Crafts: Master of Time

MASTER OF TIME. Three years after Gérald Genta departed for the big workshop in the sky, the old watchmaker’s revolutionary watch designs still remain among the most sought-after timepieces of today


Gérald Genta

Many industries today—both traditional and contemporary—reside in the public consciousness through thinkers, inventors and designers whose masterpieces generally define their respective trades. In the automotive world, for example, there’s Henrik Fisker and his BMW Z8 (as well as, of course, the Fisker Karma), or Peter Schreyer and the Audi TT, A6 and A3.

Very few designers, however, can come close to one huge legend from the realm of haute horlogerie: the late, great Gérald Genta. He is the face behind Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, Patek Philippe Nautilus, IWC Ingenieur and many other iconic designs of the 20th century; he is the soul behind the ongoing Omega Constellation line; and he is also a guiding hand behind at least a hundred thousand watches from other companies such as Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, Chopard, Bulgari, Seiko and many, many more.


A Disney watch signed by Gérald Genta and auctioned at Christie’s


Charles Gérald Genta was born in 1931. At age 15 he began his apprenticeship in the jewelry and goldsmith business, obtaining his Swiss federal diploma five years later. At the age of 23, he began receiving commissions for designing watch cases, dials, bracelets and so on. While his early designs went for as little as 15 Swiss Francs, he did really well financially, as his talents were in high demand, with clients from all over the globe.

As a testament to his skills, his first clients included such names as the Benrus Watch Company from New York and the Hamilton Watch Company from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, along with watchmakers from France, Italy and Germany. This is beside the special commissions he undertook for royal families and private collectors from all corners of the globe.

Eventually, Genta also started working with top Swiss brands including Omega and Audemars Piguet, although initially his contracts were secured through the companies’ suppliers. Such was the case with his involvement in the creation of, say, Omega Seamaster and Constellation in 1959. Supposedly, the full extent of his contribution to the brand’s masterpieces is still unknown.

A long list of other collaborations were soon to follow, many of which would lead to some of the most celebrated timekeepers of the century, including Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and many more.

In 1969, Genta started his own brand and also began creating his fabled sonneries. One was the Gérald Genta Octo Grande Sonnerie Tourbillion, a marvel of mechanical know-how that would sound the quarter and the hour using the same melody as London’s Big Ben. Fast-forward to the 1980s, and we come upon what some critics call Gérald Genta’s only consumerist venture: a licensed, limited edition series of wristwatches featuring Walt Disney’s characters. Although considered frivolous by some, they were handsomely illustrated, with cases made of 18-carat gold and retailed/auctioned at prices of at least US$3,250.


“As clichéd as it may sound, his legacy lives on, even to the point that it is his designs that have become the hallmarks of many luxury watches brands”


Interestingly, the abovementioned Disney line started as a private request by one of Genta’s customers. Unsurprisingly, clients who often sought custom-made watches included professional athletes, rock musicians and rappers, politicians, as well as a fair number of royalties, including Queen Sofia of Spain, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother of England. Such special orders would be hand-designed by the maestro himself and often took up to five years to complete.

Alas, Gérald Genta passed away at the age of 80 in August three years ago. Yet, as clichéd as it may sound, his legacy lives on, even to the point that it is his designs that have become the hallmarks of many luxury watch brands—though little did everybody know that it all started with a crisis.


The original design of Audemars Piguet Royal Oak by Gérald Genta


In the 1970s until the early 1980s, the watchmaking industry went through what was known as the Quartz Crisis (or Quartz Revolution). Put simply, the advent of quartz watches eroded the dominance of traditional Swiss watchmakers, who clung to traditional mechanical timepieces. Suddenly, simply creating accurate timepieces was no longer enough to stay in the game. So, people started looking into design—modern designs—to keep the industry afloat and keep up with the new lifestyle of the roaring ‘70s.

Genta’s approach to this new aesthetic is brilliant in its simplicity: In the previous decade, watches were basically round cases reminiscent of pocket watches, with horns and a strap. His new idea was to construct the bracelet as a single, clean shape, then place the watch into it.

Of course, this design philosophy and Genta’s various personal touches are best illustrated by the maestro’s most iconic and most celebrated pieces.


The 2013 version of Omega Constellation


Prior to the Royal Oak, Genta had been collaborating with Audemars Piguet for nearly 20 years. Then, one day, he received a call from one Georges Golay, the company’s managing director, asking for a steel sports watch that was totally new and waterproof. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and the design was expected the following morning.

The waterproof requirement inspired Genta to replicate the workings of a scaphander, an antiquated diving apparatus, as well as the signature eight screws holding the device in place and a visible joint on the exterior. Initially, the watch was considered too big for the time—36mm by 38mm—and sales were poor. However, consumers’ tastes changed, and the Royal Oak and its octagonal design eventually caught on. The basic design that started it all is still visible even forty-plus years after the first model went into production, such as on the Royal Oak Offshore Diver timepiece.


“The Gérald Genta Octo Grande Sonnerie Tourbillion would sound the quarter and the hour using the same melody as London’s Big Ben”



A notable hallmark of this model is the two engravings on the bezel that prompted the watch’s repetitive name. The inspiration behind the design was an ancient Roman coin, featuring the effigy of an emperor surrounded by engraved inscriptions. The Ancient Roman theme continues with the cylindrical shape of the case—a nod to classical Roman columns.

The Bulgari Bulgari has been around for nearly 40 years, and only slight changes have been made, including a transition from quartz to mechanical, and variations in size to adapt to more modern tastes.


The initial design of IWC Ingenieur by Gérald Genta


More of a reinvention instead of an entirely new creation, Genta’s Ingenieur SL is easily recognized by the five screws on the watch’s bezel—rather similar to the eight on the Royal Oak. The SL variant was designed to appear masculine and appeal to the idea of beauty and luxury of polished steel and a strong “mechanical” feel. Like most of Genta’s famed designs, little has changed since the model’s debut back in 1976, even on the brand’s modern incarnations of the line such as the IWC Ingenieur Double Chronograph Titanium.


A Bulgari Bulgari watch


A few models in the long-running Omega Constellation line have been designed by Genta himself. The maestro’s touch is still very much present in today’s variants such as the Omega Constellation Sedna Gold, launched in 2013. One particularly noticeable addition to the Constellation line that was a completely original idea by Genta is the Onyx inserts as the hour markers. Not only do they add a three-dimentional texture to the dial, these precious stone inserts also elevate the luxury value of the watch.


An early model of Patek Philippe Nautilus


One of Gérald Genta’s most recognizable designs, the Nautilus was a tribute to the Stern family’s love for yachting—the family who runs the company since 1930s. The Nautilus is essentially a sports watch with a bezel designed to resemble a ship’s porthole. Much like the Royal Oak, the Nautilus was considered revolutionary for its time as the watch and bracelet were conceived as one integrated piece, although it took a decidedly softer and more rounded tone. Also like its predecessor, the Nautilus’ case and bracelet were brushed in one direction during finishing. This is an extremely difficult technique, not to mention time consuming. But the end result is a beautiful timepiece that stands the test of time.