Did Gérald Genta Design History’s First Luxury Steel Sports Watch For IWC (And Not Audemars Piguet)?
by Anders Modig
Has history been rewritten? An early Gérald Genta design made for IWC – regrettably never put into production – suggests so. On June 22, 2022 it was auctioned by Sotheby’s.
Gérald Genta has been everywhere this spring. Deservedly so, given the fiftieth anniversary of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Various vintage Royal Oaks have sold like hotcakes at the auction houses, and notably a new world record for a vintage Audemars Piguet was set on May 10, 2022 when Genta’s personal Royal Oak sold for CHF 2.1 million at a Sotheby’s auction. This sum doubled the result of the previous world record set by Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo a mere four days prior.
Watch history can be a bit cloudy – and sometimes even contradictory. Oftentimes archives have gone missing over the years. However not so with Audemars Piguet, a company that still carries the tradition of entering every single reference by hand into its order books so that it can refer to an unbroken chain of historical knowledge.
Genta’s first design for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak – hitherto seen as the first imagining of a stainless steel sports watch – was made in 1970, two years before the watch was finally produced. But now it seems this design was pre-dated by one of a stainless steel chronograph for IWC, which may have been made in the late 1960s.
Sotheby’s has staged a strong series of auctions throughout the spring and early summer of 2022 collectively called Gérald Genta: Icon of Time thanks to a close collaboration with Genta’s widow, Evelyne Genta, Monaco’s ambassador to the UK and chairperson of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association. Thanks to this collaboration, watch designs previously unknown to the public have surfaced, including that of said IWC chronograph.
Dr. David Seyffer, curator of the IWC museum, has helped clarify the background of the (unproduced) design that Genta told his family was “very important.” According to Dr. Seyffer, there are three details that may show that it was made as early as 1967:
– By the look of it, it has been designed for a manual winding chronograph movement like the Valjoux 72, which was used in other chronographs around this time. This movement lost a lot of its appeal after the 1969 introduction of automatic chronograph movements.
– Hannes Pantli, who has been with IWC since 1972, had not seen the design or heard about the project. This former director of marketing and sales, today board member, would have been involved in such a chronograph project.
– Dr. Seyffer’s research has shown that IWC was considering adding a chronograph to its catalogue in 1967.
“With all these indicators, I really believe the design was made before 1969,” said Dr. Seyffer.
Sotheby’s however remained rather cautious in its communication of the design, saying it “could” predate the Royal Oak and that it “possibly” reaches back to the late 1960s – which is refreshing to see in an era where storytelling from brands and auction houses sometimes gets a little out of hand.
Whether it was made in the 1960s or 1970s, it is definitely the first known design of a steel sports watch with a chronograph – the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak did not feature a chronograph until 1998, and the Patek Philippe Nautilus only featured a chronograph in 2006.
What role does an unproduced design play in horological history?
The main question remains: what role does an unproduced design play in horological history? To me there is an obvious difference between a vision or sketch and a tangible watch such the Louis Moinet Compteur de Tierces that surfaced in 2013, indisputably providing proof of the world’s first chronograph back in 1816, five years prior to that of Nicolas Rieussec – until then thought to have made the first chronograph – and dethroning Montblanc (who purchased the rights to Rieussec’s name).
To Dr. Seyffer it was a sensational surprise to find out earlier this year that the design exists. “But the design is not a complete rewrite of stainless steel watches in Swiss watch history. Because at the end of the day, it is a drawing that didn’t happen,” he said.
It seems as if Genta may have never even presented the drawing to IWC since everybody at the company is equally surprised about the design. “Nevertheless, it is so interesting that Genta perceived our brand like this, and this makes it so special to IWC. To me it really shows how Gérald Genta was thinking as a human, as a designer, that he had so many avant-garde ideas decades before they happened,” said Dr. Seyffer.
I can only agree – and so could probably Bell & Ross and other brands who rely on the circle-in-a-square theme. “It is a pity that there is no date on the drawing, but Genta was an absolute artist and not always the best in archiving,” said Dr. Seyffer.
The IWC chronograph design is yet more evidence of Genta’s ability to be way ahead of his time. And the new owner of the drawing, who bought it at the New York auction for $40,320, is definitely sitting on a groundbreaking piece of art in a new and growing collector’s scene of watch designs.
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