The term ‘iconic’ has fast become a cliché in the horological community, having been overused, time and time again. However, one person, who undoubtedly deserves the description is Gerald Genta, arguably the most influential watch designer of the 20th century. We sat down with Evelyne Genta, the wife of the late designer, and the business force behind his creative energy, to discuss her husband’s legacy, and get her thoughts on the state of watch design today.
We touch upon Mr Genta’s creative process, his unique temperament (including telling a Vacheron Constantin executive that the brand was “beyond the age of senility”), and discover some of 4,200 designs he left behind, some of which - she believes - will one day see the light of day. From the Royal Oak to the Mickey Mouse watch, we get an insight into the mind of one of the greats.
What was your first impression of Gerald?
Well, when I first worked in London, I met Gerald at a dinner, and he introduced himself with the phrase, “My god, your watch is ugly” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Okay, not the best first impression…
And I thought, who is this rude man? I was wearing what I thought was a pretty decent Audemars Piguet, and I said so, to which he replied, “Not at all, the lugs are not as they should be, and the dial. God, the dial. Can’t you see the dial is awful?”.
The dream dinner party guest…
In the end, I got very upset and put it in my trouser pocket. Later, I put the trousers in the wash, with the watch in it. As you can imagine, watches don’t do too well in washing machines. It came out in little pieces, and I phoned up the people who had invited me to dinner to let them know that their very rude guest destroyed my watch.
I hope he replaced it?
Oh, years later, he replaced it with a Genta design…
A Gerald Genta design, for a racket inspired watch
What was his design process like?
He got bored with every watch that he designed. He made one, and then he wanted to do something else. This is why he was so creative. In a way, Gerald became a manufacturer of prototypes, that is why I have got so many of his designs.
And you had to counterbalance that?
When he set up his own brand, I was doing the commercial part of it all, and he was doing the creative, so we kept fighting each other all the time. If you were the client and you were asking for something, for example you liked a watch, but you wanted a green dial on it, I would say “Absolutely”, but he would go “Over my dead body” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Not the easiest person to work with?
My husband was fantastic, but he was so much trouble, you have no idea. On one occasion, a client wanted us to make weighing scales for him, in white gold and with a clock integrated into the design. And he wanted 70. Now remember, we had 200 workers to pay, and you know, we’re not Rolex, so for me every order mattered. I said, “What a wonderful idea”, and Gerald said, “Are you kidding me?”. He gets up, and walks to the other end of the room. The client understands he is a bit upset, so I reassure them, then walk to the end of the room and say, “Can you come back, please?”. He replied calmly, “I am in front of a Picasso époque bleu, I will never see such a beautiful painting again. Tell her to jump in the lake” [Laughs]
"He got bored with every watch that he designed. He made one, and then he wanted to do something else."
[Laughs] Not a man of compromise it sounds…
No, no, he wasn’t. He actually made me a Scrooge watch, that nobody else has.
Scrooge, yes, because he used to say I was the financial force in business, so he made me a Scrooge…
A unique, intricate design for a spoon, made for a client out of white gold
Whereas he was purely creative?
Yes, you see, to him his watches were art, this is what people don’t understand. He wasn’t going to sell you anything that he thought would spoil his design, whereas I would have been much more flexible. I needed to be.
For him, it was art above all else?
Oh yes. He would have told you that he couldn’t care less about watches, and he didn’t like to wear watches. He would call them useless, to which I always thought, no, they’re not useless, they allow us to live. But him, he said that if he had been in France, he would’ve done fashion, and if he had been in Italy, then he would have done cars. It was art.
So, it was contextual? He applied his genius to his context, and his context was watches…
It seems like he valued originality, as well…
Absolutely, we were once invited by Seiko, because we had a very good relationship with them, to Japan, to meet the designers. Once we arrived there, they had five designers, and the CEO of Seiko, presented him different watches they had designed. There was a translator with us, and Gerald says to the translator, “Please tell them this is a copy of a Rolex, this is a copy of a Longines, this is a copy of an Omega,” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Oh dear…
The translator goes entirely green, and says to me, “I can’t say that”, and he doesn’t, so Gerald goes to the designers, “Bad copy, bad”. He said to the CEO, “Tell them to throw away the watch book of Switzerland and to look at nature”. He never looked at other watches, but if he’d been in a room, he would remember the shape, or sometimes when we were in palaces in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, he would pick-up on things. He would think that’s an interesting corniche or some other detail, but he wouldn’t go around the Basel fair, looking at what others did.
"But him, he said that if he had been in France, he would’ve done fashion, and if he had been in Italy, then he would have done cars. It was art."
Evelyne Genta, in her office in London
Any designs in other fields he particularly respected?
He loved Ferrari. Absolutely loved it. His ultimate dream, which he never achieved, was to own a Ferrari Daytona. He loved it, not for the engine, but because he thought the lines were perfect. He claimed he wouldn’t have driven it, but rather put in his sitting room and have it swivel around on a platform, because he thought it was such a perfect, perfect shape.
What pushed him to eventually design under his own name?
It was because of the Japanese. He designed for Seiko, and one watch he designed for them, they advertised as having been designed by the guy who designed 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. You don’t write letters to the Japanese, so they said to my husband, “Make your own brand”.
Seems surprising they would want to hide it…
Yes, it upset him. In those days, being a designer wasn’t a glorified or respected profession. It was the manufacturers that mattered, but he felt, no, that’s not fair. Today they are all falling-over each other to say he designed them.
"In those days, being a designer wasn’t a glorified or respected profession. It was the manufacturers that mattered, but he felt, no, that’s not fair."
How was it first received?
Very badly, so badly you have no idea. The watch industry didn’t like it. I realised that we had very few friends, very rapidly.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, penned by Gerald Genta
It was contrarian?
Yes, I’ll tell you a story. When he started doing the Disney watches, he didn’t wake up one morning and think up the idea. The CEO of Walt Disney in those days loved Gerald Genta watches, so they collaborated on Mickey Mouse watches. That same year, at an exhibition called Montres et Bijoux, we arrived, and there we are between the Vacheron and Rolex booth.
As Gerald takes out his white gloves and puts his Mickey Mouse watch on display, the guy from Vacheron is having a heart attack, and says, “How can do you do that Mr. Genta, this is Switzerland. Why don’t you put up your beautiful perpetual calendar, this is embarrassing”. The guy from Rolex joins in, “Absolutely, you are disgracing Switzerland”.
I’m sure he took that well…
He replies, “I am disgracing Switzerland?”, and at that moment a Swiss television crew, hearing all the commotion, come over and start filming everything. Gerald says, “You don’t like this, Walt Disney gave more joy to the world than either of you ever will, so I’m leaving”. I’m standing next to him, and I’m stunned. I’m absolutely stunned. He’s put his white gloves on and he’s putting them away.
Quite the commotion!
Then Alain-Dominique Perrin from Cartier (formerly Head of the Board of Cartier) having heard the commotion, comes over and asks what’s going on? Gerald says, “These cretins, these idiots, they don’t want me”. Alain-Dominique says, “You’re absolutely right”. He pulls-out too.
Pierre-Alain Blum (former owner of Ebel), then decided to pull-out. The next morning it’s all over the front the front page of the Tribune de Genève. He loved that, absolutely loved that…
All publicity is good publicity?
Yes, I realised that later, I also realised that the Swiss industry is very slow to change…
A Gerald Genta Mickey Mouse watch, designed to commemorate Hong Kong’s handover to China
What do you make of watch design today?
Well, I think today what they’re missing is designers.
The way they design nowadays, a lot of the time, there are fifteen people around the table, and by the time they’ve gone around the fifteen, they think, “We’re doing the same watch as last year because really, let’s not even try”.
And great design gets distilled…
You have to trust the designer, and sometimes it works. Great designers do well when they are trusted.
A chronograph design for IWC
Or manufacturers look back at the past…
I wish they would not keep looking back, and dig up the old models. I wish they would make new shapes, wearable shapes, I really do. That’s what Gerald would have told you, there’s no point in repeating the past. He once told a guy at Vacheron, “Okay, you’ve been going for 125 years, but that’s beyond the age of senility” [Laughs]
"You have to trust the designer, and sometimes it works."
[Laughs] His usual tactful approach…
Yes, that made us another friend. I’ve got drawings here, some of his old designs, that I know would be really revolutionary.
One of the many intricate clocks penned by Genta during his career
A desk clock made for a Middle Eastern client, featuring diamond-set baby elephants
Is that in part why you decided to set up the Gerald Genta Heritage Association?
Well, first of all, I’ve decided that my husband’s name should get the credit that it deserves. Although I appreciate that Audemars Piguet, IWC, or Patek Philippe do it, it should also be done by us, by his family. And, yes, also because I do think that at some point, some of the designs deserve to see the light of day. I know the ones he wanted to carry on, and if one day I find the right person and the right manufacture, I still think that they will be realised. But only the day that I like the people.
The right partner to execute his design…
Yes, it can only be with the right partner, and up to now, everyone I have met seems to think I’m just a widower, that I don't get. That’s bad luck, because I was the financial part of it.
"I’ve got drawings here, some of his old designs, that I know would be really revolutionary."
What would it take to trust someone?
First of all, I’ve got to like them. I’ve also got to think that he would have liked them, because they’re not my designs, they’re his designs. So, if I give them or let someone use them, it must be the right person, and I’m not in a hurry.
I imagine he left behind a lot of drawings…
I’ve selected the ones that I hope will one day see the light of day, because I knew they were his favourites, there was a reason behind them and because they’re innovative. I know it. I can see it. For 33 years of marriage, every day, all my life was, “Evelyne, come and see this new design, what do you think?”, so I know which ones matter.
Discover more about the Gerald Genta Heritage Association, here.
Thank you to Mrs Genta for speaking to us