There might be no historical figure more important to the shape of modern watches than Gerald Genta. I mean that literally, of course. From Patek Philippe’s Nautilus to Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, Genta’s designs have steered product development for most of the watch industry and monopolized the attention of collectors and enthusiasts today. As I jokingly tell friends, “this is Gerald Genta’s world and we’re just living in it.”
More than the specifics of his iconic designs and their influence on modern watchmaking, I’ve always been interested in how such a popular figure like Gerald Genta is born. It’s frankly quite difficult to imagine a contractor for watch brands gaining such widespread recognition for work, especially in today’s watch industry. Will there ever been another Genta figure again? I don’t think so. It seems like Gerald Genta was a glitch in the matrix.
“No contractors here”
As I’ve mentioned previously, the watch industry does not often elevate creatives or designers. Some brands do have creative, public-facing figures like Christian Selmoni, Heritage Director of Vacheron Constantin, or Michael Friedman, Head of Complications at Audemars Piguet, but notoriety like the Virgil Abloh or Kim Joneses of the fashion world have no real equivalents in watchmaking. In part, I believe this has to do with the concern brands have of creating figures as big as the brands themselves – as big as Genta eventually became.
I’m lucky to have befriended some professional watch designers over the last few years, and know that all their projects with brands are locked up in strict nondisclosure agreements. Collectors and enthusiasts are effectively barred from knowing who’s working on what, everything is subsumed by the brand. It also doesn’t help that anything other than in-house is stigmatized as lesser. With “in-house” becoming the new gold standard for luxury, contract work is hidden, conducted secretly, to uphold perceptions.
The lesson from Genta – “never again”
One of the biggest complaints from watch collectors and enthusiasts is that the big brands lack creativity. But what else can we expect when creatives – in-house or contracted – have to perform their duties without hope of recognition? Besides maybe only Kafka, there are no creators who want to live and die in obscurity. Yet, those are the terms of being creative in the watch industry for any big brand.
Every creative designer and watchmaker wants recognition. Based on my conversations with watch designers though, brands protect against recognition going to anyone or anything other than the brand itself. It’s hard to tell how much of this is a response to Genta’s success, and I do not know exactly when the industry standard became national-intelligence-grade contractor secrecy and nondisclosures. One way or the other, it’s clear that the watch industry today is doing as much as it can to ensure that there will never be another Gerald Genta.
This isn’t limited to watch design, of course. I do not think we will ever see another renowned casemaker like JP Hagman for very similar reasons. It just feels like it will be a cold day in hell before Patek Philippe or any other top-tier brand allows a contracted casemaker to engrave their initials on a lug of the case.
We should remain appreciative of Gerald Genta’s contribution to the watch world, but we should also be mournful that another such figure is highly improbable to pop up again anytime soon.
Another day with the beast,