Gérald Genta may not be a name that you instantly recognise – but he is one of the most influential designers in the history of watch making.
He designed the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak – his legendary status guaranteed by these facts alone. However, in 1954, at the tender age of 23 he designed the Universal Genève Polerouter. The watch itself and the brand may be long forgotten by uninitiated watch-buyers of today but both Gérald Genta and the Universal Genève Polerouter deserve their place in horological history. And the benefit for you, dear reader, is that these watches can be picked up for relatively little. Thus, giving you the chance to own a small but perfectly formed masterpiece of watch making.
In the early 1950s, Universal Genève spotted talent in the unknown Genta and had him design a watch to mark Scandinavian Airlines Systems “Polar Route”. The route linked the West Coast of the US with Denmark via the North Pole, making for a much quicker and more direct service. Gérald Genta’s Polerouter watch was issued to the crews on these flights and went on to be developed into an entire range under the Polerouter moniker.
Genta’s design proved very popular and a such a commercial success that Universal Genève added several variations to the collection:
- Polerouter Super,
- Polerouter Date,
- Polerouter Day-Date,
- Polerouter Jet,
- Polerouter De Luxe,
- Polerouter NS,
- Polerouter III,
- Polerouter Compact, and
- Polerouter Sub, created for the diving market. But for this article ‘Polerouter’ will just mean the original version and its slight variations like the Polerouter date.
What makes the Polerouter so timeless and still so desirable is its classic minimalist look and perfect balance. Everything just works – the proportions, the hands, the materials, and the wrist presence. Not to mention the automatic wind and incredibly accurate accuracy that made Universal Genève way ahead of its time.
For collector’s looking for a classic Genta design but without the Nautilus price tag, the Polerouter is a great entry-point. The Polerouter and the Nautilus often bookend the collector’s journey, usually with a Royal Oak and the odd Rolex in between. You might consider the Polerouter a ‘gateway watch’ to Genta’s designs as well as to the world of classic watches in general.
These days, a new air route does not warrant the launch of a new watch, but air travel in the 1950s was a different proposition all together. There were far fewer planes in the skies and there was an incredible romance about the world of air travel. Flights became more affordable, and this opened up the world to the middle classes – making easily accessible places they might previously only have dreamed of. If you can transport yourself back to this golden era you can understand the need for a watch that embodied the romance and the excitement of air travel.
And so it came to pass, on the 15th of November, 1954, SAS launched a new commercial route between Los Angeles and Copenhagen, Flying the ‘polar route’ had a journey time of 22 hours. This was a reduction of almost 40% compared with the 36 hours by the conventional route.
The Polarouter (as it was initially known) came to market in 1954 with the calibre 138 SS bumper movement. This movement had been in use throughout Universal Genève’s entire collection since 1948. Running at 18000 vph and using a weighted oscillating bumper that wound the watch in only one direction, it was an uninspired movement in need of a boost.
The Polerouter received its upgrade a year into production when the micro-rotor calibre 215 was fitted. The calibre 215 used a micro-rotor winding mechanism, developed in the early 1950s. This movement represented a huge technological advance. The calibre 215 featured Côtes de Genève finishing, 17 jewels, shock protection, a gold-plated rotor, and a huge 60-hour power reserve.
The Polerouter was such a commercial success that Universal Genève, and Genta, kept going forward. They experimented with different non-date and date designs with the shape and location of the date window.
The bumper movement feels quite different to the micro-rotor movement when the watches are worn. The micro-rotor version feels like a modern automatic watch, whereas the bumper movement has idiosyncrasies that make it of its time. You feel the bumps as the watch is moved around. Unlike the modern equivalents that manage to disguise the winding mechanism, the bumper movement lets you know that there is some mechanical wizardry going on inside.
Which Polerouter Should You Buy?
With Universal Genève clocking up nearly a thousand different iterations of the Polerouter, it is difficult to know where to start your collection. Historically, the most sought-after models have a black dial and a stainless-steel chapter ring and a steel case. Versions with broad arrow hands are thought to be rare and as such are sought-after by collectors. We don’t know exactly which models Genta designed beyond the original Polerouter but what he certainly did was to lay the foundation upon which all subsequent Polerouters were built.
How Much Does A Polerouter Cost?
There are so many Polerouter variants with some designs far rarer than others and different materials used, there are, as you can imagine a wide variety of prices. However, you should be able to pick up a nice example for around £1000 with some more sought-after and rare models going for £3000+ in great condition.
The key to buying one is to get the one that you like. There are so many available that there will certainly be one that speaks to you above the others. When you find your Polerouter, you will not only own a piece of horological history by perhaps the most iconic watch designer of the 20th Century, but you are also recalling the romance of the Golden Age of Flight.