Oversized Universal Split Seconds does big number at Christie's

Big Universal Geneve, Bigger money

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At Christie’s Hong Kong Important Watches sale last weekend, the Patek “Ruby Collection” got all the glow up, but I had my eyes on another big lot.

Among the red rubies and other such ridiculously sparkling gems, Christie’s offered a rare oversized Universal Geneve Split Seconds Chronograph, made for the Italian Navy and signed A. Carielli (Lot 2355). It’s an absolutely massive, 24-hour chronograph, measuring 44.5mm. The estimate was pegged at HKD 650k-1.2m, and it ultimately ended up selling for HKD 750k (close to $100k).

It’s an extremely rare reference, so when one shows up publicly, it’s always worth taking note — it’s not like Universal Geneve (or any other brand, for that matter), was producing chronographs measuring nearly 45mm in diameter back in 1950. And they especially weren’t throwing in a split-seconds complication for good measure. Oh, and it’s a watch made for the military too. This lot was of particular note for its provenance: It came fresh to the market, consigned by the son of the original owner. On top of it all, the watch came complete with copies of photographs of the original owner, an Italian Air Force fighter jet pilot, wearing the watch while beside his fighter jet. It doesn’t get much more badass than an Italian fighter pilot wearing a huge, split-seconds chronograph from Universal Geneve in the 1950s.

This oversized UG split-seconds was produced for the Italian Air Force (or Aeronautica Militare Italiana, AMI, as is engraved on the case back of this example). Only a handful have surfaced over the years, and no more than a dozen or so are thought to exist. It’s been recognized by collectors far and wide as a grail-level Universal Geneve. Collectors as esteemed as former Hodinkee CEO Ben Clymer have recognized how important they are:

A post shared by Ben Clymer (@benclymer)

The case back engraving of this lot indicates that it’s a particularly rare variant, supplied to the AMI. The inscription reads: AMI Cronometro per Navigaz. Astronom. Tipo HA-1. N. Categ. 19620 MM. 200099. The MM stands for Marina Militare, or the Italian Navy.

The case is absolutely massive, with a gorgeous cream 24-hour military dial that surely would have been highly legible for the original owner flying his fighter jet over the Mediterranean. It’s signed by the retailer A. Carielli at 6 o’clock, the famous Roman supplier to the Italian military for generations. Cairelli, along with Panerai, were the official suppliers to the Italian Ministry of Defence.

The watch was truly designed to be a tool, with a 16-minute chronograph register crafted especially for astronomic navigation. Apparently, this allows the hour angle[1] to be measured in time, with 24 hours equal to 360 degrees so that the hour can be calculated directly, without the need for calculation tables. Enough of the Neil deGrasse Tyson talk: If you don’t care about astronomic navigation, at least know that it makes for an extremely interesting watch. If you don’t know exactly how to calculate hour angles and whatever else, take comfort in the fact that you don’t need to, but that the original owner surely did know, and would have used it in some serious anti-submarine recon high above the Mediterranean Sea.

A true navigation watch, this Universal’s movement is based on the robust Valjoux 55, with some heavy modding by Universal and adjustment and testing by the military. Notably, the 24-hour functioning of the movement was constructed after a famous system from watchmaker Louis Cottier. He’s also famous for, among other things, developing the mechanism for Patek Philippe’s first wristwatch world timers.

This isn’t the biggest result an oversized split-seconds from Universal Geneve has ever achieved. Just last year, Christie’s sold an example for HKD 1.375m (nearly 2x the result here). But, it’s another solid result for a rare Universal Geneve chronograph.

The result was among other strong numbers from the Christie’s auction. Two white gold Pateks, a ref. 2526 and ref. 3448 (featured pre-sale by Hodinkee), also performed well against estimates, bringing in a combined HKD 13,125,000. The Hong Kong sales were some of the last of the fall auction season. Phillips’ December 12 “Racing Pulse” flagship auction will be among the last big sales of the year — we’ll be bringing (in-person) coverage of that sale to you in the coming weeks.

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[1] In astronomy, hour angle is defined as the angular distance on the celestial sphere measured westward along the celestial equator from the meridian to the hour circle passing through a point. Don’t worry, I also have no idea what that means.


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