In Watch of the Week, we invite Hodinkee staffers and friends to explain why they love a certain watch. This week’s columnist is Kathleen McGivney, who serves as the CEO of the RedBar Group, the Board Chair at Bailey House, and the Director of Customer Success at Gather.
My approach to watch collecting has always been fairly eclectic. I don’t stick to a particular brand, time period, complication, or aesthetic, though I do have slight preferences in each area. The one thing that all of my watches have in common is that when I glance down at my wrist, I feel joy, and my vintage Universal Genève Polerouter is no exception.
There are many things to love about the Polerouter. There’s the design, by none other than Gérald Genta. And the antimagnetic properties, purpose-built to withstand the magnetic fields pilots would encounter while flying over the poles. And there’s its overall charm and slim profile, not something usually seen in a vintage tool watch. I think my specific watch, with its gold-capped case, champagne-gold colored dial, and broad-arrow hands with radium lume, looks particularly elegant on the wrist while still being, ultimately, a utilitarian and functional pilot’s watch. And much like those aviators, the journey I went on to get my watch was an interesting one.
I owned two Polerouters before this one. The first was part of the collection I shared with my ex-husband, the photographer Atom Moore. When we decided to amicably split at the start of 2020, we took out our entire watch collection and set about deciding who would get what. Most of them were easy – there were always certain pieces that were clearly mine, like my unique-piece Arnold & Son HM Perpetual Moon, and some that were clearly his. Finally, there were two left that we both wanted, both vintage and both special: A Tudor Submariner with a perfectly faded bezel that we had nicknamed “Ghosty,” and a Universal Genève Polerouter with a lovely patina on its dial.
I wanted them because, quite frankly, I’m somewhat obsessed with the specific patterns of decay – aka the “patina” – that radium lume can impart onto a dial, and both of these pieces were aesthetically pleasing to me in that regard. But he had a more personal and sentimental attachment to each piece, as we had acquired them during his tenure as the Chief Photographer for Analog:Shift. I didn’t see the point in making a fuss over a material object that I could eventually replace, so off they went into his collection.
I didn’t prioritize getting a replacement for the Polerouter right away. I was very busy at the time, in early 2020. I was traveling to London to plan the next RedBar Global Meetup. I was helping organize the annual charity gala for Bailey House. And I was starting to date again. But of course, the pandemic upended almost all of those things.
The Bailey House charity gala was held on March 5, 2020, and I ended up traveling to London a few days after that, which in hindsight was probably not the wisest course of action. When I returned home, on March 14, I went straight into quarantine. We all thought lockdown would only take a few weeks, or maybe a month or two. But after several months had passed, and I was still in lockdown in my New York apartment, I decided I needed a little retail therapy.
I stayed connected with the RedBar community throughout the whole pandemic, and being the group of watch enthusiasts that we are, we continued to wholeheartedly encourage and enable each other’s watch purchases remotely. I wanted to hunt down the perfect Polerouter to replace the one that had exited my collection, and I ended up finding a beautiful example from 1956 with twisted lugs and gorgeous, perfectly round lume plots with an excellent patina. I loved it when it first arrived; I kept looking at those puffy little lume plots under my loupe.
Eventually, however, it began to get less and less wrist time – not only because I wasn’t putting on watches as often while I was working from home, but also because for some reason it didn’t quite feel like the “right” watch for me.
Fast forward to spring 2022. I was doing a bit of digging on the rabbit hole that is the internet, researching all of the various permutations of the Polerouter (spoiler: there are a LOT). I kept finding myself drawn to the gold versions, so I texted my friend James Lamdin, founder of Analog:Shift and the Vice President of Vintage and Pre-Owned for Watches of Switzerland, to see what he might have in stock.
James is responsible for my initial encounter with radium on a watch dial that eventually led to my full-blown obsession. It was at some point in 2016, and I was hanging around the Analog:Shift office when I noticed a watch with marks on its dial resting on a tray. Through James, I learned that the marks were because the watch had sat untouched in a drawer for many years, leaving a radium “shadow” on the dial where the hands had been sitting. This brief encounter made me determined to learn everything I could about radium and its use in timekeeping instruments, which eventually led to my October 2017 lecture at the Horological Society of New York: “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Radium Dials.”
James remains a clear and present danger to my wallet. Fully aware of this, I still asked him a simple question over text: “Do you have any gold Polerouters?”
In less than five minutes, he sent me photos of three fantastic examples: one was in solid gold, and two gold-plated pieces. I immediately morphed into a heart-eyes emoji and made an appointment to come in and try them all on. And while all three were gorgeous, the combination of the broad-arrow hands and the absence of a date window on this watch won me over. I was smitten.
This was the right Polerouter for me.
It had just arrived in their inventory and needed a service, so I bid it adieu for an interminable amount of time (in reality, it was maybe a month). While I waited, I picked up an emerald green strap for it from Hermès. When my precious gold treasure finally arrived back from service, I popped over to the Analog:Shift office to pick it up. After I attached my new green strap, I was smitten all over again.
It’s become one of my favorite vintage watches in my collection, combining my love of the nerdier aspects of watches (anti-magnetism and radioluminescent materials) with the visual aspects (a timeless design). It couldn’t be more different than either of the two Polerouters I previously owned, and yet it feels the most me out of any Polerouter I’ve ever tried on.
It brings a smile to my face every time I wear it.
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The Hodinkee Shop sells vintage watches, including – sometimes – Universal Genève Polerouters; explore our collection here.