In February, a small watercolour sketch of a wristwatch sold at Sotheby’s for more than half a million Swiss francs, or about $750,000. While that’s not a particularly remarkable sum for an art sale, it is by far the most money ever spent on a painting by the artist, the late Swiss watch designer Gérald Genta.
The auction, dubbed Gérald Genta: Icon of Time, is the first of three sales of Genta’s watch paintings taking place throughout 2022. The timing is no coincidence. This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of Genta’s most famous creations, the watch pictured in the Sotheby’s watercolour: the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
While Genta’s name remains relatively unknown outside the world of watch enthusiasts, he’s a legend to those in the know, with a following of collectors devoted to anything bearing his distinctive geometric aesthetic. “To me, Genta has always been about sculpture,” says Philip Toledano, a New York-based photographer who shares his collection of Genta-designed Rolexes and Patek Philippes under the Instagram handle, @misterenthusiast. “He understood more than any other watch designer the relationship between dial and watch, and watch and wrist. There’s a purity to the shapes that’s simply glorious.”
While Genta’s most famous watches attract an exceptional amount of hype today, his impact was far greater than any single design. Vintage watch fans will be familiar with the turbulent era of the 1970s known as the Quartz Crisis, a period when the future of traditional mechanical watches was threatened by the arrival of mass-produced quartz watches from Japan. In an industry defined by tradition, Genta’s bold, modern creations were like nothing that had come before and helped to transform Swiss watches from time-telling jewellery to wearable works of art. “It was the birth of watch design,” says Evelyne Genta, the designer’s widow and unofficial chief archivist. “People suddenly realized that watches were objects by themselves, and they needed to be designed.”
In recent years, as the popularity of vintage watch collecting has grown around the world, Genta’s profile has grown with it, along with the prices for his most coveted designs. But Evelyne says there was far more to Genta than these few models, citing a body of work spanning utensils, eyeglasses and automatons that she hopes to illuminate through the Gérald Genta Foundation. “He designed every day, so there’s a legacy of designs that nobody has seen,” she says.
First, however, she will part with perhaps the most important piece of Gérald Genta memorabilia in the world: the artist’s own Royal Oak wristwatch. The piece is scheduled to go up on the auction block in Geneva in late spring and will likely fetch seven figures, a portion of which will be used to fund a grant for up-and-coming watch designers who embody Genta’s creative spirit. “I can’t be modest and say that he never expected this,” Evelyne says. “He always thought he deserved much more popularity.”
For more information, visit sothebys.com.