G érald Genta (1931-2011) was a fastidious man of habit. The Swiss watchmaker would rise “terribly, terribly early”, don a suit and tie – even when working at home – sit at his desk and put on some music. His tastes spanned everything from classical to rap. “He would always tell you he didn’t know what he was going to design,” recalls Evelyne Genta, his partner in life and business. “He would take a sheet of blue paper, draw a circle with a compass, separate it in lines and start painting straightaway with small brushes. A new watch would appear – it was quite magical.”
Marking the recent 10-year anniversary of Genta’s death, a trio of dedicated auctions under the banner Gérald Genta: Icon of Time, are taking place at Sotheby’s Geneva, Hong Kong and New York during Spring 2022. These will present 100 original designs from Genta’s personal archives of 3,400 sketches. They encompass his most iconic timepieces, some never-before-seen private commissions and a unique selection of innovative watch designs. The sequence culminates with the auction of the Unique Royal Watch at Sotheby’s biannual Important Watches sale in May.
The different styles across the auctions “give an idea of what a complete artist he was”, explains Evelyne. ‘“Gérald had many sides – he could insert himself into the DNA of a brand. He made watches for Van Cleef & Arpels, Hermès, Cartier, among others, and each time he would try to evolve their DNA.” But it was under his eponymous marque where Genta was his most expressive. “When he made his own Genta designs, he felt totally free. That is why the designs in Sotheby's sales are so versatile.”
Born in 1931 in Geneva, Gérald Genta trained in jewellery and goldsmithing before being enlisted by Universal Genève. It didn’t take long for the young watchmaker to make his mark: at 23, Genta’s SAS Polerouter – commemorating the polar flights of its namesake Scandinavian airline – became one of the brand’s biggest hits. Genta went on to spend over 50 years at his drawing board imagining some of watchmaking’s most forward-thinking timepieces for companies including Omega, Piaget, Bulgari and IWC, as well as his own brand and private clients.
'Gérald was the first disrupter of our art and industry'
“Gérald was the first disrupter of our art and industry. He had the ability to constantly think out of the box and was obsessed with disrupting tradition,” says Jean-Claude Biver, former President of LVMH’s Watch division. “His role in the watch industry has been instrumental and even today we can still feel his immense influence. Two of his designs developed in the 1970s – the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet and the Nautilus for Patek Philippe – are still the leading watches in vintage and modern collections.”
In keeping with Genta’s trailblazing ethos, each watercolour painting will be paired with a digital replica in the form of an NFT (non-fungible token) that will serve as a certificate of authenticity and, for select designs, will include unseen archival material and biographical multimedia content. The physical artwork will be permanently tethered to its digital counterpart and cannot be resold without the accompanying NFT, with each artwork’s provenance committed to the blockchain. It’s a radical prospect that would have appealed to the equally radical Genta, celebrated in his time for revolutionising the watch industry with his luxury steel watches and boundary-pushing case designs. Today, Genta enjoys a cult following among young, tech-native watch collectors. “There have been so many requests from collectors asking questions about my husband,” notes Evelyne. “They were all very young and knowledgeable about his designs.”
Over the past year, Sotheby’s has been at the forefront of bringing important NFT artworks and collectibles to the market. “This time last year, we could never have envisaged the radical impact NFTs would have on our world, let alone when Gérald Genta began producing these designs more than 50 years ago, but they very much share the same pioneering spirit,” says Sebastian Fahey, Sotheby’s EMEA Managing Director and Executive Lead of Sotheby’s Metaverse. “ The sale presents a unique opportunity to acquire these important pieces of Gérald Genta’s legacy that speaks to the next generation of collectors, who are passionate about digital art and all the advantages NFTs have to offer.”
So what would the “Picasso of watchmaking” have made of NFTs? “Gérald was always looking for something new. It’s why I can never answer the question, ‘What was his favourite watch?’”, says Evelyne. “He would always say: ‘The one that I’m going to do tomorrow.’ He was obsessed with never looking back – the past is gone. I think he especially would have loved the idea that once and for all, when you look up his design, it’s got a certificate of authenticity saying ‘designed by Gérald Genta’.”
A portion of the proceeds from the sales will benefit the Gérald Genta Heritage Association and its mission to foster the next generation in the watch industry – notably with the launch of the inaugural edition of the Gérald Genta Prize for Young Talent. “We have some unbelievable young watchmakers making magnificent movements,” notes Evelyne, who hopes that the prize will give an avenue for young designers to hone their technical expertise and continue Genta’s legacy of radical watchmaking. It’s a fitting tribute for a man who once reflected that “a masterpiece is simply functionality born from beauty”.