Style / World of Watches (WOW)

Breitling Acquires Universal Geneve in First Major Deal

“As excited as we are, we are also fully aware of the task at hand and the profound heritage we are set to uphold,” states Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling

Dec 19, 2023 | By Sanjeeva Suresh
In 1965, Universal Geneve won the Diamonds-International Awards in New York with this model

Universal Genève is back in the thick of watchmaking again, thanks to Breitling, which you have no doubt already heard about. If not, here is the official notice from Breitling. Of course, old and storied names make it back to the fore in watchmaking all the time and Universal Geneve has hardly been absent. We have more to say on this below, but for now, we are preoccupied by two questions: what does this mean, and will we all want Universal Geneve watches soon? For that last one to work out, we need to know how the watches will actually get made. This is what Breitling CEO Georges Kern will be working on, though details are a bit thin. 

As for what this means, it could herald a new era for the owners of Breitling, including private equity shop Partners Group. Breitling has never been a group, not part of one, and it has never really had any other brands or imprints under its umbrella. Breitling was simply Breitling, although it was bought as a shell with just its name in 1979. Sicura watch owner Ernest Schneider acquired the rights to the Breitling name from Willy Breitling and by 1993, Montres Sicura became Breitling AG and very few even remember Sicura today. Certainly more watch enthusiasts know Universal Geneve than Sicura. Now though, Universal Geneve lives on through the commitment of Partners Group, and it will certainly have a longer term future than Sicura. Indeed, Universal Geneve is today, much as Breitling was in 1979, a famous name without much in the way of its own production or contemporary identity

Universal Geneve watchmakers working in the factory, ca. 1960s

According to Joseph Wong, chairman and CEO of Stelux Group, the management at Breitling has demonstrated that it is 100 percent committed to ensuring that Universal Genève lives on, not just in name but in spirit. “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,” explained Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling. Kern also explained that a dedicated team will be brought on board to allow Breitling and Universal Genève to operate as separate maisons.

Universal Geneve advertising banner during an automotive race in Brazil, ca. 1950s

Universal Genève has rich histroy since its founding in 1894 but it was the brand’s technical prowess in the early to mid-20th century that saw Universal Genève rise to prominence. In the 1920s, Universal Genève’s crafted the reversible Cabriolet, a first of its kind. The 1940s saw the brand go from producing elegant women’s cocktail watches and innovative men’s jewelry timepieces to offering an impressive variety of its Compax chronographs with manufacture movements, along with the legendary Tri-Compax full calendar launched to celebrate the brand’s 50th anniversary.

1920s Universal Geneve Cabriolet, ca.1928.

In the 1950s, the brand introduced a revolutionary self-winding movement known as the Microtor. Commissioned from a 23-year-old Gérald Genta, The Polerouter watch was designed to withstand any climate, from the pole to equator. In the 1960s, the brand successfully relaunched its Compax series as sports watches and in 1966, Universal Genève released the world’s flattest automatic movement in its Golden Shadow.

Vintage advertising for a Universal Geneve lady’s watch published in a French magazine, circa 1940

As Hodinkee reports, Breitling CEO Georges Kern has invaluable experience in revolutionising a brand as since heading Breitling in 2017, sales have surged, becoming one of the 10 largest Swiss brands by revenue. In 2022, sales approached USD 1 billion, increasing about 40 percent year-over-year according to Morgan Stanley. With Universal Genève’s rich history in mind, Breitling now has a pivotal role in restoring the prestige of a hallowed name in the world of luxury timepieces.

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