Universal Genève are most well known for two things: the Polerouter and exceptional chronographs. In the pantheon of those many incredible vintage chronographs, there are three which stand clearly atop the rest, at the very core of UG DNA: the Big Eye, the Nina, and this, the Clapton. All are designs that have been referenced dozens of times since by other manufactures. Each presents its own charm. The Big Eye has absolute scarcity on its side, but was also was more playful than any of its contemporary peers with an oversized register and crosshairs. The Valjoux 72 Nina is every bit the watch a period 6263 was and even has F1 ties, yet is an order of magnitude less expensive. The Clapton, though, well it brought complication to the party. And this ref. 881101/01 was perhaps the most significant in terms of bringing UG into sharp focus in the late 2000s era of collecting, through its intersection with culture by way of Eric Clapton.
Clapton first bought a, well, Clapton during his years with Cream. It was the first of many, the man is now commonly regarded as one of the world’s most important watch collectors, having had many personal watches go through auction houses such as the $12M platinum 2499 at Christies in 2012. But it was one fortuitous night in 1966 where Clapton first met Jimmy Hendrix, and was paparazzi’d casually wearing this exact panda dial with a cigarette in hand, that rocketed Universal Genève to fame. That single shot made this watch and helped make Universal Genève what it is today: a brand with ardent adoration from a select few, almost entirely only fully appreciated in retrospect. Except Clapton, who knew just how special UG were from the start. Although in period the watch was something of an obscure choice, it is today generally regarded as well ahead of its time.
Its design is near-perfection, in Clapton, Evil Clapton, or Exotic guise. Those four panda registers are a look any watch snob can spot from a mile away, a design recognizable at an instant to those who know what to look for. The lyre-lug case is understated at 36mm, classic even. It featured a full calendar, moonphase, and column-wheel chronograph (the Tri-Compax name originally referenced three complications; it is often incorrectly assumed this name means tri-register, it doesn’t). One could go so far as to call it the accessible, less fussy 2499. Clapton’s tastes in guitars, vehicles, and watches have always spoken to a craving for unique design and technical merit over outright opulence or luxury. It should be no surprise that, even sixty years ago when not an outrageously wealthy man, Clapton chose the very best of Universal Genève.