There’s little doubt that the 1960s and ’70s were a defining era in watchmaking.
As we discussed in a previous article, the golden age of dive watches, this was a time when horology reflected both advances in technology and changes in fashion. Watches could be as rebellious as a Tommy Nutter suit or as beautiful as an Aston Martin E-type.
And at the heart of this was a Swiss watchmaker, a man who created some of watchmaking’s undisputed icons. We are, of course, talking about Gérald Genta.
The models that Genta designed read like every watch fan’s ‘grail’ list: Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Bulgari “Bulgari” – the latter inspired by an ancient Roman coin. Watches for IWC, Omega and Universal Genève are also in the canon. Every one a classic.
Born in Geneva in 1931, Genta received a diploma in watchmaking when he was 21 and then worked as a freelance designer for the likes of Universal Genève – whom he designed the Polerouter Microtor for – and later Omega and Patek. According to his wife, Mme Evelyne Genta, in the early days her husband “went around to the different watch companies selling his designs at just 10 Swiss francs per design”.
Genta was not like other watch designers. Influenced by – among other things – nature, Japan, Ferraris and Picasso (who he adored), he had a particular way of working.
“His design process was always to start with a compass,” says Mme Genta. “He’d make a circle with the compass and draw a line to represent 12 to 6 and another line for 9 to 3. Then he’d paint every sketch using his collection of fine brushes.”
A method which led to the creation of his first icon, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
There are few watches more handsome than the Royal Oak. And when it was launched at the Annual Swiss Watch Show (now Baselworld) in 1972, it caused a sensation. Not just because of its design but because its price of 3,750 Swiss francs seemed prohibitive for a stainless steel sports watch. Previously, luxury watches had been made of gold or other precious metals.
But Audemars Piguet had been smart. Its profits decimated by the rise of quartz watches, the company was desperate for something (or more accurately, someone) to stop its slide into obscurity. That someone was Genta.
One afternoon in 1970, Audemars MD Georges Golay rang Genta, telling him the Italian market was desperate for an “unprecedented steel watch”. He was asked to provide designs for the morning after so Golay could present it to his customers.
Mme Genta again: “The brief for the Royal Oak reminded him of the divers he’d observed at Lake Geneva when he was young,” she says. “Having seen a diver in a helmet attached to his suit with eight screws, he designed a watch with the screws visible on top. Normally they’d come from below, but here they were hidden. The concept was very new, and so it took about three years before it took off – only the Italians ‘got it’ straight away.”
But he wasn’t finished. Genta’s next classic was another model influenced by maritime culture, and a second watch which confirmed stainless steel as an accepted material for luxury timepieces: the Patek Philippe Nautilus.
Released in 1976, the Nautilus is immediately recognisable thanks to its ‘porthole’ shape and textured horizontal grooves. “Gérald knew the Stern family were great sailors,” says Mme Genta. “He was inspired by this passion and used the portholes on a boat as his inspiration.”
One fan of both of the Nautilus and the Royal Oak is Christopher Ward’s Senior Designer (and a Swiss national), Adrian Buchmann. “What I love most about Gérald Genta is that he showed high-end watches didn’t need to be made of precious metal – that the value comes from the quality, finishing and movement,” he says.
After designing thousands of watches (including his last classic, the Cartier Pasha), Genta died in 2011, but his legacy lives on in the shape of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association. The organisation celebrates his work, encourages new design talent in watchmaking and will enable new watches to be made from the 4,000 unused designs in its archives.
“The support I’ve received from the watchmaking community for the Association has been overwhelming and spurs us on in our desire to celebrate Gérald’s unparalleled contribution to fine watchmaking,” says Mme Genta.
And finally, what’s her favourite timepiece? The Royal Oak? Perhaps the Omega Constellation?
“The design I love most is a watch that people will not know,” she says. “And that’s because Gérald designed the watch for me! But I can say it was inspired by sea urchins.”
Find out more about Gérald Genta and his Association at geraldgenta-heritage.com