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Feature: These Amazing Vintage Watch Brands Are Dead But Not Buried

If you could wander around a graveyard dedicated to deceased watch brands you undoubtedly wouldn’t recognise the names etched into most of the headstones.

Over the last century hundreds, possibly thousands, of companies—making everything from cheap quartz digital watches to high-end timepieces—have sprung up, only to fade away before making any significant impact on the industry.

But a handful of defunct brands have left a deep horological footprint that makes you wonder, with their heritage and innovation, why they aren’t still around. Some are pushing up daisies, a pile of crumbling bones, long forgotten. Some are possibly dormant, awaiting some wealthy financial backer to rouse them from their slumber and restore them to their former glory.

All are worth checking out on the vintage market as they once produced quality timepieces that were on a par with some of the very best in the business.

We’ve picked out some of the names to watch out for.

The Sleeping Giant

Universal Geneve—dormant rather than defunct—is something of a hallowed name among vintage collectors, with its Tri-Compax and Polerouter models in constant demand.

Founded in 1894, it quickly established a reputation for quality, its chronographs used at the tail-end of the First World World War. By the 1930s it was a major player with a reputation that enabled it to weather the storm of the Depression Era when it was given vital financial backing—unlike some companies that went under.

1940 to 1960 was its golden era, during which it released the two models that still serve as the twin pillars that hold the brand’s venerable status aloft. First came the Tri-Compax in 1944, a watch that combined a chronograph function with a calendar and moonphase display.

Universal Geneve's Polerouter is a vintage classic. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Universal Geneve's Polerouter is a vintage classic. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

A decade later, legendary watch designer Gerald Genta came up with the Polerouter, an anti-magnetic watch that was created for Scandinavian Airlines pilots who flew over the North Pole on their route between Scandinavia and the US west coast.

Today, both models can be found relatively easily on the vintage market, with Tri-Compax models selling for upwards of £4000, and Polerouters for significantly less, though their stock is on the rise. You could snap one up for as little as £800 around five years ago.

Universal Geneve kept up the production of its fine-looking chronographs until 1970, after which it was acquired by Bulova and sledge-hammered by the quartz crisis. Since then it has been under several ownerships and staged several half-baked revivals. Currently dormant, it’s unlikely to keep its head below the parapet forever.

Other Names To Watch

The period from 1940 to 1970 was a golden age for chronographs, with brands like Longines—still very much in existence—at the top of its game. Those Longines chronographs, especially ones in superb condition featuring its legendary Caliber 13ZN, now command huge fees.

But if you’re willing to forego a household name, you could always keep an eye out for lesser-known brands like Excelsior Park, a brand that was liquidated in 1984 after more than a century of producing quality timepieces. Its Excel-O-Graph and Monte Carlo models are its best-known—and most aesthetically pleasing—models, with the latter a dead-ringer for a Breguet Type XX.

Excelsior Park's beautiful chronographs are highly collectable. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Excelsior Park's beautiful chronographs are highly collectable. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Another quartz crisis victim that produced great chronographs during this period was Angelus. Founded in 1891, it also released a number of interesting watches that included an alarm watch similar to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Memovox and the ultra-rare Tinkler model, which featured a quarter-repeater at a time when this type of complication was almost unheard of. Angelus, together with Rolex, also supplied movements to Panerai for many years.

Numerous flash-in-the-pan watch brands sprang up between 1950 and 1970, and models with unfamiliar names may contain treasure within. Valjoux movements may have been associated with some of the biggest names in the industry but they also powered obscure and long-forgotten brands like Nicolet, Aurore, Fregatte and Oriosa. See if you can hunt down a bargain. Nobody will be familiar with what you’re wearing but you’ll invite plenty of intrigue.

The Defunct Dirty Dozen

Out of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ watches—by brands including Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Longines—which were manufactured for the British military during the Second World War, ten are operating today.

The other two, Lemania and Grana (the latter the least known of the lot as it only made between 1,000 and 5,000 of these watches), are no longer operational, with Lemania being subsumed by Breguet.

A Lemania military-issue chronograph, circa 1960, that sold for £2,125 at Bonhams in 2018

A Lemania military-issue chronograph, circa 1960, that sold for £2,125 at Bonhams in 2018

Lemania was known for its quality chronographs and is a name familiar to most vintage aficionados, but Grana not so much. Try hunting watches by this brand, which sell for a fraction of the price of its more illustrious Dirty Dozen colleagues.

And if you can muster up the patience and money to collect the whole dozen, as some people have done, the collection can be worth upwards of £30,000. It won’t be easy, though. There are said to be around 20 full sets in existence. Good luck!