Gérald Genta: Legendary Watch Designer With A Renegade Spirit
by Martin Green
Gérald Genta’s (1931-2011) claim to eternal horological fame is closely connected to the rise of high-end stainless steel watches. With both the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (1972) and the Patek Philippe Nautilus (1976) stemming from this designer’s hand, in the 1970s Genta played a critical role in making stainless steel the new gold.
Genta was very active during his lifetime, and alongside designing these two icons, he also sketched the contours of many other watches. While many remain a mystery to today, hidden behind the confidentiality clauses that are so common in this field, some of Genta’s other designs are known.
Genta also designed the Universal Genève Polerouter (1954), the Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse (1958), the IWC Ingenieur (1976), the Cartier Pasha, and several models by Omega (the Constellation of 1960, for example).
While that list alone is enough to make Gerald Genta a legend, there is another aspect not as widely recognized, yet still very interesting.
Gérald Genta: the first modern innovator
Genta has a strong claim as the first “independent.” Already in 1969 he founded a company under his own name. This is quite significant, as that date is not only three years before he designed the Royal Oak, but it was also a time during which the quartz crisis was just beginning to wreak its havoc.
Genta created a design company and his own brand: the former to generate income, the latter so he could let his imagination run wild. For Genta such a place might have been a necessity; it gave him space to give his inventiveness free rein and test out entirely new concepts.
Among Genta’s most successful creations was the Retro, which combined a jump hour with a retrograde minute hand. At the time of its introduction, this was an unusual combination of complications: both are quite volatile as the movement needs to build up power over the course of an hour to instantly and simultaneously reset the minute hand and jump the hour forward.
The animated hands provide the watch with a visual spectacle, which made it popular among watch connoisseurs. Genta loved to experiment with this design, working with mother-of-pearl, guilloche, and multilevel dials.
Genta also made a deal with Disney that allowed him to use well-known characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on his dials. By taking advantage of the retrograde minute hand, he was able to have these well-known figures swing a bat or hit a golf ball, making his designs even more expressive.
Gérald Genta: pushing the envelope
In 1988, Genta surprised the watch world with the Gefica, a watch made with a safari theme in mind. Through it, Genta can be credited for being among the first to use a bronze case in mainstream watchmaking. He daringly combined it with a strap made of elephant leather.
The Gefica Safari Chronograph made a bold statement that looked amazing then, but in today’s world would probably result in outraged comments. A few decades ago this was less of an issue, and Genta introduced the Gefica in several different variations (Bulgari also re-introduced it under the Genta name in 2007 after taking over the company).
Perhaps it is because he was first and foremost a designer, but Genta was able to switch very fluidly between quartz and mechanical movements. He most likely selected the movement to best suit the design that he had in mind.
It is interesting to note that when Genta used quartz he often opted for a movement with an additional complication such as a second time zone or even a complete or perpetual calendar.
Yet also when it came to mechanical movements, he loved to push the envelope. This became especially clear in 1994 when he celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his company with an incredible watch.
This was the famed Gérald Genta Grande Sonnerie. I never understood the name as this is only one of the many complications featured in that watch that also features a tourbillon, second time zone, perpetual calendar, and Westminster chime.
Genta’s Grande Sonnerie was fitted with two spring barrels, one for the movement and one for the sonnerie; both also had power reserve indicators on the dial, which gave the watch somewhat of a crowded look.
With a height of just 8.9 mm, the complex movement was still surprisingly slender, given that it not only housed all these complications but also featured automatic winding. Genta created an exceptional case that can best be described as a pyramid of rounded octagonal bezels, making the watch even more expressive and distinctive.
Gérald Genta: saying goodbye, but not quite
Genta sold his brand in 1998 to the Singapore-based watch store chain The Hour Glass. Financial difficulties forced the company, unfortunately, to sell the brand only two short years later.
Then the brand ended up in the hands of one of Genta’s former clients, Bulgari. For this Italian-Swiss brand he had designed the Bvlgari Bvlgari in 1977, a subtle design that boldly displayed the brand’s name not once, but twice engraved on the bezel.
Initially, Gérald Genta remained a standalone brand under the auspices of Bulgari. But as time passed, economic circumstances saw Bulgari integrate Genta’s designs within its own lineup.
While watch connoisseurs mourned this decision at first, it also gave rise to a new icon: the Bulgari Octo, which can now be seen as one of the brand’s main pillars and a model that, especially with its record-breaking Octo Finissimos, has made quite an impact.
Selling his firm did not mark a natural moment for Genta to rest on his laurels; he simply went on to found yet another brand. As he had sold the rights to his name, he had to use his middle name for this one, so Gerald Charles was born.
These designs were just as expressive as previous one, and for some of his creations he worked together with independent watchmakers like Antoine Preziuso, who created a tourbillon movement for him.
Genta passed away on August 17, 2011. However, his legacy continues . . . in the Royal Oak, Nautilus, and Octo collections for example. And in 2018 Bulgari relaunched the Gérald Genta Collection.
For this, the Italian brand used the Retro as the celebratory model with a date function in a platinum case. This watch contains all the hallmarks that made it such a delicacy within the world of watches in the first place with its clean yet expressive design. It is slightly different from the original, yet one that could undeniably be from Genta’s own hand.
Quick Facts Gérald Genta Retro Classic
Case: 38 x 10 mm, three-piece in stainless steel
Movement: automatic Gérald Genta Caliber 4503 (base ETA 2892-A2 with module for retrograde minutes and jump hour)
Functions: jump hour, retrograde minutes
Years of manufacture: 1997 to approx. 2004
Price: only available on secondary market, estimate $3,500
Quick Facts Gérald Genta Gefica Safari 2007
Case: 46.5 x 19.3 mm, bronze, water-resistant to 100 meters
Dial: brass with bronze and silver or bronze and black galvanic coloring
Movement: automatic Caliber GG 1004 (based on Girard-Perregaux Caliber 3100 with bi-retrograde module)
Functions: jump hours, retrograde minutes; retrograde date
Price: $14,200 at retail in 2007