Shining a Light on the Universal Genève “Shadow” Series
Total Eclipse of the Art (of Thin Watches)
Having collected watches for about five years now, my interest has always skewed towards vintage divers. As my fervor and fascination in this horological niche grew, so too did my number of saved online auction alerts reading “Doxa Sub,” “Aquadive,” “100atm,” and so on. While I do not personally subscribe to the “bigger is better” philosophy with regard to watches, knives, SUV’s, and the like, I have always been enthralled by the technical prowess and complex engineering that went into the deep diving timepieces of days gone by. The majority of these surpass 40mm in diameter and some are as thick as 17mm. Despite the trend I have built over the years, I recently had the pleasure of borrowing a disarmingly lean and dressy Universal Genève piece called the White Shadow. As a somewhat staunch dive watch enthusiast, I steeled my resolve and engaged my force field of favoritism in an attempt to deny the charms of this diminutive timepiece. After just a few short hours of wear, my determination lay decimated and the allure of the UG had become undeniable. My mind is now entirely void of doubt; thin is in.
Universal Genève is a watch company that needs little-to-no introduction throughout the vintage watch enthusiast community. Founded in Switzerland in 1894, two horology students began the brand by manufacturing pocket watches and trench watches during WWI. Over the next half century, Universal Genève solidified their standing with the production of their (now revered) line of Compax chronographs. This lineup included models meant for racing, flying, diving, and even filmmaking.
Of all the models produced by Universal Genève, none have gained more of a cult following than the Polerouter. Though this relatively small watch appears somewhat unassuming at first glance, its meteoric rise in recognition can be attributed largely to three factors: historical context, timeless design, and the Genta-effect. The Polerouter, introduced in 1954, was made at the request of Scandinavian Airlines to commemorate the first commercial route to fly over the North Pole. Hence, early examples of the Polerouter were actually called Polarouter. The prototypical example of this watch measures a humble 34.5mm in diameter and utilizes an obscure movement that features a micro-rotor. This allowed the watch to remain thin and elegant in profile. When tasked with the design of this timepiece, UG turned to a young Gerald Genta, who would later go on to design heavy-hitters for Audemars Piguet, IWC, and Omega. While the Polerouter is undoubtedly placed on a prominent pedestal, and rightly so, another Genta-designed marvel can be seen in the shadows.
The Universal Genève “Shadow” series is a line of ultra-thin dress watches featuring both eccentric and classically-styled dials. Broken into three distinct models, the White Shadow, Gilt Shadow, and Golden Shadow, the cases were comprised of stainless steel, gold-plated steel, and solid gold, respectively. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, while the watch world was battling to create the most capable deep divers, there was a simultaneous low-key competition to create the thinnest self-winding movement. The utilization of the 1-66/2-66 micro-rotor movements equated to more than the cost of entry into this timekeeping tournament, it actually turned out to be the perfect strike to vanquish all other contenders. With a total movement thickness of only 2.5mm this welterweight watch claimed the title of “thinnest self-winder” on the market in 1966.
The particular example I have on-hand at the moment is a later model, maybe early to mid-1970’s, 2-66 powered White Shadow. It measures 35mm in diameter and 41mm lug to lug. The tonneau-shaped case, as you can imagine, is wonderfully wafer-like, just shy of 7mm thick (which includes a slightly domed acrylic crystal.) Looking purely at the numbers, this is one the smallest watches that I have worn, but the shape of the case coupled with the relatively large 30mm dial makes it wear larger than the dimensions would have you believe.
The dial of this particular model is downright funky. The silver, metallic finish is adorned with a retro design that falls somewhere between intricate labyrinthine line-art and a 70’s rug pattern that would be right at home in the Overlook Hotel. As if this detail was not whimsical enough, the marvelous motif disappears almost entirely depending upon the angle of the light, making it altogether discrete at a distance. As is customary for the majority of the Shadow models, there is deliberate absence of extraneous functions. In fact, there is no running seconds hand, which I found disconcerting initially. The thin hour and minute hands are black, which creates sufficient contrast against the busy background and ties in nicely with the black printed text adorning the top and bottom of the dial. The narrow applied indices match the overall design language expertly, which is unsurprising given Genta’s involvement.
After wearing this for a few days now, I am glad to report that I have made my way through the fog of uncertainty and preconceived notions and now bask happily in the light of this White Shadow. There is a distinctly enjoyable experience that coincides with wearing a watch this razor-thin. It feels elevated and luxurious without crossing the threshold into pretentiousness. Where the substantiality of dive watches equates (logically or not) to quality, the saber-like slimness of the Shadow exudes subtle sophistication. No more getting my watch caught on my coat sleeve or dinging the case off the ever-present doorjambs that seems to crop up and attack me almost daily. With this watch I was able to shed the weighty confines of larger timepieces and navigate the bustle of day-to-day life like a carefree Ducati whitelining headfirst through congested, urban traffic. I’ve got to say, it’s a good feeling.
So, what do you think? Is Universal Geneve's "Shadow" series a work of art flying under the radar? Or is it a rightfully overlooked little brother to the Polerouter? Either way you see it, thanks for taking the time to read and feel free to leave a comment!