New Bulgari Gérald Genta Arena Bi-Retro Sport: Intertwined History, Great Design
Gérald Genta’s (1931-2011) claim to eternal horological fame is closely connected to the rise of high-end stainless steel watches, but it wasn’t always so.
Genta played a critical role in making stainless steel the new gold in the 1970s, with both the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (1972) and the Patek Philippe Nautilus (1976), among others, stemming from this designer’s hand. Today, these watches are highly sought after by collectors – with prices to match.
Genta has a strong claim as the first “independent,” in 1969 founding a company with bold, distinctive design under his own name. This is quite significant, as that date falls not only three years before he designed the Royal Oak, but it was also a time in which the quartz crisis was just beginning to rear its head.
Genta maintained both a design company and his own brand simultaneously: the former generated income, while the latter allowed his imagination to run horologically wild. And wild it did run.
Bulgari and Gérald Genta
After a short intermezzo under the wings of Singapore’s Hour Glass, in 2000 Genta’s eponymous brand was sold to the expanding Bulgari group – along with Daniel Roth, with whom Genta shared a workshop and administrative premises – and Bulgari’s designers began co-creating with the great designer.
In 2010, Genta resigned to create Gerald Charles, a new venture over which he had total creative control. At this moment in time, Bulgari made the decision to add its brand name to both Genta and Roth’s on the watches while continuing the collections that these two independents had begun. But by 2013 only the Bulgari name remained. Transformation complete.
I talked to then Bulgari CEO Francesco Trapani at the time to get more information on the transition. Trapani explained some of the strategy and changes. “Both the Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta brand names will no longer exist as individual brands,” he verified to me ahead of Baselworld 2010. “They are integrated into the Bulgari collection, but both will maintain their haute horlogerie ‘DNA’; we intend to fully respect their stylistic codes and specificities.”
As these two brands’ respective designs were strong, it made sense for Bulgari to add the distinctive shapes to the Bulgari collection, which itself was historically very strong in its design. Trapani felt both brands were quite complementary to Bulgari’s own collections.
Not surprisingly, this decision generated strong reactions in the collector community, though Facebook, Instagram, and other social platforms either didn’t exist or were in their infancy. “I can understand that some may regret this evolution,” Trapani conceded at the time, adding that the brand respected the creators’ “DNA” while continuing to develop the respective collections, including sophisticated mechanical movements offering original complications.
Bulgari and Gérald Genta in 2019/2020
In 2019, Bulgari celebrated 50 years of the Gérald Genta brand, which was founded in 1969, releasing a limited edition Bi-Retro in platinum that once again bore the name of the great designer. It also paid tribute to the Bi-Retro model of 1996, which for the first time combined jump hours and retrograde minutes in a wristwatch.
While the new Bi-Retro seemed surprising and maybe even a little bit shocking (in a good way) to many, current CEO Jean-Christophe Babin readily explained the history behind the decision from a corporate standpoint to me in mid-2020 – and I detected a note of adoration and perhaps even gratitude in his words.
“The main reason for acquiring Genta in the first place was not so much design, but more the expertise found especially in the Le Sentier manufacture: 35 skilled craftspeople including six to seven master watchmakers and the ability to manufacture high complications. At that moment in time, Bulgari was missing that expression,” said Babin.
“It was a shortcut for Bulgari that allowed the brand to come to market with the Octo Finissimo in just ten years. Otherwise, it would have been impossible.”
Babin continued, “At the time we decided to stop the Bulgari/Genta dials as it was very confusing [for the general public] and we felt that was negative. However, we continued to sell the Genta pieces to people who were still asking for them. Maybe a few hundred a year. Very low key, discreet, no advertising, no PR, not visible in stores. And we kept it alive.
“Then last year it was time to reinvent the brand. Most people don’t know Genta at all. So we reopened with a message last year on the occasion of the 50th anniversary proposing a classic Genta, resonating with the people who already know the brand. The message was received loud and clear: they got it and supported it, we sold everything.
“We were impressed because we didn’t advertise or anything, so went to the second step, opening the door to millennials by contrasting black and yellow, making a case in lightweight titanium, and keeping the Genta signature. To me, this is one of the most beautiful cases ever designed – I wish it were a Bulgari. This is a masterful case.”
Babin is of course referring to the 2020 edition of the Gérald Genta Bi-Retro, which the brand introduced to critical acclaim at Geneva Watch Days in August 2020.
The 2020 Bulgari Gérald Genta Arena Bi-Retro Sport
“We also decided to stop using the Bi-Retro movement for Bulgari and dedicate it entirely to Genta,” Babin continued in answer to my query as to the origin of Caliber BVL 300, which powers the new Arena Bi-Retro Sport. “This watch is now a permanent SKU that will start shipping in November and began e-commerce.”
While according to Bulgari’s website the watch is still “coming” as of January 2021, the new Arena Bi-Retro Sport is entirely promising. And we can forgive late deliveries due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
“This watch is more niche, different from Bulgari, has its own distinct identity, will be made in small volume, and is projected to have a €15,000-€50,000 core pricing,” Babin summed up.
The retrograde display remains one of Gérald Genta’s house specialties, a playful technical element that the grand master’s successors at Bulgari’s drawing board still feel obligated to include when recreating his special feeling for style. And why not? It is one of the most beguiling elements of watchmaking in my opinion.
This revamped edition of the Arena Bi-Retro includes the famous jump hours displayed in a window at 12 o’clock underneath an arc spanning the top two-thirds of the dial showing the retrograde minutes. A retrograde date track graces the bottom of the dial.
The lightweight, titanium, 43 mm case shows little of the fluted case sides from the top, emanating a sporty aura by instead offering a large, brushed titanium bezel surface. Being both brushed and titanium, it shouldn’t show scratches that quickly.
The crown is one of my favorite elements, even though it has been a bit modernized here. The original Genta crowns were decorated with metal granules, in essence little balls of metal soldered onto the crown. They are purely decorative and without function, but they add a lot of style.
While the original Genta pieces did not have crown protection on the case to preserve the elegant effect of the granules and give them a spotlight, this new version does have unobtrusive crown protection on the case side, which adds to the sportiness and hardiness of the model in addition to protecting the crown from unwanted bumps.
This crown is not decorated with granules – I suspect that might be too difficult to accomplish in titanium – but the milled-out pyramids add a sense of the same style.
The dial’s black and yellow color scheme also reinforces the sporty nature of this watch, itself reinforced by the various textures demarcating the functionalities.
Bulgari has promised more models already in the works for the near future, and with LVMH’s 2021 digital Watch Week only two weeks away at press time, hopefully there will be more Gérald Genta models to look forward to for this year.
For more information, please visit www.bulgari.com.
Quick Facts Gérald Genta Arena Bi-Retro Sport
Case: 43 x 12 mm, titanium
Movement: automatic Bulgari Caliber BVL 300, 42-hour power reserve, 4 Hz/28,800 vph frequency
Functions: jump hour, retrograde minutes; retrograde date
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Hello Elizabeth. Thank you for this informative article bringing fresh insight into the Genta Bulgari connection. It was surprising to see the photo of the Octo Bi-Retro and it’s obvious relationship to the current Bulgari Octo line. Great interview with CEO Babin. It was very cool to hear him acknowledge Genta and his watchmakers and to mention the impact on Bulgari development in the past decade.
My 1998 Retro is currently in the shop after years in storage and this article has gotten me excited to have it back on wrist! Also, the classic 90’s Retro with diamond studded bezel and mother of pearl dial is stunning! Best wishes…JP
Thanks, Joe, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Genta’s own brand has always fascinated me, it is such an interesting piece of watch heritage that has been kept alive!