Gérald Genta’s legendary watch designs have lasted for decades and today remain as vital as ever.
I met Gérald Genta once. It was at SIHH 2011, when Audemars Piguet was teeing up its 40th Anniversary Royal Oak watches for the upcoming year. He was standing, talking to the other notable Audemars Piguet designer of recent times, Octavio Garcia, and the talk naturally turned to how the iconic Royal Oak design became almost immediately famous, and how the design has been de rigueur ever since. Genta told me that he regarded it as his greatest and most notable design. The Royal Oak ushered in a whole new watch-design bracket: the luxury sports watch, and with it, a brave new world of horological design over the decades since. The watch world owes a huge debt to the man who practically invented a whole “luxury sports watch” industry in his wake.
Genta combined Italian design flair with Swiss technical precision and know-how. If you believe some of the stories that describe how Genta arrived at the designs, then some of the most iconic watches of the 20th century were derived in an instant of inspiration. Be it a night’s work, or some sketching at a restaurant in Basel, it was not the usual lengthy process of deliberation and reduction. However, one thing is for sure. There is a “before Genta” period of watch design and an “after Genta” period. He had a profound effect on the role of the designer in the watchmaking process.
Genta’s effect on watch design (and the watch industry for that matter) was a lot more subtle than simply turning up at Audemars Piguet or Patek Philippe with what he thought was a winning design. As Genta himself pointed out, when he started in the watch industry, he would be paid only 15 Swiss francs for the whole design. So he worked for clients overseas, for both brands and private clients. Genta’s first patrons were the likes of Benrus and Hamilton. He then had the opportunity to work for Swiss brands, but did so through the supplier companies, as he did for Omega, for example, where he was eventually asked to help out with the overall design of the Omega Constellation. If he had helped with the component part designs, then he could help with the final design.
However, there were exceptions to this rule—Universal Geneve did hire Genta directly. But after that Genta was, for all intents and purposes, an independent designer who was brought on for special projects. It was these “special projects” that are now regarded as iconic. When asked about the success of his work, Genta always attributed it to the training he had as a jeweler and goldsmith, along with a Swiss Federal Diploma to show for it. He understood that the watch had to have various surfaces and that it had to catch the eye in a special way. Genta could also undertake the more technical work: designing parts within the watch such as rotors, plates, and pinions. He was 20 years old and was employed almost immediately by Universal Watch (or Universal Genève SA, as it was known as then) and worked on the development of their microrotor watch—something of a precursor and portent of what was to come. By the time he was the relatively inexperienced age of 23, Genta had helped design and introduce one of the best-known postwar watches. The Polarouter, or Polerouter as it became known, was introduced by Universal in 1954, and it gained a comparable reputation to such classics as the Rolex Oyster and the Omega Seamaster Date.
The design of the Polerouter had some of the avant-garde hallmarks that were to distinguish the better-known Genta designs in the 1970s, such as the raised bezel, the subsumption of the lugs into the design of the case, and the utilitarian layout of the dial. The microrotor movement was equally innovative. Genta went on to design the White and Black Shadow watches for Universal. Then in the later 1960’s, he went independent and created the Eclipse for Patek Philippe. It was minimalist in form, a derivative of the tonneau form that Patek had made so popular in the 1920s.
But it was a 1972 piece that was to usher in a whole new class of haute horlogerie: the luxury sports watch. Made of a base metal—in this instance steel—it integrated case and bracelet in a harmonious and seamless line, the bezel securing the caseback through the main case with bolts. What made this watch so different from other steel watches, aside from the design and construction of the parts, was the use of finishing to accentuate various surfaces. Rather than have a single shading—completely polished or brushed, for example—Genta used his knowledge and training in jewelry-making to employ different finishing techniques on various surfaces. Although Genta designed the Royal Oak to be manufactured from steel, the first prototypes were created in white gold, as Audemars Piguet did not have the machining tools to deal with high-grade steel at that point. Genta’s design was a masterstroke—it ushered in a new age, and the haute horlogerie world hasn’t looked back since.
If the stories are even half true, the Royal Oak can be labelled a lucky accident. As the story goes, Georges Golay (then the CEO of Audemars Piguet) phoned Genta on the eve of the 1971 Basel Fair and explained that an “unprecedented steel watch” was expected for the Italian market: a watch for all occasions, beautifully finished. One wonders why Audemars Piguet had not planned this better. Perhaps in a knee-jerk reaction to the specter of watch designs with quartz movements coming from Japan, they decided they needed the design in a hurry. In any event, Genta produced the design overnight. His inspiration was, of all things, a diving helmet. The name was based on the cross-section motif of the cannons on board a 16th-century Royal Navy ship, the Royal Oak. Somewhere in that eclectic mix of ideas, an instantly avant-garde yet iconic watch was created that resonated with the watch-buying public. If the story can be believed, 80 percent of that first 1000 (A-Series) Royal Oak watches went to Italy.
The other avant-garde and modern aspect of the piece was the price tag. An A-Series Royal Oak went on sale for 3300 Swiss francs in 1972, when it was launched at the Basel Fair. At the time, it was an exorbitant sum to pay for a steel watch. You could buy a Patek Philippe gold dress watch and have a fair chunk of change left over. Alternatively, a Rolex Submariner was approximately 10 percent of the Royal Oak’s price, at 330 Swiss francs. In one go, the watch separated the work involved in making the case and the movement with the price of the metal underlying its construction.
Eventually, other designers were charged with reinterpreting, augmenting, and enhancing the Royal Oak. First up, Emmanuel Gueit—a 22-year-old designer—produced a Royal Oak that appealed to the younger generation. Gueit “deconstructed” the design and accentuated the three-part case. For instance, rather than being hidden, the rubber gasket between the top bezel and middle case was now obvious and on show. Likewise, for the Royal Oak Concept, which was introduced in 2002 for the watch’s 30th anniversary, there was the same accentuation of the design: taking the concept of the luxury sports watch further with a watch that could withstand extreme shocks.
Genta moved on from the Royal Oak to design the IWC Ingenieur and the Patek Philippe Nautilus. Each became the leading sports watch of its respective brand. Both, along with the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet, are still in production today, although to some degree removed from Genta’s original design. For IWC, Genta took an existing watch and gave it a new design. The Ingenieur had actually been in production with IWC since 1954. It was, for all intents and purposes, a classical watch shape (the usual round watch—for want of a better expression, a Calatrava-type design), but it was designed with the “new scientific world” in mind (in the same way that the Rolex Milgauss was), both water- and electromagnetic-resistant.
Genta redesigned the Ingenieur into a modern sports watch. Gone was the conservatism of a round face. In its place was a piece that recalled some of the signatures of the Royal Oak: the same integrated bracelet, the bezel (now with five bolts to attach it to the other part of the case), and a textured dial. The case size had increased, but the watch remained antimagnetic, as before (with the movement parts made of an antimagnetic alloy). Once again, the watch manufacture was skeptical that such a watch would sell; only 1,000 pieces were ordered. In this instance, the manufacture was right. The watch design, for some reason, did not initially achieve the same sales or notoriety as either the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or the Patek Philippe Nautilus.
The Patek Philippe Nautilus had more in common with the Royal Oak than the Ingenieur. Like the Royal Oak, and, to a large degree in direct response to it, the Nautilus was an individual commission by Patek, based on nautical designs. For the Nautilus, the inspiration came from portholes, the kind found on transatlantic liners. The eight sides are smoothed and rounded so as not to be too noticeable. The case, which carries a patent, acts like a real porthole. The solid case back and middle case (all one unit) are secured to the top bezel part by means of the four lateral screws (two on each side of the case). In a sense, just like a porthole, the case is bound by the two sides.
If the story is true, the Nautilus was an inspirational moment of design, one that once again happened at the Basel Fair. Rumor had it that Patek was looking for a new design of watch: something that would make the brand appeal to a new generation of professionals and watch collectors. While Genta’s name was being considered by Patek, it was not yet decided who the designer should be. At dinner in a restaurant in Basel, Genta was fortunate enough to overhear Patek executives talking. Genta asked the waiter for paper, while continuing to listen. And in the space of five minutes, he sketched out the watch that was to become the Nautilus. Like the Royal Oak, the initial series was only 1,000 in number.
Forty years later, as with the Royal Oak, the Nautilus has attained classic status. Specialist auctions are now held for both models and early versions (those from the first 1,000) in exemplary condition are prized by collectors. Both designs have stood the test of time and both are rightly considered modern classics.
While Genta may have become associated with luxury sports watch design, that was not the only arena in which Genta was involved. In the latter part of his career, Genta was associated with his own company as well as other luxury brands. Bulgari is one of the more notable examples. The inspiration on this occasion did not come from nautical themes, but rather from Rome’s past—Rome being the location of the first Bulgari store. Genta had noted the workmanship and design of ancient Roman coins; the inscriptions on the coins were bold and the names still visible after centuries of wear. Genta used the same idea on the bezel of the watch. Inscribed on the bezel were two “Bulgari” engravings. The case shape is like an ancient coin—round and substantial. In gold, the case has a weight and gravitas to it. Although some thought the design edged towards vulgarity, it has proven to be a success. The “Bulgari Bulgari” design has been in continued production since 1980, when it was first introduced.
Gérald Genta’s designs, whether avant-garde or a reinterpretation of the ancient and traditional, have stood the test of time. The Royal Oak and the Nautilus design are as relevant today as they have always been. They are often copied, but never bettered. Genta set up his own watch company, and under its banner he developed and manufactured some of the most complex and sought-after sonneries and repeaters. In the end, and perhaps a little ironically, Gérald Genta S.A. was bought out by Bulgari.