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The joy of collecting vintage watches

Nothing lasts forever, except perhaps vintage watches. They just get better with age

A rare vintage Universal Genève Polerouter from the early 1960s.
A rare vintage Universal Genève Polerouter from the early 1960s. (Priyanka Verma)

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the post on the Instagram account of my favourite watchmaker and vintage watch dealer, Javed Khan. A Universal Genève Polerouter from the early 1960s, and that too up for sale! I immediately texted Saif, Khan’s son, who runs the account. Am I really seeing what I’m seeing? Yes, it’s a Polerouter alright, he replied, and in excellent condition too. My vintage watch bug had struck, and I had to see the piece.

Ah, vintage watches! Where does one even begin to extol the virtues of a fine timepiece from a time before you were born, heck, sometimes from even before your mother was born! I’ve written earlier in this column about the joys of mechanical watches. To understand the lure of a vintage watch, take those same elements, and add to that the rich layer of history, visually manifested in the patina on the dials.

Also Read: The watches that athletes wore at the Tokyo Olympics

Let’s face it, as great as modern watches are, the art of watchmaking reached its zenith in the 1950s and 60s. This was a time when Swiss watchmaking was at its peak, and companies were crafting elegant and stylish references by the hundreds every year. The art of dial designs was at an all-time high as well, and legendary designs were as common as the day is long. And it wasn’t just the Swiss. Even Japanese giants like Seiko and Citizen were making amazing watches; specific lines of which remain some of the best ever made. In those decades, watches truly made a home for themselves in pop culture, and if you doubt me, go watch any episode of Mad Men, or a James Bond movie. 

And the market for vintage watches is booming, especially at the high end. The stability of vintage timepieces as an investment for the well-heeled has been both recession proof, and, it would seem, pandemic proof. During the worst of the international crisis brought on by covid-19 last year, Sotheby’s still sold a 1968 Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona for $306,378. About four months ago, a Patek Philippe World Timer ref.2523 from 1953 was sold for $7.8 million at the Phillips Geneva Watch Auction XIII. In early August, online retailer A Collected Man sold a Philippe Dufour Grande et Petit Sonnerie from 1995 for a record $7.6 million, making it the most expensive watch ever sold from an independent watchmaker.

Also Read: Why do we need mechanical watches in 2021?

Well, okay, you get the drift. But the vintage and pre-owned watch market is as wide as it is deep. If you’re a watch enthusiast, there’s a watch in your budget out there. Sometimes, you can spend less than  10,000 for a stunning vintage watch that will knock your socks off. I acquired a 1969 Titoni Airmaster last month from Khan—which I’m wearing as I write this—that’s one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever seen. If you want to save up and splurge on a real gem, there are gorgeous Omega Constellations from the 60s that could be had for less than a lakh.

Anyway, so I rushed to Khan’s small studio in Nizamuddin to check out the Polerouter. He was generous enough to loan me the watch, along with a gorgeous 1969 Omega Genève and a dressy, gold Zodiac from c. 1962 to experience in the metal. After a week with them, I can safely say that my love of vintage watches has only increased. So let’s talk about the Polerouter. Simply put, it’s one of the most important watches to be produced in the middle of the last century, the result of the first flowering of watch designer extraordinaire Gerald Genta’s genius. 

An Omega Genève, the Universal Genève Polerouter and a Zodiac Automatic, all from the early 1960s.
An Omega Genève, the Universal Genève Polerouter and a Zodiac Automatic, all from the early 1960s. (Priyanka Verma)

You might have heard of Genta, the man who designed two of the most iconic modern sports watches: the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak in 1972 and the Patek Philippe Nautilus in 1976. Genta was only 23 when he designed the Polerouter in 1954 for Universal Genève. In the early 50s, the Scandanavian Airlines Systems (SAS) started flying on a newly-opened route over the North Pole, connecting Copenhagen to Los Angeles. The Polerouters were issued to SAS pilots, due to its strong antimagnetic properties (they were, after all, flying over the magnetic North Pole!). Funnily enough, the Polerouter, in all its iterations, isn’t a pilot’s watch at all, but rather a fine dress watch. But it soon caught on with international travellers, and became the jet-set watch du jour. Not only was the design important, but so was the movement: the technical innovation of using a microrotor to keep the watch wound. Although rotors for automatic watches had been around for decades at that point, microrotors were new and tricky to construct.

Also Read: What makes a watch a design icon?

The piece I loaned from Khan is a cal. 218-2 Polerouter Date from around 1962. I could ascertain the date of production from the fact that Universal Genève produced this particular caliber between 1960-62. The movement even has the Swiss Patent number and date (filed on 27 May, 1955) engraved inside. The movement, hidden behind an unassuming screw-down case, is a joy to behold. A funky salmon coloured dial with a slight patina and a stylised rectangular date window, this Polerouter looked very different from the more dressy designs of the 1950s, but it was certainly a trendsetter for the more casual 60s. I could immediately see the similarity in the design language between this and my c. 1964 Roamer Rotodate. My Titoni Airmaster, on the other hand, is clearly inspired by the earlier Polerouter design.

The Titoni Airmaster from 1969.
The Titoni Airmaster from 1969. (Priyanka Verma)

If you’re wondering why I got so excited, it’s for the simple reason that one doesn’t come across examples of vintage Polerouters in India very often. Back then, only a handful Swiss brands, like Titoni, Favre-Leuba or Roamer, did business in India, and so you’re more likely to come across watches from these companies. A Universal Genève is a rarer bird. So, did I acquire the Polerouter? No I didn’t. At  65,000, it’s actually a bargain for a Polerouter in fine condition, but way above my budget. But here’s the thing about vintage watches. It’s as easy to admire one without actually owning it. So I returned it to Khan yesterday, and asked him to keep an eye out for my latest obsession: an early 70s automatic chronograph. Ah, the wondrous rabbit hole of vintage watches!

Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking.


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