Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Phillipe Nautilus. How did that happen? Start with this: we tend to define people like we put our clothes in drawers. We put the socks in one, the undies in another, the shirts in a third. Watch enthusiasts think of the man behind the Royal Oak and Nautilus as a famous watch designer. They tend to forget that Gerald Genta was first and foremost a watchmaker . . .
Genta began his career as an apprentice watchmaker at Switzerland’s Universal Genève. Universal recognized the Swiss/Italian’s skill, then his engineering talent. To their credit, they put Genta’s mechanical genius to work. Genta invented the off-center micro-rotor, an advance that enabled thinner automatic watches. Universal went for it in a big way.
The device first appeared in the Polerouter – a huge hit for his employer. Their 1965 Golden Shadow and White Shadow models were the thinnest automatic watch movements in the world, at just 2.3mm. A record that remained until 1978.
Genta’s move from the technical side to the design side was relatively easy – there was no design side. Before Genta, very few watchmakers had a styling department or an in-house designer. A watch’s look – its overall shape and details – was born from utilitarian principles. A watch was like this or that simply to fulfill a purpose.
In an interview later in life, Genta claimed he’d “almost single-handedly” invented the profession of watch designer. That’s not completely true – there were some full-time designers before him. But it’s certainly true that Genta catapulted a watch’s design element from a secondary consideration to a primary focus.
By the late ’50’s Genta had made a name for himself balancing technical innovation and aesthetic aspiration. He spread his wings and began designing watches on a freelance basis (e.g., Omega’s 1959 Constellation, above). In 1970, Audemars Piguet hired Genta to create an entirely new model line. They produced the now iconic Royal Oak, generally considered to be the world’s first luxury sports watch.
Released in 1972 in the middle of the quartz crisis, the Royal Oak’s diving helmet-inspired design and integrated bracelet were AP’s savior. A trick Genta repeated for Patek Philippe with the 1976 Royal Oak-inspired Nautilus (above). Both watches are considered masterpieces. Both watches are still in production and command sky-high pre-owned premiums.
Gerald Genta was an extremely competent watchmaker and experienced designer. He was in the right place in the right time to create the Royal Oak and Nautilus. A time when Swiss watchmakers’ deeply uncertain future inspired them to take risks. A time when artists – writers, singers, filmmakers, etc. – had a desire to go against “the system.” To challenge existing norms.
Even so, the key to understanding the ongoing appeal of Genta’s Royal Oak and Nautilus is to know they’re as much a result of evolution as revolution.
Look closely at Genta’s 1968 Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse. You can see the design elements that inform the Royal Oak and Nautilus: fluid shapes for the case, a huge reduction of the lug size, only two hands. The Ellipse is a luxury watch pared down, a timepiece that’s eternal in its [then radical] shape, materials and details. According to Patek’s website, there’s a reason for that.
Its design was inspired by the principle of the “golden section” discovered by the ancient greek mathematicians. This “divine” proportion, expressed as a ratio of 1 / 1.6181, forms the basis of some of history’s greatest works of art and architecture.
It’s more than math. Genta created the Ellipse and his more famous duo by tuning-into the right “vibes” and combining encyclopedic knowledge, technical savvy and masterful minimalism, resulting in an object with a singular identity. The Ellipse also still in production. (Recent unsuccessful attempts to copy Genta’s signature watches show us the full extent of his talent.)
Ideas are always in the air – it’s the execution that makes the difference. Few objects have the comprehesive quality of design and execution that give an object a character of its own. Fewer still reach an iconic status. The Royal Oak and Nautilus do. We have Gerald Genta to thank for it.
Check out Franz Rivoira’s horological analysis on Facebook or Instagram (#watchonomicon). Please support his writing via Patreon.
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