If you haven't done it before, buying a vintage watch can feel like a bit of a minefield. A nice addition to any collection, there are key historic models from brands such as Omega or Rolex that are heavily sought after, with price tags to match.
But the appeal of owning a vintage watch should be about more than the depth of your wallet or ability to seek out the most obvious pieces. Such an item on your wrist shows knowledge regarding old watches, an understanding of the story behind that model and an appreciation of retro design.
By avoiding the most popular vintage watches from the big brands, it's possible to pick up something from an antique shop or auction website that is far cheaper, looks great and has a unique history all of its own. One of the models that collectors on a budget have been turning to of late is the Universal Genève Polerouter, which in good condition can be picked up for $450-$1,000.
Universal Genève is not as much of a household name these days as certain Swiss brands, but back in the 1950s was considered one of the world's favourite watch companies. At the start of the decade, it supplied timepieces to the crews of SAS (Scandinavian Airline System), and when the airline announced that it was to start a new route from Europe to California, flying over the North Pole, Universal Genève decided to mark the occasion in its own way.
The brand came up with new automatic precision watches that were resistant to the strong magnetic fields of the polar region. To help create them, it turned to a young designer that had just joined its ranks – 23-year-old Gérald Genta.
In the years that followed, Genta would become one of the most famous watch designers of all time, working for a number of companies and creating such classics as the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the Bulgari Bulgari, the IWC Ingenieur, the Omega Constellation and the Patek Philippe Nautilus. His collaboration with SAS on behalf of Universal Genève, however, at a tender young age, marked his first foray into the industry.
The model he designed was the Polerouter – originally the Polarouter – unveiled in 1954 and worn by the crew on the inaugural flight from Copenhagen, across the North Pole and into Los Angeles. It was estimated that the route would shave thousands of miles off the regular journey over the Atlantic, and was the subject of much media hype. Universal Genève quickly capitalised on the attention by releasing a version of the Polerouter to the public.
The original watch featured the automatic calibre 138 SS, with a pendular mass oscillating between two shock absorbers. Shortly afterwards, it was fitted with the calibre 215 Microtor, which had a rotating mass incorprated in the movement. But perhaps the most captivating detail was the beautifully machined inner bezel, which gave a 3D effect to the dial.
A number of variations over the next 12 years were released – the classic case featured Bombe lugs and an inner index ring (Polerouter, Polerouter de Luxe, Polerouter Date). Other casing and dial designs were introduced later on (Polerouter Jet, Polerouter Super, Polerouter Genève, Polerouter Compact, Polerouter NS, Polerouter III, Polerouter Sub).
Many of the Polerouters had the North Pole flight route etched onto their steel backs, while those given to the cabin crew had the SAS logo on the dial. Models were available in steel, 18k gold and rose gold, and for a time were a symbol of luxury – in the late 1950s, a steel Polerouter watch cost the same as a Rolex Explorer, while the amount spent on a Polerouter Date in 18k gold was enough to buy a new family car.
Eventually, with the rise of the jet engine, the time-saving North Pole flights became redundant, and the Polerouter watch died with them, disappearing completely by the mid-1960s. In the 1980s, an attempt came to revive it as a quartz model, with a Polerouter Sport Chrono quartz introduced in 1990. Universal Genève has not revisited the name since.
But it lives on, and is the talk of watch enthusiasts on blogs and at conventions, hunted down on eBay and in antique shops. How many other vintage watches can offer such a fascinating back-story, strong ties to a key moment in the history of aviation, feature a design by one of the industry's leading talents and be so pleasing to the eye – all leaving change from $1,000? There are very few timepieces offering so much for so little, and the Polerouter has become highly recommended to anyone looking for a vintage watch on a budget.
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