Gérald Genta designed the Patek Philippe Nautilus. He designed the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. He’s a legend by any stretch of the imagination. But even legends have to start somewhere. And the Universal Genève Polerouter, from 1954, is not only his first masterpiece, but it’s also the ideal starting place for any vintage watch collection.
In the early ’50s, Universal Genève enlisted an unknown 23-year-old Genta to design a watch in honor of the newly opened “polar route” operated by Scandinavian Airlines Systems. The route opened up a quicker way between Los Angeles and Copenhagen, flying over the magnetic North Pole. The watch Genta designed was issued to the pilots and crew of these flights, and it went on to serve as the foundation for an entire line of watches under the Polerouter designation.
The earliest examples of the watch were called the “Polarouter” for a brief introductory period in 1954, before Universal Genève named the watch “Polerouter.” The design proved a commercial success, and Universal Genève (which is sadly now defunct) later added numerous lines to the family: The Polerouter Super, Polerouter Date, Polerouter Day-Date, Polerouter Jet, Polerouter De Luxe, Polerouter NS, Polerouter III, Polerouter Compact, and even a Polerouter Sub, a version created for diving. For the purposes of this story, “Polerouter” refers to the original execution and the adjacent models that featured slight variations (like the inclusion of a date or a screw-down crown). Pretty much all were – and still are – highly wearable.
Even today, it’s easy to fall in love with the Polerouter: It’s a well-balanced amalgamation of everything that makes a mid-century watch so charming (like lyre lugs, a compact case, and a minimalist dial). It’s evocative of a simpler time, and it’s subtly elegant, yet it has the roots of a tool watch. After all, it was made for life at 25,000 feet.
And then there’s the incredible value proposition. A collector with a taste for Genta’s designs could purchase a brand new Patek Phillipe Nautilus ref. 5711 from the boutique for roughly $ 30,000, or for the same amount of money, they could assemble a collection of roughly 15 Polerouter examples, spanning references in precious metals and including rare executions. The Polerouter often exists on one end of the collecting journey, with the Nautilus on the other. It’s a “gateway watch” not only to Genta’s designs, but to the world of vintage watches as a whole.
The Polerouter Takes Flight
In modern times, the opening of a new commercial airline route doesn’t merit the creation of a watch, but the mid-1950s were an entirely different era – just a half-century removed from the first sustained Wright Brothers flight. When the Polerouter hit the market, commercial flight had become accessible to a growing middle class. Airplanes were crisscrossing the globe and taking people to places they’d previously only dreamed of going. The world was primed for a watch that embodied the excitement and romance of aviation.
On November 15, 1954, SAS opened a new commercial route between Los Angeles and Copenhagen, operating a Douglas DC-6B. Two airplanes took off, the Helge Viking and the Leif Viking, each from one end of the route. They crossed paths right over the North Pole. It took 22 hours as opposed to the conventional 36 by flying the ‘polar route’ – the most direct line between the two cities – and they saved 14 hours, making the trip in just under a day. This was previously impossible, as the route involved crossing over the navigational north pole, but the magnetic pole was still roughly 1,000 kilometers south, potentially throwing the aircraft off-course as the compass-based systems were unable to maintain absolutely accurate navigational readings.
The implementation of the gyro, a device that keeps a plane automatically on course, changed that, along with the solar compass and aeronautical charts of the polar region developed during WWII. It’s often said that SAS elected to work with Universal Genève due to their known prowess in developing anti-magnetic movement technology, and that the Polerouter watch was specifically developed to be impervious to the adverse effects of magnetism, though this is conjecture at best.
The first Polarouters hit the market in 1954. The story goes that the North American market, one of the largest export markets, had trouble with the pronunciation. So in 1955, the Universal Genève marketing department changed the name to Polerouter to make it more digestible.
At the same time the standard model hit the commercial market for widespread consumption, Universal Genève made a number of models exclusively for SAS to distribute to the crews of the first Copenhagen-Los Angeles (and Los Angeles-Copenhagen) flights. These were never for sale, and Adam Hambly, who runs the definitive website on Polerouters, believes (based on serial-number research) that only around 150 examples exist. These watches were marked Polarouter; later examples bearing the SAS logo on the dial would be made for American executives of the airline. Genta hadn’t yet become a name in horological design when the Polerouter came out, and there’s little evidence that the Polerouter propelled him to any sort of stardom in the industry.
Onboard Propulsion Systems
The Polarouter debuted in ’54 with the caliber 138 SS bumper movement, which had been introduced in 1948 and used throughout Universal Genève’s entire line. The caliber ran at 18,000 vph and utilized a weighted “bumper” that oscillated, winding the watch in one direction. At 28mm with minimal finishing, it’s rather unimpressive.
The Polerouter quickly received an upgrade. While it was introduced with the 138 SS, just one year into the production run the micro-rotor caliber 215 was fitted. The Polerouter Date received the Caliber 215-1, a version with, you guessed it, a date module. The 215 and its date variant used a micro-rotor winding mechanism, developed by Genta in the early ’50s. Universal Genève filed the patent in ’55 and registered in ’58, but the caliber was installed in Polerouter models as early as ’55. At the time, this caliber represented a massive leap in technology. The caliber 215, and the date variant, the caliber 215-1, featured cotes de Genève finishing, 17 jewels, incabloc shock protection, gold plating on the rotor, and a 60-hour power reserve.
And it didn’t stop there. The Polerouter was a commercial success, and Universal Genève, armed with Genta’s designs, kept pushing. Next was the time-only caliber 218-9 and the 218-2 with a date complication. The 218-2 differed from the 215-1 in the exact placement of the date. On the 215-1, the chapter ring wasn’t contiguous; there was a cut-out for the date wheel. On the 218-2, the date moved slightly inward, allowing the chapter ring to be fully contiguous, albeit with a smaller cut-out for the date window. This new crop of movements ran at 21,600 vph and featured 28 jewels thanks to a design update to the baseplate.
On the wrist, the bumper movement feels much different than the micro-rotor movement. While the micro-rotor movement wears just like any modern automatic watch, the bumper movement has the characteristic of being viscerally interactive. One can feel the “bumps” when the watch is moved around; it almost feels like a children’s toy with some sort of wind-up mechanism inside. While the caliber 215 is superior from a technical standpoint, a Polerouter fitted with a 138 SS creates the sense that it’s alive.
When hand-winding the movement, the 138 SS is louder, and the feedback makes it easy to visualize the mechanical bits interacting because the audible crunch is so distinct. Wearing the 138 SS Models is akin to piloting something like a Boeing Stearman, a rugged airframe that requires a “by the seat of your pants” approach to flying, and the micro-rotor movements are closer to the operating the Sud Aviation Caravelle, SAS’s first jet airliner, full of automated systems.
Flying By Feel
The references with precious metal cases feel heavy enough to have a presence. In stainless steel, it’s hard to feel the watch at all. The completely flat caseback and minimal footprint mean the watch wears flush. The caseback meets the case at ninety degrees, and the caseback also meets the wrist at 90 degrees. It wears as compact as it looks.
Polerouter models are right around 35mm – some a millimeter over, some a millimeter under – a standard size for a watch from the 1950s. Strapping it on and enjoying the feeling of the Polerouter on the wrist requires one to get in the right headspace. The case size might be modest, but the ideology attached to the watch still conjures aeronautical luxury. In the era of the Polerouter, SAS featured an all-you-can-eat buffet of Smørrebrød, a danish open-faced sandwich, in economy class. Well-dressed, friendly flight attendants would wheel around a cart featuring a leg of ham that would be carved and distributed seatside.
Of course, it can be dangerous to fetishize midcentury modernism as we tend to over-romanticize the past, but watches are a form of escapism. They take our mind somewhere else in space and time, either real or imagined.
With nearly a thousand executions, it’s difficult to know where to start in terms of finding a specific design to collect. The most sought-after models have a black dial wrapped with a stainless steel chapter ring, cased in steel. Models with broad arrow hands are prized by collectors because they’re thought to be rare. Cases have been made both in America and Switzerland, and some collectors have a preference. But that’s also the fun part about the Polerouter. The one that speaks to you might not be one of the more sought-after models. It’s unclear if Genta had a hand in the design of subsequent models, but one thing is for sure: He laid the foundation for an enormous family of Polerouter models with the initial design. Part of the success of the Polerouter is the latitude exercised in design. A full range of watch-hand styles (dauphine, arrow, baton, stick) show up somewhere in the Polerouter family.
Adam Hambly has spent a good deal of his life collecting and researching the Universal Genève Polerouter. He catalogs reference numbers and tries to reconstruct the best picture, through data, of the production behind the watch. He’s logged thousands of watches, but his work is only beginning.
“If it’s a puzzle, then we’ve got the border,” he says. “But we don’t have the inside pieces figured out. We might have some blue ones – but they could be the sea or the sky.”
Even though the Polerouter has been a collector favorite for quite some time, so many were made in so many different executions that previously unknown models pop up to this day. What’s most magical about the Polerouter, Hambly says, is that anyone has a fair chance at finding something that’s rare or low-production.
Of course, that’s changing as the watch becomes more popular among new collectors. Prices, starting at around $ 1,000 (a “good” example can be had for less than $ 2,000, Hambly says) are accessible. And there’s wide enough variety in visual executions and case materials that folks who fall in love with the Polerouter usually collect a few of them. This makes it a fun watch to start with, or end with.
And these days, when even frequent flyers are pretty much grounded, it’s easier than ever to strap on a Polerouter and become wistful for the golden era of flying.