Many renowned watchmakers are responsible for developing the modern luxury watch, and yet there are a few in particular who left a lasting historical impact. Patek Philippe, Jules Louis Audemars, Edward Auguste Piguet, and Cartier are a few examples of people who moved the needle in historical luxury watchmaking. Perhaps the most influential figure in all of the modern watchmaking is Gerald Genta, whose creations still dominate much of the modern luxury watch market.
Although watches in Kansas City as we know them today have only been around for approximately 150 years, the first mechanical clock was invented in 1275 in England. There is even a clock from 1386 that is still functioning today. That clock is located in the Salisbury Cathedral and does not have a face but rather tells the time by issuing an audible sound once every hour.
Time as a Currency
Clocks and watches became more than just a physical possession. Some would argue they even helped to shape the world. Being able to afford a clock in the centuries leading up to the invention of the watch wasn’t just an indication of wealth; it was a way to organize one’s life to be more effective.
Think of how the world changed when the telephone was created. Before the telephone, people were only able to communicate over the telegraph, by letter, or in person. These methods of communication took time and led to lots of time wasted waiting or missing engagements. When the telephone was invented, people gained the ability to coordinate from locations that were far apart.
Just as the telephone changed the world, the clock and then later the watch provided people with the means to organize better. Suddenly, you could plan ahead of time and know for certain what time to be somewhere.
By being able to measure time, wages could be better tracked, businesses could operate more efficiently, and personal encounters become much more convenient.
Gone were the days when one would have to use vague descriptors such as midday or sundown to communicate when a meeting or event would take place. People could now organize their meetings, travel with more peace of mind, and operate with far more accuracy. Therefore, being able to tell the time wasn’t just a sign of wealth – it offered a lifestyle and economic advantage.
Enter the Modern Wristwatch
The modern form of the wristwatch was first introduced in 1812 for the Queen of Naples. It was specifically designed to fit the wrist of the Queen and holds the title of the world’s earliest watch.
Before 1812, small timepieces did exist, but they were mostly worn by women on the arm and called arm watches. A smaller version was worn by men in the form of the pocket watch. Early versions of the armed watch were easily broken and susceptible to the elements. That is why men used pocket watches when they were likely to be in the elements, and their timepiece would need more protection.
After the first wristwatch was created for the Queen of Naples, a trend began largely associated with royalty due to the Queen owning the first one.
By the time of the First World War, the wristwatch had become much more refined and durable. Soldiers in the First World War wore wristwatches that were designated as trench watches and were designed to withstand not just the elements but also the dangers of war. Wristwatches became a staple of the officer’s kit and featured a luminous face that would glow in the dark.
The Father of the Modern Luxury Watch
Although the modern watch was the culmination of over a century of development, there is really only one name that encapsulates how it got to where it is today – Gerald Genta.
He was born in 1931 in Geneva and grew up in Switzerland where he learned the jewelry and goldsmith trades and eventually earned a Swiss federal diploma. Genta designed watches through the 1950s and 1960s before creating his own brand in 1969. Throughout the 1970s, Genta created such famous watches as the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet, the Nautilus for Patek Philippe, and the IWC Ingenieur SL watch.
In 2011, Genta passed away, leaving behind a legacy of ingenuity and raw watchmaking skill. He was perhaps best known for his hand-designed movements, dials, and cases, all of which he completed personally. A single watch could take Genta up to five years to finish and have gone for as much as $2,000,000 at auction. Genta has created commissioned timepieces for famous clientele including professional athletes, celebrities, politicians, and even royalty.
A Luxury Watch Is Born
Gerald Genta’s influence on the modern watch was so strong; he helped Switzerland earn the reputation it has today as one of the world’s leading sources of luxury watches. Swiss-made watches have earned their reputation for the level of quality that Swiss designers such as Genta produced and that legacy carries on to this day. Genta worked with brands including Omega, Audemars Piguet, and IWC before creating his own brand that was eventually bought by Bulgari.
One of the most famous and iconic watches Genta ever designed was the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Genta designed the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet in 1970, and he drew the design from a stroke of inspiration in a single night. The style of the watch was inspired by a diver with an old helmet. The diver imagery inspired the look of the Royal Oak that features an octagon face with eight screws intentionally arranged on the bezel for style. The luxury watch has remained a popular design to this day and has even been reincarnated as recently as 1993 and again in 2013.
Although Genta is only one designer out of thousands who had a hand in forming the modern luxury watch, he is the most prominent and best known of them all. The clock was first invented centuries ago and morphed into smaller and smaller iterations until it could fit on the wrist of the Queen of Naples. Since then, the luxury watch has become a staple of men and women’s style and remains a highly collectible and valuable commodity.