Breitling’s announcement in December that it had acquired the all-but defunct Swiss watch company Universal Genève was an early Christmas gift for the watch community, much of which had been calling for the brand’s revival. But onlookers were left guessing what was in the package.
In a recent video call, Breitling’s chief executive, Georges Kern, unwrapped the story, saying the company had invested “around 60 million Swiss francs” ($70.5 million) for the rights to produce watches with the Universal Genève name and for access to the company’s archive.
One day Universal Genève will operate independently, Mr. Kern said, but for now, Breitling will focus on redevelopment. He estimated that it would be around two years before a new collection with “new designs, new movements, new advertising and new distribution” would be available. However, he said, the brand will “not go dark” in the interim, adding that there were “many ways to activate the brand before relaunching it,” such as engaging with collectors.
Countering industry speculation that Breitling and its private equity backers had plans to introduce a new brand to stimulate the embattled lower end of the market, he said the average price point of a new collection actually would exceed Breitling’s. (According to estimates by Morgan Stanley, Breitling’s average price is 5,310 francs, less than half of Rolex’s but more than twice that of TAG Heuer.)
Mr. Kern, who also is a minority shareholder in Breitling, said he was banking on the strength of Universal Genève’s heritage and lingering popularity to turn it into a major player among Swiss watches. (Digital Luxury Group, a luxury marketing consultancy in Geneva, said that between January and November 2023 Universal Genève had tallied as many Instagram hashtag mentions as Parmigiani Fleurier, Greubel Forsey and Laurent Ferrier combined, three popular independent brands that, unlike Universal Genève, currently have highly regarded collections of new watches.)
The new Universal Genève “won’t be niche,” Mr. Kern said. “It will create a lot of shareholder value.” Breitling is primarily owned by Partners Group, a private equity firm in Zurich, Switzerland; CVC Capital Partners, which had held the majority of the brand’s stock until late 2022, still holds a minority share.
Universal Genève was founded in Le Locle, Switzerland, in 1894. Its heyday between the 1940s and 1960s yielded models such as the Tri-Compax, Polerouter and the Compax “Nina Rindt” chronograph, which enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 2010s. Vintage Universal Genève pieces, which have been described as a “gateway” into watch collecting, often look like gold Patek Philippe watches or Rolex Daytonas of the same period, but were less expensive.
Universal Genève suffered during the 1970s and 1980s, the era in which inexpensive quartz-battery watches became so popular that the Swiss mechanical watch industry was in danger of collapse. In 1989 it was bought by Stelux Holdings, which has been listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange since 1972, and which made a number of attempts to revive the brand before selling it to Breitling.
Some Universal Genève fans expressed concern about Breitling’s acquisition. “It will undoubtedly bring more widespread interest and appreciation,” the Philadelphia collector known on Instagram as @markthetime wrote in an email. “But my enthusiasm is tempered because it’s so easy to dilute or tarnish U.G.’s reputation. Making watches that are simply clumsy knockoffs won’t be well received.”
Others, however, were optimistic. Benjamin Clymer, founder of the online watch magazine and retailer Hodinkee and who was highly influential in generating interest in the brand 15 years ago, said the sale “puts Universal Genève back into existence.
“It has been a zombie brand owned by a group that was effectively investing zero into it. I don’t see how this could be bad in any way.”
Mr. Kern said that production of Universal Genève’s current collection, which was made in Switzerland by third-party suppliers and aimed primarily at the Asian market, already had been halted. Stelux will sell those watches over the next three years, he said, “and if there’s stock remaining, we’ll probably buy it back and write it off.”
For some time, he said, Breitling and its owners had been looking for an acquisition. “We looked at many brands, but I don’t want to deal with a destroyed brand that would be difficult to turn around,” he said.
In contrast, Universal Genève was “by far the best half-dormant brand in the market,” he said, presenting what he called a “clean sheet” as it had no production infrastructure of its own.
Does he have plans to reintroduce models such as the Polerouter, which was designed by Gerald Genta, whose luxury steel sports designs for Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe in the 1970s made him the most celebrated watch designer of the 20th century?
“I would be stupid if I didn’t,” Mr. Kern said, adding that he has established an advisory board to help him “not to make mistakes” in rebuilding the brand.