100 Drawings from the ‘Picasso of Watchmaking’ Head to Auction

AuctionsJan 10, 2022

100 Drawings from the ‘Picasso of Watchmaking’ Head to Auction

“Gérald Genta: Icon of Time” will open the archives for the first time this spring at Sotheby’s.

The upcoming auctions at Sotheby’s will feature 100 drawings by Gerald Genta, including his favorite, seen here faded at the top right corner—an enamel box with a Fabergé-inspired flower design, holding a perpetual calendar inside.
Geneva—Starting next month, Sotheby’s will celebrate one of the world’s most famous watch designers with a dedicated sales series. 

“Gérald Genta: Icon of Time” will honor “the Picasso of watchmaking” by featuring 100 of his drawings in a series of sales in Geneva, Hong Kong, and New York. 

Born in Geneva in 1931, Genta had designing and art in his heart, eventually entering the area of national pride, Swiss watches. 

Genta created at least one watch design every day, Sotheby’s said, amounting to 100,000 drawings throughout his career, many of which have been lost or destroyed.

Each started with a single circle drawn with Genta’s compass to the exact size of the watch and then produced with fine pencils and paintbrushes, allowing for the final watches to be identical to his original to-scale designs. 

He started off at a time when the role of watch designer didn’t exist, and so would travel to the watch manufacturers to pitch his designs for 10 Swiss francs each. 

At 23, he created a design while working for Universal Geneve for the Scandinavian Airline System (SAS) Polerouter, a watch that commemorated the polar flights of the airline and became one of the brand’s biggest successes.

It basically started the role of “watch designer,” leading more manufacturers to call on young creators. 

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It also kicked off a career path for Genta that led to him designing for brands like Omega, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, IWC, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet, Hamilton, and Bulgari, among others.

He created his own company in 1969 and developed his brand with his wife and business partner, Evelyne Genta, producing pieces for unique clients.

Genta combined new shapes and materials with major watchmaking complexities, and reimagined traditional mechanisms, like the perpetual calendar, for the modern day.

In 1999, he sold his company to an Asian corporation. 

He died in 2011, but his vision lives on today through the approximately 3,500 beautiful sketches, gouaches, and watercolor designs in his family’s collection.

The upcoming auctions to commemorate his vital role in watch design will open the archives for the first time, featuring 100 original designs, from some of his most iconic timepieces to never-before-seen private commissions and a selection of innovative and unique watch designs.

At left is the original 1970 sketch for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the watch that has come to define his legacy (Geneva sale, February). At right is the never-before-seen first design he ever produced for the Royal Oak, which is quite different to the design the world knows now but still with the iconic octagonal case (Geneva sale, February).

A highlight of the sale is the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. The company approached Genta in 1970 for the watch that would revolutionize the industry—the first sports watch to be made of steel, elevating the metal to the level of precious materials for the first time in the watchmaking world.

Genta designed The Royal Oak overnight, Sotheby’s said, inspired by a childhood memory of seeing a man being sealed into an old-fashioned diving suit near the Mont Blanc bridge in Geneva.

The Royal Oak features an octagonal-shaped bezel mirroring the shape of a vintage diving helmet, with the eight hexagonal screws securing it to the watch as a helmet to the diving suit.

Genta followed the manufacturing process of the watch through every stage over the following two years before its launch in 1972, when it retailed for $4,000.

The Royal Oak wasn’t widely appreciated at first, except for the Italian market, and it took three years for sales to begin to climb. Still produced today, though, it’s now one of the brand’s bestsellers.

Also of note in the auction is Genta’s design for the Patek Philippe Nautilus.

As the story goes, he was in a bar in 1976 during the Basel fair when then-CEO Philippe Stern walked in, making Genta wonder how he’d design a steel sports watch for the brand. He sketched an idea on a napkin in five minutes.

Not long after, the brand contacted Genta to design a stainless-steel watch, for which he already had the design.

This one, too, was inspired by the nautical world, but instead featured a soft-angled bezel based on the portholes of transatlantic ships. The blue dial was also made in the same color as the Swiss lakes on which Stern liked to sail.

At left is Genta’s original design for the Nautilus, one of his only designs to also show the side profile of the watch (Hong Kong, March 2022). At right, the original De Gefica Safari Montre Beretta (New York, April 2022).

There’s also the Gelica Safari, requested by three safari hunters in 1984. Named for an aggregation of their first names, the model quickly became iconic in the watch world with its moon phases and compass.

It was also the first watch with a bronze case, designed with hunting visibility—or rather, a lack of—in mind, as the material didn’t reflect sunlight.

Another notable lot is the 1985 redesign of a watch made by Louis Cartier more than five decades prior for the Pasha of Marrakech.

The result of a personal relationship with the then-president of Cartier, one of Genta’s favorite brands, the watch was recreated to have a complication component as well as the moon in gold and the sky in lapis lazuli rather than the two being painted on.

At left, one of Genta’s early designs for the Pasha, which was never presented to Cartier for production (Geneva, February 2022). At right, the Grande Sonnerie World Time Repetition Montres Tourbillon Minutes (Hong Kong, March 2022).

Ten years later, after half a decade of research and development, Genta unveiled the Grande Sonnerie, the most sophisticated and complex wristwatch in the world at the time and what Sotheby’s said was “perhaps Genta’s most important contribution to high watchmaking.”

Emulating the chimes of London’s Big Ben, the watch—which had only been made as a pocket watch before— included more than a thousand spare parts.

Genta made 20 of the Grand Sonnerie watches in total; designs for three are included in the sales.

The Geneva auction will run from Feb. 10-24, followed by the Hong Kong event from March 10-24, and finishing with a New York auction from April 14-28.

Each painting in the auction series will be paired with a unique NFT that features an artistic digital replica of the design, a certificate of authenticity, and, for select pieces, never-before-seen multimedia content.

Bidding on the NFT lots will start at 100 CHF for the Geneva sale, HKD 1,000 for the Hong Kong sale, and $100 for the New York sale.

Additionally, a portion of the sales’ proceeds will benefit the Gérald Genta Heritage Association and its mission to support the next generation in the watch industry. 
The series will culminate with the auction of Gérald Genta’s Unique Royal Oak Watch in May, estimated at $300,000-$500,000.

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