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Gérald Genta’s legacy is protected until the end of time

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Gerald Genta.

Simon De Burton, writer, historian and founder member of the Honorary Committee of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association, believes a sale this year of Gérald Genta original sketches — forever protected as unique NFTs — will be fought over like priceless works of art by collectors.

Last year was a stellar one for horological auctions, but no sooner had the last gavel fallen than collectors were given something else to think about with the announcement that a quartet of sales would take place in 2022 relating to the work of a man whom many regard as the greatest watch designer of the 20th century – the late Gérald Genta.

The news came from the office of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association which was founded in 2018 by Genta’s widow and long-term business partner, Monaco’s ambassador to the United Kingdom Her Excellency Evelyne Genta. I am a founder member of the Honorary Committee of the Gérald Genta Heritage Association.

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Evelyne Genta with her late husband’s original designs.

The remarkable portfolio of offerings, which Mrs Genta has personally consigned to Sotheby’s, comprises no fewer than 100 of Genta’s original, meticulously executed design drawings — including those for his two most celebrated creations, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus — all of which will be sold along with its own NFT.

Original Genta designs are being sold along with NFTs guaranteeing their authenticity and protecting them from being copied.

There will also be four original oil paintings and, in a sale timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Royal Oak, Mr Genta’s personal and unique bi-metal example of the model is tipped to realize up to CHF 500,000. A portion of the proceeds from all lots will be donated to the Heritage Association to fund the Gérald Genta Prize for Young Talent.

The items will be dispersed through sales happening in Geneva (February and May), Hong Kong (March) and New York (April) — and, believe me, they are going to be hard-fought contests.

I say that with confidence, because nine years ago Mrs Genta generously invited me into her home to see not only the items that she has now consigned for sale, but also many more of the drawings that constitute her late husband’s truly remarkable legacy.

His ‘greatest hits’ might range from the Omega Constellation to IWC’s 1970s Ingenieur and Da Vinci models, the perpetual calendar dial for the Cartier Pasha and the aforementioned Royal Oak and Nautilus — but relatively few people are aware that these watches represent the tiny tip of a vast iceberg.

Genta’s drawing of the Patek Philippe Nautilus.
Arguably the first luxury steel sports watch, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.

On his death in 2011 at the age of 80, Mr Genta left behind a hoard of no fewer than 3,400 highly finished yet largely unrealized designs created not at the behest of any particular manufacturer, but simply because his fertile imagination and passion for drawing meant a day rarely passed without another idea being put down on paper.

And, unlike the disorganized piles of canvases and drawing books that are often found in the studios of departed artists, Mr Genta’s sketches, all made to precisely the intended life scale, are perfectly preserved, carefully filed and ready to be brought to life.

I was left agog when Mrs Genta allowed me to be the first journalist to see the archive in its entirety, because it fills more than 60 drawers and spans close to two decades of creativity.

And it reveals not merely the prodigious nature of Mr Genta’s output, but a meticulous approach for which the word ‘sketch’ is simply not appropriate. Created on uniform sheets of eight-inch by five-inch black or dark blue pastel paper, every piece of work is immaculately finished and annotated.

One of several Pasha watch designs Genta created for Cartier.

Originally trained as a jeweller, Geneva-born Gérald Genta turned to freelance design as soon as he had qualified, producing innumerable sketches at 15 francs a time which he sold to independent makers.

He subsequently diversified into advertising and fashion, establishing a reputation that resulted in his first commissions to create one-off watch designs and the beginnings of a success story which enabled him to set-up the Gérald Genta watch brand. He eventually sold that business in 1999 to a Singapore buyer which, in turn, sold it to Bulgari.

But all the time that he was running his eponymous company, he was also working on the bespoke commissions in which he specialized. “Creating the one-off pieces was the side of the industry in which he was really interested,” explained Mrs Genta.

A one-off watch for a Middle Eastern head of state designed by Mr Genta.

“I would estimate that he designed at least 6,000 bespoke objects for clients ranging from the late Fiat head Gianni Agnelli to many of the world’s royal families — he made more than 2,000 for one particular head of state alone.

“Gérald maintained a high output throughout his life and, in his later years, would spend the mornings designing watches and the afternoons painting. As a result, we have these many unrealized designs which are all completed to the exact size and ready to be realized. He knew exactly how a watch was made and, therefore, never produced a design that was not viable.”

Mr Genta was a designer who understood watchmaking so that even highly complex pieces like this Grande Sonnerie Tourbillon Minute Repeater were practical to manufacture.

Among the original drawings being made available for sale (in addition to those for the Nautilus and Royal Oak) are others for the Gefica Safari, the Disney collection and the staggeringly complex Grande Sonnerie — all produced under the Gérald Genta dial name — as well as for the Cartier Pasha and several done as private commissions.

Mr Genta broke with convention by making cartoon characters part of luxury watchmaking.

The latter include a bejeweled belt and pendant made as a gift for a European head of state, a spectacular enamel box containing a perpetual calendar and a minute repeater wrist watch featuring a dial decorated with a Gaugin-inspired painting.

In our special WATCHPRO interview, Mrs Genta also explained the thinking behind the sales.

“The project with Sotheby’s both continues Gérald’s mission and marks the 10th Anniversary of his passing,” she says.

“We want each sale to represent a different aspect of my husband’s impressive contribution to watch making by offering show stopping designs such as the Royal Oak, the Nautilus the Pasha and many other recognisable names — but one of the most exceptional aspects of this collection will be that each design is to be paired with a unique, artistic NFT.

“Each lot of the sale will consist of the physical design but also of its NFT equivalent. This element of the sale is very exciting for us, as we believe these types of technology could even be a step into a new direction for the watchmaking industry. Gérald Genta is celebrated for his work, but also for the barriers he broke down by always being ahead of his time.

“Therefore, it seemed only natural to continue his legacy of innovating the watchmaking sector by reviving these sketches with the help of cutting-edge and artistic technology. Had he been here today, Gérald would have been fascinated by NFTs and I can clearly see him going down such an innovative and exciting path,” Mrs Genta suggests.

Mr Genta’s personal and unique bi-metal Royal Oak is tipped to realize up to CHF 500,000 at auction.

As well as representing Genta’s art, the NFTs are also being used — in what is believed to be a first — to authenticate each of the physical designs on offer.

“Using the everlasting technology of Blockchain means the provenance and authenticity of these designs can never be questioned,” concludes Mrs Genta.

“It will be engraved in history that Gérald Genta is the genius behind these pieces and, through this everlasting art form, I hope that his genius and vision will continue to influence the industry for many more years to come.”

To that, I think we can safely say it will.

Dates for the Gérald Genta ‘Icon of Time’ sales

  • Geneva, February 10 – 24 (includes previously unseen very first design for the Royal Oak).
  • Hong Kong, March 10 – 24 (original design for the Nautilus and three for the Grand Sonnerie)
  • New York, April 13 – 27 (original designs for the Disney collection)
  • Geneva, May (Genta’s personal Royal Oak and four oil paintings)
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