From childhood to world watch domination, we encapsulate the life and laurels of the legendary Gerald Genta. The man who designed more iconic models than anyone else in the history of horology, his design genius is embedded in several watches that we see every single day.
Mr Charles Gerald Genta was a prolific inventor and possibly the most influential watch designer of the century; his name is deeply rooted in the veins of horology history. Well known for his eponymous line of time pieces, Gerald’s collaborative work with acclaimed brands like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Universal Genève amongst others, gives him an inestimable repute in the watch making trajectory. Christie’s auction house called his work “the Fabergé of watches”, reinstating the Swiss domination of the luxury timepiece industry. In a glorious career spanning 50 years, Genta earned the laudable distinction of being the only designer whose name singularly sells watch models worldwide.
The lean and elegant Genta was described by those who knew him as a true gentleman. Born in 1931 to a Swiss mother and father of northern Italian ancestry, Genta had an early ambition of becoming an artist. After facing fierce opposition from his parents against pursuing this career, he finally finished jewelry and goldsmith training and earned a Swiss federal diploma. It is said that once he graduated from his apprenticeship, he made two promises to himself. One was that he would never become a goldsmith and the second that he would never work as someone’s subordinate. He never broke either of the two oaths. There was no arrogance or conceit in Genta’s vow, he simply picked and chose clients that suited him.
The 1950’s and 60’s was not a time when independent watch designers were thriving, it was not seen as an occupation for a specialized professionals. Designing was primarily done by in-house artists. Genta got his first assignment with Universal Geneva SA (A Swiss luxury Watch Company), which was gaining international acclaim for its chronograph models. He went on to make several astounding inventions like the Polerouter Microtors as well as the Golden and White Shadows during the 1960s. The shadow was a result of the “Quartz Crisis” – the introduction of quartz watches which largely replaced mechanical watches during that decade.
His work with Universal laid the foundation of future collaborations with prominent brands throughout Europe. It is widely known that his wife, Evelyne Genta who was Monaco’s Consul General in London back then, confirmed that he contributed to the creation of the Omega Seamaster and the Constellation – the bulk of successful sports watches that are sold today. In the early years of his career, Genta also designed Patek Philippe’s hugely popular model, the Golden Ellipse. He went on to collaborate with iconic brands like Chopard, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet, Seiko along with his much lauded association with the Confrérie Horlogère of Mathias Buttet. He designed approximately 100,000 different watches, including some of the most celebrated timepieces of history.
There is an often-told legend about the creation of the Royal Oak model. Genta drew the idea for his design model after being inspired by a diver wearing a traditional helmet which was attached to his suit by eight screws. This was rendered into the design of the iconic watch which features an octagonal shape with eight screws on the bezel. The notion was bold for those times, a house that was known for their delicate gold watches producing a steel watch that was more expensive than the gold ones. Audemars Piguet’s CEO, Georges Golay had stated, “Royal Oak is not an Audemars Piguet. Today, it has become our identity.” Genta later said that the Royal Oak was the masterpiece of his career, and its arrival evidently changed the dynamics of the watch industry as seen today.
Another interesting anecdote is the inspiration behind the first Bulgari Bulgari, an ancient Roman coin on which an image of the Roman emperor was engraved in a circle. Genta experimented with this design element on the watch’s bezel which displays the two “Bulgari” illustrations. Over its 36 years of existence, the Bulgari Bulgari has only undergone minute modifications to suit contemporary aesthetics and remains one of their most popular models of our times.
Genta also executed specially commissioned pieces for members of the royal families including Prince Rainier III of Monaco, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and King Hassan II of Morocco. The Queen of England and King Juan Carlos of Spain were also often seen wearing his creations. Apart from royalty his clients also included well known musicians, professional athletes and movie stars. He has also designed the most extensively sold watch – a Timex, which sold a record number of 30,000,000 copies.
In the latter half of his career, Genta began focusing on time pieces that were created under his own brand name. The Quantieme Perpetual and the Jumping Hour models are a classic example of his brilliance. Throwing light on his design philosophy Genta stated that “many of my watches represent the rupture between a brand’s past and its future.”
He also distributed a capsule collection of Disney character watches which were designed in Le Brassus, Switzerland. The dials consisted of images of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Scrooge and Goofy. In 1994, he designed the world’s most complicated watch – Grande Sonnerie Retro and priced it at approximately $2 million. Employing no external assistance, he often hand-designed the mechanics of his timepieces. Back then it took approximately 5 years to make a watch.
After his brand was bought over by Bulgari in 1999, Genta created a new enterprise called Gerald Charles. As of 2010 all of his models were marketed by Bulgari which was later acquired by the French conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) in 2011.
For the watch making world, Gerald Genta remains an ambassador of contemporary Haute Horlogerie, his legacy will enrich the creativity and vision of watch makers for generations to come.