One of the greatest watch designers of all time, Gerald Genta, was born in 1931. He was of Piedmontese origin (a district of Italy). He quickly established a reputation for himself as being the world’s first ‘watch designer’. Undoubtedly he was the most creative designer of the past 50 years. Gerald Genta brought the best qualities if Italian design flair and methodical Swiss technical skills to the art of the watchmaking tradition.
Gerald Genta produced a series of iconic watches for some of the world’s most highly regarded brands including the Royal Oak (Audemars Piguet), the Nautilus (Patek Philippe), the Constellation (Omega) and the Bulgari Bulgari (Bulgari).
In his own words Gerald Genta describes his early days as a designer of watches in the Swiss watch industry of 1950:
“…All watch designs at the time were sold for 15 Swiss Francs! You can imagine the quantity one had to produce in order to manage to scrape a living at that rate! However, despite that situation, I managed to earn a lot of money, because I had clients everywhere in the world, in America, in Italy, in France, in Germany. My first clients were Benrus, Hamilton and so on. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to sign contracts with brands in Switzerland, such as Omega, Universal and Audemars Piguet, often secured through their suppliers. By this I mean that, for example, my direct client wasn’t Omega, but Omega’s suppliers and it was in this manner that I participated in the creation of the Seamaster, or the Constellation, for example by designing the case for the one, or designing a dial or a bracelet for another.”
The story behind the design of the now iconic Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is something of a legend in itself. It was 1971 on the eve of the Basel Fair, the world’s most celebrated watch event. At around 4pm, Gerald Genta received a phone call from Georges Golay, the then Managing Director of Audemars Piguet.
Golay explained to Gerald Genta that the Italian market was expecting an “unprecedented steel watch”, and a watch design was needed for the following morning. How it came about that a superbly well organised Swiss watch brand was requesting a watch design with less than 24 hours notice has never been explained but suffice to say the new timepiece was to be a sports watch for all occasions but with the most beautiful finishes ever seen.
In the early 70s, Audemars Piguet was producing often exceptional mechanical watches, some featuring jewellery and some designed as extra-thin watches, which was a trend at the time. This was an era just prior to the onslaught of the quartz invasion from Japan which went on to substantially affect, and indeed change, the Swiss watch industry. Audemars Piguet needed a new idea in a hurry.
So as the legend goes, Gerald Genta had to create an overnight sensation, a stunning new watch design which would usually takes weeks at the drawing board and require several meetings and hundreds of sketches. As dawn broke, Genta was satisfied with his design of a diving-suit helmet case complete with screws. It was the design that was soon to become the classic Royal Oak, and the design has barely changed since that frantic overnight design session.
Today, when stainless steel sports watches are so numerous, it’s hard to appreciate that a steel sports watch went completely against everything that was on the market at the time. But it sparked a revolution, and radically changed the way the watch industry designed watches.
Gerald Genta, who died in August 2011, left a legacy greater than any watch designer before him. His first claim to fame was with the Polerouter for Universal Geneve which he designed at just 23 years of age, a time when most designers are just learning the basics.
Over the course of his career, Gerald Genta believes he designed over 100,000 watches for numerous brands. He designed the entire Breguet watch collection, while at the same time working for Bvlgari.
He designed Bvlgari-Bvlgari, with the brand name engraved on the bezel twice. In the beginning the design was considered crass, but the watch later met with great success, and continues to do so. For IWC, he created what has become another design classic, the Ingénieur watch. For Patek he created the beautifully simple and elegant Nautilus, for Rolex a model from the Cellini collection. What may also surprise some is that he designed a ‘limited edition’ Timex of some 30 million pieces.