Gérald Genta

« Ce n’est ni un art, ni un mode d’expression, mais une démarche créative méthodique qui peut être généralisée à tous les problèmes de conception. » Roger Tallon

Articles are dedicated to him in a wide range of press outlets: from Vogue to Le Journal du Luxe, A Collected Man, The New York Times, Robb Report, Madame Figaro, Highsnobiety The Financial Times, or Forbes - to name just a few.Gérald Genta in his studio, with the courtesy of Gérald Genta Heritage

How do we explain Gérald Genta's success in such porous and independent fields as fashion, finance, and the watchmaking industry?

Does his fame still endure today thanks to his independence, or his iconic designs, such as the Royal Oak and the Nautilus?

One thing is certain, Gérald Genta is a pioneer in his field: watch design.
Avant-garde, we will study the journey of the man nicknamed by Christie's as the "Fabergé of watches", and try to understand the keys to the success of his design, which revolutionized the watchmaking world and continues to be a reference, with variations still commercialized to this day.

Everyone already knows more or less the story of the Royal Oak, designed in one night, inspired by the visible bolts on the joint of a diving helmet and the rest of a vintage diver's outfit; or that of the Nautilus, sketched on a napkin in a restaurant in Basel, during the fair, not far from the Stern family, whose shape is inspired by that of a transatlantic porthole, also featuring two hinges on either side of the bezel... two watches influenced by the maritime world, whose waterproofing was a source of inspiration.

In addition to observing his environment, let's explore unconventional perspectives and analyse his creations within the historical context of design.

Design as we conceive it today was born with the industrial revolution (1851-1914). It marked the advent of mass production, where the shape of the object was conceived for utility and cost-effective production.

It all began at the London World's Fair in 1851, a project by Henry Cole aimed at combining arts and techniques through industrial products. One name among others marked history: that of Michael Thonet, master cabinetmaker.
He presented 20 years of research on wood bending, a technique that involves deforming a piece of wood to give it a curved shape. The enthusiastic reception of this new method gave him international renown and the ambition to respond to this success with industrial production. His chair No. 14 marked the beginning of formal intelligence in design.
Composed of 6 pieces assembled together by screws, the chair was designed for large-scale, modular, and profitable production.

THONET Michaël, Chaise n°14, 1859-1860
Musée d'art moderne et contemporain de Saint-Etienne Métropole
Photography credit for the image : Yves Bresson / Musée d'art moderne et contemporain de Saint-Etienne Métropole

Reading the word "screws," we instantly visualize the Royal Oak, but we'll come back to that.

Let's start by contextualizing the first commission from a manufacturer given to Gérald Genta, at the age of 23.

It was the Universal Genève Polerouter. Introduced in the 1950s to commemorate the first historic commercial flight route over the North Pole, from Copenhagen to Los Angeles. The watch had to withstand the magnetic field due to its passage over the North Pole. It was produced in several variations for 15 years. The case was round, and the dial resembled a compass, in a minimalist style.

Universal Geneve, Polerouter, with the courtesy of Joseph Bonnie

In the chronology of design, it was the period of the Ulm School (1953-1968), descended from the Bauhaus, where design had to adapt to individual needs at the expense of ornamentation, emphasizing the principle of object truthfulness.

Otl Aicher, study and analysis of Lufthansa's visual identity with the participation of its students, Ulm School, 1963, with the courtesy of Art design Tendance

Let's also remember that this was the period of the highest economic growth in the most developed countries: the post-war boom, from 1945 to 1973, ending with the oil crisis. Purchasing power was at its peak. The economy responded to consumer desires rather than needs. Marketing strategies were put in place, combined with the development of technology and the miniaturization of electrical components: the target was clear, the market had to appeal to the new generation.

It was against this backdrop that in 1970, Georges Golay (1921-1987), CEO of Audemars Piguet, was suggested by his new agents to create a steel, sporty, and elegant model that could appeal to the modern man. Unofficially, the agents were also looking to compete with the success of steel sports watches of the time from Omega or Rolex, and wanted to resort to mass production to supply the numerous points of sale.

The rest of the story is written.

"Mr. Genta, I need a steel sports watch that has never been done before, I want it to be something totally new and waterproof" & 

"I want the design by tomorrow morning"

1972. Royal Oak display

Finely brushed aluminum curves upwards.
Three examples of the 5402 model are displayed, along with two boxes made especially for this model. September 1972, Comptoir Suisse, Lausanne. 
Audemars Piguet Archives.

Gérald Genta's design genius is revealed in the 8 visible screws of the Royal Oak bezel, embracing the spirit of assembly and industrialization of the watch. But not only that, the integrated bracelet also gives it a true jewelry dimension. He thus establishes a perfect cohesion between the history of jewelry and watchmaking at Audemars Piguet, and the modernism of manufacturing. 

Technical drawing of the Royal Oak Ref. 5402
Archives Audemars Piguet

Indeed, let's remember that Gérald Genta comes from a background in jewelry and goldsmithing, and that after obtaining his diploma in the 1950s, he worked for a time in a bracelet factory called Ponti Gennari.

In the same vein, the Nautilus for Patek Philippe fits its time, at the dawn of the first high-speed train in France in 1981, the watch features an aerodynamic bezel whose angles have been smoothed. The integrated bracelet is again employed by Genta to bring the dimension of preciousness, luxury.

The consumer financial model is changing customs and above all fashion. Men want to display their social success; the modern watch is no longer a useful object but one of desire.

In parallel, in 1969, Gérald Genta embarked on creating his own watchmaking company.
His style fits into the Art Deco era (1920-1930), with the use of geometric shapes for decorative purposes. He appealed to a very ostentatious audience; among his biggest clients were the king of Morocco, the sultans of Oman and Brunei, the king of Spain, the king of Saudi Arabia, the queen mother of England as well as prominent businessmen, whose wealth had to be emphasized by ornamentation, precious metals, and complications.
In 1994, he produced the "Grande Sonnerie," the most complicated watch of the time.

So, there is a real dichotomy between his avant-garde and modern design and his creations whose style, anterior to his time, leans towards the world of jewelry despite the inclusion of great complication. This dichotomy is even more pronounced today in comparison to the value of pieces on the current market. Among the sales records, we see a steel Royal Oak, reference 5402ST A2, sold for $1,100,000 at Phillips, and on the other hand, a Gérald Genta, minute repeater skeleton in platinum sold for $104,791 at Christie's.

Design is the bridge between art and industry that Gérald Genta has borrowed to make his mark on watchmaking history. His most famous designs include the Constellation (1959) for Omega, the Pasha (1985) for Cartier and the King Midas (1962) for Rolex.

But contrary to what he said in his last famous interview with Constantin Stikas for Very Important Watch magazine, he did not invented the profession of watch designer. Because at the time, three contemporaries were practicing the same profession, but did not enjoy the same credit as he did : Gilbert Albert, Jean-Claude Gueit and Jacqueline Dimier. The four of them can be considered the inventors of the profession.

In any case, his imagination was never satiated. His creative frenzy enabled him to create an indefinite number of model drawings. Sold for CHF15 in the 1950s, his wife paid tribute to him in 2022, in aid of the foundation in his name, by auctioning a selection of them at Sotheby's. The Royal Oak sketch sold for over half a million Swiss francs. By giving his designs an NFT, his wife offered him the chance to be a forerunner once again for his time, and forever in the metaverse.