This breaking news is just in, and it is huge: Breitling has acquired Universal Geneve for a rumored sum of a whopping $70 million, intending to turn it into a subsidiary, yet more high-end brand. The reasons and related strategies are just as fascinating and complex as Universal Geneve.

Vintage advertising for the Universal Geneve Tri-Compax published in Europa Star in 1952. Source: Breitling, Universal Geneve.

In recent memory, Universal Geneve has been a discreet watch collector favorite, a brand that takes time to discover and appreciate in all its glory. Interestingly, but not accidentally, one of the main reasons for this is that this name with a rich past had a bumpy comeback story after it had almost disappeared, along with hundreds of other brands that are still in their caskets following the quartz crisis. I wrote this story on the history of movement maker ETA, including the quartz crisis, almost exactly 10 years ago — you may read more about the devastation caused by the cheap, mainly Asia-produced quartz watches here.

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In 1989, Universal Geneve was purchased by Hong Kong-based investment firm Stelux Holdings International, Ltd., which also owns Cyma, another high-end Swiss watchmaker whose patents had been owned by Universal since 1918. The Universal Geneve website lists a number of definitely dated-looking watches vaguely inspired by historic greats of the brand, powered by basic or modified ETA movements. 

Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling — and now Universal Geneve.

Clearly, Breitling will want to reach back beyond the period between 1989 and 2023 when deciding on the magic recipe that will transform Universal Geneve from a state of hibernation into one defined by wide acclaim, eager watch enthusiasts, and satisfied customers. Breitling has been under the direction of watch industry veteran Georges Kern since 2017 — it’s fun to look back some five years in time and see what I reported Kern promised to do with Breitling in 2018 and how well he and his team executed that plan. Long story short, he nearly doubled the brand’s turnover from high-$400 million to around $940 million and catapulted the brand to one of the top 10 watchmakers. This is to say that Kern will likely have the team, the know-how, and potentially still the drive to take Universal Geneve to its full potential.

Where is that potential, exactly, and what are Breitling’s plans with Universal Geneve? It is hard to tell, but not impossible to make some educated guesses. Breitling is almost entirely owned by Partners Group Holding AG, a Swiss-based global private equity firm established as recently as 1996 but with a whopping $142 billion worth of assets. Breitling represents around 3% of all assets of Partners Group, and the expectation is, understandably, for it to grow. Partners Group has not become a force to be reckoned with by poorly managing its assets, and so the group will likely understand that it is only so far that Breitling can be stretched before it grows too fast and collapses in on itself like a dying star. The logical next step? To add a second brand with tremendous potential.

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A busy place: Universal Geneve watchmakers working in the factory, circa 1960s. Source: Breitling, Universal Geneve

It is true that Universal Geneve ranks among those few truly valuable brands that are still in quasi-hibernation some 30 years into the high-paced expansion of the luxury watch industry. Major players such as the Swatch Group, Richemont SA (a former employer of Kern), and less so LVMH have been acquiring brands left and right, tucking them into a lower or higher tier in their portfolio with the obvious intention of building on the brands’ respective heritage, intellectual property, nostalgic appeal, and sometimes simply the fact that they have a really very old date in their signature — something that is a big deciding factor in certain markets that rarely, if ever, welcome freshly established luxury brands. This means that most all desirable, complex, interesting, and high-potential brands have been spoken for by some of these major groups and although rumors frequently make the rounds that certain groups might be swapping or selling one or more of their (ill-managed) brands, these hardly ever formulate.

Universal Geneve vintage advertising for the Aero-Compax, published in Europa Star in 1947. Source: Breitling, Universal Geneve.

By contrast, Universal Geneve looks back at a rich history that began in 1894, when talented watchmakers Numa Emile Descombes and Ulysse Georges Perret founded their company specializing in complicated watches. Sadly, Descombed suddenly passed away in 1897, when Louis Edouard Berthoud joined Perret and established Perret & Berthoud S.A. Geneve, under 43, Rue de Rhone. It was rebranded as Universal Watch Co. Ltd. Genève in 1933 by the son of Perret after his passing. The brand’s first BaselWorld exhibition is said to have been in 1934 — we wish they could return in 2034, and maybe BaselWorld will be a thing once again at that point.

Universal Geneve’s then-new factory was inaugurated in 1956, in Carouge, a municipality in the Canton of Geneva. Source: Breitling, Universal Geneve

Universal Geneve used to be headquartered between Rolex and Patek Philippe on Rue de Rhone, Geneva, which says a great deal about the status and established nature of the company nearly a century ago. 1936 saw the launch of the “Uni-Compax” and 1937 had the company take on the name Universal Geneve, with a shielded logo. For a more complete look at the brand’s history, visit this page.

We are stopping our rundown of Universal Geneve history not only because that is not the premise of this article, but also because the shield logo of the brand from 1937 is an interesting tie-in with the breaking news of today. You see, Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, established Tudor in 1926 and embellished it with a shield logo in 1936 with the intention for Tudor to be “the shield that protects the Crown” (where the crown, of course, means Rolex). In practice, Tudor was to compete with brands cheaper than Rolex to get a slice of that market, too, and to prevent competition to undercut Rolex in terms of value proposition.

Breitling received a new structure and segmentation under Kern, which helped it double its revenue in a handful of years.

Surprisingly, Breitling chose not to craft a shield, i.e., a lower-end brand to try and get a slice of the $2,000-$5,000 market of watches, a highly competitive and equally lucrative space for watchmakers. Instead, it aimed higher and above Breitling, potentially at the $15,000-$30,000+ market where Breitling arguably struggles to gain traction as it has long been affected by poor value retention as well as a lack of credentials (low number of movements, collections, and lack of historical presence in this segment). 

Universal Geneve, if done right, can be a natural destination for watch collectors who have gained sufficient experience in the $5,000-$10,000 market and have a desire to advance into yet-higher-end watchmaking. They’ll be looking at Jaeger-LeCoultre, and perhaps even Vacheron Constantin, Breguet, or entry-level Patek Philippe watches — but Universal Geneve, starting with more or less a clean sheet, has a good shot at creating a portfolio that is well-equipped to steal some customers away from these established high-end luxury watchmakers. 

To do so, Universal Geneve will want to create a fleet of bespoke movements, with zero parts coming from Breitling, to attain a higher status under the close scrutiny of the watch community following the debut of its first pieces. Furthermore, it will have to pay tribute to the collectible and desirable Universal Geneve watches of old, without playing the “tribute, heritage, anniversary” card too often, to establish a modern and fresh image — well-heeled watch buyers in their late 20s, 30s, and early 40s may just be the target audience, folks looking who have come to love Breitling’s approachable “modern retro” aesthetic, but want to upgrade to something with a yet-higher status.

A lot to do, but if there ever was somebody to have what it takes, it might just be Georges Kern, as he has proven to have the ability to take decisive action, boil a brand down to its essence, and structure it back up from there, as well as to attract, sustain, and delegate to a fantastic team that can handle his unique nature and spirit.

SAS pilots receiving their Universal Geneve Polerouter in the 1950s. Source: Breitling, Universal Geneve, © Scandinaviantraveler.

We look forward to discovering the new world of Universal Geneve as it takes shape in front of our eyes in the next few years. Yes, you can expect it to take that long, as Universal Geneve will likely receive fully bespoke movements and these take at least 1-2 years to develop, and there will be a lot more to do besides staffing, design, branding, and the like. There are more UG fans out there than you might expect, and they, as well as the greater community, will certainly have very high expectations towards Breitling to give Universal Geneve a relaunch it so achingly deserves, but has never received.

If you want to learn more, tune in on Thursday when we launch the latest episode of the aBlogtoWatch Weekly Podcast, where Rick, Ariel, and I chat with Sylvain Berneron, Chief Product Officer at Breitling watches and gain unique insight on what to expect. You can learn more, eventually, at the brand’s website.

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