It can be daunting to buy any vintage watch, especially for someone that is new to the field. The whole vintage watch market in general is littered with reprinted dials, franken-watches, and flat out fakes. Unfortunately, the Polerouter market is no different – but there are some specifics you can easily look out for, and armed with the right information, you can confidently search for and find a nice example to enjoy for many years.
The first step is deciding on the model or models of Polerouter you are searching for. There are somewhere in the order of 1000 different references that have been made, and each is unique in its own way. That said, what suits one collector may not suit everyone.
As an example, let’s compare the 20360-1 and 20357-1. They are essentially the same design, with the same movement, but a 2 mm case diameter difference. Bigger wrists may better suit the larger 20360 references, but collectors with smaller wrists may be able to get a much better deal on the same (but smaller) 20357 references…
In addition to the case size, references vary in case material, and shape, along with the movements, dials and hand styles. Some Polerouter models were made for divers and waterproof to 200 m, whilst others were more at home above the surface at cocktail parties. Solid 18k yellow gold, red gold, and white gold cases, intricately brushed or engraved dials, and some even with individually made, handcrafted cloisonné dials.
Naturally, this broad range of design and construction has led some model references to become more sought after and collectible than others. The rarity of each of these references also varies, though it is quite important to recognise that rarity does not translate to collectability. Often in fact, the reverse is true – where “rare” (low production) pieces were only made in a small number because there was no demand for them at the time. Perhaps that demand has changed (think along the lines of the Rolex Daytona), or perhaps it has stayed just the same… an awkward-looking piece that has not aged so well.
The best way to not fall into this trap of buying “rarity”, is to buy a Polerouter that you alone appreciate. A piece of advice that finally seems to be gaining traction in watch circles, is “buy what you love“. Prices can change, demand can change, but if you have a watch you love on your wrist, then it really doesn’t matter, does it?
Assessing a Polerouter
Once you have narrowed your choice down and found a few potential reference targets, you can start to search and assess each one you find. The simplest way is to first assess the main components of the watch individually:
2) Case and Caseback;
3) Movement; and
4) “The Details”.
1. The Dial
As the vintage watch saying goes, “80-90% of the value is in the dial”.
In my opinion, it is much more accurate to say that “80-90% of the collectability is in the dial”.
Sure, the value naturally follows, but don’t take it too literally… It is extremely rare that a loose dial from a $1000 watch can be sold for $800-900.
This saying generally holds true with Polerouters, though there are always exceptions.
In essence, the dial is typically the most important component of a Polerouter, and so naturally it should be the first component to assess.
First and foremost, is the dial an original Universal Geneve Polerouter dial?
A brand new repainted dial will always be less collectible, even for a heavily damaged original dial. Check for some tips in the article “How to spot a repainted Polerouter dial”.
Secondly, is the dial correct?
Not only should it be correct for the reference (colour, logo, font etc), but also small details and changes within a single reference throughout the serial range can indicate the likelihood of whether the dial was installed from factory, or has been replaced at some point in its life.
Finally, what condition is the dial in?
Originality and condition are both important (in that order) for the overall collectability of a Polerouter, and watches in general. Check for signs of “dial cleaning” (where the surface of the paint/lacquer can be stripped away), watchmaker tool marks around the centre of the dial, circular marks on the dial from dragging hands, general corrosion around the outside edge of the dial, and complete and matching lume colours.
Many dealers, private sellers, and a scourge of instagram flippers will try all sorts of inventive descriptions to reel in a sale, and some of the most common examples of this is the overly-ambitious use of “NOS”, “Unworn”, “Untouched”, “Tropical”, and “Patina”. Most of these descriptions are applied in reference to the dial.
“NOS” (New Old Stock) literally means it was never sold from a dealer. New. Old Stock. That is, a watch that was never officially sold. Every single part should be correct and original, and there should be no marks whatsoever on the dial, or hands. In addition, there should be no major marks, wear, or signs of polishing on the case, no papers (it was never sold!), and usually no box with this type of Polerouter.
Keep this in mind whenever you see the word “NOS” in a sale advertisement… In reality it is usually just “very good condition“, and even then it seems to be used far too liberally.
“Tropical” and “Patinated” are also descriptions that are not only highly subjective, but also often misused in place of what they really mean: “Well used“, or sometimes even “Damaged”. Again, this is entirely subjective, but in my opinion a truly attractive Tropical or Patinated dial will be evenly patterned, and absent of mould and/or oxidation, as below.
2. Case and Caseback
Case condition can also make a big difference between a truly attractive Polerouter, and just an average one.
Beware of any Polerouter case (or any vintage watch) that is being described as “unpolished”. How this can be guaranteed by anyone but an original owner who never sent it in for service, is beyond me. Watches were/are usually polished at least partially when serviced, and “please dont polish the watch” is a relatively new trend. Polerouters are now 65+ yrs old… so for a Polerouter case to make it through this time without at least a small amount of polishing is extremely unlikely.
That said, there is a big difference between light cloth polishing, and one thats been brutally attacked with a buffing wheel. Just like using inaccurate “NOS” descriptions, the seller will usually mean “good case condition” instead of “unpolished”.
Usually the lugs of a Polerouter are the most commonly affected area of overpolishing, in particular the lugs of 18kt gold cases due to their relative metal softness. The capping on the gold-capped models (e.g. 20214) is quite thick (usually 300 um), but sharp edges can also be rounded over or the capping can wear through and detract from the overall look. Some steel models (e.g. 869113/115/119) also had an attractive brushed finish to part of the case and lugs, which if polished or worn away, is next to impossible to restore.
Poleouter casebacks have also often been subjected to heavy wear and/or overpolishing. Many of the early Microtor models had a Polerouter logo on the caseback, and often the reference number and serial numbers were also on the caseback (Reference and serial locations can be checked in the Reference Tables). This means that overpolishing of the caseback can remove both of these elements, and some models are more susceptible than others.
Some models had deep engraving/stamping of the reference and serial numbers, and some were very shallow, and hence easily removed from overpolishing and wear. As a good comparison, 1st execution Polarouter caseback engravings were quite deep, whereas 2nd execution Polarouter casebacks were very shallow – the latter are more commonly missing. 18kt gold references are often victim of this, again due to the softness of the metal.
Considering the importance of legible numbers in classifying a Polerouter, their absence can detract significantly from their collectability.
Another point to check is the comparison between the case front and the case back condition.
Sometimes NOS case parts are unearthed, and used to replace poor condition components. This seems to be more common on Polerouter Super and later Polerouter Sub references, as the case makers for these (e.g. EPSA) utilised the same or very similar (patented) parts for a number of different dive watch brands. Is the case front immaculate, but the caseback heavily polished and/or missing the reference and serial numbers? This could be a sign that something is amiss, so it’s worth going over the rest of the watch for disparities…
Finally, the case should be checked for corrosion, or major “acid pitting”.
Case corrosion usually appears as black marks and small malformations of the case surface, where it can be minor and a purely cosmetic issue, or major and present some potentially structural/waterproofing problems. If present around the caseback thread, moisture can easily get in to the dial and movement, and sometimes the caseback cannot properly open and close.
Case corrosion most commonly affects gold-capped and gold-plated Polerouter references, mostly around the back side of the case, and is more commonly seen on Polerouters that have spent a good portion of their lives in tropical regions of the world.
3. The Movement
In most cases, the movement is the simplest part of a Polerouter to be checked and if needed, corrected. However, missing or incorrect parts can give an insight into the history of the watch, and can be a red flag to more carefully check over the rest of the watch.
Fortunately, both the bumper and microtor movements were widely used over the Universal Geneve range (not just Polerouters). This means that for the time being, most movement parts and whole donor movements are fairly easy and relatively cheap to source. Movements were not numbered, so can be repaired and replaced fairly simply without sacrificing the “correctness” of the watch.
The exceptions here are the Chronometre movements.
These were individually numbered, tested for high accuracy, and certified as such. Many of the components are interchangable with normal polerouters, but if the movement plates and/or chronometre balance is missing or replaced, this could prove next to impossible to find.
Both the “correctness” and condition of the movement should be taken into account. You can simply check that the movement is correct, using the Reference Tables, Movements Gallery, and that it matches the Dial Text. Pay particular attention to the rotor style, the balance style, the top plates, and the calendar wheel condition (for models with a date).
Logic also dictates that the movement plates should be in very similar condition to each other – if one is corroded or heavily scraped and the rest are shiny and new, then one or the other has likely been replaced at some point. Keep an eye out for corrosion in general across the movement, and always check for any rotor rubbing marks on the rotor itself as well as inside the caseback.
Some references (such as later Polerouter Subs and some 18k gold references) also used specific movement holders. A few different types of movement clamps were also used, and again the correct type depends on the specific reference. If either of these are missing or replaced with generic items, it can sometimes (but not always) be a sign that the movement and case have only recently met each other… These can be cross-checked by simply looking at as many other examples as possible for that specific reference.
4. The Details
The final point for assessment is looking at all of the smaller details – checking all the minor parts, and combining what you have uncovered from the above 3 points into an overall “holistic” Polerouter assessment.
Some of these smaller (but still important) details include:
Is the crown correct for this model? Is the plexi correct? Are they both signed with the correct UG logo?
Are there any extras that come with the watch? Original box? Filled out papers? Hangtags? Caseback opener? Original and correct strap and buckle? (…N.B. beware of fake buckles from some regions in Italy).
Is the dial double-signed? Is it a particularly rare AND attractive model? (remember, rare does NOT automatically mean collectible). Is the ownership history traceable? Has it been recently serviced by a reputable watchmaker?
Any accessories should more or less match the time period of the watch. A mishmash of accessories from the 50s-90s usually indicates a “put together” package. Whether or not that detracts from the piece is rather subjective, but at least a decision can be made with the right knowledge in hand.
We end the article here by reminding you that There is no perfect Polerouter.
There is always a faster gun – that is, there will always be one that is in better condition than the one on your wrist. They will always be some sort of compromise that needs to be made, whether that be in the condition of the dial, the case, the movement, or something else.
My own advice is to take your time searching and assessing, find a Polerouter with the correct parts, or only missing minor parts that are attainable. Collectors have different tastes that chop and change with time, some prefer well-used pieces with stories behind them, whilst others prefer literally NOS examples.
Should you throw out any Polerouter that is not in perfect condition? No. Is a heavily worn Polerouter worthless? Absolutely not. I’ve seen some heavily worn pieces that just seem to have something indescribably fantastic about them.
Sure this is entirely subjective, but a well-worn piece with a great history behind it can sometimes be just as enticing as one that has sat in a safe for the past 60 years. There is no perfect recipe that suits all tastes, so in short, just look for a Polerouter that you will be happy with – thats really all that matters.
With that in mind, hopefully this short guide helps you to achieve it.