érald Charles Genta is regarded by many as the most notable watch designer of the 20th century. Exceptionally prolific throughout the course of his eighty-year long life, Genta achieved international renown and designer celebrity for his uncompromising artistry.
Among his most famous works are the Universal Polerouter (1954), the Omega Constellation (1959) and Seamaster Polaris, the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet (1972), the Nautilus for Patek Philippe (1976), and the IWC Ingenieur (1976). Not to mention the numerous collaborations with Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Hamilton, and Seiko etc. In more recent time, the Bulgari Octo that has garnered a cult status owes it to the original Gérald Genta Octo (Bulgari eventually acquired Genta’s company in 2000).
- Gérald Genta, the figure
Genta did not become an overnight success without a humble beginning. For two decades before establishing his eponymous brands, he worked very hard and anonymously for many houses. “He used to take his car with a lot of designs, driving to Bienne, La Chaux-de-Fonds, or Le Brassus and selling to those companies,” recalls his widow, Evelyne Genta. “He sold to Piaget, Corum, Vacheron Constantin and others, and never claimed the name. So there are a lot of designs we are not even aware of today.”
“Prior to his success, he sold ideas to brands and never claimed the name. So there are a lot of his designs we are not even aware of today.”
- Gérald Genta, the painter
“That’s how he started. Gérald never wanted a boss.” It was always freelance or contract work. Even when he created the Royal Oak, he was never an employee of Audemars Piguet. His independent spirit and artistic ego afforded him the creative genius to break the mould, but not without its ups and downs.
Evelyne could hardly forget the drama of Genta’s Mickey Mouse watches causing a furore in 1984 at the “Montres et Bijoux” fair in Geneva (a major expo that existed before SIHH). By this point, the maverick had enjoyed “a large degree of independence regarding design and the possibility of moving away from the beaten track of ‘de luxe’ watches,” as reported by Europa Star then (retrievable here from the Europa Star archive).
- Gérald Genta, the watch designer
A new collection boasting the Disney characters backfired this time. The likes of Rolex and Vacheron Constantin called it a disgrace to Swiss watchmaking, and the organiser demanded its removal from the display. Upset by the backlash, Genta stormed off and pulled out of the show. Other brands such as Cartier and Ebel followed. The splash was on national TV and front pages. “I was in a state of shock,” Evelyne Genta adds.
- The Mickey Mouse Fantasia
“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,” remarks the Europa Star story. It raised the fundamental question regarding “the freedom of an artist”. Evelyne concurs, “You have to be free to create. That’s why he never worked for anybody.”
‘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 Mickey Mouse Hong Kong
That freedom was essential to keeping his work original. “Gérald never looked at any other watches, what had been done, or what others did,” Evelyne Genta asserts. It allowed him to redesign and revitalise any brand’s collections, breaking a lineage of tradition and complacency. The designer drew inspirations from nature. “It was always about the shape.”
The Gentas’ only daughter, Alexia, remembers his acute sense of detail. “When I was small, he would take me to the Rose Garden in Monaco. A little walk would take hours because he would stop and look at everything, the colours, and the shapes. He would marvel at a fly, and tell me how beautiful the eyes were. And I was like, the fly?!”
Keys to success
Genta was constantly creating and innovating, by combining new shapes and forms with mechanical complexities. “Today what I think is lacking, is creativity in the design. The mechanics have gone far beyond being exceptional, but the design…” Evelyne Genta says, “Gérald considered watchmaking to be applied art. He applied art to watches. Unlike art, they have to be wearable.”
Evelyne Genta joined her husband’s business in 1983 shortly after they were married, allowing him to focus on the creation of watches. She became the brain and motor behind it, handling the financial and operational sides, and developing international markets. “I worked 30 years with my husband. We woke up together, went to the factory together. We were partners in every sense. I know exactly what mattered and what didn’t.”
- The Patek Philippe Nautilus
“The watches he designed are not only wearable, they can be manufactured. It was because he designed the way it should be designed, in the right size, and the way it was meant to be produced. They can all be made in volume,” Evelyne Genta notes.
These insights derive from building a watchmaking venture, that was somewhat unusual back in the days. In the wake of the quartz crisis, it employed 250 people with two factories in Switzerland to run three operations. On one hand, they had the private label work for the likes of Graff, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Cartier. On the other, they had their own lines of watches to produce. However, what they did the most was prototyping.
In the wake of the quartz crisis, Gérald Genta employed 250 people with two factories in Switzerland to run three operations: private label, prototyping and his own watch production.
- The Genta factory (I)
- The Genta factory (II)
- The Genta factory (III)
“Gérald never stopped creating. The factory had this incredible capacity of manufacturing prototypes. Others would make a prototype, then get it done cheaper, and would have made thousands of it. Gérald was making one after the other.” Practice makes genius. There was no coincidence for his mastery of creating market hits, and his instinct for the grail watch. “That’s why we had this wealth of watches we had never seen.”
Across his life, Genta designed more than 100,000 watches for the most prestigious watchmaking companies, his own brands, and private clients in the highest circles. He has left behind some 3,400 drawings and prototypes, which have been meticulously documented and organised in an archive. Among them, “some would be very iconic”. Evelyne says, “because Gérald designed what he thought would be the new best-sellers. He told me the 50 designs that would be the future Nautiluses and Royal Oaks.”
“He told me the 50 designs that would be the future Nautiluses and Royal Oaks.”
- The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Gérald Genta’s heritage
As the custodian of such a treasure trove, Evelyne basks in the joy and duty to uphold the Genta legacy. She has established the Gérald Genta Heritage Association “to pay tribute to one of the greatest watch designers in history”, and to “encourage and reward promising young talent”. Today a diplomat, as ambassador of Monaco to the United Kingdom, Evelyne has assembled a board of “pre-eminent horologists and industry experts” to support the key decisions of the association.
From the 25th anniversary of the Royal Oak Offshore, to the commemoration of the Gérald Genta company’s founding fifty years ago, “there has been a lot of press around my dad”, says Alexia Genta. “And there is a real community out there, very young and very engaged. Most of them are millennials below the age of 35. Some 70% of our Instagram followers are between 25 to 45.” Interest in his career has grown to such extend, “it feels like there is a lot of momentum to do something”.
- Gérald and Evelyne Genta
Evelyne Genta reveals, they are organising a prize to award funding to a watch designer. At the same time, they are working to “revive [her] husband’s new models”. The timing is irresistible, given the Royal Oak is soon turning fifty.
“It feels like there is a lot of momentum to do something.”
There will be certainly an exhibition to come, showcasing 110 designs, prototypes, and some unusual watches from the archive. It will be held in Geneva for three months, before travelling to Miami, Singapore, Milan, and other countries to be defined as they come.
As for the fifty best-seller designs? What are the plans to bring them out to the market? Evelyne Genta offers a diplomatic smile, “new development will be announced on 22nd April.”
Visit the Gérald Genta Heritage website for more: https://geraldgenta-heritage.com