Analysis: Understanding the Genius of the Late Gerald Genta, the Maestro in Watch Designing (Part 1 of 2)


Five summers ago, the world of horology lost arguably the most important and talented modern watch designer ever graced the planet — Mr. Gerald Genta. As a watch designing hero to many of us (and most certainly the Lengbeau team), his legacy is to be missed. You might or might not have heard of him but we guarantee you’d recognize some of the his most groundbreaking creations, not the least of which, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, with the kind of boldness and flair unseen before. Before Genta, there was no such thing as a luxury sport watch in steel. Today, we cannot imagine a world without one.

Genta’s early sketch of the Royal Oak (left) and Nautilus (right)

​​Yet, Genta’s legacy hardly stops at the Royal Oak and Nautilus. A prolific watch designer as he was, he has worked with any number of world famous watchmakers, from Omega and Universal Geneve in his early days, to AP and Patek later on, to the likes of IWC and Bulgari and even Seiko at one point, creating timepieces travelling between the realms of the edgy and the poetic; the solemn and the comical. It is fair to say his influence on how many of the watches at the top of the echelon look, even to this day, is wide and deep and has certainly lived on after his passing.

In this two-part series, we explore his genius and unique design language by revisiting his best works, as a commemoration. In the first part, we examine three Genta-designed steel watches.

The Steel Trio — AP Royal Oak, Patek Nautilus and IWC Ingenieur

From left to right: IWC Ingenieur, Patek Nautilus, AP Royal Oak (photo courtesy: Matthew Bain)

Amongst the many creations of Genta, three steel watches — that shared somewhat similar stylings yet created for three different manufacturers — form a clearly distinguished group in the Genta family. We already know the Royal Oak and Nautilus (created in 1972 and 1976 respectively), but what you might not know, is that the modern IWC Ingeniuer was actually also a Genta design in the 1970s. Let’s let a close look at each of them and immerse ourselves in the fascinating narratives behind.

An Audacious Undertaking — The Royal Oak

The original Royal Oak in 1972, Ref. 5402 “A-Series”, one of the first 1,000 ever manufactured.

As mentioned earlier, luxury steel sport watches never existed, until the Royal Oak came about. And it’s not hard to understand why. In the past, watches could be broadly categorized as either luxury dress watches (think Patek Calatrava, Rolex Cellini etc) or functional tool watches (think chronographs, divers in steel). People back then purchased watches with a purpose in mind and chose accordingly. But there didn’t seem to a watch that could fit the bill on both fronts, something that embodies simultaneously elegance and sportiness. In the early 1970s, Audemars Piguet saw the need for such timepieces coming from their Italian clientele and turned to none other than Gerald Genta to design one, who has at point established a long working relationship with Audemars Piguet. And if there’s anyone who could have gotten the job done, it is Genta.

What’s really impressive about the thought process behind the creation of the Royal Oak, was its sheer speed. One afternoon in 1970, Mr. Georges Golay, then Managing Director of Audemars Piguet, called up Genta and told him that he needed “a steel sport watch that has never been done before”, and it needed to be “something totally new and waterproof”. To create something that has not been done before is a daunting task enough in itself but what’s even more challenging about the deal was that Mr. Golay needed the design by “tomorrow morning”. It was a tall order to say the least but Genta being Genta, delivered.

​Taking inspiration from the shape of a diving helmut, Genta decided to conspicuously visualise it in the form of an octagonal bezel with screws exposed, the defining characteristic of the Royal Oak. But that’s only one part of the success recipe of the Royal Oak. While Genta has adopted an almost brutalist way of designing the bezel and completely disregarded the conventional thinking that watch parts should remain hidden, it is the exceptional treatment of stainless steel here that really elevated the Royal Oak’s status as a luxury sport watch. Take the bezel as an example, the face of it is straight-brushed while each of its eight facets on the side are carefully mirror-polished, projecting a completely different sheen compared to the bezel face when shone upon. The same finishing finesse is extended to its integrated lugs as well as all the bracelet links, a level of care only seen on softer, precious metals hitherto.

The novel looking Royal Oak came with a retail price of 3,750 CHF when it came out in 1972. To put things into perspective, the second most expensive steel watch at the time was priced at 850 CHF only! Despite not met with commercial success immediately, it did eventually prove to be a runaway hit as the market slowly but surely came to appreciate the forward thinking that the watch represented.

​The First “Sporty” Patek — The Nautilus

The original Patek Nautilus Ref. 3700, with a nicely patinaed dial (photo courtesy: Bachmann Scher)

4 years after the idea of the Royal Oak was first conceived, luxury sport watch in steel has officially become a force to be recognized in the watch business. Patek Philippe — the undisputed King of Watches — has followed suit and came up with their first serially produced sport watch in steel, again with Genta right at the helm of the designing process.

Knowing that the Stern family — the controlling family behind Patek Philippe — were ardent yachtsmen, Genta once again turn to the nautical life for inspiration, this time drawing influence from the shape of a porthole as commonly seen on yachts. Genta himself reported that he spent five minutes drawing up the first sketch of the Nautilus at the Basel Trade Fair (predecessor of Baselworld) in a dining hall, while observing Patek executives eating. What he probably didn’t know is five minutes were all it took to give rise to the most important sports watch of the most important watchmaker, even to this day.

As ahead of his time as Genta has always been, it is noteworthy that when it comes to designing watches for Patek, even Genta himself admitted that anything that deviates from classical forms is out of the question. So we don’t really see exposed screws here or anything like that. The bezel was smoothed out to a square-ish circle. But it remains a decidedly Genta design with its imposing bezel, integrated lugs and detailed case finishing. While it is dangerously tempting to call the Nautilus the Patek’s “Royal Oak”, anyone who lays that claim simply isn’t paying enough attention to the thought processes that went into the creation of these instant icons. The Nautilus is very Genta, and even more Patek, as far as a luxury steel sport watch is concerned.

Making Scientists Look Edgy — The IWC Ingenieur SL

The original IWC Ingeniuer SL ref. 1832 (photo courtesy: Bachmann Scher)

About the same time when Patek tapped Genta to design the Nautilus, IWC also wanted Genta’s mojo in breathing new life into its Ingenieur line, a collection of watches intended to be used by scientists in environments that often call for absolutely timekeeping accuracy, in the face of such threats as strong magnetic field etc.

Understanding the clientele that the Ingenieur was speaking to, Genta created an edgy looking timepiece that at the same time looked highly exact and instrumental, evidenced by the rounded bezel (while exposing screws again; five this time) and an overall more straightforward case and bracelet styling. Compared to the Royal Oak and Nautilus, the Ingenieur clearly fell short in the department of finishing. But that’s entirely fine, since this is not a watch you bring to sail with you. Rather, this is something you take to a laboratory knowing it wouldn’t die on you just because there’s a magnetic equipment sitting somewhere nearby as you solve big time science problems. Such precision was achieved by IWC’s own 8541 ES calibre built with antimagnetic parts and a soft-iron inner case that makes the watch magnetism and shock-proof up to the certain level.

Unfortunately, the original Ingenieur SL did not yield the kind of the success IWC was hoping for, recording a meagre 550 sales. But things did get better in the later renditions of the Ingenieur line and Genta’s touch on the look of the watch could still be easily identified nowadays.

And Something More… A Credor (Seiko’s Premium Line) Designed by Genta

A Genta-designed Credor (photo courtesy: PuristPro

As mentioned before, at one point Genta was commissioned by Seiko to create a sport watch for the watchmaking giant from the East and this is the result. The exposed screws remain (six of them this time) with a very Seiko arrangement of the crown being at 4 o’clock. Well, just because.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series as we go deep on Genta’s other dressier designs over the years.