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What Breitling's acquisition of Universal Genève means for the brand

Universal Genève in Brazil.

A historic watchmaker is set to make an unexpected comeback, but how will its new owners chart its future?

If you thought Rolex buying over Bucherer would be this year’s most paradigm-shifting acquisition in the watchmaking industry, you're wrong. Just in time to close off 2023. Partners Group, which almost entirely owns Breitling, has announced its acquisition of Universal Genève for about CHF60 million (payable over five years) from Stelux Holdings, a Hong Kong-based company whose portfolio includes watch brands and retail networks.

Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling.
Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling.

The Swiss-based Partners Group is a global private markets investment firm that owns businesses in multiple industries, including Breitling. Based on reports, Breitling represents about 3% of Partners Group’s assets, and clearly, watchmaking is an area in which it is willing to raise the stakes. The most obvious are its Swiss connection and the value Breitling’s CEO brought to the Group. Georges Kern, an industry veteran, nearly doubled the brand’s turnover from US$400 million to around US$940 million, based on industry estimates.

The Universal Genève Cabriolet is one of its icons.
The Universal Genève Cabriolet is one of its icons.

On its part, Universal Genève is a pretty interesting brand. Popular among the watch-collecting community, the Maison has released several icons, such as the Gérald Genta-designed Polerouter and Golden Shadow. Its watches have been worn by world leaders across the spectrum, including the President of Argentina, Juan Perón; US Presidents Harry S Truman and Donald Trump; and the President of the Dominican Republic, Héctor Trujillo.

Universal Genève has been an outlier for a while but Kern’s leadership is likely to revive the brand for a new generation of buyers. What the watches will look like is anyone’s guess (all we know is that they will be priced higher than Breitling), but that’s not the point. More interesting is this nostalgia to look into the past and revive old icons rather than create new ones. Of course, it is easier to acquire an old brand that didn’t quite make it through the Quartz Crisis and wave one’s magic wand over it and for now, market conditions favour these old guys rather than look to someone new.

Among its unique timepieces, Universal Genève also created spectacular enamel watches.
Among its unique timepieces, Universal Genève also created spectacular enamel watches.

Ah, but isn’t that what the independent watch scene is for, you ask? You’re correct, but why didn’t Partners Group choose to throw its money behind them? There might be aspects of Universal Genève’s DNA that resonated with Breitling or their owner, and we can’t discount Kern’s influence on this decision either. His commercial and technical savvy should not be underestimated. Now that Breitling is doing well, he's turning his attention to giving Universal Genève a do-over. Kern has previously stated an interest in acquiring other brands, with the likely intention of competing against other multi-brand conglomerates like Swatch, LVMH, and Richemont.

To be successful, Universal Genève cannot just rely on its past icons like the Tricompax Chronograph.
To be successful, Universal Genève cannot just rely on its past icons like the Tricompax Chronograph.

For Universal Genève to succeed in this market, it will need to feature a slew of bespoke movements to quickly climb up the hierarchy of the ‘watches we want to fight over’ list. Design-wise, it will be about playing up elements from Universal Genève’s most desirable timepieces and combining them with aspects from contemporary watchmaking codes. And while vintage watches are definitely having a bit of a moment right now, we’d love to see fresh ideas and new designs take flight at Universal Genève rather than remakes of old models.

A reversible watch from Universal Genève.
A reversible watch from Universal Genève.

This is a great opportunity for Partners Group to tap into a collector’s market a little different from Breitling’s – more upper-heeled with a bit more money to spend and a taste for something new and interesting. Kern and his team have what it takes to rebuild Universal Genève into something quite spectacular, and it will be interesting to see the direction they choose to take.  



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