January 2022 13 Min Read

Gérald Genta: Beyond the Royal Oak and Nautilus

By A Collected Man

The designer has become an elevated figure in our ever-more visual world. Graphic artists are achieving overnight success through the creation of NFT artworks, while those who tell us what to wear in the realm of fashion appear to be in higher demand than ever before. As in many aspects, the watch world appears to be a few decades behind. It’s only in the last 20 years or so that designing watches has become a desired, lucrative or lauded role.

Such was the struggle of a young Gérald Genta. Half Swiss, half Italian, he seemed to effortlessly straddle the aesthetic and horological worlds better than any who came before – yet there was a time where he would have to sell his designs for 10 CHF a piece. As this suggests, there is far more to the creative work of Genta than the Royal Oak and Nautilus that he is so well known for today. Whether it was the work he was carrying out for other manufacturers, the vision he pushed forward with his own brand, or the limited runs and one-offs he put together for clients, his creativity and eye for beauty never ceased.

The Man Behind the Designs

“He was an artist first and a watch designer second,” Alexia Genta, Gérald’s daughter, tells us. His artistic bent was immediately apparent – in fact, if you walk into his wife Evelyne’s current office, the first thing you will likely see is a large oil-on-canvas painting that he did. “He would paint every morning,” Evelyne tells us, “and then for a period of time he would do a painting in the morning and a watch in the afternoon.” While many artists might have an unfair reputation for leading a lax lifestyle, only creating when inspiration strikes, this could never have been said for Genta. His work ethic and drive were unmatched in his space.

Evelyne Genta in her office, sitting in front of a painting done by Genta himself, courtesy of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association.

Those who have read into Genta’s past will understand the origin of this drive: he had a very poor upbringing, once telling Evelyne, “I know the taste of poverty.” When he was first starting out as a watch designer, he would get in his car and drive around the major watchmaking regions of Switzerland, from La Chaux-de-Fonds to Le Brassus, and anywhere else that had a workshop willing to buy. According to Evelyne, often he would knock on the door and the watchmaker would open a little hatch, through which he would pass a stack of designs. After some time they would return, hand back any designs they didn’t want and pay Genta 10 CHF for each of the ones they wanted. He would do this until he had 1,000 CHF and then come home. It was during this period that he built up a reputation in the watch industry for being this crazy artist in a car, with great designs.

It was this incredible ability to produce high-quality designs at a high frequency that underpin all the legendary stories that we all know about Genta today, whether it be sketching the original Nautilus on a napkin while at dinner, or taking just one night to come up with the Royal Oak. “Some days he would design two watches and then at dinner he would ask you which one you preferred,” Evelyne tells us. “And you had to make sure you said the right one,” adds Alexia.

Gérald and Evelyne Genta at an event, courtesy of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association.

It was no secret that Genta was notoriously hard to please. “There was one year at the Basel Fair where we were walking in and someone came running up to us,” Evelyne recalls. “He had a watch on a tray, desperate to show it to Gérald. He looks [at it] while still walking and says, ‘It’s shit’, and carries on. I told him, ‘You can’t say that’, and he just replied, ‘If it’s shit, it’s shit – what else can I say?’”

Genta was incredibly passionate about his work, but also loved good design in all aspects of life. He had a certain admiration for cars, once even trying to convince his wife to get a model of the Daytona race track installed in their living room, as he thought it was the perfect shape. While Evelyne was able to put up with her fair share while living with an eccentric creative, this one wouldn’t get past her.

He was, in many ways, extremely classically minded. As we will go on to discuss, he was a vanguard for the return of traditional complications in watchmaking after the Quartz Crisis. He was also a lover of classical music and opera – although Alexia did tell us of one occasion in the 1990s where he only listened to Snoop Dogg and gangster rap for about two weeks straight. While this influence never seemingly made it into a watch design, it’s amusing to see how hip-hop culture has so quickly adopted his most legendary designs as status symbols.

Genta on one of his many trips tp Japan, one of his favourite countries, courtesy of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association.

Besides music and cars, Genta was also a lover of fine wine and became good friends with Baron Philippe de Rothschild. In the 1970s he would go on to design golden label holders for Château Mouton Rothschild that could be taken from the bottle and hung over the decanter. Besides the excellent wine that would fill each of these bottles, each year an artist was chosen to decorate the label, with names such as Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, and even Genta’s idol, Pablo Picasso. This was seemingly the perfect combination of all Genta’s loves, with the fine wine in the bottle paired with his design framing the artist’s work who had been selected to adorn that year’s vintage.

The Watches We Don't Talk About, But Should

All of these things fall secondary to Genta’s main passion, which was, of course, watches. There are possibly thousands of his designs out there in the real world being worn by collectors today who might be completely unaware of the fact that they were sold for 10 CHF a piece by a young Gérald Genta. As his fame has risen in recent years, so has the recognition for his more obscure designs. That being said, there are a fair few that we feel don’t quite get the recognition they deserve.

The filing cabinet that houses just some of Genta’s designs. On the furthest right, we see some familiar names: the Royal Oak, Cartier Pasha, etc.

The first watch that we should mention is often thought about as Genta’s real first break: the Universal Genève Polerouter, introduced in 1954. This was one of the first times that Genta was approached by a brand to produce a completely original design, rather than him having to pitch drawings he had made previously. This was a big step forward for him, almost providing some form of confirmation that his hard work was starting to come to fruition, even at the young age of 23.

This watch manages to combine classical elements while being tough enough to remain on the wrists of the SAS (Scandinavian Airline Systems) pilots as they flew the first commercial polar routes, which this piece was intended to commemorate. At this time, the watch needed to not only be precise, but also extremely resistant to magnetic fields, as this became a real issue when flying directly over the North Pole.

In the last couple of years, the Polerouter has seen a real resurgence in popularity, with collectors poring over the many different variations that were produced between 1954 and 1969. While the original model might not have been incredibly innovative in terms of its styling, Genta’s ability to take classical elements and add his own unique flare certainly shone through. From the fluted ring around the dial to the trapezoidal date window, the attention to detail is clearly well above what you might expect from a young 20-something travelling the Swiss cantons.

Up close with two variants of the Polerouter – with arguably one of the better designed date window around, courtesy of Sotheby's.

The next watch we’ll talk about represents a body of work carried out by Genta after his success with Universal Genève. He began to work closely with Omega, penning a number of designs, mainly updating various models. This all happened behind closed doors, with no official communication from the brand naming Genta as the designer for any of these pieces.

Perhaps the most significant model that he worked on was the Constellation. In an article written in 2009, where the author was able to show various designs of the model to Genta, he confirmed that he worked on more than one Constellation. Whether he introduced the pie-pan dial, we’re not sure, but he was behind the C-shape or C-type cases, which introduced a tonneau outline to the family. A similar case design can be seen in a Universal Genève Shadow model that Genta is also unofficially linked to.

The “c-shaped” version of the Omega Constellation, courtesy of ChronoTimepieces.

This update to the Constellation line happened at the end of the 1950s and into the early 1960s and was joined by his work on the Seamaster Polaris. This singular two-tone sports watch design shows a fantastic progression of Genta’s sports-watch aesthetic, as it evolved over the next decade to become the Royal Oak and Nautilus. Seeing these earlier pieces offers an interesting insight into the evolution of that thinking, as he begins to explore the various configurations an integrated bracelet watch could take.

While the sports watches that Genta produced for Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe garner most of the attention – and even, to a certain extent, the Ingenieur he designed for IWC – there is a little-known piece that he designed, after all of these, for Seiko: the Credor Locomotive. With its octagonal case shape and exposed bezel screws, this model is classical Genta, and pays homage to his most successful designs. Genta had a very close relationship with Seiko and the Locomotive was personally commissioned by the brand’s president, Reijiro Hattori.

Genta’s style and signature geometric shapes can be clearly seen in the IWC Ingenieur and the Seiko Credor Locomotive, courtesy of Seiko Design.

Genta and Hattori were so close that Hattori suggested that the designer should branch out on his own, lighting the spark that would later become the Gérald Genta brand. As Evelyne Genta recalls, Seiko once advertised a Genta-designed watch as having been produced by the same person who was behind the Royal Oak. “In those days – and we go back a long, long time – Audemars Piguet took offence at that and they wrote a rude letter to the Japanese,” she says. “You don’t write letters to the Japanese, so they said to my husband, ‘Make your own brand.’”

Genta’s integrated bracelet designs didn’t end with this sporty aesthetic: he made use of this feature to great effect for Rolex in the King Midas model. Influenced by the silhouette of a Greek temple, the asymmetric case shape is certainly unique in the Rolex catalogue. Introduced in 1964, this was one of the very few Rolex models that were strictly limited in their production. Despite it only measuring just 27mm across, this was one of the heaviest watches on the market, thanks to the entire bracelet and case being produced in solid gold. It also made use of the newly introduced sapphire crystal. Genta had said that watch designers should look outside the horological world for inspiration, and he practised what he preached. You can also see him take a lot of cues from nature, with natural forms appearing all over his work.

A vintage advertisement for the Rolex Midas, courtesy of Watch Brother's London.

Of course, it wasn’t just Greek mythology that influenced Genta’s designs. One of his most controversial releases was a line of Disney-inspired models. It started with a Bambi watch that was gifted to then Disney CEO Michael Eisner as a present for his mother. After Genta completed this commission, he asked Eisner if he could create a line of watches, limited in production, that had Disney characters on the dial. He agreed and, in 1984, the first line of character watches was displayed at the Montres et Bijoux fair in Geneva.

So unexpected and unwelcome were these whimsical designs that brands such as Rolex and Vacheron Constantin called them a disgrace upon their unveiling. Genta’s stubborn nature kicked in again here, so he stormed out of the fair, passing Alain Dominique Perrin on the way out, who asked what the matter was. Genta replied, “These idiots don’t understand anything. We’re off.” All of this was covered live on Swiss TV – and after Genta left, so did Cartier and Ebel. The next day, they found themselves on the front page of Swiss newspapers, all because Genta believed that combining Disney characters and high watchmaking would bring people joy.

One of Genta’s designs incorporating the famous cartoon mouse, incorporating a retrograde display, courtesy of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association.

One person who was brought great joy by their Disney watch was Genta’s daughter, Alexia, who was given one of these as a gift when she was still a child: “I think I was allowed to wear it twice before mum put it in the safe.” Possibly thanks to this precautionary thinking from Evelyne, Alexia still has the watch to this day and it remains a personal favourite. Disney characters were a rich source of inspiration, and would go on to appear in a number of faces, designs, and complications in the range. These included multiple retrograde models that had Mickey Mouse sporting a golf club as the minute hand, and Donald Duck holding a baseball bat.

A more classical example of Genta’s watchmaking, the Cartier Pasha was produced as a white-label piece from his own factory. When he was tasked with modernising a design that was 50 years old, he combined aspects that marked it as classically Cartier with components that made it feel like a fresh piece of design, which was very much in the creative spirit of the Parisian house. One of the most outstanding models from this new line was the perpetual calendar, housing a moon phase in which the night sky was made from lapis lazuli and the moon from gold. This helped it stand out from more traditional pieces that would only have this component painted on. Opting to use precious and semi-precious stones whenever he incorporated colour onto a dial became somewhat of a calling card of Genta’s designs. From using onyx inserts on the markers for the Polerouter to casting a whole dial in bright-red coral, he did everything he could to stay away from painted or artificial colours.

Some of the equestrian-based designs in which Genta planned on incorporating colour into the dial.

Once Genta had opened his own manufacture, starting with just seven people and growing to 250 at its height, they were soon making their own models while also producing pieces, such as the above-mentioned Pasha, for other brands. The Genta-branded pieces of this time demonstrate his real passion for complications and classical horology. According to Evelyne, it was the first brand to reintroduce perpetual calendars after the Quartz Crisis; the same with retrogrades, minute repeaters and grand sonneries. It goes to show how he was never trying to keep up with the competition – he was one step ahead.

All of these grand complications were paired with Genta’s original designs, often utilising his favourite shape, the octagon. Genta was so obsessed with this eight-sided look that he even had Evelyne’s wedding ring made into an octagon. “I think if he could have had the whole world an octagon, he would have,” Evelyne tells us. While many will be familiar with this shape thanks to the Royal Oak, Genta carried it over into many of his other designs.

Various ways in which Genta integrated the octagonal shape and precious stone dials such as coral into his designs.

While many brands often fail to pay enough attention to ladies’ and jewellery watches, this was not the case for Genta. He had a background in jewellery and his passion for design would not let him simply make a smaller version of his watches for women. This has led to some of his most breathtaking creations coming in this category. Along with being the only designer at his company, Genta was also the only one allowed to pick out the gemstones that would go into each piece. He said that he could see the colours far more clearly than anyone else could.

Outside of watches, Genta would also apply his mind to all sorts of objects. “He did forks, spoons, eyeglasses. He even did a sculpture,” Evelyne tells us. “He always did watches because he was Swiss. If he was fully Italian, he would have done cars.” Alas, there has never been a Genta and Ferrari vehicle collaboration, although we know what he would have made if he had the chance to put a car on a watch, thanks to the records kept by Evelyne.

A conceptual design from Genta combining cars and watches, with the car balanced above the dial.

Alongside his ladies’ and jewellery watches, Genta also designed traditional jewellery. However, he seemed to have done this without the same enthusiasm that he showed for his mechanical concepts. “What he didn’t like in the jewellery world was when it became an investment,” Evelyne tells us. We can only imagine what Genta would have thought of the current state of the watch market, with certain examples of his designs reaching dizzying heights and watches being bought just to be kept in a safe.

His Own Manufacture

It’s fair to say that Genta was an independent spirit. He liked to go down his own path, and believed, more than anyone else, in his own vision. Today, having his own manufacture and brand would be interpreted as a natural extension of his nature, but this assumption would have been much harder to make 30 to 40 years ago, before watchmakers such as F.P. Journe or Kari Voutilainen normalised launching your own company. Evelyne told us that he began with just seven other craftsmen, making his designs a reality.

The Genta manufacture after it began to truly flourish, courtesy of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association..

This workshop steadily grew to accommodate a workforce of 250 at its very peak. While they were making watches with the Genta name on them, they would also produce pieces for other brands. These white-label watches went to brands such as Cartier (the aforementioned Pasha), Graff and Van Cleef & Arpels. According to Evelyne, there was a time where all of Graff’s watches were made by Genta’s workshop.

While Genta would work away on his designs and picking out the specific gemstones needed for his pieces, Evelyne helped to ensure the rest of the company ran smoothly, securing contracts with their various clients and making sure Genta didn’t give anyone too heavy a discount. “We had one client who would never allow me to come and see him with Gérald,” Evelyne tells us. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘[Gérald and I] have such a good connection that he would always give me a discount, but if you came, you’d stop him!’ That’s just who Gérald was – he thought you should have a watch if you deserve it.”

The Gérald Genta brand at Baselworld in 1987, which was designed to look like a replica of the real factory, down to the maplewood, pipes, and windows found there, courtesy of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association..

Unfortunately, having an entire brand being supported by the creative output of one man is not entirely sustainable. It reached a point where Genta and Evelyne were faced with having to sell the company so that he could enjoy his life a little more, rather than being tied to the brand. The Gentas had a fantastic relationship with the Tay family of The Hour Glass, one of the largest Asian retailers for high-end and independent watches. They agreed to sell the company to the Tays in 1996. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the last time the company traded hands and just four years later it would be bought, along with Daniel Roth, by Bulgari, who still own it today. As Evelyne told us, this was no fault of the Tays, but it had become obvious that you couldn’t run a Swiss watch company from Singapore.

Life After The Sale

Just because Genta was no longer directly involved with his own company anymore doesn’t mean he hung up his compass and paint brushes. Alongside his Gerald Charles venture, according to his wife, he would continue to design a new watch every day, never stopping or wishing to move away from what he had been doing for the best part of 50 years. “It was like some kind of obsession,” she says. “He would create hypothetical designs, asking himself what he would make if Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet called him up and wanted a new piece.”

A snapshot of Genta’s prolific output, always focusing on his first love, watches.

His output was so prolific that in an interview a couple of years before his death in 2011, Genta was quoted as saying that he had probably produced more than 100,000 watch designs in his life. Obviously, there is no way to confirm or deny this number, but today, Evelyne, her daughter and the Gérald Genta Heritage Association have managed to file, organise, and categorise more than 3,000 of his designs, from pieces he produced for brands that were made into real watches, to those that remained completely hypothetical. A selection of these original drawings will be going on sale at Sotheby’s later this year in a series of sales.

It might be easy to think that after all the success that Genta achieved in his life, that he would have had very few regrets. However, Evelyne believed that he always wished he was given the opportunity to run Audemars Piguet – a brand that he kept very close to his heart, and did a lot for. However, he felt like he was always treated as a bit of an outsider, due to being half Italian and not from Le Brassus; the brand was quite an insular one through the 20th century and viewed anyone from outside of their small town with caution. Unfortunately, he was never given the chance, and we can only imagine the direction such a brand would have taken had someone as creative as Genta had more influence.

Given that he is now the most famous watch designer of all time, it is surprising how many people know him for only two watches. While those two may have had a far bigger impact than anything else he penned, it’s a shame that more of his ideas and creations are not able to share the spotlight. While we have been able to uncover some of his more esoteric designs here, we would never be able to cover all of them in one article. Not only would that be far too long to read, but it would never be complete, as so much of his work has sadly been lost to time. This makes the ones we do know about all the more precious.

We would like to thank Evelyne and Alexia Genta along with the Gérald Genta Heritage Association for their help and support on this article, highlighting some of the master designer’s forgotten works.