I have always had a keen interest in stepping-stones. We only ever tend to see the Oasis on the other side but fail to take note of the stone that allowed us to cross the river. Everybody remembers Mike Tyson, but most aren’t aware of Floyd Patterson who was the blueprint for Tyson’s trainer Cus D’amato. Most people know Elon Musk for his companies Tesla and SpaceX, but it was Paypal that helped him build the fortune on which his later undertakings rested. And every Gerald Genta fan will be happy to explain to you the genius behind the Patek Nautilus or the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, but it was the Universal Genève Polerouter that kick-started the career of the man who would go on to shape the modern watch industry.
Let’s take a step back. The year is 1951. The War is over and a young Genta has just earned his Swiss federal diploma in jewellery and gold-smithing at the age of 20. He would become a part of Universal Genève, then one of the biggest manufacturers in the world, who had just won a patent dispute on micro-rotors and set Genta on the task to design a fitting watch for the brand. 3 years later the world would for the first time see the Polarouter, a watch that would become the brands biggest success after the war. It would be this watch which would simultaneously mark the end for Universal Genève and the beginning for Gerald Genta.
Polarouter, surely that is a typo? No, as it turns out when the watch was originally released it was with that name. It was created to commemorate the historic Copenhagen – Los Angeles flight by the Overseas Scandinavian Airlines System (referred to as SAS). This group was the result of several Scandinavian Airlines combining their resources to develop the proficiency to fly from Copenhagen to Los Angeles using the polar circle as a shortcut. This was a novelty for aviation at the time and allowed them to cut down the flight time down from 36 to 22 hours. Universal Genève became involved when the SAS asked them to built timepieces which could withstand the extreme magnetic forces found on the north pole, an area of expertise for the Genevans.
While in some ways ahead of its time, the original Polarouter was very much a product of its time. With 34.5mm in diameter it was fairly sized but would seem dainty by modern standards. In contrast, an absolutely timeless element and the one where I see most of the traits that would later go on to define Gentra’s work are the bombé lugs. They form a smooth silhouette across the case reaching far up into the bracelet. To help give these lugs more depth and further iron out the lines the outer side has been polished, leaving us with a design that is incredibly similar to that found on many modern Omega watches. Another nice touch that unfortunately has not aged quite as well as the textured inner index ring which looks similar to bezels found on vintage Rolex Datejust models. A cool design element that would become the trademark of this watch, and one I would be happy to see making a comeback again.
Ticking inside the original Polarouter was a caliber 138 SS, the same that was also used in the real watches used by SAS pilots. These watches had more of a prototype character, as it would be only a year later when we got an update to the model which developed it into what most know it as today, the Polerouter. A tiny change in the name and a big change in the movement made for a much for refined product. The new name on paper changed little but the effective removal of a syllable allowed it to be significantly catchier. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself by saying them out loud!
More interesting than these superficial changes where what was going on beneath the sheets, namely that the caliber 138 SS was swapped for a caliber 215 which was one of the first micro-rotor movement ever created. Early models of Polerouter have a patents pending inscription for their “microtor” as the result of a patent war with Buren(who would later be an acquired and turn into Hamilton). After this came the caliber 218 which featured only minor upgrades, with the model with date functionality being called the 218-2. The last significant upgrades to this movement came with the release of the caliber 68 and 69 in 1962. These featured among some minor improvement an upgrade in the power reserve to 55 hours, as well as a “Stop Oil” chemical treatment which prevents oils from shifting and reduced friction as well as service intervals.
The Polerouter is many things. It was an amazing technical feat for its time implementing micro rotors in automatic watches on a large scale. It was also the last great creation from Universal Genève, one of the most influential brands in the world which sadly fell into irrelevance. Finally, it was a stepping stone for arguably the greatest designer in the watch industry: Gerald Genta. How will we remember this watch? Well the truth is that most wont remember this piece in the first place. In my opinion however this takes nothing away from this watches value, making it more of a gem for the enthusiasts taking the time to learn about and appreciate this incredible timepiece. Because at the end of the day, the Universal Genève is so much more than just a stepping stone.