Massena Lab Uni-Racer: A Chat with William Massena

An exclusive conversation about Massena Lab's first standalone release

Last week, I figured out that Massena Lab was up to something big. Hints and teasers pointed to something inspired by Universal Geneve, perhaps a Uni-Compax “Big Eye”. A bit coy and playful[1], William Massena, the founder of the eponymous Lab, continued to drop a trail of hints on his website and social media.

Mr. Massena played along after I (kind of) figured out what was coming with today’s Massena Lab release. So, I had the great pleasure of chatting with him the night before Massena Lab’s first standalone release, the Massena Lab Uni-Racer. But first:

Introducing: The Massena Lab Uni-Racer

Today, Massena Lab introduced its first standalone timepiece, the Massena Lab Uni-Racer. The Uni-Racer takes inspiration from the Universal Geneve Uni-Compax “Big Eye”, a 1960s chronograph that earns its nickname from its large right subdial. It’s a supremely rare watch, and as collectors have realized this over the past few years, prices have skyrocketed. The Massena Lab Uni-Racer is a thoroughly modern interpretation of this classic Universal Geneve chronograph. It’s the first watch to bear the name of Massena Lab alone, with the name below an M logo that evokes the vintage Universal Geneve logo.

The Uni-Racer project began more than two-and-a-half years ago; the end result is a modern reinterpretation of the classic Big Eye, with every detail adapted to modern sensibilities. It’s fitted with a manual wind Sellita chronograph movement and measures 39mm x 13mm (including the domed acrylic crystal). Like the original Big Eye, the Uni-Racer is available in two colorways: a panda white dial fitted with a blue saffiano leather strap, and a black reverse panda dial with a grey textured leather strap. Just 400 examples will be produced (200 in each colorway). After wearing the prototype for three months and a two-month production delay due to Covid-19, Massena says he’s excited the release is finally here.

Below is my conversation with Massena from the evening before the launch, edited for length and clarity. For more interviews and deep dives on vintage watches, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.


Massena on the origins of the Uni-Racer:

“Originally, I wanted to approach Universal Geneve and do it as a collab. So, I sent them emails but got no answers. Eventually, I decided I’d do it myself. So that’s how it started. I went to Switzerland, and some of the people I know and friends in the industry thought it was a great idea and helped me. We had to decide if we were going to do an exact copy or not. We eventually decided we would do as much as we could to resemble the original Big Eye. But we thought 39mm would be a lot better than 35mm for modern tastes.” At 39mm in diameter, the Uni-Racer measures a few millimeters larger than the original Universal Geneve ‘Big Eye’.

On the Uni-Racer name:

“I thought evolving it would be best going forward, and not using Uni-Compax as the first [Massena Lab] watch. I thought that might be too much.”

On developing the case:

“Massena Lab bought two [Universal Geneve Big Eyes], and a third was lent to us. A big issue was figuring out how it was originally polished. But, we found a guy outside of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, who used to work at Universal Geneve, and asked him questions. We also asked collectors left and right.” Eventually, Massena Lab landed on a vertically polished case, which adds a sense of dimension to the case.

On developing the hands:

“The hardest thing to nail was the hands. On the Universal Geneve, at certain angles they’re black, at other angles they’re blue. The rumor is that they’re blue, and that Universal blued them at a certain temperature. We tried this, but it wasn’t working well — the blue was coming out too light. We thought that maybe with aging, the blue might turn a bit darker, because the light blue looked cheap. I love aging things — take the dial of the Unimatic we did, for example — so we took our blued hands and tried to age them, but it got worse and worse, so we went back to the drawing board. Finally, through trial and error we got the formula right.”

On developing the acrylic crystal:

To stay true to the vintage inspiration, Massena wanted to use an acrylic crystal for the Uni-Racer. However, because very few companies use it nowadays, it was difficult to source. Regardless, Massena Lab was able to do so, while still ensuring the watch can provide 50m of water resistance. “We broke 20 percent of the crystals when we try to put them on the watch. And these things are more expensive than sapphire crystal,” Massena said. “The crystals are treated by a new technology called Nex, which makes it very difficult to scratch. You can take steel wool and you won’t be able to scratch it.”

On the watch box:

“The watch box was inspired by a vintage Heuer watch box. To be honest, Universal Geneve had really shitty boxes, and I wanted to have something really cool. When I was a child, we’d go to the toy store and the boxes would look like these, so it kind of reminds me of my childhood too. Plus they’re light and compact and look great in a picture. Not like the super heavy ones that no one gives a shit about.”

The box for the Uni-Racer (right) is designed to resemble those of vintage Heuer.

On being judged:

“I wanted to make something that is cool, that people can relate to. I don’t mind being judged. I think I should be judged just like everyone else. I didn’t want to be stuck with one brand for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to do every Universal Geneve. If this is successful, I will do other watches from Universal Geneve. But, I will also do things from other brands that have cult watches that aren’t being reissued because the brand is dead.

I don’t want to sound pretentious: I have big plans and big ideas out there being designed. But, if this doesn’t work, I don’t think the rest of it will happen.

I’m also not that pretentious to think it should sell out in a day. If it sells out in six months, I’d be happy. I have 18 projects planned over the next three years. Of course, some of them will die. But I just hope I can finance them, because some of them won’t be cheap.”

On the Big Eye’s short production run:

“I believe the Big Eye died very early in the 1960s because it was eaten by the Heuer Carrera, [Omega] Speedmaster, and [Rolex] Daytona. Those were all very symmetrical, and I think the asymmetrical subdial of the Big Eye made people not like the watch as much. Plus, the small size with the oversized subdial made it look even worse. But, looking back now it’s a very elegant watch. It’s a different thing than what a lot of people had wanted to see in a watch. It has all the elements of a 1960s chronograph, and it’s got that extra thing that puts it over the top.”

On bringing Universal Geneve back:

“I do hope what I do makes Stelux [the owners of the Universal Geneve brand] realize they have a potential goldmine on their hands.”

On what’s next for Massena Lab:

“I’m still doing my collabs. Those are selling out pretty fast, so I wanted to have my own thing to be able to do in between collabs. Massena Lab is just me and one other guy, Greg. So I have a lot of friends in the industry who help me. I work with different subcontractors to get cases polished the way I like them, to get the dial the way I want it, and so on. For example, we’re using a Sellita movement, but they’ve personalized it for us.”


Uni-Racer specs:

  • Reference: UR-001 and UR-002

  • Dimensions: 39m x 13mm height (including 4mm domed crystal); 20mm lug width

  • Crystal: scratch-resistant domed acrylic

  • Lume: Super-LumiNova

  • Caliber: Sellita SW510 manual wind; 58 hour power reserve

  • Water resistance: 50m

  • Price: $3,495

  • Limited: Yes, 400 (200 in each colorway), exclusively at the Hodinkee Shop and Massenalab.com

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Footnotes

[1] Perhaps with the help of his friend Romaric from Seconde/Seconde?

For more on the Universal Geneve Big Eye, check out our Brief History of the Universal Geneve Uni-Compax.

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