(I am greatly indebted to the creator of polerouter.com for much of what follows)
Most watch manufactures of long standing are eventually, whether intentionally or not, associated with a particular model or line, the image which springs to mind when their watches are considered by the interested public. For Jaeger-LeCoultre this is certainly the Reverso, for Audemars Piguet it is now the Royal Oak, Cartier the Tank, or perhaps Santos, Omega the Moon Watch...and Rolex has a line of almost nothing but iconic watches. Even the more minor brands, and those with an interrupted history seem to have one design which has stuck in the the collective consciousness, and the present watch is to be found at the extreme end of one such line.
A full history of Universal Geneve is available at their website, and other places, but briefly the firm dates from 1894, and during the 30s and 40s was particularly noted for their chronographs, establishing the Compax designs, still appreciated and emulated for their beauty and symmetry. While the original company seems to have disappeared around 1990 (and has been re-launched at least twice), it is in the 1950s and 60s that we find our iconic watch, the Polerouter.
The story begins when the Danish national airline, SAS, plans to fly from Europe to California via the North Pole, shortening the path by thousands of miles. In November of 1954, they accomplish this historic feat, using automatic wristwatches specially shielded from the pole's strong magnetic field and supplied by Universal, which becomes their "official timekeeper" for the next couple of decades. Very soon thereafter, UG introduced a commemorative watch, the Polerouter, designed by none other than Gerald Genta (now famed for the AP Royal Oak, Patek Philippe Aquanaut and certain IWC Ingenieur models, among others). Almost simultaneously, UG was designing a distinctive automatic movement, one with a tiny winding rotor set into the same plane as the balance and mainspring, thus allowing the whole to be significantly thinner without compromising the thickness (and strength) of the individual parts. The Buren company produced a very similar movement at the same time, but their design seems to have favored thinness over durability.
Most Polerouters were of a style and size that today would be considered dressy, but at the time would have been more a combination of quality and ruggedness, perhaps in the concept of Omega's Seamasters and Constellations: top quality timekeeping, rugged case and fittings (whether stainless steel or gold), relatively large size (34-35mm diameter), and stylish design (Gerald Genta...). Here is a selection of Polerouters from the eponymous site:
Clearly, these were watches of some beauty and substance:
This PolerouterSub is one of the later models, and while almost all its predecessors were smaller, elegant timepieces, the Sub is 42mm diameter, and has an anti-magnetic soft-iron dial with luminous, military-style markings and internal rotating bezel. Originally waterproof to 200 meters, the case is heavy steel with a thick, screwed-in back, but because of the unique Microtor movement, is only about 7mm thick (not counting the "armored" crystal)! By comparison with contemporary dive/sport watches, the PolerouterSub is broad, but very thin and elegant.
Textured soft-iron dial, luminous markings, and glossy-black internal timing bezel:
This is Universal's final and most highly refined Microtor movement, the 28-jewel Cal. 1-69 from the mid-1960s. It is 12.5 lignes (about 28mm diameter) and just under 5mm thick, runs at a traditional 18kbph and is still considered an efficient and durable automatic. The layout is simple but beautiful, and the finish is functionally excellent:
I think this is a design which has aged very well!
The signature crosshatched crowns are beautiful and practical, and properly complement the heavy-duty case and screwed-in back:
Thick sculptured lugs, appropriate to their assignment:
Crisp and bright glow, 40 years old:
I have found that my watch fits and feels best on a nice bracelet: