Gérald Genta, who has designed everything from Mickey Mouse watches to such legendary timepieces as the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, revolutionized the art of watchmaking by choosing angular styles made of metal over round models in gold, but above all, by giving free reign to an unbridled imagination. The proof: 10 years after his death, the Swiss watch designer is the most influential of all.
By Nicolas Salomon.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 4
In the heart of London’s Mayfair district lies a charming red-brick mansion with bay windows flying a big red-and-white flag. “My family has been Monégasque for nearly 500 years,” says Evelyne Genta with a big smile. “I am the principality’s ambassador here." She pauses. “But that's not what brings you here today, is it?” After many long years of oblivion, the legacy of her husband – who died in 2011 – has been rehabilitated. Sales are up, and retrospectives and press coverage are on the rise, as is misinformation. "I'm reading a lot of nonsense about Gérald at the moment,” she says. “With our foundation, Gérald Genta Heritage, we're trying to put some order into all this because it would be a shame not to share his real story with the world.”
The real story is indeed worth sharing because it involves the destiny of not just one man but an entire industry as well. Money, good taste, know-how and the transmission of knowledge are important factors, and the story of Gérald Genta has many ups and downs. It all began in Italy in the 1930s, a decade ravaged by poverty. His father worked at precarious jobs, while his Geneva-born mother was almost blind. “Gérald often said that he knew the smell and the trappings of poverty," Evelyne says. “He worked all his life so that his children wouldn’t have to experience it.”
To escape from his harsh life, the young Genta drew for days on end. When his family left war-worn Italy to settle in Switzerland, a country left untouched by the war, Genta was 14 years old and still loved to draw. “His family couldn't afford to pay for lessons," Evelyne says. “Gérald just drew instinctively from the beginning. He never tried to copy or please anyone else. He drew freely. I think that's why his work has been so successful.”
Magnetic fields and pie pans
A single piece of paper marks Genta’s entry into the world of watchmaking. Evelyne pulls it out of the dusty archives. Headed "Ponti Gennari Cie, manufacturer of jewelry and chains,” it states, "We, the undersigned, certify that Mr. Gérald Genta, born on May 1, 1931, has been employed as a jeweler in our workshops since the beginning of 1946. His apprenticeship will be completed on May 31, 1950. We have always been very satisfied with Mr. Genta's work and conduct, and we can only recommend him to his future employers.” It is dated April 28, 1950. For four years, between the ages of 15 and 19, Genta made high-end watch bracelets, mostly for Patek Philippe, a major Ponti Gennari customer. "During this period, Gérald acquired his knowledge of stones and metals, and a sense of proportion," Evelyne says. At Ponti Gennari, Genta was already working with the instruments he would use for the rest of his life: a compass, a ruler, a protractor and a three-haired gouache brush manipulated with the help of binoculars. Genta was half painter, half industrial draftsman.
At the end of his apprenticeship, Genta left in search of contracts. At the time, watchmaking was a small industry, and the factories were family-owned and mostly located in the lovely Vallée de Joux, in the southwestern Jura Massif. Genta made appointments and drove to interviews with the letter of recommendation in his pocket. Upon arrival, he would show his drawings. “He returned to Geneva to help his parents as soon as he earned 1,000 francs,” says Evelyne.
He got his first major job in 1954, the year that Universal Genève, a brand that has now disappeared, signed a contract with Scandinavian Airlines to create a watch for their pilots, who flew from Los Angeles to Copenhagen via the North Pole. Today, it sounds like no big deal, but at the time, flying over the poles was quite a challenge because their magnetic fields disrupted measuring devices, especially watches. “At the time, men's watches were real navigation tools," says Laurent Picciotto, founder of Chronopassion and the first exclusive distributor of Gérald Genta watches in France, in 1988. “They were designed for utility, not looks, and for pilots in particular, they fulfilled essential functions.” The stakes were high. One year after the successful launch of the Rolex Explorer, worn by Sir Edmund Hillary in his ascent of Mt. Everest, Genta designed the Polerouter. With its compass hands and movement encased in soft iron to isolate it from the magnetic attraction of the poles, the watch succeeded in being both elegant and functional. “Naturally, the market began to wonder who designed this watch that looked like a compass,” says Evelyne.
Shortly after, Omega contacted Genta in search of new ideas. Luckily, he had no shortage of them. For a future model called Constellation, Genta came up with the idea of angling the outer perimeter of the dial and dividing it into 12 equal parts with the markers, giving birth to the “pie-pan dial” and simultaneously kickstarting a watchmaking revolution. Says Picciotto, “The pie-pan dials were interesting for two reasons. Aesthetically, they were remarkable, but above all, they were easily legible. At the time, dials were either round or square, but Genta already understood that it was the angles that gave meaning to a watch." The Omega Constellation’s dial ensured the model’s success for a good decade.
Gianni Agnelli and Alain Delon
In the office of her London mansion, Evelyne Genta pulls out more recent documents, far more spectacular than Ponti Gennari’s letter of recommendation. These are real treasures: original gouaches. The first is an image of what became one of the most iconic watches of all time: the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. The second is another version of the same model, which wasn’t chosen by the brand. "Gérald made two versions of this design,” says Evelyne, “one that is softer, less geometric, and another that is much more radical, the one that was chosen.”
Genta designed this watch in a single evening, a feat possibly due to the fact that it brought together several ideas he had developed over the years. The angles used for the Constellation were present, but Genta took them much further for the Royal Oak. Most watchmakers tried to hide the screws, but he did the exact opposite, turning them into a decorative element in their own right. The guilloché* dial was paved with small raised cubes, reminiscent of a design by Victor Vasarely. This was revolutionary: until then, dials had always been flat. For Jean-Claude Biver, who was making his debut as a young salesman for Audemars Piguet at the time, “Genta's greatest success was convincing the brand to market this watch.” Evelyne agrees: “Gérald always told me that the development of prototypes was a chore for the company.” The cost of manufacturing the watch proved to be exorbitant. “The beginning was very complicated," recalls Biver. “Even though the watch was launched in mature markets like France and Italy, selling a steel watch to retailers at an even higher price than a gold one was no easy task.”
Fortunately, the model quickly caught the eye of a trendsetter, Giovanni Agnelli. In 1974, he was the equivalent of today’s Instagram influencer, but he launched trends through magazine photos. The always elegant Italian industrialist, owner of Fiat, was a jet-setter who made and destroyed fashions. “He was first spotted with a Royal Oak while on his yacht in Sardinia, where he used to vacation," says Biver. “He then wore it to meetings at Fiat headquarters in Turin.” Agnelli’s influence was magnified by the unusual way he wore his watch: over the cuff of his shirt. It may have been a bit pretentious, but Agnelli, who was a great admirer of Italian racecar drivers, actually took this style cue from the gentlemanly Count Carlo Felice Trossi, a little-known but talented driver in the 1930s who wore his watch on the sleeve of his coveralls while driving. “Thanks to Agnelli, it started to take off, little by little,” says Henri Samuel, son of the famous jeweler Fred Samuel, who managed the company Fred until it was acquired by LVMH in 1995. At the time, jewelers like Fred, Chaumet and Tiffany sold their own collections and were also multi-brand watch retailers. “The Fred logo not only appeared on the Royal Oak's dial, but was also engraved on the back of the case," says Samuel, who watched as sales gradually took off. Another elegant man, the French actor Alain Delon, soon adopted it.
The Royal Oak became so successful that other houses soon wanted their own chic, sporty metal models. The Stern family, at the helm of Patek Philippe since the 1930s, reconnected with Genta, who had already produced the sensual, ovoid Ellipse for the house in 1968. But how could the Royal Oak’s success be repeated in a new way? Genta was at the height of his creativity and did not hesitate. The Royal Oak had been inspired by a diver’s helmet, but the new Nautilus was more like a porthole. The revolution continued. "With these two models," says Picciotto, “Genta definitively freed watchmaking from the straitjacket of a round design, enamel dials and alligator straps.”
That was not the end of the story, however. Soon after, he designed the IWC Ingenieur SL, a cross between the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. Then, in the midst of the quartz revolution, Japan came calling, and Genta designed the Seiko Credor Locomotive, followed by the Seiko 5. In the space of a few months, Gérald Genta's aesthetic was invading the watch market, so much so that when Vacheron Constantin released its 222, it was wrongly attributed to him. The same goes for Rolex’s Oysterquartz collection. Even though his name wasn’t on everything, Genta was everywhere. “This period of success and intense productivity was the realization of a dream,” says Evelyne.
The Pink Panther and eroticism
“‘Your watch is ugly!’ was the first thing Gérald said to me,” says Evelyne. The two met at the end of the 1970s. By then, he was driving a Ferrari. A young girl from a good Monegasque family, she was 23 years younger than him. Together, they ran the Genta business. "Gérald never stopped creating,” Evelyne remembers. “One day, he would take an interest in cars and design a series of watches and offer them to Bentley and Ferrari. The next day, he was into music or sports, and watches for soccer, tennis or guitar players would appear. Then it was clocks, glasses, tables, cutlery, glasses or perfume bottles. He even had an order from the Élysée Palace for an official state gift.” She shows us Genta’s astonishing gouache of a flexible ceremonial belt, which was given by French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to King Hassan II of Morocco. "Gérald had forged a solid reputation, and I had a strong network in Monaco. We started to travel around the world to meet major clients.”
As in the 1950s, Genta was back on the road again at the end of the ’70s in search of new customers, but this time, he was traveling in a jet. He and Evelyne met kings and queens, sultans and princes, all of whom were looking for extravagant creations. One day, Genta was asked by three men for a “hunting watch.” They specified that it must be dark so it would not reflect light near their prey. They also wanted it to have a moon phase so they could hunt on the most auspicious nights, an alarm clock so they could be up at daybreak to hunt, a chronograph and a compass so they could find their way back. No problem for Genta. He designed the Gefica, named for the three hunters: Geoffroy, Fissore and Canali.
Made of bronze, the Gefica absorbed light and had an alarm clock, moon phase, chronograph and compass (hidden by the clasp). “Gérald would come up with the design, and we would make it,” says Evelyne. “For this kind of customer, cost was never an issue."
While Genta continued to offer his services to a few houses, including Cartier, Chaumet, Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels, by that time he was a manufacturer himself under his own name. Says Henri Samuel: "Gérald made watches and clocks as well as all sorts of other precious objects. When a manufacturer had a special order, they went through him. His manufacture was in full swing.”
The designer met more and more big names. During one of his trips, he met Michael Eisner, the head of Disney. An enlightened aficionado of fine watchmaking, Eisner knew all about Genta’s work, so when Genta asked for a Disney license to make luxury watches, he was game. Genta designed Mickey, Minnie and Donald watches, which he marketed under his own name. Madness? Not entirely. “Gérald had flair,” says Picciotto. “We started to talk about children as royalty. He felt that their place in families was growing more important and that we should offer products for the children of wealthy clients.” This caused a bit of confusion. “One day during lunch, Gérald showed me a sketch for a watch with the Pink Panther on it,” Picciotto continues. “I said to him: ‘Ah, so you’ve signed with Hanna-Barbera?’ He stared at me and said: ‘It’s not Disney?’ I said, ‘No, I don't think so, Gérald. You'd better check.’” It didn’t even matter to Genta, because in his eyes, nothing was forbidden. He designed astonishing erotic watches with faceless bodies and outsized genitals on the guilloché dials. “Gérald didn't like doing faces," says Evelyne, laughing.
Large calibers and speculations
Decline was not far off, however, even though Genta was still producing at a steady pace, and major customers remained loyal to his octagonal complication watches. The Genta style began to run out of steam during the 1980s. Picciotto was there. “In 1988, Gérald opened a boutique on Rue Saint Honoré in Paris exclusively dedicated to Genta designs,” he says. “Everything in the store was hexagonal. There were angles everywhere. Gérald had designed everything from the furniture to the doors and windows. It was a real temple.” Unfortunately, the disciples were missing. “It didn't work out the way he and I had imagined. From memory, I don't think it even made a quarter of the expected sales.” Was it too early for a Genta boutique at a time when fine watches still had a small clientele? Or was it too late for a boutique selling a style that was losing momentum? The store closed in 1990. Two years later, Audemars Piguet launched the Royal Oak Offshore Collection. “Gérald didn't like it,” says his widow. “He thought his work had been distorted.” It was a hit, however. Oversized, mounted on new rubber straps and offered in a range of new materials and colors, the Offshore was triumphant at a time when large calibers were fashionable. “It was all we were selling,” says Picciotto, whose Chronopassion boutique became a specialist in them. “Those new watches were extremely recognizable. They had a diameter of nearly 45mm, and all the F1 drivers, actors and influencers wanted them.” Tired and disappointed by the tastes of an era that was no longer his, Genta sold the manufacture to The Hour Glass, one of the largest retailers in Asia, which sold the company to Bvlgari in 2000.
The couple soon moved to London. Gérald drew in the morning and painted in the afternoon. He designed products, of course, but he also painted on canvas. One of his paintings hangs behind Evelyne's desk. He continued to make a few watches to order, but his heart was no longer in it. Says Picciotto: "The new world of watches, with new customers, was in full swing. The high-tech watches sold like mad and had astonishing forms. We had entered another era.” In 2011, Gérald Genta died of leukemia.
Why is Gérald Genta back in the public eye today, the subject of so many retrospectives and articles? Whence this new popularity and rising sales? It’s all about a watch, of course: the Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 5711 A, or the "5711," as aficionados call it. A low-priced model, the design was celebrated when released because it was the direct descendant of the Nautilus created by Genta in 1976. Even larger than the earlier model, it became an icon within 18 months and an object of speculation. Today, the value of the model on the market has tripled, but who knows what will happen following Patek Philippe’s announcement at the beginning of 2021 that it is discontinuing the model. The rebirth of Genta’s fame is reminiscent of what happened in the world of furniture to the work of Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé.
Competing manufacturers were stunned by the hysteria surrounding the 5711, to the point that they started searching their archives in hopes of finding a past collaboration with Genta or even just a sketch evoking his chic sporty style. New watches were released one after another, with varying degrees of success. One thing is sure: almost a decade after his death, Gérald Genta is everywhere.
That is not enough to console his friend Jean-Claude Biver. “I often think about him,” he says. “I remember one day we were in the train on the shores of Lake Garda. I asked him if I could use blue and green together on a dial. He told me it was a stupid question, and that I only had to turn my head to see why. I did, and saw the green of the vegetation and the blue of the lake through the window. Gérald then said to me: ‘If God wanted it, what is stopping you?’ It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. We have to get rid of aesthetic diktats.” Gérald Genta was a designer and a businessman, but above all, he was an artist. “A prolific artist,” Evelyne says, standing up to open two large metal cabinets. “Here, in these folders, there are over 3,000 unpublished drawings by Gérald. I don't plan on leaving them here unrealized forever.”