Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Universal Geneve Tri-Compax

This week's watch isn't in my collection.  It's a watch I've wished I owned for at least two decades now.  About 6 years ago, I could finally start looking for one, but a lot of people warned me away - "those are finicky" or "unreliable" were comments I often received from knowledgeable vendors trying to sell me other, similar watches.

Well, what do you expect from a highly complicated movement from the 40's??????

Of course, now, they're so expensive I can't afford one.  But I keep 
looking - you never know.  Maybe one will get missed by all the other afficionados.  Maybe the economic crisis has hit Universal fans harder than others.  From the prices I've been seeing lately, it looks like it's hit Rolex collectors pretty hard...  but I digress...

The Universal Tri-Compax is a super-underrated watch.  A watch collector's watch.  A watch repair guy's watch.  No real status symbols here - most people in North America have never even heard of Universal.  But Universal Geneve is a watch company with a distinctive and honourable past.  Apparently they make (or, at least, made) every part in-house - no ETA movement here!  Their newer watches I don't quite get - they look nice, but there's something about their design that's not quite right.  Not so with the tri-compax - this is as close as it gets to a perfect watch face.

Even among Universals, this one is special.  Universal called it "the Glorious"...  I think it was their most complicated watch movement, and probably remains so.  This is a watch with a history.  The close-ups of Harry Truman signing the Potsdam declaration (the terms of the Japanese surrender in 1945) revealed that he wore one on special occasions (maybe he wore one all the time, who knows).  OK, his was gold, not stainless steel like the one I'm profiling this week, but pretty close. 

So what makes this watch special?

First, the movement.  Highly complex.  Triple date.  Two of the three dates are apertures.  You can see these at about 10:00 and at about 2:00 (in the picture, they show "Wed" and "Feb".  They look pretty simple, but think about it - each is a rotating
 wheel.  One has seven settings, the other has 12.  And I guess they have to overlap (or maybe they don't... I've never seen one without a dial on it).  But from their position, and from the size the disc would have to be, it seems to me that they would have to overlap.  Which means they're slightly angled (think about it - they need to be at the same depth when indicating, but can be at different depths on the other side of the disc).  Think about the (pre-CAD) engineering that had to go into this!

 Between the two apertures, at the 12:00 position, there's a dial that shows numbers 1-31.  These indicate the day of the month.  The top half of this dial is another aperture, indicating the phase of the moon.  Not sure why the phase of the moon was so important in watch design, but people seemed to want it on their watches.  

Add to these complications a "standard" 12 hour chronograph with dials just like the watch we profiled last week (second hand at the 9, 12 hour counter for the chronograph at the 12, 30 minute counter for the chronograph at the 3).  Oh - and you've got the standard hands at the centre of the watch - the chronograph second hand, the time minute hand, and the time hour hand.

So if you think about it, you've got hands or dials that rotate at the following time intervals:

-once a minute (second hand)
-once a minute (chrono second hand)
-once a half hour (chrono minute hand)
-once an hour (minute hand)
-once every 12 hours (hour hand)
-once every 12 hours (chrono hour hand)
-once every 24 hours (day aperture)
-once every 29 days (moon phase aperture)
-once every 31 days (date)
-once every year (month aperture)

Three of these (chrono second, minute, and hour hands) can be started and stopped, and reset.

Most watches just have once a minute, once an hour, and once every 12 hours.

If you think about all the gears that allow this to happen, you'll probably get a headache.  But part of the beauty of this watch is that it's fairly thin, too.  Complex?  check.  Engineering marvel? you bet.  Something you'd want to take apart?  Not if you ever wanted to see it working again.

What makes this watch so special is that it's so complex, but that it looks clean and simple.  This is in part due to the apertures and hidden dials (rather than having hands for each of the features).  If you look at the watch, there's a lot of "white space".  The huge, gold triangular hands make it clear that the main function of the watch is telling the time.  No messing about here -you're always going to be able to read the time.  The minute hand has its own register, around the outside of the dial, making it easy to see exactly what the time is.  Minutes are indicated in 20 second intervals, with arabic numerals for each 5 minute interval.  The hour markers (shown at 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10 and 11) are triangular, nicely complementing the main hands.  As you'd expect, the chrono second hand is quite thin, and the blued finish add a bit of color, complementing the moon phase - everything ties together on this watch.  The chrono registers also have blued hands, with the exception of the day indicator, which, for some odd reason, is red.  You can tell that, with all the apertures and dials, they had trouble figuring out where to put "universal geneve" and "tri-compax", but they manage to do an excellent job of picking a place and a font.  Simple.  Yet complicated.

This particular watch has a gorgeous patina to the dial - it looks like it has never been re-done, and is in amazing shape for a watch over 60 years old.  The stainless steel case looks original, as do the chrono pushers (though they are quite different from the chrono pushers on the Truman tri-compax, which were rectangular).  Not sure if the crown is original, but it looks great.  Some fading on the finish, as would be expected - remember, you have to wind this watch every day!  

The case also has pushers on the left hand side, which can't be seen in this photo, but which are used to set the date, day, moon phase, etc.  The back is stainless steel.  

Thanks to the Watch Man for giving me permission to use his pictures of the watch - it's up for sale on ebay and can be seen at http://cgi.ebay.ca/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&ssPageName=STRK:MEWAX:IT&item=150326420520

Update:  As expected, it sold for a lot of money - $4250 CDN.

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