When Gérald Genta died in August this year, the watch industry lost one of its greatest innovators and the man responsible for some of the most memorable and iconic designs of the 20th century. QP talks to Christoph Behling, founder of SolarLab and lead designer at TAG Heuer about Genta's legacy to watchmaking.
According to Director of London's Design Museum Deyan Sudjik in his 2008 book The Language of Things: "Luxury and modernity can be seen as mutually antagonistic. Luxury is elitist and potentially based on the cultivation or at least an appeal to the idea of tradition, whereas contemporary rhetoric suggests that modernity is egalitarian, democratic and inclusive. And modernity appears to be iconoclastic, and to set itself up as a counterpoint to tradition." How then did designs such as Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak (1972), Patek Philippe's Nautilus and IWC's Ingenieur (both 1976) - all modern pieces very much influenced by their time - become such enduring and highly desired timepieces?
The answer to this question, according to product designer Christoph Behling, can be found within the unique set of circumstances that existed in the Swiss watch industry at the time Gérald Genta created the designs. The quartz crisis had taken the Swiss watch industry from 100,000-plus employees to less than 25,000 and watch manufacturers could no longer sell on high precision or compete on price.
Patek Philippe's Nautilus collection has changed and grown over time.
The history books show that in the 1970s we were at critical point. Everything seemed to be failing and the world was ready for a design revolution - people were pushing the boundaries and there was a collective cry to go even further. Things got difficult - both for the world at large and, more specifically, for the Swiss watch industry - and inevitably, the world that we live in affects how a designer works. Therefore, to fully appreciate and understand the work of Genta we need to try and put ourselves into his shoes in that time. The watch industry was bankrupt, the stability that had existed since the end of the Second World War was shaken and a new age of freedom was dawning for what Behling refers to as "the Hair generation".
Tough times, radical action
Companies realised that they had to do something - simply producing the best and most accurate timekeeper would no longer cut it. "And so," says Behling, "master watchmakers re-engaged with design and began to see it as a tool for creating better products. They knew that to continue as they had been doing would mean the end, so companies like Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet went full-on down the design route and, as design takes its biggest and boldest steps in times of crisis, these proved to be the most exciting of times." Brands were desperate for creativity so Genta found himself in the enviable position of being handed a blank sheet of paper.
"In the 1960s, watches were all pretty similar - round cases that had developed from pocket watches with horns and a strap. Take Genta's Polerouter for Universal Genève for example, this was made in happy times for the industry. Cosmetically it is a beautiful piece, a really nice job, but it doesn't do anything to challenge the basic concept."
Then in the 1970s, the sports look took off - all very Miami Beach and with the demands of a totally different lifestyle - but lugs and straps didn't quite fit the look, so the trend for metal bracelets came into vogue. The aesthetic problem here was that the lines where bracelet joined case weren't 'clean' and there was always an urge to shape the metal at the join. "But, of course, this makes it weak, which is unacceptable," explains Behling. "This resulted in a race to find the answer - similar to the 'column in the corner' dilemma of the Renaissince, but this time the Holy Grail was seamlessly fitting a circle into a rectangle."
Despite the 40 years that have passed since its inception, introduction of radical new materials and technologies and a general 'beefing up' of the overall look, the Royal Oak is still one of the most instantly recognisable watches in the world.
The Genta way
Genta's solution was almost childlike in both its aim and simplicity - why not make the bracelet one clean shape and place the watch into it? He realised that the two elements still needed to be separated and where he was particularly clever with the Audemars Piquet Royal Oak was in doing this by means of 'sides' and 'edges' - a theme Genta had followed in his own eponymous watch company, where he created the Gérald Genta Octo Grande Sonnerie Tourbillon, and, in 1994, the Grande Sonnerie Retro - the world's most complicated wristwatch.
Behling takes up the story: "With the Royal Oak, Genta managed to solve the dilemma of how to integrate bracelet and case, rectangle and circle. He did this by softening the join with the edges of an octagonal bezel to flatten out the lines and give a smoother transition from curve to straight by using a 'straight curve' - even the bezel screw heads take part in this transition by taking the form of octagons rather than circles. But the greatest development in my eyes is the bracelet, polished nuggets that reflect light in every direction. Other brands such as Rolex would have highlights in one direction only but the Royal Oak has the fluid forms more often associated with Scandinavian jewellers like Georg Jensen and the modern Italian lines of Elsa Perreti."
The Nautilus was created in the exact same way as the Royal Oak - it is not a watch with a bracelet but rather one integrated piece. Genta was not alone in this line of thinking but he was perhaps the first to execute it. "It is obvious when you handle the pieces that Genta's background was in jewellery," says Behling. "Today it is normal for watches to be seen as 'men's jewellery' but these were the first pieces to recognize and achieve this."
The Nautilus is an evolution of the Royal Oak, softer and less sharp and actually starting out with a non-round dial. At first glance the case shape seems to be a square with rounded corners, but when looking closely at the case you see that the corners are in fact straight. This tiny and unconventional detail demonstrates the genius in Genta's design - he knew that if left curved they would fractionally increase the radius taking it from perfect proportions to 'blobby' and, although probably not the original intention, this tweak brings sharpness into the curve aiding the case/bracelet transition. And, as with the Royal Oak, the Nautilus' finishing has received special attention. The case and bracelet are brushed in one direction, something that, according to Behling, is very difficult, very time-consuming and very beautiful.
In 1976, the appearance of the Ingenieur changed significantly when Genta giave it a completely new look in a sporty steel case. Today, it is still one of the greatest design innovations in the IWC collection.
IWC's Ingenieur was also created in the heart of the crisis with the same design principles as the Royal Oak and Nautilus, namely an integrated bracelet - although it is obvious that the Ingenieur was created on a lower budget. The bezel is clean with the same soft cushion that was used in the Nautilus.
So it would seem that for Genta the basis of watch design was the case and strap. The dial was kept simple, clear and sober with interest added through texture. It is obvious that he loved working with metal and the plays of light, reflection and shadow and he furthered this with the texture he used on his dials - very deliberate patterns that only work on the particular models they were created for; Patek's louvres, for example, would not have been successful on the Royal Oak or Ingenieur.
Changing the way we think
"In the history of watchmaking, the role of designer is relatively new," says Behling. "Pre-Genta, cases were created by engineers and the whole look was very two-dimensional - if you like, it was seen as a 'sandwich' with a front, back and sides. Genta was one of the first to dismiss this idea and introduce the idea of a single unit. He gave us the notion that a watchcase could be more than a functional movement holder, he made the world see that a watch does not have to be conventional, that with an open mind and an understanding of form, individualism, practicality and design, longevity can be introduced and sustained."
The frivolous and decadent Fantasy collection of the 1980s featured animated Walt Disney characters on mechanical watches in Genta's nod to consumerism. Behling refers to the pieces as, "Genta's Campbell's Soup Cans."
With the Nautilus, for example, the bezel and the caseback are flowed around the sides of the case, creating an unusual and three-dimensional story that consists of more than the traditional and expected ABC. And following the 'if it ain't broke…' mantra, the Nautilus has barely changed in its 35-year history. "The case and bracelet have never been 'beefed up', despite the dictates of fashion. And, to be honest, it has not been necessary, the piece has remained very Patek and very Genta and I respect the brand enormously for not altering it," says Behling. "At one time I thought it was a bit dated, but I was wrong and today it is comfortably in my Top Ten list of watches.
"For me, both the Audemars and Patek have to rank among the best watch designs the world has seen. Looking at them side-by-side, they could be two models from one company - the same hands, the same indexes… they remain two genuine icons."
So how can we sum up Gérald Genta's legacy? In the words of Franco Cologni Chairman of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie: "In his life as in his work, [Genta] sets a vital example for all those who go the extra mile and intend following a creative path in watchmaking. Young people above all. Because this brilliant man selflessly observed the designer's golden rule: to be one with the work of the master watchmaker in an informed, interested and respectful way."
"I feel privileged to have known Gérald Genta as both a friend and contemporary," adds Jean-Claude Biver, CEO of Hublot, and himself one of watchmaking's most innovative and colourful characters. "He was so much more than a designer. He was a phenomenal inventor, a master of both watchmaking and jewellery. He was, quite simply, a visionary."