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In Defence of the Massena Lab Uni-Racer: Too-close, but no cigar.

In Defence of the Massena Lab Uni-Racer: Too-close, but no cigar.

Massena LAB Uni-Racer

William Massena has launched a new high-end homage to the Universal Genève Uni-Compax — a revered 1960s racing chronograph — which aims to satisfy a market deprived by rising vintage watch prices: the Massena LAB Uni-Racer. However, it was met with a barrage of resistance upon release. Let’s take a look at what this watch really represents and means.

I have absolutely no problem with the new William Massena’s most recent creation, the Massena LAB Uni-Racer. This is the sentence I would have liked to begin this article with but, alas, does not reflect the content of this article. Even so, I would like to give this recent, exceptionally well-observed and undeniably expensive Universal Genève homage a very fair treatment.

A Baptism of Fire

Massena LAB Uni-Racer
Photo: Massena LAB

Yesterday morning, my first cup of coffee in hand, I sat at my desk and opened WATCH CHRONICLER’s Instagram account to find a veritable furore surrounding William Massena’s most recent release. This new chronograph, teased over the last few days, has received a remarkable amount of flack for its seemingly perfect reproduction of the Universal Genève Uni-Compax.

This, in its own right, came as no real surprise. After all, most ‘homage’ watches above a certain price tend to see a tepid reception. However, it was the depth of objection bordering on disgust which made me look twice. This was, after all, simply a beautiful, classically-styled chronograph, was it not?

The Massena LAB Uni-Racer

William Massena chronograph
Photo: Massena LAB

To understand the Massena LAB Uni-Racer you must first understand its origins. Massena LAB, the brainchild of William Massena, former managing director of Timezone and CEO of Antiquorum, focuses on producing limited-edition products (primarily watches) with established brands. In the past, Massena LAB has worked with Unimatic, Habring and even MB&F. However, for this latest and characteristically whimsical offering, Mr Massena has chosen to produce the project alone and purely under the Massena LAB brand.

Developed over three years and with consultation from former Universal Genève employees, the Massena LAB Uni-Racer is intended to be a “21st-century interpretation of a mid-century classic”. In this regard, it takes its ‘inspiration’ (note the use of the word) from the Universal­ Genève Uni-Compax — a racing chronograph produced from 1963 to 1965. With its distinctive hands, stunning dial and 36.5mm case, this perishingly rare watch has become a classic in status as in price, a figure which rarely dips below £25,000.

A staple of the classic racing scene, the original watch still raises rich allusions to a world of testosterone-fuelled overtakes on the streets of Monaco. Available with a number of different colour schemes, all versions featured the quintessential hexagonal hands and wide, luminous second hand. These complemented a very modern dial when placed beside the contemporary Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. A particular highlight was the oversized ‘Big Eye’ chronograph minute counter which barely cleared the edge of the internal tachymetre. Altogether, it’s no small wonder that it was and continues to be regarded as a phenomenal design for a beautiful, striking driver’s watch.

Massena LAB Uni-Racer blue
Photo: Massena LAB

The new watch from Massena LAB attempts to capture this very spirit in its design and even its choice of movement. Even so, this 1960s daydream doesn’t distract from the fact that this watch is entirely modern. Its case has grown, as per the brief of being suitable for modern tastes, to 39 mm whilst the movement is a Sellita SW510 BH M — a manual version of the Sellita SW500, a clone of the Valjoux 7750. This movement replaces the original watch’s Valjoux 23 which was a column wheel-actuated, manual chronograph. One key change implemented by Massena is the addition of a gilt signature on a movement bridge.

The Problems

So, where does the problem lie? In an industry where a Steinhart, for example, is often derided but still respected in its price range you, you might expect an undeniably beautiful creation like this to avoid any such trouble. This, of course, was not the opinion of the majority online and due to several rather important factors: originality, value and intellectual property.

Material Value

In many ways, the simplest element to address is value. Assuming that value to a collector is a personal and thus moot point, an entirely unproven brand asking $3,495 for a new product has its inevitable risks as an investment. However, concerns have instead appeared with the justification of such a price in relation to the price of buying an original rather than what this watch is actually worth.

Massena LAB acrylic crystal signature
Photo: Massena LAB

Of course, it is always worth considering such questions although it often seems misguided to attack a product based not upon its details but upon the blurb offered by the maker and its associates. In this spirit, I do not think that featuring a Sellita movement at this price is unacceptable especially when this watch is designed to make an unaffordable, vintage watch accessible. This does, after all, include ease of servicing. Similarly, these watches exhibit some truly stunning details which, in a run of only 200 pieces, cannot be cheaply done. These include Massena LAB’s logo etched into the centre of the domed, acrylic crystal as well as the use of a subtly different colours used for the red crosshairs on the dial to appear the same to the eye.

Massena LAB Sellita SW 510
Photo: Massena LAB

Even so, where substance is concerned, there are some clear concerns. The first being the grade of movement selected: Elaboré. This is the level above standard but still two grades below the full-fat, chronometer-grade version. At a price which competes with Tudor and even some lower-level Breitling products, it seems surprising that such a detail was overlooked. This, however, pales by comparison to the most distressing concern: the case material.

AMENDMENT: Mr Massena has since contacted WATCH CHRONICLER and explained that the Elaboré grade of movement was selected due to the higher levels being barred to such a small production run. Under these circumstances, I am satisfied that this concern can, therefore, be disregarded.

Massena LAB Uni-Racer case
Photo: Massena LAB

Where stainless steel is concerned, three general grades are used in the watchmaking field: 904L, 316L and 304L. The most common is 316L and is, for most applications, the best. It is reasonably hard, corrosion-resistant and can be finished extremely effectively. The crucial detail about this grade is the addition of molybdenum to the chromium and nickel seen in steel without such corrosion resistance. Above this is 904L, a steel with the addition of copper as well as higher levels of molybdenum, chromium and nickel. This steel has a higher corrosion resistance at the cost of hardness. There does, though, exist a grade beneath these: 304L. This steel includes no molybdenum and so features neither appreciably higher hardness than 316L nor its level of corrosion resistance. The only real benefit of such steel is that, by comparison to either other grade, it is particularly cheap. It is also the choice of steel for the Uni-Racer.

AMENDMENT: Mr Massena has since contacted WATCH CHRONICLER and explained that this was an unfortunate oversight on the Massena LAB website which has now been corrected. I am most pleased to report that 316L 1.4404 stainless steel was instead used and is, therefore, entirely suited to the price. Here disappears another concern about the watch.

The Question of Originality

Massena LAB Uni-Racer on wrist
Photo: Massena LAB

Let’s be clear, though, the quality and value argument was not the centre of debates regarding this watch. The true culprit was its remarkable resemblance to the watch which inspired it. Of course, the homage watch is a well-accepted part of the watch industry amongst those who, for perfectly justified reasons, will not or cannot acquire the original. Nevertheless, the Uni-Racer was met with startling vehemence.

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Massena LAB Uni-Racer black
Photo: Massena LAB

By contrast to my criticism of the materials at the heart of this timepiece, I regard Mr Massena’s attempt to make now-inaccessible watch an approachable option a fair cause. After all, I myself have been an advocate of modern watches to allow a classic design to be enjoyed with neither financial nor practical concerns. In this regard, the Massena LAB Uni-Racer is a triumph in its recreation of every line and detail of that stunning Universal Genève. In fact, the experience of its creator is obvious not only in that discreet central crystal signature but also where the watch’s details are added to the inner case back.

Massena Lab Uni-Compax
Photo: Massena LAB

However, here too there is a questionable element: originality. At this point, I have no intention of calling into question the legality of this watch — I have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to make such an accusation. Instead, what I refer to is the length to which Massena LAB have gone to make this watch resemble a watch made by a brand which still very much exists. In this endeavour, Massena have registered a logo which can only be differentiated from the original upon close inspection whilst the choice of name, it is to be presumed, was only changed due to not having the rights to ‘Uni Compax’. Such a hypothesis is reinforced by the company’s registration of ‘Polerouter’, presumably for future use. Whilst Universal Genève has today a rather lacklustre and internationally unknown collection, they should still have primary access to their brand imagery where something as intimate as the logo is concerned.

The End Point

Nevertheless, this rather long illustration of the positives and negatives of the Massena LAB Uni-Racer doesn’t fully answer the central objective of this article: to defend Massena LAB. Being entirely serious, I do not believe that this watch deserves the lampooning which it received upon release. I feel that the negative sentiments towards a this watch boil down two issues: does it negatively affect the product and brand which inspired it and does it deliver on its promise of making inaccessible watch a viable purchase option.

William Massena watch
Photo: Massena LAB

To address the first issue, I do not believe that any such threat is posed by it. After all, this is a small-scale product designed to celebrate an understandably-revered chronograph. If anything, it elevates Univeral Genève from their current slump. This is perhaps why I regard an homage watch as a love letter to a watch rather than a rival.

The second issue is perhaps more interesting: does this watch achieve its goals? It certainly seems to be the realisation of Massena’s desire to not only make this watch accessible but also comfortable and durable enough for a modern lifestyle. In this aim, it seems that the Uni-Racer is successful because it has been created with the knowledge that the logo, buckle and even the crystal treatment lend magic to the original. If these were omitted, something would have been lost. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that choosing a watch from a more established brand may not only give better value but also long-term watchmaking experience. Even so, as a watch to excite a watch collector in the same way as a Singer 911 or Eagle Speedster would excite a car collector, I can completely see the appeal

What do you think of this racing chronograph?

Read more of our more reflective articles in our dedicated section or head over to Massena LAB’s website to find out more about the Uni-Racer.

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