Massena LAB Uni-Racer, $3,495
Of the things that grown men love to scream at one another over, so-called "homage" watches has to be one of the most amusing. And what, pray tell, is an homage watch? It's one that pays homage, of course — in this case, by recalling elements of a particular vintage timepiece but in a completely new model. Said model might only recall certain aspects of a famous design (say, a Rolex Submariner), or it might fall more into the category of what some would term a "ripoff" — largely a direct copy. The shades of grey between these extremes are myriad.
Inevitably, whenever an homage watch makes its debut on the internet, the Watch World is thrown into an uproar. ("Watch guys" and "watch gals" are highly opinionated people. I should know.) "How they can do such a thing?!" one anonymous forum user will growl. "Who cares if it's a copy — it's a cool watch, and it's affordable!" another will retort. But we're not here to force our opinion down anybody's throats. We're here to review the Uni-Racer from Massena LAB, and then you can form your own opinions.
And feel free to scream at one another in the Comments section below.
Case Diameter: 39mm
Case Depth: 9mm
Water Resistance: 50m
Movement: SW510 M Elaboré hand-wound
Some background: The Uni-Racer is noted collector and businessman William Massena's homage to a highly rare, stupidly expensive Universal Genève from the mid-1960s called the Uni-Compax "Big Eye." They're so-called because one of the chronograph sub-registers is larger than the other, to differentiate it from the running seconds hand. Lo and behold, the design wasn't popular; very few were made, and when they do surface, in either "panda" (black registers on white dial) or "reverse panda" (white registers on black dial), they generally sell for around $40,000.
Massena remastered the Big Eye for the modern consumer, upping the case size slightly from 36.5mm to 39mm, and, later, adding three dial variants that never existed, within what he's terming the Holiday Collection. Now five models deep, the Uni-Racer line gives 2021's watch buyer the chance to own something inspired by this incredibly rare Universal Genève — complete with a manually wound Swiss movement and a spectacular dial — for $3,495. (Quite a savings over a vintage original, I'd say.)
Who It's For
There are several potential customers out there for the Uni-Racer:
1) Die-hard, long-term collectors who have been searching for an original Big Eye for years but either couldn't find one or couldn't stomach the price. Gods be praised, your day has come!
2) Vintage watch enthusiasts who love midcentury aesthetics but want a modern watch with a modern movement that won't cost a fortune to service. Rejoice! Rejoice! You have a new choice.
3) People who plain and simply like a cool watch and have a good eye for design. Your train has similarly entered the station and you should be clamoring for one of these.
At $3,495, the Uni-Racer ain't exactly an entry-level chronograph — we'll admit that much. (And, indeed, it was the price that initially caused some of the vitriol when the Uni-Racer landed — not necessarily the whole "homage" thing.) In this range, however, there are plenty of alternatives available:
The Longines Aviation Big Eye ($2,625) recalls a vintage chronograph from Longines' own collection, but is powered here by a thoroughly modern automatic movement and features a three-register dial rather than a two-register, like that of the Uni-Racer. It does, however, have an oversized sub-register, just like the Big Eye.
The Chronograph Sport collection ($1,955) from boutique British watchmaker Farer also features a "big eye" layout in three-register form, much like that of the Longines above. Each features vibrant pops of color akin to the Holiday Collection within the Uni-Racer line, and even features the same Swiss, hand-wound movement from Sellita that Massena went with.
If the whole "big eye" thing is less important to you and you're simply looking for a good mechanical chronograph with a panda dial, then by all means, look no further than the Yema Speedgraf ($1,499). Powered by an interesting automatic chronograph movement from Seiko, it's got heaps of style at an extremely attainable price.
I'm going to try and take a balanced view of the whole issue of "homage watches" in saying that I understand both sides of the argument, and I can sympathize with both: On the one hand, directly copying a vintage watch isn't exactly an exercise in originality, and in some cases, depending upon the age of the watch and other factors, might actually constitute copyright infringement. On the other hand, making a beloved design whose associated intellectual property resides in the public domain available to a wider audience — especially if the modern incarnation of the brand seems unwilling to do so — I don't have so much of a problem with that.
In the case of the Uni-Racer, Massena had a progressive plan for how he wanted to roll out the watches: He began with standard panda and reverse panda designs, and then he launched the Holiday Collection with three colorways that were never available in the original Big Eye. This way, the purists who were longing for a modernized Universal Genève homage were satisfied, but so, theoretically, were those to whom originality was more important.
All the watches share the same case and differ solely in their dials. Said case is stainless steel, sized at 39mm — up from the 36.5mm of the original UG Uni-Compax "Big Eye." It's a really fine case, and perfectly sized for the modern wearer. With polished sides and circular brushed lug tops, it doesn't feature fine bevels like on a modern Rolex sports model, but rather, recalls the architecture of the original. A screw-on case back houses the movement inside, while pump pushers and a crown signed "M" jut out from the right side. Pusher action is buttery smooth and satisfying to use, emitting an audible click from the watch's Sellita movement.
Speaking of said movement, let's go there next. We're talking about a Sellita SW510 M Elaboré hand-wound, Swiss-made movement. Equipped with 23 jewels, it features a running seconds counter at 9 o'clock and a 30-minute counter at 3 o'clock. Beating at 28,880 bph (4Hz), it's got 58 hours of power reserve and an "Élaboré" escapement — meaning it's regulated to chronometer standard. It also hacks (the seconds hand stops when you pull out the crown, for precision time setting), and features the Massena LAB signature on the bridge.
But enough will all the technical mumbo-jumbo. In short, this movement feels great to interact with: time setting is smooth, winding is actually fun, and pusher action on the chronograph is incredibly satisfying. The watch is accurate and timing events is easy. (I'm saying this as one of those weird people who still uses his mechanical watch to time stuff, like how long something's been in the oven, or how long I've been practicing the modes of the melodic minor scale on my guitar. The answer: probably not long enough.)
But let's talk about the dials — this is where the meat of the Uni-Racer story is. William Massena went through incredible lengths to get these "right," and by that, we do mean to echo the original Big Eye dial as closely as possible. (With the exception of his branding in place of UG's.) Most difficult to execute were the hands — the original Big Eye's blocky handset was unique, and this isn't the type of pre-fab product one simply picks out of a catalog online or at a Swiss or Chinese trade show. These hands had to be redesigned and fabricated anew, and this takes time to get right. (This is before we consider the color of said hands, which was similarly difficult to perfect. Don't forget that this project began as a labor of love of the original watch, and thus getting these details right was highly important to Massena.) You can check out the technical drawings for this handset on Massena LAB's website.
The time taken to perfect the Uni-Racer — over three years — is clearly on display in the dials of the original collection the Holiday Collection. They're simply fantastically executed: the detail in the handset, the color and color choice in some of the Holiday models, the proportions. Everything is right with respect to the original Big Eye, but it's also well done in terms of an update. The dial, after all, has been blown up slightly, and yet every element retains its subtle sophistication. The newer models — especially, in my opinion, the Cruise —truly pop, but not in an ostentatious way. I just don't personally see how a fan of the original Uni-Compax Big Eye wouldn't be excited by this watch, but to each his own, certainly.
To my mind, everything about the Uni-Racer comes together in a handsome, well built, comfortable, perfectly proportioned package — I simply love this watch. I do understand the issue some take with the price: Perhaps this would have made completely different headlines at $2,995 — it certainly would have at $2,495 — but we also have to keep in mind the cost to Massena to get the details right, and to source parts that truly do justice to the original. If I were in the market for a single chronograph to fulfill my chronograph needs (if such a thing exists), the Uni-Racer would be a top contender, hands down. Cool as those watches are, I'd rather one of these than something like a TAG Heuer Carrera re-issue — especially for the money.
Again, I do understand some of the vitriol that's been directed at Massena LAB for the Uni-Racer: This is indeed not a unique design, built from the ground up. It's a tribute. But, I must say, it's an incredibly well done tribute, and one that I would be proud to wear in a gathering of watch nerds.