What do you get when you combine Italian design tradition with the finest Swiss engineering? The answer is Gerald Genta.
Born in 1931 to an Italian father and a Swiss mother, Gerald Genta went on to become a star of fine watch design. Over the years he collaborated with many watchmaking giants, and often showed a blatant disregard for some of the unwritten rules of design etiquette, earning him the grudging respect of his peers, and creating great demand for his unique skills.
Taking inspiration from iconic shapes he found in the strangest places, his designs truly made an impact. His clients have included everyone from Royalty, Movie celebrities to Rock Stars.
While he was still only 23 years of age he designed the Polerouter for Universal Geneve, with the innovative Cal 215 microtor movement, and the watch’s durability under extreme temperatures and altitudes earned it worldwide acclaim. It was the timepiece of choice amongst Scandinavian Airline pilots flying over the arctic.
The story of how the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was created reveals the real character of this man. Just before the 1971 Basel Fair, the most important watchmaking event of that time, Gerald received a call around 4pm. It was Georges Golay from Audemars Piguet. He wanted to create a new sports watch, something astounding, something the world had never seen, but Gerald had to do it in 24 hours. By the time morning arrived, he had finished the masterpiece that was destined to become a legendary watch design, and keep its form virtually unchanged for years. The octagonal frame, inspired by an old-fashioned diving suit, survives even today – back then it was the notable introduction of the luxury steel watch.
Genta was the master of complications. He created a number of world firsts, including the world’s most complex watch, his Grande Sonnerie, with more than a thousand parts, tourbillon, perpetual calendar, moon phase a second time zone and even Westminster Quarters chimes with four tiny hammers pounding out the same melody rung out by London’s Big Ben at each quarter hour.
Genta personally hand-designed the movements, dials and cases of his timepieces, and seldom employed outside help. Sometimes a watch would take up to 5 years to complete, sometimes only a night! Other iconic timepieces credited to his design excellence include the Vacheron Constantin Overseas and the Omega Constellation, as well as the Patek Philippe Nautilus.
The Nautilus took its inspiration from the shape of portholes on yachts. Patek Philippe wanted to compete with the Royal Oak, and the Nautilus was the answer. It shows Genta’s trademark finishes, alternating brushed and polished areas on the bezel, simple lines and his trademark styling.
In 1969 he founded his own company, which was later taken over by Singapore’s The Hour Glass, and now forms part of Bulgari. He later created a new venture called Gerald Charles, and continued to innovate all through his life.
In the 1980’s he 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, 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 $3500, and today they sell far North of that.
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.”
Published at Esquire Online, September 2015