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Gérald Genta: The Godfather of Watch Designers

Jorg Weppelink
01.03.2017
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Jorg Weppelink
01.03.2017

 

Let’s start this off with a question: How many watch designers do you know by name? Two, maybe three, some may know a handful. In the fashion, furniture, and auto industries, designers have become heroes in their own right. That is not so much the case with watches, though there are some. The first name that usually pops up when thinking of famous watch designers is Gérald Genta. Let’s take a look at Genta’s most famous designs and find out what makes him a true pioneer.

Gérald Genta was born in 1931 in Geneva. He began his long design career in 1952, after finishing jewellery and goldsmith training in his native Switzerland in 1951. Now, you have to understand that product design at that time was a completely different world than it is today. Most designers were not well-known individuals, and most design was commissioned by brands through suppliers. Suppliers of cases, bracelets, and other watch parts had designers create whole watches or sometimes just individual components so they could produce them for brands. Genta started working in this way, making as little as 15 Swiss francs per design.

 

Making a Name for Himself

 

Gérald Genta managed to work for most of the well-known brands in the fifties and made a name for himself by delivering lots of different designs. One of the brands Genta used to work for is Universal Genève. He designed the Polerouter for them, which was introduced in 1954. In order to shorten flights from Europe to the west coast of the US by some thousand kilometers, the airline SAS (Scandinavian Airline System) opened new routes over the North Pole. Universal Genève provided crews with Polerouter wristwatches that were resistant to the strong magnetic fields in the polar region. The watch became the official timepiece of SAS and the first well-known watch that Genta was praised for.

The first company to actually offer Genta a contract was Omega. In 1960, Omega’s then-Head of Creation, Pierre Moinat, offered Gérald Genta a series of exclusive contracts to work with Omega’s dial, case, and bracelet suppliers. Prior to 1960, Genta had designed different parts for Omega watches, but this was his first exclusive contract. The most famous models Genta worked on for Omega in the late fifties and early sixties are the Omega Seamaster and Omega Constellation. For the latter, Genta designed multiple cases and dials.

In 1969, Gérald Genta decided to take a step in a new direction and become a watch producer — instead of just being a designer — under the Gérald Genta brand name. Over the years, Genta gained respect for designing several unique watches, including the 1981 Minute Repeater with self-winding movement, which was encased in a 2.72-mm thick case. Another was the 1994 Grande Sonnerie, which was the most complicated watch in the world at the time.

 

Designing the Big Four or Maybe Not…

 

Gérald Genta’s most famous watch design was made for a classic Swiss company. This is, of course, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. In 1969, the Audemars Piguet Managing Director, George Golay, asked Genta to design a steel sports watch that was completely new and waterproof — and he needed it done in just one day. As the story goes, Genta came up with the idea for the Royal Oak, with its unique case-design inspired by a scaphander helmet, overnight. Was this watch successful from the beginning? Absolutely not. When it was introduced in 1972, the watch was considered too big for a lot of people and combined with the retail price of 3,750 Swiss francs for a steel watch, many thought Audemars Piguet was crazy.

Four years after the introduction of the Audemars Royal Oak, a second iconic Genta watch was introduced. At the 1976 Basel Watch Fair, Patek Philippe introduced the Nautilus. Genta said in an interview that he had designed the watch two years earlier at the same Basel Watch Fair. While observing people from Patek Philippe having dinner, Genta asked a waiter for a piece of paper and a pen. Five minutes later, the Nautilus design was ready. After being successfully received by Patek,  they began producing prototypes and in 1976, the watch was ready to be sold to the public.

 

That same year saw the introduction of the third Genta watch that has become famous for its remarkable design. Genta was asked to modernize the already existing IWC Ingenieur watch and in 1976, IWC introduced the IWC Ingenieur SL. This was a watch in the same vein as the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, as it was a steel sports watch with an integrated bracelet.

With its 40-mm diameter, it was once again large for the standards of its time. The design of the Ingenieur SL has become known for its round shapes and its impressive anti-magnetic case construction.

 

For many years people thought Gérald Genta had also designed the Vacheron Constantin 222 (the predecessor of the Overseas). This completed what for many watch fans is known as The Big Four. However, as stated earlier, watch designers were working with watch companies rather anonymously. Although he did not design the 222, Genta never actually denied working on it. However, Vacheron Constantin confirmed many years later that it was Jörg Hysek who actually designed the watch.

So, The Big Four is actually a trio of watches designed by Gérald Genta; a trio of pieces that were not particularly successful when they were initially introduced. This was mainly due to the fact that Genta chose unconventional shapes, bigger case sizes, and the watches had high prices. Released at a time when the watch industry as a whole was feeling the impact of the quartz revolution, not many people were willing to pay a lot of money for a steel sports watch that looked revolutionary and big. Little did people know…

 

From Working for Companies to Becoming a Famous Name

Patek Philippe Nautilus Chronograph

Patek Philippe Nautilus Chronograph, Image: © Bert Buijsrogge

 

The same country that introduced quartz watches actually made Genta famous. Japanese watch collectors insisted on finding out who actually designed the Royal Oak they loved so much. That’s when Genta’s name popped up in the media. Brands never wanted to put the spotlight on the designers that helped design the watches, but when word got out that Genta had designed the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, IWC also revealed that Genta was the man behind the Ingenieur. It’s not so surprising if you look at all three of them.

In essence, Genta came up with three designs in the same spirit, each playing with different shapes: the octagonal shape of the Royal Oak, the porthole shaped Nautilus, and the round shape of the Ingenieur; a very clever play on the same principle that sets them apart while maintaining typical Genta style.

 

After the Big Three

 

After designing the three iconic sports watches, Genta went on to create more iconic designs that were less sporty. In 1977, Bulgari introduced the Bulgari Bulgari watch, designed by Genta. The watch had been originally introduced in 1957. Genta only slightly updated the design, but it caused quite a stir. The watch design was supposedly based on old Roman coins. Genta introduced its standout feature of a double Bulgari branding on the bezel. The fact that this watch is still the flagship of Bulgari today proves two things: one, that Genta had an eye for new and remarkable designs, and two, that the Bulgari family had guts to release it.

Another watch that Genta worked on is the Pasha de Cartier by Cartier. Louis Cartier created the very first Cartier Pasha in 1932 for the Sultan of Marrakesh. It was one of the very first water-resistant watches to be invented because the sultan wanted to keep the watch on while bathing. In 1985, Genta was asked to update the design. To this day, his design is widely celebrated as bringing the Pasha into modern times without losing its typical character.

Over the years, Genta also kept designing watches for his own brand until he sold the company in 1998 to Singapore’s Hour Glass Group. In 2000, Bulgari acquired the company and in 2010, Bulgari integrated the Gérald Genta brand name into their own brand. In the meantime, Genta started a company under the Gérald Charles brand name in 2001. Again, he sold the company after five years. From then on, he began focusing on painting while more and more people started to take notice of the legacy Genta had built over the decades.

 

Becoming a Legendary Watch Designer

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Ceramic

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Ceramic, Image: Audemars Piguet

 

Gérald Genta is the first person that made a name for himself in the watch industry as a watch designer. You could say that he basically invented the profession. It is stunning that to this day, watch companies do not make the designers more known when telling the story of their watches. Look at what the name Genta has done for the Royal Oak, the Nautilus, and the Ingenieur. If Gérald Genta had not been connected to these watches, they most certainly would not have been as popular and valuable as they are today.

Although Gérald Genta passed away in 2012 at the age of 80, his legacy remains and his influence can be felt in many watch designs today; just take a look at Hublot’s Big Bang or the Girard Perregaux Laureato and the recently introduced Piaget Polo S. These are just a few examples of watches that reflect the influence of Gérald Genta — and this is not necessarily a bad thing. As Genta boldly described himself, “For me, being copied does not cause me sadness… It constitutes encouragement and a compliment. If you are not copied, you are incompetent.”

 

Read more about iconic pieces from Gérald Genta:

Legendary Watches: Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Special Vintage Watches: Universal Genève Polerouter

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