The Man, the myth, the Legend: Gerald Genta

Two of Gerald Genta's most iconic designs, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (Left) and the Patek Philippe Nautilus (Right).

Two of Gerald Genta's most iconic designs, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (Left) and the Patek Philippe Nautilus (Right).

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Arabic in the February issue of Alam Assaat Wal Moujawharat.

Gerald Genta was eighty years old when he died on the 17th August, 2011 and at the end of his life, he was more myth than man.

A freelance designer who wandered from brand to brand like a lone gunslinger in the Wild West. He could design classics overnight in his workshop or in five minutes at a restaurant table. From Rolex to Timex, Bulova to Breguet, Genta had worked with them all. In the last published interview before his death, he claimed to have designed over 100,000 watches. Whether that number is true or not isn't important. The fact that it's plausible speaks to his prolific portfolio.

The career of a great artist is seen through the lens of their greatest achievement. Gerald Genta will always be the designer of the Royal Oak and the Polerouter, not the Grand Sonnerie or Turbo. The Universal Geneve Polerouter and the Gerald Genta Grande Sonnerie were designed at opposite ends of Genta's career. One when he was a freelance designer, working for 15 Swiss Francs per design, and the other as the most celebrated watch designer in the world. It is clear from looking at these watches that two very different men designed them.

The Polarouter was a commemorative piece made in 1954 by Universal Geneve to honor the first commercial flight over the North Pole.

Genta's design is timeless; steel dauphine hands atop a minimalist dial surrounded by a raised chapter ring and all inside a 34.5mm case with beautiful bombe lugs. Renamed the Polerouter in 1955, the watch is one of Universal Geneve's most recognisable watches. Genta had been working with Audemars Piguet since 1953 but the Polerouter is considered his first success, even if he couldn't claim credit for it. It is a watch that can be worn for any occasion, with a pieces made in steel, gold plate and solid gold, with date and no-date models made. Whilst beautiful, the Polerouter was clearly designed from a brief asking for a stylish dress watch. As talented as Genta was, there were still design conventions that needed to be followed.

On the other hand, the Grande Sonnerie is true avant garde piece that gleefully strays from conventional design. The design is not timeless, and it can only be worn in the rarest of circumstances. It was designed by man whose reputation allowed certain eccentricities that a 23 year freelancer could never have. Only four pieces were made (One in yellow gold, one in pink gold, one in white gold and one in platinum) and for a time, it was the most complicated wristwatch in the world. The terraced, octagonal case with four crowns is as intricate as the dial is complex. The Grande Sonnerie has a Grande et Petite Sonnerie with Westminster chime, a minute repeater, perpetual calendar, leap year indicator, a second 24 hour time zone, a 48 hour power reserve indicator for the going and striking trains AND a one minute tourbillon regulator. To top it all off, Genta's name is written at 12 o'clock, not hidden behind a non-disclosure agreement.

By the time Genta was designing grand watches under his own name, he had reached the the pinnacle of his career. He had achieved what only a handful of designers have achieved, name recognition. The world saw something in his designs that demanded attention.

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Photo Courtesy of Antiqourum. 

Genta would sell Gerald Genta in 1998 to the Hourglass Group, a Singapore based watch company.

The new direction the company took did not please Genta so he was happy when Bvlgari bought Gerald Genta in 2000. Their results did not meet Genta's expectations, especially for a company that bore his name, and in 2001 he launched Gerald Charles. He would eventually sell Gerald Charles, only to work for them as a freelance designer.

It should be noted that Genta was a designer, not a watchmaker. His goldsmith training enabled him to craft cases but he always needed the expertise of another when making movements. The Grand Sonnerie's movement was designed by Pierre-Michel Golay, who had created some of Franck Muller's most desirable pieces. In a strange coincidence, this had not been the first time that Genta had worked with a man named Golay.  In 1970, Genta received a call from George Golay (No relation), the managing director of Audemars Piguet. Audemars Piguet were close to bankruptcy and needed something extraordinary to survive. Golay asked Genta to design a waterproof steel sports watch and he wanted it finished by the next day. Genta designed the Royal Oak in an overnight maelstrom of pencil and paper. It is now one of the most recognisable luxury watches in the world.

The watch ran contrary to everything that Audemars Piguet was known for.

A steel sports watch with an integrated bracelet and eight large screws visible on the octagonal bezel. The AP elders were not impressed but they had no choice but to gamble their company on this unproven design. Years later, the Director of the Audemars Piguet Museum, Martin Wehrli, would recall the product launch at Basel in 1972. "When we launched it, we had a corner booth and we had a small window in the corner on the main alley. This piece was put in a window and everybody saw it said that it was a tremendous piece and then they walked 10 meters on and said 'In six months we can buy them. They will be bankrupt".

The steel Royal Oak cost 3750 Swiss Francs when gold watches were selling for 850. It took over a year to sell the first 1000 Royal Oaks but it saved the company from bankruptcy. Whilst Genta's name was still kept from the public eye, the industry realised he was a force to be reckoned with. Six years later he designed the Patek Philippe Nautilus, another luxury steel sports watch that redefined luxury watchmaking.

The Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 37001. Photo courtesy of Antiquorum.

It could be argued that Genta's fame hinges on the fact that he is one of the few watch designers that we know by name. His name is known so it gets repeated as being 'the greatest' and a reputation snowballs from there. If we knew other designers names, maybe they'd be as famous? Yet finding out the name of a designer takes a lot of effort, especially when they aren't credited. It is Philipp Stern who is the inventor of the Nautilus according to the patent, not Genta. Even today there is no mention of Genta on the Patek Philippe website.

Genta's name was only discovered because his designs were so good, someone needed to know who made them

A Japanese watch magazine outed Genta as the designer of the Nautilus but he legally couldn't acknowledge his work. Watch brands were quick to show how forward thinking they were with IWC quickly publishing the fact that Genta had redesigned their Ingenieur line in the 1970s.

Funnily enough, the IWC Ingenieur was one of the watches that Genta had designed but never owned. He never owned a Cartier Pasha, a Breguet or a Van Cleef & Arpels either. He believed that watches were 'the antithesis of liberty' so his collection was small. He owned the first Nautilus and Royal Oak produced and even made a unique two-tone Royal Oak himself. He also owned a few prototypes of his later pieces, though he found the Gerald Charles Turbo too uncomfortable to wear.

Genta was nothing if not opinionated. He detested thick watches, he believed the Royal Oak Offshore ruined his design and he thought the Reverso case was too feminine to worn by a man. He was not without his regrets either as he always regretted never designing a Datejust. To him, it was the perfect watch.

With a career spanning over fifty years, there are a multitude of myths surrounding Genta. Some say as a young man he threw his goldsmith tools into the Rhone as an act of rebellion and frustration at not finding work. Forums whisper that he had first designed the Royal Oak for Bulova but they turned him down. One now debunked myth said he had designed the Vacheron Constantin Reference 222. (He didn't, it was a young Jorg Hysek).

Whether Genta did throw his tools into the Rhone is irrelevant.

His work as an anonymous freelancer speaks more to his determined and anti-authoritarian personality than any myth could. Yet these myths thrive. Not because of a desire to spread misinformation but because they augment the legend of Gerald Genta. As much as watch geeks love to talk about serial numbers, case sizes and calibers, ultimately we love a good tale. Genta's life story provides us with a universal story that is so relevant to our passion. A man from nothing who revolutionised an industry by sheer innovation and his stubbornness to never conform.