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1984: When Gerald Genta challenged the watchmaking establishment

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April 2020


1984: When Gerald Genta challenged the watchmaking establishment

The opening up of luxury watchmaking to contemporary creative horizons may have begun when Gerald Genta made a splash at the “Montres et Bijoux” exhibition in Geneva: in 1984, the designer released its provocative Mickey Mouse and Pink Panther models. Seen as an affront to traditional watchmaking by the show’s organisers, they created a real scandal, and the designer left the fair. Today, pop culture and luxury watchmaking are one and the same.

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erald Genta, who is today more celebrated than ever, has entered the collective memory of watchmaking primarily for two design masterpieces that are still bestsellers to this day, with lengthy waiting lists: the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet (1972) and the Nautilus for Patek Philippe (1976). In their day, these models provoked many questions: was it really possible to combine luxury and steel? Today, sport-chic is the keystone of watch sales worldwide, and these two models are proving resilient even in times of coronavirus.

In the 1970s, our publication visited Gerald Genta in his Geneva workshop at 21 rue du Stand (see image below). In an article entitled “Made-to-measure styling” (which could be replaced by “Genius at work”), we wrote that the designer, who had already spent 20 years working for the biggest names in watchmaking, also intended to work more in the world of jewellery. “We have no doubt about the success of this workshop of talented craftsmen,” we wrote at the time.

In 1974, Europa Star visited Gerald Genta in his Geneva workshop. The designer, at the height of his powers, had just created the Royal Oak and was working on the Nautilus.
In 1974, Europa Star visited Gerald Genta in his Geneva workshop. The designer, at the height of his powers, had just created the Royal Oak and was working on the Nautilus.
©Europa Star 1974

Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, while they are undoubtedly the watch brands that owe the biggest debt of thanks to Gerald Genta’s workshop, are far from being the only brands in his debt. Contemporary brands are still reaping the benefits of the pioneering work that Gerald Genta began in the 1980s , when he exploded “the creative watchmaking framework”. This upheaval was not achieved without difficulty, for what scarcely merits a raised eyebrow today was considered a crime of lèse-majesté at the time: mixing pop culture and luxury watchmaking.

What scarcely raises eyebrows today was a crime of lèse-majesté at the time.

Flash forward to 1984. The Salon Montres et Bijoux, bringing together the best of Swiss and international watchmaking, took place in Geneva. That year, Gerald Genta, who had been a well-known figure on the watchmaking scene since the 1970s, decided to strike a blow at the establishment, by presenting luxury models featuring pop culture motifs such as Mickey Mouse, the Pink Panther, and Popeye. As part of his bid to broaden the creative terrain of watchmaking, after having married luxury watchmaking with non-noble materials such as steel, he was now looking to “fuse” (Hublot, are you listening?) luxury watchmaking and pop culture.

“These models that cause a stir at Montres et Bijoux de Genève”: this article published in 1984 in Europa Star relates the incident that led to Gerald Genta's tempestuous exit from the Geneva watch show.
“These models that cause a stir at Montres et Bijoux de Genève”: this article published in 1984 in Europa Star relates the incident that led to Gerald Genta’s tempestuous exit from the Geneva watch show.
©Europa Star 1984

It was a bold move, and it didn’t go down well. The organisers of the prestigious show ordered him to remove these provocative pieces. Gerald Genta, deeply wounded by this affront to his creative freedom, decided to leave the exhibition immediately, sharing his feelings with Europa Star: “There is no more room at the Montres et Bijoux exhibition for an artist who has something to say.”

“The brick Mr Genta threw into the quiet pond of high-level Swiss horology was a large one. For the first time, one of its members had been bold enough to turn standard values upside down.” Europa Star, 1984

The ripples from this audacious gesture would nevertheless spread to the entire watchmaking ecosystem. In fact, this event probably marks the point at which the “fusion” with other universes once considered incompatible with luxury timepieces – cartoon figures, superheroes, contemporary art, but also football, poker, and even, more recently, tattoo art and street art – began.

Even as it migrated upmarket, Swiss watchmaking gradually adopted codes and inspirations derived from popular culture. Today, the watch industry is constantly opening up new creative paths. It owes this, and many other things, to the iconoclastic and anti-conformist spirit of Gerald Genta.

READ BELOW THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN EUROPA STAR IN 1984 ON THIS INCIDENT

“In 1984, an unexpected event jolted the “Montres et Bijoux de Genève” exhibition out of its complacency. One of the exhibitors — by no means the least important since he is one of the most gifted and prolific watch designers of our time to whom the major brands owe some of their most famous pieces — left the exhibition in a huff.

The reasons for this gesture are unusual enough for us to give them some coverage.

Mr Gerald Genta — for we are speaking of him — enjoys a considerable international standing today. This affords him a large degree of independence regarding design and the possibility of moving away from the beaten track of “de luxe” watches.

This he is only too glad to do, even if it means offending the more orthodox people in the trade, disturbing the timid and irritating the conventional.

This year, Mr Gerald Genta offered himself a rare bit of fun by preparing a window display for “Montres et Bijoux de Genève” showing some models that can best be described as “high class kitsch”.

Some of the watches were decorated with such well known cartoon figures as Mickey Mouse and Pink Panther. Another featured the charming representation of a nude woman. These models sat amongst some highly original pieces designed especially for big game hunters. The brick Mr Genta threw into the quiet pond of high-level Swiss horology was a large one. For the first time, one of its members had been bold enough to turn standard values upside down by offering to a most elite clientele a line of creations drawing their inspiration from motifs reserved until now for bazaar watches or children’s models.

The models displayed by Gerald Genta had nothing in common naturally with cheap watches except for the subject. Design, perfection of movement and workmanship, decor as well as the noble metals and gemstones used were all worthy of the most famous achievements of the brand. This justified both the interest awakened in the highest circles of customers and the price which was in the region of 10,000 US dollars. Unlike what one might think, potential buyers of these watches are far from being children. On the contrary, they are adults, often holding high level positions who don’t mind showing a nostalgic attachment to the heroes of their childhood and their liking for graphic designs of amusing inspiration.

But sadly, the managers of “Montres et Bijoux” did not see things in this light. They were not prepared to let themselves be touched by such gentle reminiscences.

They declared it made no difference that the models in question were made of gold and diamonds, adding coldly that such a serious exhibition as it was their privilege to administer had no room for mice, panthers (especially the pink variety), Popeye and other unsuitable characters. This is why Gerald Genta’s show window was emptied of its most exciting pieces and all the others incidentally, since their creator preferred to retire rather than submit to this affront of his honour as an artist.

“There is no longer any room at ‘Montres et Bijoux’ for an artist with something to say” Gerald Genta told us some time after this incident. By what right may a Committee formed by a few exhibitors remove pieces from a showcase just because they don’t meet its ethics, and decide arbitrarily what is and what is not worthy of “Montres et Bijoux”?

In fact the incident related in these pages, although not important in itself, deserves to be mentioned if only because of the fundamental question it raises regarding the freedom of the artist. How can one define the limits of what can or cannot be accepted at an exhibition of unquestionably high standing? The use of personages created by Walt Disney or other designers of animated cartoon figures may shock us today because they seem to belong to a minor art. But what about tomorrow? Who can tell us that tomorrow, these designers will not take place next to the greatest masters in draughtmanship, if only because of the influence they exercise on the youth of all countries and all continents. So in that case, why not let those who wish it, wear on their wrist a loved figure symbolizing the remembrance of happy days, even if it serves to decorate a watch of very great value? And why penalize a high level creator who knows how to match his talent to their whim?

The time we live in is sufficiently tragic and full of sad pictures to avoid spoiling any occasion of amusement and joy. And since nobody has ever decreed that art must be necessarily serious, therefore gloomy, we can only applaud Gerald Genta’s courage. Nor do we doubt that readers will agree with us when we point out that Mickey, the Pink Panther or a pretty girl, even without clothes on, are far more pleasing to the eye than the faces of some politicians on the covers of so many magazines who occasionally even have the privilege of being immortalized on the enamel of watch dials bearing the most prestigious signatures.”

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