The man behind the most iconic Swiss watches
What do you get when you combine Italian design tradition with the finest Swiss watches? The answer is Gerald Genta.
Born in 1931 to an Italian father and a Swiss mother, Gerald Genta would go on to become a star of fine watch design. Over the years he collaborated with many watchmaking giants, including the likes of Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Omega, to design some of the most notable watches in history. Thanks to his, often blatant, disregard for some of the unwritten rules of design etiquette, Genta would earn the grudging respect of his peers tradition-obsessed peers.
At first Genta would charge a mere 15 Swiss Francs for his designs, but later, as demand for his skills rose he began to take on clients the world over, from Hollywood royalty to rock stars, to actual royalty.
Taking inspiration from iconic shapes he found in the strangest places, from a young age Genta was not afraid use his imagination to push the limits of what watch design could do. While he was still only 23 years old he designed the Polerouter for Universal Geneve. Combining the timepiece’s innovative Cal 215 microtor movement with its durability under extreme temperatures and altitudes earned it worldwide acclaim. Even becoming the timepiece of choice for Scandinavian Airline pilots flying over the arctic.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Perhaps, one of the most compelling stories was how Genta came to create the (now iconic) Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (pictured above).
A few days before the 1971 Basel Fair - the most important watchmaking event of that time – Genta received a call at around 4pm. It was Georges Golay, the managing director of Swiss watch giants Audemars Piguet, with a challenge. Now having worked on projects for Audemars for over 20 years, Genta was used to the odd challenge or two, but what Golay had in mind was different.
Golay told Genta that he wanted him to create a new sports watch. Something astounding, something the world had never seen before, and Genta had 24 hours to do it. Being the genius that he was, Genta worked through the night to finally arrive at an octagonal, steel timepiece that was completely waterproof. To this day the Royal Oak remains virtually unchanged. Priced at a sector-smashing 3,750 Swiss Francs (the most expensive steel watch of the time cost just 850 Francs), the success of the Royal Oak was far a done thing. But thanks to Genta’s creativity – and Audemars’ faith in the designer – customers were as willing to hand over their money for it back then as they still are today.
The Royal Oak remains to this day an icon of watch design, but it was just one of several high-points in Genta’s career. Other iconic timepieces credited to his design excellence include the Vacheron Constantin Overseas, the Omega Constellation, and Patek Philippe’s Nautilus.
Alongside watch design, Genta was also a master of complications. He is credited with creating a number of world firsts, including the world’s most complex watch, the Grande Sonnerie, which has more than a thousand separate parts including a tourbillon, a perpetual calendar, a moon phase with a second time zone and even Westminster Quarters chimes with four tiny hammers pounding out the same melody rung heard on London’s Big Ben at each quarter hour.
The definition of ‘hands-on’ Genta would personally hand-design the movements, dials and cases of his timepieces, seldom would he employ outside help. Sometimes a watch would take up to five years to complete, sometimes only a night!
Patek Philippe Nautilus
Having seen the success of the Royal Oak, Patek Philippe were desperate to compete and turned to the only man they knew who could provide them with an answer. The Nautilus shows all the hallmarks of Genta’s trademark finishes, alternating brushed and polished areas on the bezel, simple lines and his trademark styling. For the Nautilus, Genta took inspiration from the shape of portholes on yachts.
The beauty of Genta was that he saw himself as a hired gun. He knew that his services were in demand, and charged people for the pleasure. In 1969 he founded a company, which was later was taken over by Singapore’s The Hour Glass (which now forms part of Bulgari). He later created another venture called Gerald Charles, which he sold on, but he continued to innovate all through his life.
Ever up for a challenge, in the 1980s Genta managed to obtain special permission from The Walt Disney Company to create and distribute a limited number of watches featuring designs inspired by Disney characters. The dials showed illustrations of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Scrooge and Goofy, but where finished with 18 carat gold cases. The mechanism also included a novel jumping hour complication, matching the whimsical feel of the overall design. As far back as 1988 these watches sold for around $3,500, and today they sell far more than that.
Mickey Mouse watch designed by Gerald Genta
With his passing in 2011 he is remembered as one of the greatest designers the world has known. Audemars Piguet referred to him as a “brilliant, cultured and a true gentleman, the traits of character that we will most clearly remember are the generosity, the creativity and the passion for horological tradition of this colorful figure.”
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Tariq Malik is the managing partner and co-founder of Momentum watch shop in DIFC. momentum-dubai.com