Others crumbled completely. Universal Geneve was one of the former, who succumbed to creating quartz-powered watches, but this decision proved to be devastating and the company’s reputation diminished.
Whilst Universal Geneve as we used to know it is now considered extinct to many enthusiasts, the brand is still technically in existence, having been purchased by Hong Kong investment group, Stelux. It was briefly relaunched in 2001 but its marketing materials have laid dormant since 2009. While its future remains uncertain, we have vintage watches like the famous Uni-Compax to look back on with fondness. These models still offer a very affordable gateway into vintage watch collecting, but what makes the Uni-Compax so desirable in particular?
After Universal Geneve had hallowed itself out over the previous two decades, creating quartz models for a very unappreciative audience, many collectors who owned a Uni-Compax watch held onto it. The brand was approaching the same kind of status as Longines and Omega and was once heading in a very solid direction towards success. At the time of the Uni-Compax watch’s launch, no other watch company was making timepieces like Universal Geneva was. Its sports watches were standing out from the crowd. People were really sitting up and listening to the brand, awaiting their newest releases with anticipation. Complications like its triple calendar with moonphase feature were dropping themselves into the bodies of robust sports watch cases. These were designs that collectors had never seen before.
As mentioned, the company was producing the Uni-Compax design in many forms during this era – one particular model being the Big Eye variant. These 1960s collectables that went by the reference 884100/01 and 884100/02 with a black dial and a white dial respectively, offered a simple two-register dial with contrasting sub-counters to their respective dial colours – but with a bigger chronograph sub-counter at 3 o’clock – the Big Eye feature. What made this particular version of the Universal Geneve Uni-Compax watch so popular? Could it have been the fact that its functional design was so legible for racing or simple tasks like egg-timing? Could it have merely been the reputation of the manufacturer at this point in time? Could it have been the greyed-out pizza slice that featured in the enlarged counter between the 0 minutes and 8 minutes? Who knows, but the Uni-Compax Big Eye watch was and still is in high demand, made even more difficult to come by since it is believed that as little as 100 watches of this kind were manufactured. The Big Eye chronograph counter in this Uni-Compax watch dominated the dial – what’s more, it looked unusual and eye-catching.
There were, of course, many Uni-Compax watches that came before the Big Eye that proved popular but not quite on the same level. The company was churning out many chronograph watches under the Uni-Compax name during the 1940s and 1950s – all of various sizes, dial colours and materials. The Big Eye that came after this period was big and bold, yet those that came before it were more elegant and understated. Still, nothing quite superseded the Big Eye iteration. That said, Universal Geneve Uni-Compax watches were considered the poor man’s Patek Philippe – which in many ways was seen as an advantage to those who had dreamt of owning their very own PP watch but could never afford it. Universal Geneva had a similar aspiring status and, at the time, was leading the way forward with the chronograph complication in unique ways. For that reason, Uni-Compax watches will always remain a symbol of this era of watchmaking, In other words, the Uni-Compax watch is a legitimate way to own a slice of historic chronograph lineage that once sat next to the likes of top dogs like Patek Philippe.
It is hard to comprehend the staggering success of Universal Geneve watches like the Bi-Compax Big Eye before the brand’s demise just a few years later. Like anything that has gone too soon and for no fault of its own, many dedicated collectors have stood by the steadfast design of the Uni-Compax watch and are holding tightly onto it. This could explain yet another reason why this particular watch from a once successful manufacturer is continuing its legacy on the wrists of vintage watch collectors today. There is no arguing that the price of the Big Eye Uni-Compax watch has exploded over recent years, the model remains an affordable vintage watch when compared to others on the market. Watches with the reference 884100/01 and 884100/02 are exceedingly rare but when found on the pre-owned market can sell for prices in and around 30,000 – 44,000 USD.
Those collectors who currently own a Universal Geneve Uni-Compax watch, whether a Big Eye version or not, are likely still wearing the wristwatch as a reliable daily beater. The most collectable models are those that were oversized for their time, namely those measuring the 38mm diameter. There are versions of the Uni-Compax watch that have been manufactured with a water-resistant case manufactured by Spillman – the manufacturer renowned for creating the iconic Rolex Oyster case. These too make for popular options to own. Either way, whether you are in search of a Uni-Compax watch for yourself or perhaps reading up on what makes your Uni-Compax watch so special - its chronograph design with contrasting colour-filled sub-counters laid out on an east-west axis is set to remain a popular vintage watch to keep hold of or to buy, depending on which way you look at it.