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Watches: Ahead of his Time

James D. Malcolmson

Would you buy a watch from a designer whose work was thrown out of Switzerland’s most prestigious exhibition? For many watch enthusiasts, whether they realize it or not, the answer is yes.

 

The offbeat flair of Gérald Charles Genta, a pioneering—and perhaps the most daring—designer in watchmaking, has not always sat well with the more conservative elements of the Swiss watch establishment. In the 1980s, Genta launched a line of Disney-themed timepieces called the Fantasy collection, featuring what has to be the most expensive Mickey Mouse watch in the world (current models sell for $8,000 to $20,000). Genta’s playful irreverence precipitated his ejection from the elite Montres et Bijoux show in 1984. However, Genta cannot be too upset by this incident. He has received more than a few accolades from the same Swiss establishment, including the Poinçon de Geneve, a mark of quality bestowed upon only a select group of discriminating makers.

Today, Genta is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Some of his most enduring designs, including Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet and Nautilus for Patek Philippe, are celebrating significant anniversaries, and once again he is building his own collection, this time under the name Gerald Charles Designs.

The altered identity is the by-product of the sale of his eponymous Gérald Genta company, first in 1996 to the Hour Glass Group, which sold it to Bulgari in 2000. But if Genta is now “the artist formerly known as . . .,” the Gerald Charles watches are nevertheless a progression of his always head-turning design sensibility. The fluid and organic (and appropriately named) Renaissance line is driven by Genta’s quest for comfort and individual style. “For me the ‘soft line’ is the key to my success,” he says. “The soft line has been a constant feature in my work, even when I used the famous octagon, which became my trademark. To me it is important that the eye slides on my designs and is not caught by aggressive angles.”

La Palma, the designer’s latest interpretation of his soft line, will debut this spring. Large and round with an elaborate dial, La Palma will, naturally, include a material not usually seen in watches: bronze.

Ergonomics is rarely appreciated in wristwatches, but then again, so are many of Genta’s contributions to the craft. Those who have followed watches long enough will recall that many of today’s popular design elements—carbon-fiber dials, geometric shapes, and retrograde hands—made their splashes in 1970s and 1980s Gérald Genta watches.

Traditional, complicated watchmaking is by no means inimical to Genta’s vision of timekeeping. While he describes himself as a designer, not an engineer, he directed the mid-1970s development of a highly sophisticated grande sonnerie pocket watch—years before the industry recognized the potential boom in such ultracomplicated timepieces. In 1994, he completed a version of the grande sonnerie with a tourbillon and perpetual calendar recognized at the time as the most complicated wristwatch in the world.
The offerings of Gerald Charles Designs may seem futuristic, but that comes as no surprise to collectors. Unconventional design has always been the essence of Genta’s work. “When I started in 1954, the Swiss watchmakers were inspired mostly by classical style,” he says. “A watch was round or square and that was it. At the time, the profession of watch designer did not exist as such. It was impossible in those days to imagine that design would become so important.” 

Gerald Charles Designs, +41.22.700.2915, www.geraldcharlesdesigns.com

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