“His first words to me were, ‘What an ugly watch you’re wearing’. And I thought, ‘Who is this incredibly rude guy?’,” recalls Her Excellency Madame Evelyne Genta. “I thought there was nothing wrong with my watch, but he started telling me the lugs were wrong, that it was not perfectly balanced. In the end, I was so annoyed that I took off my watch and put it in my pocket.”
As has happened to so many watches the world over, that watch entered the laundry never to work again. After word reached “the mad Swiss guy” — Gérald Genta — he sent a replacement watch which was promptly and indignantly returned. Despite the fractious nature of their introduction, the pair soon began working together, he bringing a genius for design, she a head for figures.
“He thought that if you didn’t deserve his watches, didn’t understand them well enough, then you shouldn’t have them. Whereas I knew we had about 200 workers to pay. It worked really well, I never interfered with his designing because he had the vision and little by little he let me take over the commercial side and we became a team.”
The couple spent the next two decades travelling the world, visiting monied clients and promoting the brand on trips that would often inspire his designs.
“I remember so often being in Saudi palaces with him,” says Mme Genta. “I’d come out and say, ‘My god, that was an incredible palace’. He’d say, ‘Did you notice the side of the windows?’ And you could be sure I hadn’t even seen the windows. But there would be a detail in it and these details, whether in nature or in architecture, would come out in his designs.”
Before the eponymous brand was founded in 1969, Gérald Genta had been a freelance designer before such a thing existed in the watch industry. He was responsible for Universal Geneve’s Polerouter in the mid-Fifties before a spell behind a desk at Omega working under the brand’s head of creation Pierre Moinat in Bien and developing a number of Constellation and Seamaster designs.
“From what he told me it was CHF10 [per design],” explains Mme Genta, now Ambassador of Monaco to the UK. “He used to take his car and go to Le Chaux-des-Fonds or Bien or Le Brassus. And he said the people opened a little window and asked what he had and they would choose five, six, 10 or 20 designs and he would come home when he had CHF1,000. That is why you have Genta designs everywhere; Corum had some, Piaget had some, they are everywhere. In those days there was no ‘design’ of watches, watches were either round or square.”
After launching his own eponymous brand in 1969, Genta’s watch designs became far more extravagant than those he created for other brands. He experimented with colour, form and materials. He made the first bronze watch, the Gefica; he used serrated case bands, stepped bezels and beaded crowns and delved into complications, specialising in striking watches. In 1994, his Grande Sonnerie became one of the most complicated watches in the world.
Mme Genta admits that at least part of that was her late husband’s Italian heritage coming to the fore without the constraints of working to a brief, but that his demanding clients also kept him moving ever onwards.
“What you see now are the flamboyant pieces. We had normal watches which we sold normally, but we also had some very high-end clients who always needed something different. He became a prototype manufacturer. That’s why there’s this wealth of design, because every time we would go and see a client they wanted something newer, better, more complicated,” she says.
“In a way, he was pushed by the clients to always go one step further and because he was such a genius he could always go one step further. That’s how we got to the Grand Sonnerie, Repetition Minutes, Westminster Carillon. He was pushed all that way.”
During the Seventies, between developing his own commercial brand and making prototype überwatches for sheiks and crown princes, Genta somehow found time to continue working with Switzerland’s finest. His output during this time — steel watches with integrated bracelets we’d now call sports luxe, such as the IWC Ingenieur XL, Patek Philippe Nautilus and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak — is instantly recognisable and also the work he is best remembered for.
“It started with the Royal Oak. The brief was simple — ‘the most expensive sports watch in the world’. That was it, nothing else,” she says. “And a few years later, the brief from Mr Stern was ‘make me a Royal Oak’, but obviously very different.”
The famous porthole bezel of the Nautilus was created with Patek Philippe’s owners, the Stern family in mind. Then-president Henri Stern counted sailing among a multitude of sports he participated in while his son Philippe would later become a decorated regatta sailor.
Given the industry was initially wary of the radical design of the Royal Oak and Nautilus, I ask Mme Genta what Gérald would have made of today’s furore over the models, which in steel have become next to impossible to source.
“It makes me very happy and it would have made Gérald very happy. My husband was not someone that was jealous, on the contrary. But what I like is that both Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe have recognised his talent, so I can only say ‘well done’ and I hope it goes further.”
At the turn of the century, the Gentas, Gérald then in his late 60s, sold their brand to The Hour Glass, the famed Singapore-based haute horlogerie retailer owned by the Tay family. Mme Genta admits that had their children been older, the story would have had a different outcome. “I have no criticism of them [The Hour Glass] at all, it was our mistake, distributors cannot be manufacturers. And they sold on to Bulgari.”
Rather than develop the brand in its own right, Bulgari shuttered the factory and absorbed its expertise in striking watches and complications, put his Octo case shape at the centre of its watch strategy and occasionally released a homage model with the Gérald Genta brand name on the dial alongside its own.
As we are shown around her late husband’s office in their plush family home in London’s Belgravia, where they moved in 2004, it becomes apparent that Genta, considered by many to be the finest watch designer of the 20th century, had managed to strike a balance between designer and artist, illustrated by his schedule in the later years of his life when he would design in the morning and paint in the afternoon. Genta also took an apartment on Upper Grosvenor Street, opposite the Embassy (then Consulate) of Monaco so they could be closer as they both worked.
His designs, illustrated to scale on rectangles of black or blue pastel paper, always began with the circular sweep of a compass to fix a dial in place. He’d then sketch the watches from start to finish, finally painting them with enough skill to indicate whether a surface should be polished or brushed.
When he died in 2011 aged 80, Genta left behind thousands of watch designs both realised and unrealised, his prolific output a symptom not only of his abundant creativity but also those early years when he needed to produce vast numbers of designs to make money. A selection of these designs, including those of his most famous — the Royal Oak and Nautilus — are filed away neatly next to his desk, each drawer labelled and laden with new discoveries.
“You want a new chronograph? I must have 300 chronographs here,” says Mme Genta, tantalisingly.
This year, in anticipation of her daughter’s 30th birthday, Mme Genta selected a design for a ladies watch and sent it to a watchmaker in Switzerland to produce a unique piece based on it. “I chose one that was octagonal, because that was Gérald’s shape. Even my wedding ring is octagonal, very little diamonds and a lovely gold bracelet. They were so thrilled to work on this design and they said how easy it was to produce.
“Gérald didn’t like designers who produced crazy designs. He thought, ‘This is not right, this is applied art. If you’re going to produce crazy things, go into art’. Or when they became bigger and bigger and bigger, he said, ‘Why don’t you put a clock around your wrist?’ He designed them as they were meant to be produced.
“He would make a prototype and very often wear it himself,” she says, “especially a man’s watch, to make sure the shirt sleeve would not catch, that it wasn’t too thick. He liked watches that were anatomic.”
Contrary to previous claims that he never wore a watch, Mme Genta explains that he did “once in a while, not always, on the other wrist from everybody else, for some reason that we never quite understood. He wore a minute repeater most of the time.”
The category of watches Gérald Genta single-handedly conceived in the Seventies, sports luxe, has undergone a revival in 2019 with steel sports watches in a similar vein appearing from Urban Jürgensen and Laurent Ferrier among others, with more scheduled for release later in the year.
I ask her how she feels about that and, with a smile behind her eyes that suggests a certain wistful amusement at the idea of others attempting to follow in her husband’s footsteps, she replies: “Good luck to them.”
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