Reference Guide: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax - 1944 to 1949
The Universal Geneve Tri-Compax has a very special place in my heart as Universal Geneve was one of the first brands that I researched for my Lost to Time series and one of the first truly beautiful watches I lusted after. I can't think of a better watch to start a series of Reference Guides for.
The Universal Geneve Tri-Compax was first released at the 1944 Basel Watch Fair to commemorate the brand's fiftieth anniversary. A common misconception is that the "Tri" refers to the three subdials when instead it refers to the three complications: moonphase, calendar and chronograph. The calibers used throughout the Tri-Compax line were UG Caliber 481, 287 and 281 which were supplied from Ebauches Martel and customized by Universal Geneve. These calibers would be used throughout the lifespan of the Tri-Compax with the difference sized movements allowing for a variety of case sizes ranging from 34.5mm to 39mm.
Earlier models from the 1940's typically used the larger Caliber 287 (33.8mm) or 481 (32.7mm) however there were cases of the smaller gold-plated 281 (28.1mm) being used in some models of that period. Watches that were imported to the United States through the Henri Stern Watch Agency will have HOX stamped on the movement.
1940's Tri-Compax all had rectangular pushers however you might find them being described as square in some instances (I don't know about you but I was taught that a square has sides of equal length). Originally the watches would have been shipped with an unsigned crown, a U inside of a shield, however thanks to swaps made at service you might find some with a signed crown as well.. All Tri-Compax up until the late 1950's all had snap-on caseback with two numbers engraved on the back, the serial (top line) and the reference (bottom line).
Even though the watch wasn't released until 1944, there are a considerable number of references for the six year span until the 1950s. The more I look the more I find so this article will be updated accordingly. I've been able to date individual watches to a certain year of manufacture using Universal Chrono's serial number guide but I'm unwilling to declaratively state that an entire reference is definitely from a certain year. I've seen watches with the same reference be made a decade apart so I'll play it safe and narrow it down to the decade.
Unlike say the Rolex Submariner, which had a linear progression of references numbers with incremental changes to the design or movement, the Tri-Compax stayed mostly the same for it's entire run. The reference numbers don't reference the watch's chronology but details about the watch itself; the first number refers to the case material, the second is the type of movement (1 for time only and 2 for chronograph), the third for the size of the base plate and the final two for the case design. Later models could have an additional number added on the end after a dash or space to indicate a variation of the standard five digit model.
The primary identifiers of Tri-Compax is the case size and lug shape. it is common to see multiple dial, hand and language options on the same reference number.
These references guides (1950's and 1960's are forthcoming) are by no means definitive as half a century is ample time for human error to come and make things difficult. Hands swapped, incorrect casebacks used, serial numbers polished away, misleading personal engravings etc. If anyone reading has any more information or a Tri-Compax of their own that they'd like to be included in the guide then make sure to email me at email@example.com.
For ease of browsing I've arranged the references in ascending order from the lowest numbered reference I can find first.
This stunning watch is one of the few 18kt (First digit of the reference being 1) Pink Gold Tri-Compax I have found. It's 36mm in diameter with wonderful elongated, also known as lapidated, lugs with a beautiful chamfer to them. A matching pink dial and feuille/leaf hands are the cherry on top of this beautiful piece. The Arabic numerals are a staple of Tri-Compax design but whilst their exact layout can vary from dial to dial, nearly all Tri-Compax would have slightly recessed subdials with a machine turned finish. Another commonality is the use of the blued steel stick hands for the sub-dial markers.
The third digit in the reference (2) suggests that this watch originally housed at Caliber 281 however the seller of this piece described it as a Cal. 287, which is almost 6mm bigger. I think that might just be a mistake on their part. One unique point for this watch is the minute subdial is segmented into three minute intervals, not the normal five minutes. As this shares the same case as the Ref. 12551, I imagine it was produced around the same time in 1945-46.
This Tri-Compax is very similar to the above Ref. 12251 and the Ref. 12551 down below expect it has a slightly different style of lugs and slightly more pronounced pushers. The dial of this one is unfortunately quite worn but you can still see the blue tachymeter and minute track running round the dial. The applied stick markers just about touch the edges of the hour sub dial which is slightly larger on this model with only a small amount of room between each of the sub dials to squeeze in Tri-Compax.
The moonphase had faded somewhat but you can still still the eyes of the cartoon moon showing that it hasn't been replaced over the years. This 35mm case housed the Caliber. 481 inside.
Another 18kt precious metal case but this time it is the smallest possible case size of 34.5mm. The lugs have been polished here so the facet is slightly dulled. Here we have a rare silvered dial which has both a tachymeter (blue) and a telemeter (red) scale on the dial. As befitting a dress chronograph, the Tri-Compax would more often than not have at least one of these two scales printed on the dial. The gold dauphine hands and applied rectangular hour markers are definitely reminiscent of certain Patek references however the Tri-Compax was only an annual calendar, not a perpetual. Inside is the Caliber 481 which will have been gold plated and lacking any shock protection seen on later iterations.
This is one of the few times where I've seen a differently colored hour sub dial hand in place of the usual blued steel. The Sotheby's description doesn't say whether this was a replacement or an original. Early examples of the moonphase have cartoon moon with a face whilst later moons would be a block color. This piece was dated to being produced in 1945 based on the case number.
With only two digits away from the previous reference, the similarities between the cases is clear to see though the 12268 has slightly shorter lugs and a slightly raised section next to the chronograph pushers. The yellow gold example has thin applied stick hour markers that don't touch any of the subdials but has a slightly longer hour hand than Ref. 12266. The minute subdial has slightly longer three minute hash marks as well and after segmented into five minute intervals.
I almost didn't include the black dial version here because I'm frankly not sure about it's authenticity. It was sold at Christies in 2014 and I've haven't seen another example of a black dial Tri-Compax from this era. The printing of the dates around the moonphase is pretty sloppy with the upper half misaligned and some of the fonts has less clarity compared to other watches from that era. Both of these watches are from between 1948-1949 and both have the same moonphase disc and movement (Caliber 481) so it's possible that the black dial is just incredibly rare. Given that it's housed in an 18kt pink gold case with matching hour markers and hands it is a possibility.
Both of these pieces date to 1949 and boy are they beautiful. Both have a silver dial with a similar minute track and tachymeter printed around the outside with almost identical blued steel hour and minute thin leaf hands as well. The watch below however has applied yellow gold hour markers in a traditional Arabic style whilst the above has printed markers in a wonderful Art Deco/Nouveau style. This is similar to a Ref. 22279 that we'll see later on. Whilst I'm usually a fan of applied markers, those unique flourishes and twists of the printed markers are a sight to behold.
The 18kt yellow gold 34.5mm case houses the Caliber. 481 inside and it shows that a good design can work wonderfully at all sizes as Universal managed to arrange these three complications in a way that didn't seem cramped or cluttered. Like the Ref. 12268 above, both of these watches have the blank moon to indicate their later year of production and changing styles of the time.
This is one of the earliest production Tri-Compax and the earliest examples date to late 1944 or early 1945. It has the same lapidated lugs as the pink gold Ref. 12251 but this time the 36mm case is in 18kt yellow gold. The above watch t has a Portuguese day and month with the same gold leaf hands as seen on previous models. The combination of Arabic numerals and dart markers would continue throughout the Tri-Compax production. The case number dates the watch to between 1945 and 1946 however the moon disc has been changed to a blank moon during a service at some point.
The above watch was worn by President Harry Truman at the signing of the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945 and was sold in 1994 by Antiquorum for 'only' 23,000 CHF. On the caseback is an inscription which reads "WORN AT POTSDAM July 1945 by Harry Truman". Early Antiquorum pictures and descriptions are pretty lacklustre so it's not clear whether Truman's has a gold dial and of course photographs of him wearing it are in black and white. The location of the watch is unknown so we'll have to wait until it comes up for sale to find out for certain.
Another precious metal case but this time in the larger size of 37.5mm with those unique downturned lugs with an inner facet, I've also seen these lugs be called 'spider lugs' as well. It is common to see this facet polished away but this model still has a slight edge to it. It's clear than the crown has been replaced sometime on this model but the original moonphase remains.
This specific watch is dated to between 1944-1945 and is one of the few to have an almost chapter ring style of layout with the minute track and tachymeter. I'm not sure whether this was the original style or it has just changed color over time but either way the effect is striking. The subdials don't seem to have a machined finish to them but it might be hidden by the wear to the dial. The leaf hands are one of the thinnest I've seen with only the slightest taper to them. Similar to the Ref. 12251 and Ref. 12551, this minute track of this watch is divided into three minute intervals.
The first of our steel references! (First digit being number 2) Depending on the condition and rarity of model, these can go for significantly less than their precious metal counterparts and can have some really interesting lugs and dial designs. The '42 case have these awesome faceted lugs which are almost a precursor to the 'twisted' bombe style that is seen on the sports case of the 1960's. These watches are 35mm wide with the Caliber 481 inside.
This was probably one of my favorite references if just partly for those wonderful alpha hands. Whilst hands will have almost certainly have been changed at some point in the watches life, you'll see mostly two lengths of hour hands (One short and one of normal length) paired with a minute hand of varying length. Here we have two dials that have similar lumed Arabic numbers but with one replaced the odd numbers with pips whilst the other still uses numbers.
The dial layout and hand combination of this model is very similar to the Ref. 22242 however it has these wonderful thick lapidated lugs that seem to stretch forever from the case. They are similar in style to the pointed lapidated lugs of Ref. 12251 and Ref. 12551 as they were most likely made around the same time between 1944 and 1945. The description at HQ Milton did say the case has been polished but I don't know whether that means a complete polish to matte transformation or just touch-ups. This mid-size 36mm has the Cal. 481 on the inside and will certainly wear larger on the wrist thanks to those epic lugs.
Speaking of epic lugs, take at look at these beauties. It's amazing to think that something like this was being made around 1944-1945. Whilst not as long as the lapidated lugs, they are really thick and have a wonderful edge to them. If I was going to trial a leather NATO on a Tri-Compax, it would be on this watch.
Despite the larger lugs, this is one of the smallest Tri-Compax measuring 34mm with a 16mm lug distance. The seller's description does say that dial has been re-done at some point with the hour sub dial being more distinct and the hour markers possibly being a later replaced or simply a reapplied original. The Cal. 481 movement is nickel plated which is usually seen on the later models which gives further credence to the notion that this was refinished at some point
I've never seen a two-tone Tri-Compax like this before and it's made all the better for those amazing lug styles. Like the Ref. 22259, it's a small case at 34mm but the height of the case and lug width will make it wear much larger. Interestingly enough the caseback dates to between 1942 and 1943, at least a year before the Tri-Compax was launched at Baselworld in 1944. Given that a two-tone case is quite rare and the more pronounced calendar pushers at 8 and 10, I'll take a guess and think that this one was either a prototype or part of an incredibly small series. The teardrop hour markers will be seen on later models as with the extreme cut-away Arabic numbers at 12, 3 and 9. Inside the watch is the Caliber. 481.
Long time readers of Hodinkee will no doubt recognise the watch on the left as being previously in the collection of Reginald Fullerton, Grandson of legendary collector Henry Graves and now owned by the Benjamin Clymer himself. If you want an example of how much a watch price change change at auction then look no further than this watch as Ben paid 'just' $2750 back in 2012. Ironically enough if this watch went on sale today I reckon the Hodinkee Effect would see it raise over $6,000, and that's not accounting for the Graves and Clymer connection.
Ben's piece has those wonderful Art Nouveau printed numbers and alpha hands that I like so much. His dial also has a telemeter rather than a tachymeter which is a rare touch. The other dial is a two-tone piece with gold dauphine hands and applied hour markers with the more usual tachymeter printed around the dial.. At 34mm it's another small case size with the Ca. 481 inside. It's an early model dating to between 1944 and 1945 but unfortunately the moonphase disc was swapped to the blank moon during a service.
Both of these watches are two of the most beautiful Tri-Compax I've seen. The 36.5mm case is probably the best sized case and the chronograph pushers that aren't too pronounced with the whole case frame wonderfully with those elongated lugs. The above watch with the patina'ed dial is a slightly earlier model from 1945 whilst the watch below is dated later to between 1946 to 1949 (Probably closer to '45 given the early serial number). Both watches have the gold plated mid-size Cal. 287 inside.
Here we have the return of those downturned 'Spider' lugs on the Ref. 22541. The above watch sold at Phillips Geneva Watch Auction Two and is probably one of the best examples of how a watch looked like when it left the factory seventy years ago. The facets on the lugs are still razor sharp and there isn't a mark on the case. It also has one of these interestingly plump teardrop hour markers that I'm sure sure whether I'm a fan of or not but I know I do like the red leaf hands, a color I haven't seen before on a Tri-Compax.
This watch watch has more traditional dial with the applied dart and Arabic numerals but it does have the rare combination of both tachy and telemeter. Both of these watches are beautiful examples of the reference.
This is our first instance of the first digit being a 4, indicating that this is a gilded case. Gilding is a form of gold plating so these references are seen as less desirable than the 14/18kt solid gold or steel cases. When looking at any reference 4 it is crucial to see how the gilt has worn over the years as regilding is often a near impossibility, however if a little wear doesn't bother you then you might find yourself a bargain.
The model above is dated to 1945 and appears to have a Portuguese day and month wheel. The faceted lugs are shorter The faceted lugs are similar to those seen on the Ref. 12253 and Ref. 12266 but they don't reach quite as high up on the case, stopping well before the chronograph pushers. Inside the 36mm case is the Calibre 287 movement.
I've seen two dial variants on this particular watch, the regular arabic numbers seen on many dials and the gold pips that are rarer. These smaller pips really open up the dial and make the watch seem much more of a dress piece. The piece above also has a Hispanic language day and date dial however as Spanish and Portuguese have the same abbreviations for Sunday (Dom) and April (Abr) it's impossible to tell which of the two languages it is.
It might just be the contrast between the crisp white dial, patina'd arabic numbers and the steel case but this watch just looks completely unique to me. At 37mm it's one of the larger Tri-Compax and the pronounced calendar pushers on the left hand side of the case add to this size. The alpha hands are some of the thickest and longest I've ever seen and truly dominate the dial, as do the extra large chronograph registers.
The almost sector-like dial separates the minute tracking with the blue tachymeter that is printed onto a more silver colored dial ring, however this might just be a trick of the light or a change that occurred over the years. Unfortunately I haven't been able to source a year of manufacture for this piece but I would assume towards the earlier part of the production as later models do not seem to have such larger calendar pushers.
The first digit, 5, refers to the 14kt gold case and as an Englishman, 14kt gold is something of oddity to me as 9kt and 18kt are far more common in England with 14kt almost never being seen. What makes this watch even more odd is that the engraving on the back reads "To Doug from Mum, 1949" and used the English spelling of 'Mum' rather than 'Mom'. Perhaps a watch bought in America by a traveling, and wonderfully doting, English mother? The watch was dated to 1948 and has the Cal. 481 inside the 34.5mm case.
Despite selling at Sotheby's in 2013 for 7,250 CHF, I am dubious about the hands of this piece. The patina on the alpha hands don't seem to match patina on the hour markers and I would hazard a guess that they are a later replacement. The chronograph hands as well, all painted bright yellow, are something completely unique to this watch as well and I'm not convinced of their originality either. However with such a varied production, I wouldn't be surprised of at least one Tri-Compax like this.
In almost every other instance of a Tri-Compax in a precious metal case, the chronograph hands have always been blued steel and these yellow hands just seem odd to me. The lot description makes no mention of the originality of the hands or the bracelet, which is branded Universal Geneve but not dated to the watch.
- 1st Dibs: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 22541
- analog/shift: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 12551
- analog/shift: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 42406
- Ancienne: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 12251
- Ancienne: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 42409
- Antiquorum: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 12551 worn by Harry S. Truman
- Ancienne: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 12554
- Christies: Universal Tri-Compas Ref. 12268 with black dial
- European Watch Company: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 12268
- European Watch Company: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 22242 Dial 2
- European Watch Company: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 22536
- Hautetime: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 22541
- H.Q. Milton: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 22258
- H.Q. Milton: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 42406
- Luca Muscumeci: Universal Geneve Tri-Compaxc Ref. 22541
- Second Time Ticking: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 22242 Short Alpha hand
- Sotheby's: Important Watches, Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 12283 Dial 1
- Sotheby's: Important Watches, Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 12266
- Sotheby's: Important Watches, Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 22279 Dial 2
- Sotheby's: Watches from Reginald H. Fullerton, Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 22279
- Sotheby's: Import Watches, Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 52216
- Vesper & Co: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 22242 Dial 1
- Vimeo: A Collected Man video of UG Tri-Compax Ref. 22261
- Waddingtons Auction House: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 12283 Dial 2
- Watches of Knightsbridge: Universal Geneve Tri-Compax Ref. 12253