Simon de Burton
Gérald Genta is possibly the most influential watch designer of the 20th century, yet relatively few people outside of the horological world are familiar with his name.
But that’s set to change now that his widow, Evelyne, has created the Gérald Genta Heritage Association to raise awareness of his achievements and to support future generations of watch designers through everything from events and exhibitions to education and sponsorship.
Genta, who died in 2011, aged 80, conceived classic pieces such as the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the Patek Philippe Nautilus, the Omega Constellation and the IWC Ingenieur SL.
Born in Geneva in 1931, he trained as a goldsmith jeweller before being recruited by Universal Genève where, at just 23, he produced his first standout watch in the form of the SAS Polerouter commemorating the early flights of the SAS airline from Copenhagen to Los Angeles via the North Pole.
By the 1960s, Genta’s talent had come to the attention of other major dial names and he had become a ‘pen for hire’, initially driving from manufacturer to manufacturer in Switzerland’s ‘watch valley’, selling designs for SFr10 apiece.
Having already been commissioned by Omega to reimagine its Constellation collection, Genta received an emergency call from Audemars Piguet on the eve of the 1971 Basel watch fair to design ‘an unprecedented steel watch’ – and deliver a drawing to show to the brand’s Italian distributor the following morning.
In an overnight sketching session, Genta is said to have created the octagonal Royal Oak, its bezel secured by visible screws inspired by a diving helmet and its metal bracelet ‘integrated’ with the watch head, connecting seamlessly to the case with tapered links.
The final version was launched at the 1972 fair as the most expensive steel sports watch ever marketed, with a price of SFr3,650.
Initially a sales flop, the Royal Oak took off in 1974 after Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli was seen sporting one – and it remains Audemars Piguet’s flagship model to this day.
Patek Philippe also benefitted from the Genta touch with the porthole-shaped Nautilus in 1976, as did Cartier with his design for the Pasha.
We will award designers who come up with watches that are truly wearable
In 1969, Genta established his own, eponymous dial name but continued to work with other clients as well as creating extravagant one-offs for wealthy clients, such as the Kings of Spain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, the Sultans of Oman and Brunei and the Queen Mother. From 1983-1999, Evelyne Genta travelled the world as her husband’s business manager, building the Gérald Genta brand before the couple sold to Bulgari, allowing Genta to devote more time to his love of painting – although he continued to design watches, leaving a legacy of 4,300 finely finished sketches.
Explaining her decision to launch the Gérald Genta Heritage Association, Mrs Genta, who lives in London where she serves as Monaco’s ambassador to the UK, said: ‘I was encouraged by many people in the watch industry who pointed out that, while his work is well known within the profession, Gérald is not getting the credit he deserves for his achievements, and the power of his name isn’t being used to its full potential.’
‘In his later years he used to say that, while the movement side of the watchmaking business was developing quickly, the design side was lacking. I think he would say the same today, which is why the Association will work towards encouraging young design talent.’
‘We will award designers who come up with watches that are truly wearable, something Gerald would have been insistent about,’ says Mrs Genta.
‘He always said his work was art, but it was an applied art – he was adamant that everything he ever drew could immediately be turned into a real watch that could be worn tomorrow, just as he had designed it.’
Details of the events and activities being organised by the Association – which will be guided by a committee of watch industry professionals – can be found at geraldgentaheritage.com