Universal Polerouter: one of the last affordable icons


March 2018

I’m not the first or the last one to write about the Universal Genève Polerouter but my love for the brand and for this model in particular is deeply linked to my passion for vintage watches. Whether you like this timepiece or not, it’s undeniable that its conception and design pioneered a new generation of watches.

The background story

In 1954, SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System) established the first commercial flight between Copenhagen and Los Angeles. The 2600 km journey over the North Pole was a real challenge and an achievement for the pilots but also for the on-board equipment.

The temperature and the high magnetic fields of the polar region were damaging and falsifying pilot’s instruments, thus putting the crew and the expedition at great risk. When SAS realised the importance of having reliable and trustworthy instruments on-board, the company asked Universal Genève to produce a specific watch capable of resisting these particular conditions.

Polerouter date with a lovely spider patina (aftermarket glass)
Polerouter date with a lovely spider patina (aftermarket glass)
© Chrono24

The well-recognized brand seized the opportunity and called a then young (23 year-old) Gérald Genta (Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, Patek Philippe Nautilus, IWC Ingenieur, Cartier Pasha…) to partner up with a team of watchmakers in order to design and develop a specific timepiece.

The Polerouter was born, an icon in the making. Initially called “Polarouter” the watch was quickly renamed “Polerouter”, certainly due to pronunciation issues.

Early 50's ad – note the name was still Polarouter
Early 50’s ad – note the name was still Polarouter

The watch was introduced in 1954 and advertised as a commemoration piece of the historical flight. The Polerouter was instantly recognized as the official timepiece of the SAS pilots.

SAS pilots receiving the Polerouter
SAS pilots receiving the Polerouter

Some models even had the SAS logo on the dial.

The engineers at Universal tested the watch under different circumstances. The 35 mm case resisted to various types of torture tests. The watchmakers designed a tension ring that fits a curved dial and sealed the watch even more, while offering an effective shield against magnetic fields.

Resistance tests of the Polerouter in the Universal Genève labs
Resistance tests of the Polerouter in the Universal Genève labs


The initial models used an in-house Bumper (cal.138 SS) movement that was quickly replaced by a state-of-the-art micro-rotor with “Côtes de Genève” finishing. The new calibre was particularly thin and the rotor didn’t hide the components anymore. The view on the machine room was and still is breathtaking.

The beautiful Microtor movement Cal. 215 in a Polerouter
The beautiful Microtor movement Cal. 215 in a Polerouter

This specific movement was in the midst of a lawsuit with Büren Watch Co SA at that time, which accused Universal of technology infringement on their patented micro-rotor movement (filed one month prior to the one from Universal).

The famous Polerouter caseback representing the connection of the two continents across the North Pole
The famous Polerouter caseback representing the connection of the two continents across the North Pole

Nota Bene: Universal Genève had to pay royalties to Büren Watch Co SA till the end of the movement’s production.

Overall, the Polerouter came in various configurations, single or double crosshair and non crosshair dials, twisted/lyre or straight lugs, steel, gold plated or 18k gold cases.

The Geneva brand designed a large quantity of dial versions throughout the lifecycle of the model and it’s unclear how many were really produced.

A purist might tell you that the perfect Polerouter should be in steel, with a double crosshair dial, twisted lugs, early microtor (cal. 215) and fluted dauphine hands but I’ll let you be the judge.

Double cross-air Microtor Polerouter from 1956 with a chocolate patina (after market bracelet)

White dial, single cross-air, semi lyre lugs Polerouter Date
White dial, single cross-air, semi lyre lugs Polerouter Date
© analogshift.com

The brand capitalized on the success of the name and created other models derived from the classical line-up such as the Polerouter date, Polerouter Sub, Polerouter Super, Polerouter Compact, Polerouter NS and many more.

Advertisement for sellers in the 60's
Advertisement for sellers in the 60’s
© chronographes.net

Rivalry, clones & prices

In the 50’s, Universal Genève was a direct rival to Rolex and their watches were as expensive as the sport models of the famous company founded by Hans Wilsdorf. At that period in time, an 18K gold case Polerouter with its gold bracelet was close to the price of a VW Beetle.

A VW Beetle in the 50's was priced closely to the high-end Polerouter model
A VW Beetle in the 50’s was priced closely to the high-end Polerouter model
© footage.framepool.com

Its notable success led several watch manufacturers to take its design as an inspiration for their timepieces.

Here you’ll find a few examples:

Universal Polerouter: one of the last affordable icons

Berthoud (company owned by Universal Genève) De luxe (© vwmilano.com)
Philip Watch Philmaster (© chronographes.net)
Meier Watch – Polerouter clone (© chronographes.net)
Tudor – Oyster Prince “Tuxedo” ref. 7950 (© tudorwatch.com)

The Polerouter is a truly dress and elegant timepiece with an important pedigree.

Being a tool watch and a luxury product at the same time, it was able to avoid restricted segmentation and therefore satisfied a broader clientele.

Over the years, the watch became Universal’s biggest success and is today collected by a significant number of aficionados.

Nonetheless, the prices are still reasonable if we take into account the product, its specifications and background.

There are huge variations in prices but a steel microtor Polerouter in a decent shape should cost you between 1,200 and 2,000 CHF.

If you are looking for an untouched watch (unpolished), a model with an original Gay Frères bracelet or one with a nice patina the price can go higher than 2,000 CHF, like this example sold by Hodinkee: https://shop.hodinkee.com/products/a-1960s-universal-geneve-polerouter-date?variant=17101964228.

In my opinion, and in comparison with other icons, the Polerouter needs more recognition and I truly don’t understand why the prices haven’t exploded yet. Even if it might be better like this for us, after all!

Polerouter date black dial (aftermarket crown) © vintagecaliber.com

Things to avoid:

• Gold plated cases – even with a 30 micron gold fill, they tend to deteriorate faster and are less appreciated by collectors. • Early bumper movements – as they are not especially efficient or reliable and have a minor power reserve compared to the Microtor. • Repainted dials – there are so many dial versions but be careful of redials that highly diminish the aesthetics and the value of the watch. Do your homework! • Highly polished cases – strong polishing wipes out the angles and the original look of the case and lugs.

Things to look for:

• Microtor movement – a real beauty and a rarity in the watch industry, even in today’s world! • Polerouter Sub – the diving version of the Polerouter is pretty rare, original and funky, it’s a must-have. • Unpolished case – it’s complicated to find one with an untouched case but if you find it, grab it! As long as you see the logo on the back and the twisted lugs, go for it! • If you find a Polerouter Gay Frères bracelet, buy it as they are sometimes more expensive than the watch itself. Special recognition if you find the gold bracelet! • Don’t be afraid of its 35 mm case: the watch appears bigger on the wrist thanks to its long lugs – trust me!