In The Shop – Shop Spotlight: A Closer Look At The Massena LAB Uni-Racer

In The Shop – Shop Spotlight: A Closer Look At The Massena LAB Uni-Racer

Introduced in October 2020, the Uni-Racer is the first stand-alone wristwatch to emerge from horological concept studio and design firm Massena LAB. It’s a watch designed to evoke the touch and feel of one of the late greats of the chronograph genre, the Universal Genève Uni-Compax “Big Eye,” and it does so with the exacting precision you’d expect from a well-crafted, contemporary Swiss-made watch. Its ideation and execution, however, come with a quixotic edge that posits intriguing questions about the principles behind reviving watch designs from prior decades that are now inaccessible to most. 

Can a watch built for today’s collectors live up to a legend from the past?

In today’s Shop Spotlight, we take a closer look at what exactly the Massena LAB Uni-Racer delivers, how it succeeds in its intentions, and why it deserves close consideration for a spot in your watch collection. But fair warning: The Massena LAB Uni-Racer is a limited run of just 400 watches, available only while supplies last, with units split equally between two dial executions, “Panda” and “Reverse Panda.” Read on to learn more, or head over to the HODINKEE Shop now to purchase yours. 

Uni-What?

Before we dig into the nitty-gritty behind Massena LAB and the new Uni-Racer, it’s important to recognize its inspiration. Once you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of Swiss watch industry history and entered the world of vintage watch collecting, you find that few names are as revered or as frequently mentioned as Universal Genève. In fact, examples of its vintage chronographs can often be found outpacing the value of other highly collectible giants in the field, such as Heuer and Breitling.

There’s a good reason for that, and it all starts with the introduction of the Compax series of chronographs in the mid-1930s (originally released under the Compur name). The Universal Genève Compax is today regarded as one of the first wristwatch chronographs to incorporate both elapsed hour and minute displays on the dial, and it quickly evolved to match the aesthetic whims of collectors in each passing decade. However, the Compax never deviated from its original intention of being a reliable, accurate, and legible tool watch. It’s believed that approximately 185 different Compax references are known today (often with multiple variants of each reference), with nearly 50 of those falling under the Uni-Compax branding. 

A 1944 Universal Genève Compax that predates the Uni-Compax “Big Eye” and illustrates the diversity in appearance of the famous chronograph series over the years. 

It was almost exactly 30 years after the debut of the original Compax chronograph that Universal Genève released the Uni-Compax “Big Eye.” Easily recognized by its unconventional oversize sub-dial at three o’clock, the Uni-Compax had a short lifespan in the mid-1960s, from approximately 1963 to 1965. Two distinctive references are known, one with a black “Reverse Panda” (ref. 884100/01) dial and another with a white “Panda” dial (ref. 884100/02), and it’s theorized that a total of just 100 examples left the Universal Genève factory during its short production run. The individual look and rarity of the Uni-Compax “Big Eye” has attracted in-the-know collectors for years, resulting in a continuous increase in the desirability and value of the vintage examples. When either reference comes to auction today, or is made publicly available elsewhere, they frequently reach price tags in excess of $ 25,000. (Just check out this “Reverse Panda” example that sold at Christie’s Geneva in May 2018 for CHF 41,250, or other recently sold examples from HODINKEE’s Bring A Loupe column here and here.)

And those numbers, right there, are where Massena LAB comes in with the Uni-Racer.

Inside The LAB

So who – or what – is Massena LAB? Well, if the Massena name sounds familiar to you, it’s for a good reason. Founder William Massena is a Talking Watches alumnus, as well as a leading personality and fixture in the international watch scene. His influence over the past three decades has been felt everywhere, from auction houses and retail to the gradual emergence of online watch forums and rise of new media. Announced in 2018, Massena LAB is a collaborative creative studio that designs and develops unique and original timepieces with a variety of partners. In three short years, the firm has established a reputation for a keen eye for detail and a penchant for smart design targeted to the whims and desires of dyed-in-the-wool watch enthusiasts.

Unlike Massena LAB’s previous releases, however, the Uni-Racer was born out of frustration, rather than friendship. It was perhaps a natural response given the rarity of vintage Uni-Compax examples and the lack of market presence for the Universal Genève marque today. A lifelong collector who was raised in Geneva and is now based in New York, William Massena watched closely as the original Uni-Compax models increased in value over the years. Despite his infatuation with the chronograph, he had never acquired one for his personal collection. Examples were not only difficult to find (as well as pricey!) but also – at 36.5mm in diameter – fell on the more diminutive side for modern wear. It seemed only fitting, with so many other vintage revivals and reeditions coming to market, that the Uni-Compax should be given a second chance to reach the wrists of enthusiastic collectors who would otherwise never be able to own an original.

The concept of collaboration is central to Massena LAB’s success; the firm’s portfolio thus far includes watch releases with a diverse array of brands that include Italian dive-watch specialist UNIMATIC and independents such as Habring² and MB&F. But for the Uni-Racer – the inaugural release under the Massena LAB banner – collaboration continued to prove just as critical. Instead of looking to popular outside labels, however, Massena LAB dove headfirst into the controlled chaos of Swiss watchmaking’s supplier-driven world. He began to work with a number of partners throughout the famously outsider-averse country to fulfill the Uni-Racer’s individual and distinctive standards. Massena even consulted with former Universal Genève employees to mirror the exact fit and finish of the Uni-Compax in his contemporary interpretation. 

Defined By Details

If there is one essential element worth understanding about the Uni-Racer, it’s the sheer quality of the parts that make up the whole. This is a watch wholly characterized by its carefully curated design elements, each executed with the precision and flair of a firm focused on the details above everything else. At a distance, there’s really nothing flashy about the Uni-Racer (or the Uni-Compax, for that matter), but to those that will immediately recognize the playful wink of the “big eye” register, there are many things worth examining here. 

It starts with the vertically polished case (a decision informed by Massena’s conversations with former Universal Genève workers) that measures a larger, more contemporary – yet still compact – 39mm in diameter, with a sleek-for-a-chronograph 13mm thickness (and only 46mm lug-to-lug!). Polished pump pushers complete the look without infringing on the chronograph’s soft profile, connecting to the flowing caseband and horizontally brushed rounded lugs that allow the watch to fit snugly on most wrists. In the hand and on the wrist, the Uni-Racer’s 316L stainless steel case has a smooth silhouette that almost recalls a pebble worn down by the water in a running river.

One of the most exciting attributes of the Uni-Racer is hidden in plain sight, on the crystal. The Crystal is not only made of period-correct domed acrylic – which gives it an attractive warmth that mimics the vintage feel – but also features a small, engraved “M” (for Massena) signature in its center, just like you’d find on any number of vintage chronographs. Massena LAB worked with Kyburz Cie, a third-generation family-owned supplier of crystals to the Swiss watch industry to develop a special acrylic crystal to the Uni-Racer’s exact specifications. These crystals had a 20 percent failure rate, and each has been coated in Kyburz Cie’s proprietary Nex hardening treatment for improved resistance to scratches and abrasions and to ensure the Uni-Racer meets up to 50 meters water resistance.

The stylized “M” Massena LAB logo engraving found in the center of each acrylic crystal.

The dial execution is further testament to Massena LAB’s detail-oriented approach. Available in the same colorways as the original pair of Uni-Compax references, the Uni-Racer carries forward an identical asymmetrical charm to its mid-1960s predecessors. That means a pair of sub-dials at three and nine o’clock, for elapsed minutes and running seconds, respectively, each decorated with concentric snailing. The black-dial “Reverse Panda” variant features silver sub-dials, while the white-dial “Panda” color option has black registers. The three o’clock sub-dial is the proverbial “Big Eye,” with a circumference that appears to almost double the size of the neighboring running seconds display. One detail to note here is the elapsed minutes display is now a 30-minute counter, rather than the 45-minute tracker found on the vintage examples. What remains, however, is a darkened grey five-minute counter and a similar font to the original, complete with a flat-top four. Three red lines segment the chronograph minutes display into 10-minute thirds, while a red crosshair adds a pop of color and splits the dial orientation into four quarters with precision, even continuing on to the running seconds. Finally, a base-1000 tachymeter scale in white makes its presence felt on the periphery of the dials.

One of the original Uni-Compax’s most recognizable elements is its hands, something that was again of special consideration for Massena LAB. On the Uni-Racer, all five hands on the dial are made of stainless steel and feature a uniquely chunky aesthetic fitted with an individual sliver of Super-LumiNova (which has been given a light green color that is exclusive to the Uni-Racer). Notice how thick the central seconds hand remains from counterweight to tip – there’s hardly any taper at all. The same goes for the rectangular baton-style sub-dial hands and trapezoidal central hour and minute hands. But a stout, squared-off appearance is hardly the most compelling aesthetic detail of the hands. It’s actually their unique tempered finish (as seen on the central hands of the “Panda” model, and the sub-dial hands of the “Reverse Panda” model) that can switch from light blue to dark grey depending on the reflection and presence of light. Massena LAB worked with its partners in Switzerland to achieve this color through a multi-step process of thermal heating by hand, oxidation, and a few additional metal treatments. The exact color is indistinguishable from what is visible on a vintage Uni-Compax model, and it required over a year of trial and error for Massena LAB to perfect. 

You simply won’t find more interesting hands on any comparably priced contemporary watch.

Inside the Uni-Racer is a manually wound chronograph caliber from Sellita, the ​élaboré-grade SW510 M that Massena states has been adjusted to run within chronometer spec. The SW510 replaces the modified Valjoux 23 movement found inside the original Universal Genève Uni-Compax, and it offers a 58-hour power reserve, runs in 23 jewels, and beats at 4 Hz. The single biggest difference between the vintage and modern movements? The chronograph function of the SW510 is cam operated, while the Valjoux 23 features a column-wheel mechanism. You do receive one final Easter egg if you unscrew the Uni-Racer’s caseback: the stylized “M” Massena LAB logo is signed in gilt on the movement bridge. 

The Fine Print

The Uni-Racer is more than just another vintage-inspired watch. It’s a loving tribute to a landmark mid-century chronograph that’s prized by many, yet few will ever have the privilege to wear. The design may seem elemental at first glance, but its visual impact is extended through an inimitable level of detail that will arouse any watch collector who keeps one eye trained on the pomp and circumstance of the international watch auction scene, and another on the accessible, high-paced virtual trading floor of online watch sales forums. 

The Uni-Racer is for those with deep appreciation for the world of vintage watches but who prefer to wear something that can handle the wear and tear of contemporary life. In resurrecting an almost 50-year-old design, Massena LAB has returned a classic chronograph to its rightful place on wrists around the world. 

The Massena LAB Uni-Racer is delivered inside a vintage-style cardboard box with matching old-school papers and warranty card. Each Uni-Racer is limited to 200 pieces each, for a total production run of 400 watches. The “Panda” dial variant is paired with a “bleu de France” Saffiano strap, while the “Reverse Panda” model comes on a cement-grey textured leather strap. Pick your favorite between the pair right now in the HODINKEE Shop, for $ 3,495 each. 

And don’t forget, when you buy from the HODINKEE Shop, we add an extra warranty year on top of Massena LAB’s standard guarantee, for a total of three years of coverage.

HODINKEE

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