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Feature: Did Gerald Genta Deserve The Tag Of Genius?

No one in the watch industry can boast a legacy like that of the great Gerald Genta, who died ten years ago this week.

Genta didn’t merely design one iconic watch for one brand. Across a decades-long career he designed several enduring and distinctive models for some of the world’s most celebrated watchmakers, from Patek Philippe to Omega, Audemars Piguet to IWC

The auction house Christies called his oeuvre the “Faberge of watches”. But there are a paltry 57 Faberge eggs left in the world. Place every watch model designed by Genta end-to-end and they’d stretch to the Moon and back.

Quite simply, Genta’s influence on modern watch design is unrivalled. But, as we shall see, he also had his critics.

The Genesis Of Genta

Born in Geneva in 1931, Genta grew up in the heart of Swiss watchmaking during a time of great horological upheaval, especially with regards to case design. As a young boy in the 1930s, he would have been witness to the emergence of some of the industry’s most iconic watches.

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso and Rolex’s Oyster Perpetual had been launched the same year as his birth, and Patek Philippe’s Calatrava came out a year later. By the end of the decade the wristwatch had become a staple for men, whatever their status, and Switzerland had firmly established itself as the epicentre of watchmaking.

A creative child who loved painting with watercolours, by the age of 20 Genta had trained as a goldsmith and jeweller and was recruited by the now-dormant watch brand Universal Geneve in the early 1950s. It was here that Genta established his talent early on by designing his first significant watch.

Pole Position

Commissioned by the Scandinavian Airline System who needed a watch that was resistant to the electromagnetic fields of the North Pole, the Polerouter was Genta’s first hit.

Universal Geneve's much-loved Polerouter was one of Genta's early designs. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Universal Geneve's much-loved Polerouter was one of Genta's early designs. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Though its appearance was relatively conventional—a circular case with a minimalist concentric dial and no-frills dauphine hands—it started a new chapter in aviation watches, its automatic movement protected by a soft iron core inside the case.

To this day it remains, along with the Tri-Compax, Universal Geneve’s most collectable model, with prices for pre-owned pieces starting at around a thousand US dollars for one in reasonable condition.

As a designer, Genta was up and running, but his best was yet to come.

Omega Comes Knocking

Genta continued to work for Universal Geneve until the mid-1960s but in 1959, dabbling in freelance work, he was asked by Omega to renew its flagship Constellation collection.

An 18k yellow gold Omega Constellation, a collection that Genta revamped for the brand. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

An 18k yellow gold Omega Constellation, a collection that Genta revamped for the brand. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

While it isn’t clear exactly what changes Genta made to these watches, it is thought that he was responsible for dropping the original “pie-pan” dial and introducing the more space-age C-type case, many of which are still available today on the vintage market.

Omega was the first illustrious brand to enlist the genius of Genta but it certainly wasn’t the last.

Steps to Stardom

The watch that was to place Genta on the pantheon of industry legends didn’t come about through years of ripped up designs, hair-tugging frustration and painstaking research. Far from it. The story goes that Audemars Piguet’s then managing director, Georges Golay, called up Genta late one afternoon needing a sports watch by the following morning.

Taking inspiration from the visible screws of deep-sea diving helmets, Genta burnt the midnight oil, delivering a design for the Royal Oak before Golay could eat his cornflakes.

The iconic Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, released in 1972, catapulted Genta to industry fame.

The iconic Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, released in 1972, catapulted Genta to industry fame.

As the world’s first luxury stainless steel sports watch—and one that cost as much as some precious metal models—the Royal Oak caused a rumpus when it was released in 1972. With its eight exposed screw heads, porthole-shaped bezel and integrated bracelet, there had never been anything like it. Its influence today can be seen in watches by Hublot, Richard Mille and others, and pre-owned Audemars Piguet Royal Oaks of various models are widely available.

A few years later, in 1976, he again showed his ability to conjure up a watch design in super-quick time. Noticing that a contingent from Patek Philippe was sitting opposite him at lunch, he asked the waiter for a pen and sketched out a model right there on a napkin. The Nautilus, another icon, was born.

Genta is said to have designed Patek Philippe's Nautilus in five minutes.

Genta is said to have designed Patek Philippe's Nautilus in five minutes.

The same year also saw the launch of another Genta watch, IWC’s Ingenieur which—stop us if this sounds familiar— featured an integrated bracelet and exposed screws on the bezel.

Was it an indication that Genta was finally running out of ideas?

The Disney Dispute

Genta always maintained he was an artist, rather than some lab boffin obsessed with time-keeping precision. He has been quoted as saying: “I don’t like watches! For me, watches are the antithesis of liberty. I am an artist, a painter, I hate having to adhere to the constraints of time.”

So the quartz crisis, which was all about economics and better time-keeping efficiency, barely laid a finger on Genta. After all, quartz movements didn’t change the way analogue watches looked.

These Disney character watches designed by Genta in the 1980s caused outrage in some quarters.

These Disney character watches designed by Genta in the 1980s caused outrage in some quarters.

In fact, Genta entered a new, playful phase in the 1980s, obtaining a special licensing deal to make and distribute a limited edition of Disney character luxury watches. He had previously made such watches as one-offs for wealthy private clients but this enabled him to sell them to the public. However watches featuring a tourbillon and the grinning face of Mickey Mouse weren’t to everyone’s taste.

When they made their debut at a prestigious watch exhibition, some people complained that Disney character watches were incompatible with high-end watchmaking, prompting him to pack up his stand and leave in protest. Such was Genta’s fame that the row made the TV news in Switzerland.

Retrograde Style

Genta was active in watchmaking well into the 2000s, by which time his own eponymous brand, which he founded in 1969, had become known for retrograde-style watches, where the dial shows time linearly rather than circularly. The hand continues along an arc until it reaches the end, at which point it immediately jumps back to the beginning and starts over.

In 1994 he released what some consider his piece de resistance: the Grand Sonnerie Retro, which took five years of research and development to complete and replicated the chimes of Big Ben. It was at the time the most complicated watch in the world and sold for US$2 million.

In 1998 Genta sold his company to Bulgari and started a new brand one year later by the name of Gerald Charles—Charles being his middle name. After selling that too, he retired and focused on his painting.

Genta died in August 2011, but as a hugely prolific designer with an inexhaustible work ethic, he is said to have left thousands of unrealised watch designs that are stored by his wife.

Could it be that Gerald Genta’s finest watches are yet to come?