This past week, watch editors received a surprising email from Breitling’s PR agency: The Grenchen, Switzerland-based brand acquired Universal Genève, the once-mighty producer of complicated chronographs that has been effectively dormant in much of the world since its acquisition by the Hong Kong-based Stelux Group in 1989. Though the modern version of the brand continued to produce watches — largely aimed at the Asian market — over the past 30+ years, the feeling in the greater horological sphere was that these were but a shadow of the vintage models that are so beloved by collectors everywhere.
UG’s rise to prominence in the watch collecting world was led in no small part by the watch media — especially HODINKEE — over the past 15 years. The prominent watch website championed models such as the Tri-Compax and Polerouter during the ascendency of the modern “watch internet,” quickly growing the maison’s mindshare amongst younger collectors just entering the hobby. Sub-$1K Polerouters have since climbed to multi-thousand dollar heights, and 38mm chronographs crest $10K. (Special, limited-production models such as the so-called “Nina Rindt” and “Evil Nina?” Well — how much do you like/need that second kidney?)
Numerous parties tried (and failed) to acquire UG, but it would seem that Partners Group — which owns Breitling — had both the will and the wallet to finally pry it away from Stelux. This is exciting news for collectors, who fawn over the gorgeous, midcentury models that UG released between the 1940s and the 1970s. Breitling, under the leadership of watch industry veteran Georges Kearn, has slowly begun expanding its production beyond the absurdly large models of the 2000s into distinctly more “wearable” fare at 41mm and even — gasp — 36mm. Could we see, for example, 38mm Tri-Compax models in the near future? It seems distinctly feasible.
“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 press release. (Indeed, it’s refreshing to hear such a cautionary attitude from the brand’s typically ebullient CEO.) “Rebuilding a brand with such a rich narrative is not a quick endeavor — it is a meticulous labor of love that we anticipate will unfold over the coming years. A dedicated team will be brought on board to allow Breitling and Universal Genève to operate as separate maisons,” he continued.
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But the acquisition (and imminent relaunch) of Breitling is no isolated incident, and many once-defunct marques adored by collectors are seeing their names and IP acquired by passionate collectors and entrepreneurs. Frenchman Guillaume Laidet launched his first watch business via Kickstarter, which he funded to the tune of millions of dollars. Subsequently, he relaunched Excelsior Park — a watch and movement manufacture behind excellent vintage models from the likes of Gallet — as well as Nivada Grenchen and Vulcain, famous maker of the Cricket alarm watch. These days, Nivada Grenchen is pumping out excellent, modern takes on its vintage catalog and collaborating with retailers and publishers such as Analog:Shift and Worn & Wound. Excelsior Park’s new models, meanwhile, are dead-ringers for vintage examples. Having worked at Zenith and Jaeger-LeCoultre, Laidet is a highly knowledgeable, passionate watch enthusiast, and this is conveyed via his products.
Not everyone agrees, of course. Indeed, certain watch nerds have been left clutching their proverbial pearls this week, worrying that the UG acquisition will result in overly expensive homages devoid of substance. After all, Partners Group is first and foremost a private equity firm with $142 billion in assets under management — and, since late 2022, Breitling’s largest shareholder. Universal Genève, meanwhile, was once one of the maison’s largest competitors in the chronograph space; is the acquisition thus merely a PE-powered opportunity to capitalize on the vintage watch revival frenzy — perhaps even one that was simply thrust upon Breitling, perhaps to its detriment?
Without more clarity from Kern himself, it’s difficult to say. But the admission that both companies will be run separately is heartening, not to mention sensical. And at the end of the day, if said acquisition results in watches that are good-looking; vintage-inspired; mechanically sound; and well priced, then — at least for consumers, anyway — what’s not to like? Ultimately, “haters gonna hate,” but one thing’s for sure: Having revitalized brands such as UG and Nivada producing modernized versions of their vintage models is a boon for enthusiasts who have either been priced out of the vintage market, or who prefer the looks of older references but despair at the mechanical upkeep involved. And for the true vintage nuts among us? They’re more than free to continue buying actual vintage watches.
Beyond Universal Genève — which hasn’t yet begun producing its new watches — here are some of our favorite reconstituted watch brands.
Relaunched by Guillaume Laidet in 2018, Nivada Grenchen makes faithful recreations of its famed Chronomaster Aviator Sea Diver, Antarctic, and other timepieces in both mechanical and quartz-powered forms. Available in a plethora of colorways, movement types, and price points, Nivada watches are an affordable entry point into modern, vintage-inspired watchmaking, and their collaborations with the likes of Worn & Wound and Analog:Shift have been excellent.
Owned by Bill Yao, the man behind MK II Watches, Tornek-Rayville was reconstituted in order to produce modern versions of its mil-spec timepiece used by U.S. special operations forces during the Vietnam War. Yao, a military watch nut and veteran of the “OG” microbrand scene, is a history buff and lifelong devotee to the affordable watch space. His products are made in small batches and sell out quickly, so those interested should sign up for email alerts from Tornek-Rayville.
Watch industry veteran and dive watch aficionado Rick Marei acquired Aquastar in 2019 and relaunched it in 2020, offering new takes on its famed Deepstar Chronograph and Benthos watches. The Deepstar, vintage versions of which had soared in price over the past decade, is now available to a fresh audience who love its unique decompression bezel and “big eye” counter, while the Benthos H1 revived the first monobloc-cased watch able to dive to 500m.
If you’re not familiar with Timor, it produced one of the famed “Dirty Dozen” W.W.W. field watches for the British Ministry of Defense toward the close of the Second World War in 1945. These days, the brand builds modern iterations of the W.W.W. and its A.T.P. field watches in slightly upsized form, in both hand-wound and automatic iterations. Well priced and excellently sized at 36.5mm, they’re good-looking and feature Swiss-made movements. (The W.W.W., in particular, is a dead ringer for the 1945 original.)
A man with clearly limitless horological ambitions, Guillaume Laidet has revived the Vulcain brand and is now producing contemporary versions of the Cricket alarm watch — the model worn by numerous U.S. presidents. Based in Le Locle, Switzerland, it also offers several awesome takes on the Cricket Nautical — a rare diver’s watch — as well as skin divers and a few chronograph types.
Back in the mid-20th century, several companies fulfilled the Type 20 military watch spec for the French armed forces. One of these companies, Airain, was reconstituted by Dutch entrepreneur Tom van Wijlick, and began producing faithful versions of the Type 20 within the past few years. Costing around $3,000, they include hand-wound column-wheel movements with flyback capability — just like the originals — from Swiss company AMT. If you love military chronographs, it’s tough not to love these modern Type 20 and Type 21s.
In seeking to revive classic models from Enicar, German entrepreneur Marin Klocke set up a brand new company named after one of the brand’s old collections. (Enicar still exists in a modern guise — but effectively in name only.) The Sherpa Ultradive and OPS make use of the vintage “compressor case” design, in which increasing water pressure during a SCUBA dive acts upon the watch case, making it more water resistant. The one caveat? They’re fairly expensive.
Standout Models: Ultradive/ OPS ($6,400-$6,600)
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