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Gérald Genta: The man who made the icons

From the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak to the Patek Philippe Nautilus, Genta’s designs still influence modern watchmaking.

Gérald Genta is a name that has since become legend in the watchmaking world. Anyone who’s into watches will likely have heard of him, and in the event that they haven’t, they will likely have seen his work. Because it’s practically impossible not to. 

Some of the most coveted models of modern watchmaking were originally designed by Genta, including the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (the high luxury, steel sports watch that started the entire trend) and the Patek Philippe Nautilus (one of the most in-demand models from the brand). 

Unlike musicians or athletes or even the watch brands themselves—and these are the sort of entities that Genta could name as his clients—watchmakers rarely took the spotlight. But not in this case. Genta, it happens, was just as popular as the watches he made. 

Gérald Genta
Photo Credit: Stefania Slenzio, LUXURY GRIFFES S.A CC BY-SA 3.0

Born in 1931 in Geneva, Genta began his career in Universal Geneve, where he designed the Polerouter in 1954. The watches were given to the crew of the Scandinavian Air Service, who had pioneered a route from Europe to the US via the North Pole. By the 60s, he would design the White Shadow and the Golden Shadow—watches that housed the thinnest movements in the world at the time. This was only the beginning of his prolific run, and it would lead to his working with brands such as Omega, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Cartier, Bulgari, and IWC.

By 1969, Genta had founded his own studio, and he began creating watches with chiming mechanisms. In the 80s, he obtained a license from Disney so he could include characters like Mickey, Minnie, and Donald on his 18-carat gold watches. And by the 90s, he developed a new way of displaying time by combining jumping hours (a digital display in Arabic numerals) with retrograde minutes (a scaled display where the hand returns to its starting point after it reaches 60)—both complications running on the same movement. It was the first of its kind in the world.

Clearly, this was some out-of-the-box-and-beyond kind of watchmaking, and anything that came out of the Genta workshops was highly prized. Genta himself began compiling a client list that included actors, businessmen, and even royalty, such as the King of Spain and the Queen of England—some opting for unique pieces of his design. 

  Such was the artistry behind his work that his most enduring creations are still gaining  interest. Today, the Royal Oak remains a flagship collection, as well as the Nautilus. The steel Nautilus has even entered a marked level of scarcity because of the relatively low production numbers compared to the very high demand from collectors, resulting in wait times that could take up to years.

  Having passed away at 80 in 2011, Genta’s run has redefined watchmaking. It wouldn’t be where it is now without his designs. Or at least, it wouldn’t be as interesting. Here’s a look at the stories behind the watches that have carried his legacy.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Ultra-thin is a modern descendant of the original design.
Photo Credit: Audemars Piguet

Audemars Piguet was on the brink of bankruptcy in the 70s. The release of Japanese quartz watches caused a massive crisis in the mechanical watchmaking world, and soon the brand knew it would have to shake things up a bit. Getting in touch with Genta, Audemars Piguet had a curious request. They wanted to make the first luxury sports watch in steel. 

Genta responded with a design that had an octagonal bezel with exposed screws, and it’s said that he had worked it out in a single evening. Thus, the Royal Oak was born and later became the flagship of Audemars Piguet. It was the watch that had saved the company and introduced the use of steel as a luxury material. 

Patek Philippe Nautilus

The Patek Philippe Nautilus Perpetual Calendar from 2018 is the first grand complication model in the collection.
Photo Credit: Patek Philippe

When it first came out in the 70s, the Nautilus was a curious model. Patek Philippe had never before released a luxury sports watch, and having it come in steel made it even curiouser. 

The Nautilus is said to have been designed by Genta in a span of minutes—on a paper napkin while at a restaurant. Similar to the Royal Oak, the design draws inspiration from the mariner’s world, made to resemble a porthole with its subtle angles and sleek shape. Today, it is one of the most important collections in the Patek Philippe catalogue. 

Omega Constellation

The modern Omega Constellation Manhattan. Genta started designing some models from the Constellation range in the 1950s, though it is unclear how many he created.
Photo Credit: Omega

The Constellation is a historical timepiece for a few reasons. The most widely known one is that Omega released the collection to commemorate their achievements in the Geneva Observatory trials, where their movements became certified as chronometers. Another is that Gerald Genta had designed at least some of the models. 

Genta had worked with Omega in the 50s, helping them design new Constellation models, which was one of their key collections. While it is unclear how many models he designed for the range, the known Genta-designed vintage Constellations remain collectible, both because of his work and because, being chronometers, they are still likely to keep good time. 

Bulgari Gérald Genta 50th Anniversary 

The Gérald Genta 50th Anniversary pays tribute to the watchmaking legend.
Photo Credit: Bulgari

Bulgari acquired the Gerald Genta company in 2000, and now hold the firm’s catalogue. 

This year, the brand paid tribute to Genta’s legacy, bringing back the complicated display that he pioneered in the 90s. 

The Genta 50th Anniversary has a jumping hours display in the center, with a retrograde minutes display on the top half. The bottom half, meanwhile, features a retrograde display for the date. A retrograde complication makes the hand jump back to the beginning after it reaches the other end. All of this is set against a cerulean dial, with an arena case—another Genta favorite—to frame it.  

It’s heavily derived from Genta’s past work, and manages to capture the spirit of his expressive designs. A fine tribute to the man who dedicated his life to the art of watchmaking.