The Inimitable Gerald Genta

This Designer’s Outrageous Ideas Still Influence Modern Watches


June 21, 2020 Watches By
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What would the modern watch landscape look like without the designer who pioneered concepts like the luxury sport watch? It’s no understatement that Swiss-born Gerald Genta has had a tremendous impact on the watch industry, and that timepieces he designed many decades ago are today some of the most coveted, iconic and copied of all time.

Genta gave the world many, many watch designs. Some had his own name on the dials, but most were produced by a wide array of other brands. He would likely not be so remembered, however, if not for two particular watches: the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus.

Both more or less represent a single concept that was ahead of its time: that of a steel sport watch with an integrated steel bracelet — intended not for a particular sport, but rather for wealthy customers who wanted something versatile, masculine and elegant. The popularity of these watches today has led to nothing short of celebrity status for the late Genta, whose other designs have also gained increased recognition and praise.

If you know nothing else about this watch design luminary, you should at least be familiar with these five Genta designs:

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Photo: Analog / Shift

Designed in 1970, this was the original groundbreaker. Legend has it that the request for a “totally new and waterproof” steel sports watch came in one day at 4pm and was due the following morning, and Genta delivered what’s now the iconic Royal Oak. Taking inspiration from traditional diving helmets, he expressed the bolts as the bezel’s hexagonal screws, and exposing this technical element on a watch was considered bold and innovative at the time.

Also unusual was the octagonal bezel and a steel bracelet integrated into the case design. All together, these elements made for an extremely distinctive look, while basic shapes and a simple dial meant the watch still has a classic appeal. Its highly legible, waffle-style “tapisserie” dial texture is another defining feature. Most unusual about the Royal Oak, however, was that Audemars Piguet treated this steel sport watch like one in a precious metal, selling it for several times the price of any other steel watch then produced.

Though considered large in 1972 at 39mm, its size now feels modern, and its thinness makes it well-proportioned and comfortable. While not a commercial success following its introduction, the Royal Oak has become legendary and transformed into a collection comprising endless iterations, from beefy and aggressive Offshore Chronographs to high-horology examples.

Patek Philippe Nautilus

Photo: Analog / Shift

Following the establishment of the Royal Oak concept in 1970, the Nautilus arrived in 1976. Genta claims to have suddenly come up with the idea while alone at lunch, observing Patek Philippe executives at another table. He sketched it five minutes. No exposed screws here, and the bezel is based on a ship’s porthole, with the protruding case sides referencing its hinge and handle. But it’s a luxury steel sport watch (with an integrated bracelet) in the same spirit as the Royal Oak. Also like the Royal Oak, it wasn’t initially met with great demand but later became a superstar.

IWC Ingenieur

Photo: Analog / Shift

Genta didn’t design the first IWC Ingenieur watch, which debuted in the the 1950s with the purpose of protecting the movement from magnetic fields engineers might be exposed to at work. However, Genta gave the Ingenieur a makeover and reimagined it as a sport watch in 1976, the same year as the Nautilus debuted. Here, we can see once again the integrated bracelet and exposed screw holes in the bezel (though in this case there are five, rather than the Royal Oak’s eight). Genta’s Ingenieur never received quite the collector enthusiasm as the steel sport watches above, but in today’s market, it might just be ready for a reprise.

Universal Genève Polerouter

Photo: Analog / Shift

Genta didn’t suddenly appear on the scene with the Royal Oak: he’d been designing watches for decades by that time. His very first design to market, the Universal Genève Polerouter, was nothing like the sport watches that would later bring him fame, but it’s since found a following among vintage collectors for several reasons:

Not only was the Polerouter an exceptionally well-made and well-designed watch, but it’s also notable for its story and technical features. Universal Genève was the official supplier of watches for the Scandinavian airline SAS, which had just begun trans-arctic flights. Flying over the north pole caused problems for the aircrafts’ navigational equipment — as well as for the pilots’ watches — due to magnetism, and Universal Genève was selected to provide a new timepieces for the airline due to its reputation for building anti-magnetic watches.

The Polerouter was released in time to mark the historic first flight between Los Angeles, New York and Copenhagen. Its movement included a micro rotor — a technical trait that would interest Genta for many years for its ability to help keep automatic watches thin. With its characteristic tuxedo-type dial, antimagnetic properties and micro-rotor movement, this model is now a darling of vintage collectors.

Bulgari Octo

The modern Bulgari Octo itself wasn’t designed by Genta per se, but he should more or less be credited for it. When the designer sold his own eponymous brand to Bulgari in 2000, it naturally included the rights to his designs, among which was the Octo Bi-Retro. This watch had an avant-garde dial featuring retrograde displays and jumping hours — and, of course, the funky case design that today defines the Bulgari Octo.

One imagines that Genta would approve of Bulgari’s take on the Octo, as the contrast of its simple dial and highly complex case seems to fit his philosophy. Further, Bulgari has made thinness a defining feature of the collection, a trait which Genta valued highly.

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Zen Love

Zen Love is Gear Patrol’s watch writer. He avoids the snooty side of the watch world, and seeks out food in NYC that resembles what he loved while living in Asia for over a decade.

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