The world of classic cars and vintage watches are replete with stories of ‘barn finds’ – when you find something of value in an unlikely place – but a Dubai-based collector couldn’t believe his luck when he found out that a vintage watch he purchased from an auction in Europe was in fact a watch gifted by His Highness King Saud bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia to His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates.
The wristwatch, a gold-plated Universal Genève, was manufactured in 1955 and has a silver dial with applied gold hour markers and the coat-of-arms of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia printed in black just below the 12 o’ clock marker. The dial also features an Arabic signature which translates to ‘Saud’, a reference to the Saudi King who ruled the country from 1953 to 1964. Powered by the manufacture calibre UG 332, the movement, case and dial are signed Universal Genève.
It is common practise among Middle Eastern royals to gift watches with their signature or the official coat-of-arms on the dial. These watches often make their way back into the secondary or vintage markets and these ‘Arab dials’ are highly collectible. “Most of these watches were specially commissioned by governments to mark special events and occasions and never sold publicly,” says Tariq Malik, a vintage watch expert and co-founder of Momentum Dubai, a vintage watch boutique nestled in the DIFC district.
“I have a few “Arab dials” in my collection and didn’t think much about picking this one up at the auction,” says the collector, a European expatriate who wishes to stay anonymous. “What piqued my interest was the unusual serial number etched on the well-worn caseback – 1 747 471 – a palindromic number is unusual and suggested that this was a special commission,” he said.
“I got in touch with the Archives Department of Universal Genève and asked them if they could help me find out more about the history of this watch and they were quick to respond,” said the collector. The Extract from the Archives confirmed his hunch that this was no ordinary timepiece. The Extract read, “Heads of States often commissioned watches bearing the emblems of countries from Swiss watchmakers, to be gifted during diplomatic relations. Universal Genève made this special serial number with the number 7 for his Royal Highness Sheikh Zayed.”
While it is not known how the watch ended up at the auction, what we can tell from the present condition of the watch is that it was not something that spent the last 60 odd years in a safe. The watch shows signs of wear and the case and caseback shows scratches that are consistent with “watches worn in the sand”, according to the collector. “It took me about 20 or 30 attempts to get the right photograph that clearly showed the case number,” he stated.
Universal Genève is a celebrated Swiss brand that was founded in 1894 in Le Locle, Neuchatel, the cradle of Swiss watchmaking. Known for its craftsmanship and technical ingenuity, though the brand has been dormant for a while, it routinely surfaces and commands high prices at auctions.
Among those spotted wearing a Universal Genève in the past include prominent politicians like Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, who wore a Universal Tri-Compax at the historic Potsdam Conference in 1945. Juan Peron, the 41st Argentinian President was known to wear one. Historians believe that the Nazi war criminal Hermann Göring allegedly bribed a prison guard with his Universal Genève Compax in exchange for a cyanide pill he ingested to escape the noose. Other celebrities who owned this brand include guitarist Eric Clapton, John Voight and Joan Rivers.
“This is like a homecoming for this watch. I’m happy to have played a part in its return to the UAE,” says the collector. Provenance, or the history of ownership, is one of the most important factors when determining the value of an object, and this is particularly true in the case of watches. When asked if he would be interested in selling this watch to a potential buyer given the provenance of this watch and given that 2018 is celebrated as the Year of Zayed in the UAE to mark the birth centennial of the beloved Sheikh, he said. “This watch is not for sale.”
While the watch may not be for sale, it will be open to public viewing soon. The collector has agreed to have this watch displayed at Momentum, DIFC, from next Wednesday, March 7.