Universal Geneve

As the brand appreciation for Universal Geneve has grown their iterations of the Italian railway watch have become increasingly popular. These were also popular with railway workers in the 50s as they were offered a choice between pocket and wristwatches from other manufacturers as they moved away from fascist rule.

The Universal Geneve Ferrovie Dello Stato wristwatch was manufactured in three series from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s as per the specifications from the Italian State Railway. The watch required a diameter of 34-36mm, a white dial, sub-seconds at 6 o’clock, and Arabic numerals. All three series were powered by the manual wind Universal Geneve calibre 64 movement – this was not designed to hack or chronometer specification and resulted in a slimmer case.

Mark 1 has a straight case compared to the cushion of the later 2 and 3. The Mark 1 5th and 7th numerals are trimmed to fit the sub-seconds dial. The Mark 3 is no longer an enamel white dial but silver in colour, the numerals are applied rather than stamped from behind and the sub-seconds dial has a much sharper outline rather than the previous models’ slight emboss.

These Universal Geneve models are collectable, the Mark 2 being the most common model available. At the time of writing sellers are demanding prices around £700 for a good condition item – however, if purchased directly from Italy the prices being paid are much closer to £300.

I liked the style of the bold numerals on the enamel dial, I liked the super legible handset and I liked the case shape. However, I did not want to spend £700 on a manual wind watch that has probably had a hard life on the arm of an Italian railwayman. So I started the search for an alternative – there’s always an alternative…

The Standard Design

Universal Geneve was not the only watch specified by the state railway. Over the years there were names such as BPM, Lanco, Lorenz, Longines, Lorimegs, Roundex, Spera, Zanetto, and Zenith. As these followed strict guidelines these pocket and wrist watches can share very similar shapes and designs.

The most obvious design requirement is the use of black numerals on a white background for crisp legibility. The selection of images below shows that these numerals could be roman or Arabic and include Breguet-style fonts. The placement of the sub-seconds always has an interesting interaction with the rest of the dial as in most cases the 6th numeral is removed and the 5th and 7th numerals are cut down. Centre-second variations are rare but were produced by some manufacturers in later years.

After long hours trawling the web for models I liked I narrowed the manufacturer down to just one.

Perseo – Una miscela di Italia e Svizzera

Perseo watches have a long history, with their fame stemming from their initial supply of pocket watches to the Italian State Railways in 1927. The brand’s name, Italian for Perseus, originates from Greek mythology and is supposed to reflect the brand’s reputation for defeating challenges. The company was founded by Bologna-born Alfredo Degli Espositi. In 1923, he purchased the previously unknown Perseo brand from an Italian merchant and launched the production of wristwatches and pocket watches in the Italian city of Tuscany.

Alfredo outsourced the movement manufactured to Cortébert of La Chaux de Fonds. Cortébert dates back to 1790 when watchmaker Abraham-Louis Juillard established his watch store in Cortébert, Switzerland. The brand name was not officially used until the mid-19th century. Not much concrete information remains regarding Cortébert. There was a fire in the 1950s that led to the loss of many records, however, it was considered a high-end brand in its time. Today, Cortébert is mainly known for its accurate railway watches that were supplied to the Turkish and Italian railway systems, the latter of which were sold under the Perseo brand name.

Ferrovie Dello Stato

On July 23rd, 1929, the fascist Italian government on Benito Mussolini officially banned the use of foreign words in Italy. The aim was to “Italianize” the culture and purge it of foreign influences. Alfredo – who was awarded the title of Commendatore – and was presented with the opportunity to become the Italian State Railways’ exclusive supplier of watches creating a total monopoly on the issuance of watches to Ferrovie Dello Stato workers. Many other brands (such as Patek Philippe, Zenith, etc.) were disadvantaged by their foreign names.

The brand’s partnership with the Italian State Railways continued long after fascism, with tens of thousands of watches supplied to the company over the years. In the 1960s, the Perseo brand was purchased by the Swiss company Cortébert and has been distributed by the Fernus family in Italy since then.

“High-precision watches of which 66,000 pieces have been supplied to the State Railways since 1927”

The Perseo Railking

Perseo’s wristwatch was named the Railking. This was the alternative I was looking for. It followed all the same design points and was arguably more embedded in Italian history than other manufacturers. There are countless variations that include painted dials, stamped dials, date windows, round cases, square cases, linen dials and day dates…

As with all issued watches, there are stamps or markings to denote ownership and intend purpose. Your classic example is military-issued watches featuring a Pheon. In modern usage, there are the Comex-issued Rolex Submariners. For the Ferrovie Dello Stato, it was the stamping of the ‘FS’ logo onto the case back along with a serial number.

The example I found is barely visible on the rear of the watch from countless hours of wrist time. It has a couple of marks from a fight with a case back tool from previous services – but these were tool watches and served a purpose.

The dial features Arabic numerals that have been stamped from the back of the dial and topped with matt black paint. This raised numeral effect adds shadows to the enamel in certain lights.

The added bonus is this watch came complete with a signed bracelet with lots of adjustments using an NSA-style link system. The clasp is not spring-loaded but clips nicely and has a detailed grooved design with an embossed Pereso logo. This was a bonus over the Universal Geneve as these were not offered with a steel bracelet. I much prefer the feel of a solid band rather than a leather or fabric strap.

A brushed case finish draws the eye to the flat white porcelain dial. The subdial looks like a grooved LP record rippling outward from the second hand. It features a similar but every so slightly different font – squatter and more like a console output.

The hands show as black in most light however under closer inspection they are blued hands. The incredibly subtle blue colour is made by steel tempering. This colour is desired as it means the metal has been tempered to the exact temperature and this oxide layer will provide the best resistance to corrosion.

The overall look and feel of the watch are the same as the target Universal Geneve. The main benefit is the matching bracelet – only let down with the straight ends. It would have been ever so slightly better if it came with matching end links to sit flush with the case.

So what do you think? Is the Perseo Railking a suitable replacement for an expensive cult favourite? Or a cheap knockoff that cannot compete?

Il mio treno è in ritardo

4 thoughts on “Perseo Railking – The Italian Railway Watch

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

    Your bag
    Your bag is emptyReturn to shop