Some vintage watches are so rare — and so expensive — that even the most committed collectors will never own them. Such is the case with a particular chronograph from Universal Genève called the Uni-Compax "Big Eye." Produced for just two years in the mid-1960s, it was so named for its oversized 45-minute chronograph counter positioned at three o'clock. Available with either a black or white dial, this striking timepiece has become one of the most elusive watches in the world, in no small part because only 20 or so have ever surfaced. These days, they can fetch for somewhere in the ballpark of $40,000.
William Massena, a watch industry veteran, sought one for some time, but he couldn't justify the price. That's when he hit upon an idea: Why not craft a modern version that someone could buy? Massena was already set up to make this happen. His company, Massena LAB, produces special-edition timepieces. But the "Big Eye" was different. It's an established design from another brand with a long history, and remaking it would raise lots of questions. For starters, is it even legal to do so?
The short answer is yes: there is no design patent on the original "Big Eye," which itself took inspiration from the dial of the Type 20 chronograph for the French military. But is it right to do so? What would watch collectors think? Would it live up to the original … or garner as much respect on the street as a Testarossa replica kit car? These are tougher questions to answer.
Direct rip-offs of watches currently in production — if they are complete with fake logos — are illegal and frowned upon, while watches that pay subtle homage to an era, like the Baltic Aquascaphe or the Brew Metric, are often very well received. Watches that copy designs long since defunct, however, reside in sort of a gray area.
Nevertheless, Massena got to work with a multi-pronged approach. Three years later, in 2020, he released two versions of his "Big Eye" that mirrored the original black and white models almost note for note — with the exceptions of a larger, 39mm case size (the original was 36.5mm); Massena LAB's branding; and a new name, Uni-Racer. He outfitted the watches with hand-wound Swiss movements and offered them for sale at a price of $3,495.
Some folks loved Massena's recreations — including the judges at the Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Genève (the Oscars of the watch world). Others … did not. "Plagiarism at its finest," commented one reader of HODINKEE, the prominent watch website.
Why the vitriol? Ultimately, some purists believe that producing something remotely recalling another model — let alone largely copying it — is horological sacrilege, and it shouldn't be done. Others take a more pragmatic stance: If the original watch is out of production, why shouldn't it be remastered for the modern consumer?
"In my view, this is a far more honest approach to making a homage than buying the rights to a dead name and printing it on a watch with no pedigree," reasoned another Hodinkee reader.
But Massena didn't stop there. Next, he released the "Holiday" collection, a trio of Uni-Racer watches with bright, colorful dials, ones that never existed within the original model line. It's much tougher to pin down what these watches are — slightly modified copies? Artful tributes?
Consumers must ultimately decide for themselves, but Massena is certainly right about one thing: "It's really similar to making remakes in the film industry — some are good and others are terrible. Some help you get interested in the original movie...It opens a door to the past that may not be explored otherwise."
We tend to think it's a door worth opening.