At LVMH, the legendary Gérald Genta brand is born again
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The Monégasque ambassador to the Court of St James’s (and, idiosyncratically, Kazakhstan) has been a fixture on London’s diplomatic circuit for more than a decade. You might have seen her at one of the national-day celebrations: the bedrock upon which the ambassadorial social scene is constructed. And if you have ever wanted to relocate to Monaco, then you will have had an interview with her to establish your suitability for life in the principality. A skilled diplomat and the personification of poise and elegance, she gives the impression of having done this all her working life. But this is Evelyne Genta’s second professional incarnation — she was once the business brain behind one of the greatest names in watch design, Gérald Genta.
“I met Gérald at a dinner party in Monte Carlo in the early ’80s,” she says brightly, adding with a smile, “he spent the evening telling me that my watch was ugly.”
It proved to be an unusual but effective chat-up line – the pair married six months later, and she spent much of the final two decades of the 20th century selling remarkable horological creations to the world’s super-rich. Back in the ’80s and ’90s if you were a sultan or sheikh, a king or prince, who had a taste for what she describes as “grande horlogerie” and the money to indulge it, you would have known Madame Genta.
Having died in 2011, Gérald Genta did not live long enough to see the frenzy that has recently surrounded his watches, specifically, the Patek Philippe Nautilus and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak he designed in the 1970s. And his posthumous fame has been a source of pain as well as pride for his widow. “I didn’t want Gérald to be forgotten,” she says. “But nor do I want him to be remembered for just the Nautilus and the Royal Oak. He is so much more than that.”
As if on cue, the handsome, floppy-haired man sitting beside her on the leather sofa interjects. “There are a number of people credited with pulling the Swiss watch industry out of the quartz crisis. And when you look at the watches that the Gérald Genta brand produced during that time: the grande sonnerie, the minute repeaters and the perpetual calendars, he is definitely one of them,” he says.
Jean Arnault speaks with the impassioned intensity of the young idealist. And he has mastered his material. He can tell you in great detail the difference between grande and petite sonnerie, or rattle off production dates, serial numbers and all manner of other abstruse watchmaking trivia. Such youthful horological experts are more common than you might think. However, this one is unique: as well as knowing the back catalogue of Gérald Genta like a priest knows his catechism, he can actually do something with this knowledge, like reviving the brand.
Now 24, the fifth and youngest son of Bernard Arnault (founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of LVMH) joined the family business in September 2021 when he started working in the watch division of Louis Vuitton. In less than two years he has galvanised what was essentially just another LV-branded product sector into a boutique horology brand to watch. In 2021, Louis Vuitton won two prizes at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
As a member of the family, he can make things happen. “I was discussing watchmaking with my father and Genta’s name came up,” recalls Arnault. “He said, ‘Don’t we own Genta?’” Gérald Genta had indeed been relatively quiet for the past 20 years as part of Bulgari. “He then said to me: ‘Why don’t you run it?’” Unable to think of a good reason why not, Arnault is relaunching the brand. Gérald Genta will be revived and operated as a standalone brand that will be manufactured at La Fabrique du Temps, LVMH’s state-of-the-art watchmaking factory in Switzerland.
And the first thing that Arnault did was invite Madame Genta to La Fabrique du Temps. “It was incredibly moving for me because I met Enrico Barbasini and Michel Navas,” she says of the complications specialists who have run LFDT since it opened in 2014. “They had been our star watchmakers and had worked really closely with us. Gérald and I would see them every morning.”
There was another surprise reunion awaiting Madame Genta in Arnault’s office. “He had brought four fabulous Gérald Genta pocket watches; they were masterpieces,” she reveals. “When I saw them, I nearly cried because I remembered selling them.”
That was a year ago and they have remained in constant touch since. “From the multiple exchanges we’ve had in the past year, I think I’ve grasped a little bit of the essence of what Genta was back then,” says Arnault.
“He knows his Gérald Genta better than me,” corrects Madame Genta. “He’s gone into great detail. He is a real watch fanatic.” Arnault is clearly rapt with Madame Genta’s anecdotes of life with Gérald: there’s the time he had to fix an emerald bracelet with his Swiss army knife while she distracted a wealthy potentate’s attention. On another occasion, when she tried to tell a wealthy head of state that he could not afford a metre-high solid gold Ferris wheel automaton (each gondola occupied by enamelled Commedia dell’arte figures), because it was destined for another, far wealthier client, His Majesty answered: “Madame, this poor King may not be as rich as your favourite client, but there is still some money in the treasury.”
But for all the entertaining stories this is far from being a nostalgia trip. “I’m not a fan of one-to-one re-editions of what was done in the past, so we’re not going to do that,” says Arnault. “Instead, we are going to take inspiration from what was done with the Gérald Genta brand in the past, and from the thousands of detailed drawings he made, but bring it into the 21st century. We’re keeping volumes very, very low and focusing on the high watchmaking side of things.”
Further details of the watches are expected to be announced later this year, with the first pieces available next year (for hundreds of thousands of pounds). As Arnault is not keen on tribute editions, the watches are intended to be what Genta would be making today, with Navas and Barbasini described as incubators of the project having previously worked for him. As Arnault says, they know the spirit of the brand and can interpret it in a way that is relevant to the third decade of the 21st century.
It is a strategy of which Madame Genta says her late husband would have approved. “Gérald never looked back. He was never interested in the past. It was always the next watch. I am happy that we are moving forward with young people,” she casts a fond glance in Arnault’s direction, “and with some models that Gérald designed, which are very forward-thinking. We can ensure the perennity of the brand – a brand that I was very hurt to see being forgotten. It feels like…” she pauses. “It feels like Gérald is coming home.”