As the mastermind behind Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak and Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, watch designer Gérald Genta practically invented the luxury sports watch industry. Five years after his death, his creations continue to inspire a raft of sporty reinventions
Ask a watch designer which watch they admire more than any other, and there is an overwhelming chance you will get only one answer: Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak. I have lost track of the number of times this has happened to me – in fact, I’ve stopped asking.
Of all the watches made in the last half-century, it occupies a mythic status unmatched by anything else. The reasons why are not complicated. The Royal Oak laid down a template for a whole new style of watch, singlehandedly changing perceptions of what a luxury watch could be. It was, and is, the original luxury sports watch. It spawned a legion of successors (some would say imitators), creating a niche that no self-respecting manufacturer could afford to ignore.
Its defining features were its angular, multi-faceted steel case and integrated bracelet (the links appear to flow directly from the case without the need for a pair of lugs). Like the Rolex Submariner, its status is such that it’s almost a brand in itself – you rarely, if ever, hear it described as ‘the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak’.
Created for the Italian market in particular, the Royal Oak was the creation of Gérald Genta, a designer who – in large part thanks to this very story – became the most famous and successful watch designer of the 20th century. The myth is so well-known among watch circles that it’s almost folklore. Tasked with producing something dynamic, luxurious yet sufficiently durable for young, affluent signores to wear on the beach, he defied the accepted wisdom that only precious metals were good enough.
It was so difficult to make, ironically, that the prototype shown at Baselworld in 1972 was actually white gold. But, soon enough, the real (steel) deal was proving immensely popular.
It was so difficult to make, ironically, that the prototype shown at Baselworld in 1972 was actually white gold
While it is true to say that the Royal Oak began an entire category of watches, it’s more true to say that it was Genta himself who made ‘sports luxe’ a thing. Having lit the spark with the Royal Oak, he continued by reinventing IWC’s Ingenieur (the Ingenieur SL) and – probably his second most famous work – created the Patek Philippe Nautilus, both released in 1976. He continued in the same vein, producing integrated bracelet designs for the likes of Omega (which failed to capture the imagination in the same way), and when he established his own brand, his flagship watch was a piece called the Octo, which had a steel case and bracelet, and an octagonal bezel with a round dial.
Even the landmark pieces of this genre that Genta didn’t design are often attributed to him. The third most significant sports luxe watch, Vacheron Constantin’s Overseas, was long thought to have originated from a Genta design; however, it was Jorg Hysek who created the 222, the Overseas’ forefather. Likewise, for all its similarity to the Royal Oak and Ingenieur, the Girard-Perregaux Laureato was not Genta’s work either.
Casual observers of the watch industry will know that the past five or six years have been characterised by a tendency to look back, to revive, to pay homage. Our collective appetite for ‘heritage pieces’ has known no limit, and watches from the 1970s have been hit hardest of all. In 2013, IWC brought out a range of Ingenieurs bearing close resemblance to Genta’s SL. Bulgari has made hay with the Octo, proving its versatility with ‘finissimo’ ultra-thin versions and most recently a minute repeater. Other brands have cashed in on the Genta-revivalism without the need to have been there in the first place – check out the Glashütte Original Seventies, launched in 2011, for a quirky alternative.
Casual observers of the watch industry will know that the past five or six years have been characterised by a tendency to look back, to revive, to pay homage
This year, the trickle became a stream. Vacheron Constantin went first, debuting an overhauled Overseas in January (followed by world timer versions over the summer). It’s the most emphatic revamp the Overseas has had for more than a decade, with platinum-cased perpetual calendars, ultra-slim pieces and Vacheron Constantin’s first in-house automatic chronograph to boot.
March saw Girard-Perregaux bring back the Laureato as part of the brand’s 225th anniversary celebrations. The watch may not be getting the attention of its more storied colleagues, but it’s compelling enough that, as it is limited to just 225 pieces, many will be left wanting.
In July, Piaget re-launched its lynchpin of the 1980s, the Polo, as the Polo S. Neither a 1970s watch nor one of Genta’s design, it nevertheless qualifies – just look at it – though Piaget could have been braver with the new design.
So, 2016 has already been defined as the year of sports luxe revival – and the best is yet to come. This year represents the 40th anniversary of Patek’s Nautilus, and it’s understood that a new version will land just in time for Christmas. What’s interesting, of course, is that the Royal Oak has never needed reviving. It may have seen mutations over the years – right now, AP is glorying in a full-fat range of yellow gold Royal Oaks – but the basic shape is unchanged and, crucially, if you pick one up tomorrow, it remains as impactful and captivating as it was 44 years ago.
Genta may have sown the same seeds at other brands, but the original – as is so often the case – remains the best. No wonder so many designers love it.