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Gerald Genta: A Revolutionary or the Victim of Hagiography?

Gerald Genta: A Revolutionary or the Victim of Hagiography?

Gerald Genta

The subject of Gerald Genta is a tricky one. This designer, once the creator of the altogether-conventional Universal Genève Polerouter, has become at once synonymous with the creation of the now-iconic Audemars Piguet Royal Oak in 1972 and the Patek Philippe Nautilus in 1976. In the process, he has also become an untouchable figure in horological canon as a virtual demigod. However, was Gerald Genta truly the visionary and revolutionary which he is seen as or is his recent fame the product of the current culture around watches?

Gerald Genta’s Iconic Designs and their Relative Value

Throughout Genta’s life, his work on watches was truly prolific. According to Gerald Genta Heritage, he designed over 100,000 watches during his career which spanned from the 1950s to his death in 2011. However, Genta’s skill was evident even from a young age when he was the man to put forward the successful design for the 1954 Universal Genève Polerouter. In this endeavour, the Polerouter was perhaps the perfect watch against to Gerald Genta could put his name. Of course, it was his work in the 1970s which truly made him famous and so, before analysing his overall relative importance, it is worth considering a few of of Gerald Genta’s most important designs.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak – 1972

Gerald Genta Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Extra Thin
The 2018 ref. 15202IP in titanium and platinum | Credit: Audemars Piguet Holding SA

If Gerald Genta’s revolutionary gift for watch design was represented by one watch, this would be it. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was the product of Georges Golay, this failing brand’s managing director, approaching Genta on the eve of the Basel Fair on 1971. In a legendary moment of inspiration, Genta designed the Royal Oak in just one night in response to call for a luxury steel watch from the Italian market.

When released in 1972, the design was radical. It resolved the integrated bracelets experimented with by Genta in the late 1960s and transplanted an external design — in this case, the screws securing a diving helmet — into the form of a watch. In fact, the construction in steel was so new that the prototypes were white gold for its softness. With its brushed surfaces and sharp angles as well as its totally new ‘tapisserie’ dial, the Royal Oak was the opus of Gerald Genta’s work.

Inevitably, it wasn’t initially popular and required salesmanship and advertising just as forceful as its design was in order to get the ball going. Even if one looks at the fact that Jean-Claude Biver has encouraged reverence for this design is recent years, one cannot dismiss a watch which worried Patek Philippe as anything less than an unqualified masterpiece.

Patek Philippe Nautilus – 1976

Gerald Genta Patek Philippe Nautilus
Credit: Sotheby’s

Considered a direct response to the Royal Oak or, at least, to the fact that Genta had envisioned a potential future of luxury watchmaking in a time of flux for the Swiss watch industry, the Patek Philippe Royal Oak was Genta’s second big hit. Designed in, according to Genta, 5 minutes, the Nautilus was a refinement of the same concepts which created the Royal Oak.

The blue dial and rounded hands were refined. The case was rounded and cleaned-up and the bracelet was simplified. Most importantly, though, it still appealed to the market opened by the Royal Oak and, this time, drew from the construction of a hinged porthole. Improvement was seen here too as the water resistance increased and the watch adopted a more approachable format. Perhaps this should be viewed as a Royal Oak Mark II.

Universal Genève Polerouter – 1954

Gerald Genta Universal Geneve Polerouter
Credit: Christie’s

In 1954, SAS (Overseas Scandinavian Airlines System) completed the first flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen which travelled over the North Pole. The result was a historic advance in commercial aviation and one to be commemorated by the creation of a bespoke Universal Genève to mark the occasion and to equip the pilots. Aside from this frankly phenomenal occasion to design a watch, the Polerouter was also the watch which popularised (albeit in later iterations) Universal’s micro-rotor movement. Selected as the designer was a 23-year old Gerald Genta.

Ultimately, the Polerouter, its twisted lugs, multi-layered dial and dauphine hands have become the stuff of legend amongst collectors due to their beauty even if they were not unprecedented. All of these features appeared on watches over the previous decade, yet Genta’s ability to unify them must have showed considerable promise. However, it is vitally important to remember that the value of this design has only been widely recognised in historical and monetary value after the re-popularisation of later examples of Gerald Genta’s revolutionary designs. I will come back to this point later.

Omega Constellation

Gerald Genta Omega Constellation
Credit: Stetz & Co. Inc

The Omega Constellation, whether an elegant dress watch from the mid-20th century or the decidedly ’80s ‘Manhattan’, the Constellation is an inimitable part of the Omega collection. From its inception, the Constellation represented the most accurate and refined dress watch produced by Omega. Genta’s involvement with the Constellation is, by far, the most mysterious as he himself stated that it was not with Omega that he worked but with its suppliers. The result is that we do not know for sure exactly how much of the Constellation line originated in Gerald Genta’s mind.

What we do know is that he did design the ref. 168.005: possibly the most iconic Constellation of them all. Of course, we don’t know whether he did, indeed, design the iconic ‘pie-pan’ dial of this inimitable watch but, through the angled lugs, the sharpness of the edges and the faceted crown show Genta’s thought process towards his 1970s golden era.

Rolex 5100 – 1970

Gerald Genta Rolex 5100
Credit: Haute Horlogerie

Offered only in gold (yellow or white), for the highest price in the Rolex catalogue and with a ticket to a factory tour, the Rolex 5100 was the ultimate Rolex. With an integrated bracelet and unique case design, the 5100 is now known to be the work of Gerald Genta and it really does show. Technically speaking, this watch was one of the most important watches ever made by Rolex.

It offered not only a totally wild and unprecedented case (something which the market was, arguably, not ready for) but the first Rolex sapphire crystal and the only Rolex to feature Switzerland’s answer to Japanese quartz innovation: the Beta 21 movement. This watch was, at best, an exercise in seeing what Rolex could produce with only 1,000 pieces made, yet it was on this watch that Genta cut his integrated bracelet teeth. The 5100 desperately deserves its own article, but this can be regarded as one of Genta’s most important, if not terribly successful designs.

Bulgari Bulgari – 1977

When the Bulgari Bulgari was released in 1977, Genta revived this Italian brand by taking inspiration from a Roman coin. This design is profoundly different to those seen earlier in this article as it attempts something very different: to celebrate the brand.

Gerald Genta Bulgari
Credit: Bulgari S.p.a.

Bulgari is, at heart, a jewellery brand and it has only been recently that they have gained serious credentials in the watchmaking department. In this respect, Genta had a different task to complete. Here, he simplified the design drastically to a circle with projecting lugs and the ‘Bvlgari’ text across both halves of the bezel. In essence, Genta had created the ultimate fashion watch.

Of course, to a modern eye and in light of Bulgari’s most recent offerings, this ’70s design feels outdated. Nonetheless, it was influential to the point of maintaining this historic brand’s watchmaking interests yet whilst moving away from Genta’s most recognisable designs. In the latter capacity, this was a definite turning-point for Gerald Genta.

IWC Ingenieur SL – 1976

Gerald Genta IWC Ingenieur
Credit: Sotheby’s

In many ways, Genta’s duo of luxury steel watches should have been a trilogy with the IWC Ingénieur SL or Steel Line launched in 1976. Chronologically, it presented a curious parallel sports watch to the Nautilus in Gerald Genta’s catalogue. The aesthetic was more brutal and the lines more aggressive in an attempt to breathe life into IWC’s famous anti-magnetic collection.

Designed for a different, more accessible price range to the Nautilus, the Ingénieur SL gave IWC a new direction and introduced their customers to an aesthetic which has remained in their line. Even so, this watch shows that Genta’s integrated bracelet aesthetic, whilst undoubtedly an influence to models produced after the SL, was beginning to lose its way and move away from its greatest movements.

The Problem: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

Credit: Gérald Genta Héritage

After recounting these successes of Gerald Genta’s career, it may seem odd that I would now like to bring it into question. However, luxury industries often search for saviour figures to frame their history and lineage. Such figures include Jean-Claude Biver, Philippe DuFour and Hans Wilsdorf. I must stress that, often, they are very well justified and Mr Genta has nothing to fear as a truly crucial figure in the progress of this industry.

Even so, one must remember that Genta’s designs or, more specifically, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus have risen in value so steeply in recent years that a certain hagiography has been formed. In this regard, Genta is often described as though all other designers should pale at the though of him. Undoubtedly, his development of the integrated bracelet was revolutionary and has given us some great watches yet just as many of these watches appear very much ‘of their era’ and appear dated where other watches have stood the test of time.

Gerald Genta tourbillon
Credit: Christie’s

In this regard, Genta’s later work in the 1990s, dismissing the remarkable movements used as unrelated to design, has aged woefully and appears, in this journalist’s eyes, grotesque in its gaudiness. Likewise, Genta is often celebrated as the creator of the twisted or lyre lugs which simply is not true. In the current phase of watch appreciation, we are often directed told that a designer’s work is iconic without considering surrounding perspective.

Naturally, this does not diminish Genta’s undoubtedly significant contribution to the watch industry. Even so, I hope that this reminds us that, just because a design was the work of Gerald Genta, this does not necessarily make it great. On his bad days, Gerald Genta’s designs didn’t fare well, but on his good days, Genta could revolutionise the very way we looked at watches.

What do you think of Gerald Genta and his work? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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  • I must admit the Polerouter is beautiful, but really don’t like the Nautilus or Royal Oak. Strange, considering I’m getting a Tudor North Flag for my 50th! The dial of the RO I just find ugly & the Nautilus to me looks very dated, clumsy & gimmicky (but clearly I’m in the minority!) Interesting article, thanks for the education Armand, keep up the good work 👍🏻

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