Sotheby’s Is Auctioning Off a Rare Trove of Drawings by Gérald Genta, the ‘Picasso of Watchmaking’

Genta's luxury watches, such as the Patek Philippe Nautilus, helped modernize the industry.

One of Genta's original designs for the Patek Philippe Nautilus. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

This spring, Sotheby’s hosts “Gérald Genta: Icon of Time,” a series of sales taking place in Switzerland, Hong Kong, New York, and online featuring 100 original drawings by the legendary Swiss watch designer.

Genta is known as the “Picasso of watchmaking,” credited with modernizing the industry and introducing the first luxury steel sports watches. Less well known is that he was also an artist.

“Genta was as superb in paint and canvas as he was at painting a picture through the medium of cool metal and delicate machinery,” Sam Hines, Sotheby’s worldwide head of watches, said in a statement.

“As a Swiss artist living in Geneva, he felt that he must apply his art to watchmaking, and that is exactly what he dedicated his life to,” Evelyne Genta, the designer’s widow and former business partner, added.

She owns the portfolio of his designs and helped organize the Sotheby’s sale, which, one decade after his death, opens his personal archive to the public for the very first time.

Gérald Genta. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Gérald Genta. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A prolific painter since his youth, Genta created drawings as well as oil and watercolor paintings of his watch designs using super-fine pencils and paintbrushes, producing one every day and ultimately 100,000 throughout his career, many since lost or destroyed.

Now, 100 of them are hitting the auction block. The inaugural sale took place in February in Geneva, where Genta was born in 1931, and included 30 never-before-seen watch drawings, from his original Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet, the first luxury steel wristwatch, to a timepiece commissioned for a Middle Eastern head of state featuring a Gaugin painting on the dial. All of them sold out.

The second auction is currently happening in Hong Kong (until April 19) and presents 34 drawings and watercolors, including his original 1976 design for another icon of the watch world: the Patek Philippe Nautilus.

The Swiss brand’s first luxury sports watch began as a quick sketch on a paper napkin at a bar in Basel. Genta had spotted the CEO of Patek Philippe, Philippe Stern, and started doodling. Soon after, by coincidence, the company asked him to design a stainless-steel watch, and he was prepared.

Named after Captain Nemo’s submarine from the Jules Verne novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Nautilus has a soft-angled bezel based on the portholes of transatlantic ships (Stern was a yachtsman), while its blue dial was inspired by color of the Swiss lakes.

One of Genta's original designs for the Patek Philippe Nautilus. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

One of Genta’s original designs for the Patek Philippe Nautilus. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Other highlights of the Hong Kong sale include Genta’s designs for timepieces incorporating Chinese zodiac signs as well as the Grande Sonnerie, which, with more than one thousand parts, including a perpetual calendar and a Westminster four-hammer chime mimicking London’s Big Ben, was called the world’s most complicated wristwatch upon its release in 1995.

Each drawing or painting comes with a unique non-fungible token that includes a digital replica and archival material. The NFT also serves as a record of ownership and proof of provenance for the design.

A portion of the sale proceeds will benefit the Gérald Genta Heritage Association, which supports the industry’s next generation with the Gérald Genta Prize for Young Talent.

“With this sale, we are continuing Gérald’s legacy of innovation,” Evelyne said. “He was always at least five or ten years ahead of his time, working towards unprecedented ideas that radicalized—and sometimes scandalized—the industry, but ultimately transformed it.”

As Genta once said, “For me, watches are the antithesis of liberty. I am an artist, a painter, I hate having to adhere to the constraints of time.”

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