The Man Who Designed The Royal Oak And Nautilus Didn’t Really Like Watches
Here’s a quote from one of history’s most important and prodigious watch designers: “I don’t like watches! For me, watches are the antithesis of liberty. I am an artist, a painter, I hate having to adhere to the constraints of time. It irritates me.” But much as it might have frustrated would-be painter Gérald Genta’s, the guy’s true talent was for designing those objects he claims to dislike. The historical record bears it out. Genta, born in 1931 in Geneva, is responsible for Patek Philippe’s Nautilus and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, among several other recognisable watches.
Genta’s career is one that is told most interestingly through his creations, starting with a piece released in 1954.
Universal Genève Polerouter
After Genta finished his training as a jewelry designer in 1951, he started at the now-dormant Swiss watch brand Universal Genève. There, he designed the Polerouter, a watch totally unlike the mostly-sporty, easy-to-read pieces he’d go onto design. The Polerouter instead is dressy, with a pitch-black dial. It was commissioned by the Scandinavian Airline System, which needed a piece resistant to electromagnetic fields for flights over the North Pole. (This will be a theme with Genta.) After working for Universal, Genta would go off on his own to freelance for brands like Omega.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
One of the most iconic watches in history is the result of one incredibly productive all-nighter. According to Genta, he received a call from Audemars’s managing director Georges Golay at 4 p.m. one afternoon in 1969. He needed a design for a sport watch, and he needed it by the next morning. Genta worked through the night on the design, taking inspiration from deep-sea diving helmets and their visible screws. “At the time it marked an innovation,” Genta told VeryImportantWatches.com. “That of making visible what had hitherto always been meant to remain hidden.”
Back then, there were few, if any, watches like the Royal Oak. Today, though, many sport watches take after the Royal Oak and its visible screws from Hublot’s Big Bang and Fusion models to practically every Richard Mille piece ever produced. Genta wouldn’t have minded brands following his lead: “If you are not copied, you are incompetent,” he said.
Patek Philippe Nautilus
Genta seems to produce his most legendary designs in rapid flashes. The Royal Oak the result of single night – but the Patek Philippe Nautilus was drawn up in just five minutes.
While attending the 1976 edition of Basel Fair, the watch world’s largest trade show, he took himself out to lunch. He spotted a group of Patek Philippe executives eating in the corner opposite him and, suddenly struck by inspiration, asked his waiter for a pen. The Nautilus was born on a napkin a few minutes later. The design takes after a ship’s porthole, according to Genta – the two slight protrusions on each side made to look like hinges.
While Genta didn’t create the original Bvlgari-Bvlgari, he updated it to the version we know today. The “Bvlgari” running twice around the bezel was borrowed from an old Roman coin with an inscription circling the rim. “In the beginning [Bvlgari] thought the design was crass,” Genta said.
Initial dislike is not unusual for a Genta design, though. The Royal Oak was at first unthinkable – a wildly expensive stainless steel watch shaped like a stop sign. It took several years for the piece to catch on and for Audemars to even sell 1,000 of its now-iconic watches. The Bvlgari-Bvlgari went through the same process: the watch later met with great success, which it continues to enjoy down to this day, according to Genta.
1976 was a big year for Genta. In addition to the Nautilus, IWC also tapped him to reinvent the Ingénieur. And, boy, does this one look familiar. Genta stuck with the same design codes that made the Royal Oak such a success. The designer stripped away any design on the bezel, leaving in its place exposed screws like the ones seen on the Royal Oak.
The Ingénieur, strangely enough, was designed with scientists and technicians in mind, and it came with a high level of resistance to magnetism. Genta’s Ingénieur was capable of withstanding 80,000 amperes per meter – higher than the wattage most stun guns pack.
Grande Sonnerie Retro
All the while, Genta went through a lather-rinse-repeat process of launching and then selling off brands. He founded his first, eponymous line in 1969 and immediately got to work on some funky stuff. Like in 1980, when he signed a deal with the Walt Disney Company and started slapping characters on highly complicated watches. Want an image of Mickey Mouse right alongside your tourbillon? Look no further than the Gérald Genta brand and its “Fantasy” pieces.
But by far the crown jewel of Genta’s brand was the Grande Sonnerie Retro he designed in 1994. At the time, the watch – with its Westminster-replicating chime, minute repeater, perpetual calendar, and tourbillon – was the most complicated in the world. (Not to mention its golden case, tiered like an indulgent wedding cake, that looks like it was stolen straight from a chest of royal jewels.) It sold for $2 million.
A few years later, Genta sold his brand to Bvlgari in 1998. No matter. In 1999, Genta started a new brand and named it Gérald Charles. He sold that brand a couple years later and dedicated the rest of his life to painting before passing away in 2011 at 80. But if the popularity of watches like the Royal Oak and Nautilus are any indication, Genta’s legacy will live on in perpetuity.