During Geneva Watch Days in August, when top makers of mechanical timepieces debuted a whirl of new and complicated wonders, one rather unusual item garnered an inordinate level of buzz: the Gérald Genta Arena Retrograde with Smiling Disney Mickey Mouse.
Yes, a watch with Mickey on it. Perhaps you owned one of these as a child.
Like the now-collectible 1980s model to which it pays homage, the Genta watch dial features Walt Disney’s iconic cartoon rodent, but on this high-horology remake, his arm serves as a minute hand that traces an arc from zero to sixty and then jumps back to zero again at every hour. (That’s the “retrograde” part.) The hours are indicated not by a hand but by a numeral on a disk that appears in a window.
At first glance, the famous mouse may have had some viewers thinking the watch was cheap; it was anything but that. At a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of €16,500 ($19,000), it was made by the Italian jeweler-watchmaker Bulgari. With this timepiece, the historic house was heralding the return of a label it hopes will flourish under its watchmaking umbrella: Gérald Genta.
Genta, the man, (1931-2011) was one of the modern Swiss watch industry’s first rock stars, an entrepreneurial and disruptive designer best known for his role in creating watches that are today household names: the IWC Ingenieur, the Cartier Pasha, the Omega Constellation, and two pieces that stand atop the sport-luxury pyramid, the Patek Philippe Nautilus and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
“Gérald Genta is the most important independent designer in the second half of the 20th Century in regard to watches,” says Antoine Pin, managing director of Bulgari’s watchmaking division. “He is basically the father of many of the most highly regarded and in-demand collections of the modern era, especially in that ‘sport-chic’ segment that continues to do very well.”
Avant-garde designs weren’t Genta’s only interest, however. He was also dedicated to producing sophisticated mechanical innovations during an era in which the watch industry had mostly abandoned them in favor of quartz (or battery-powered) watches. It was in this spirit that he founded his own brand in 1969. The pieces he produced for it bore little resemblance to the sport-luxury models of his client maisons, defined instead by round cases, baroque designs, and horological complexity, particularly in their use of retrograde functions, a particular favorite of the designer.
When Bulgari acquired the Gérald Genta company in 2000 from the Singapore-based Hour Glass group that had bought it from the founder, its primary goal was to channel Genta’s expertise and distinctive design into Bulgari’s own in-house watchmaking. The results are evident in such timepieces as the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater and Octo Grande Sonnerie Perpetual, which are highly regarded in the watch-collecting community. Two decades later, with that mission largely accomplished, Pin says, it became time to bring the Genta name back to prominence. Bulgari’s watchmaking department had grown enough to devote resources to revive the slumbering brand, he explains, and the base of collectors around the world had become broad and sophisticated enough to want to know more about the man behind their most coveted timepieces.
The first step came in 2019, the semicentennial year of the Gérald Genta brand’s founding. It was a revival of the Arena Bi-Retro, the first watch to indicate both minutes and seconds on retrograde scales, which was first introduced in 1996. The new version had a platinum case and blue lacquered dial. Despite being positioned as part of Bulgari’s output that year, the watch was the first in years to bear the retro Gérald Genta logo on its dial.
Now, we have the Arena Retrograde with “Smiling Mickey Mouse” dial, an homage to the first cartoon-dialed watches Genta unveiled so infamously in 1984. Putting cartoon characters on a Swiss watch dial was something that simply wasn’t done then, but the rebellious designer, who had a license with Disney, carried the theme with him through the decade and even added retrograde functions in the 1990s. Those complicated watches were direct inspiration for the 2021 revival.
“The marketing of watches is a serious thing in Switzerland,” Pin emphasizes. “Yet this man Genta put Mickey Mouse on a ‘serious’ watch’s dial. That sense of humor—the sense of being gently irreverent, that pushing of the boundaries—was striking at the time, and it made an impact. I think the watch industry is able to do more of that today, but he was probably the first to do it.”
Bulgari is understandably tight-lipped about plans for the Gérald Genta brand, but Pin confirms that its march toward independence from the larger Bulgari Group will continue. Among its exclusive aspects will be a totally different distribution system that will rely heavily on e-commerce. “If you can imagine Gérald Genta today—the type of entrepreneur he was—with fewer constraints,” Pin poses, “do you think his brand’s distribution would be traditional or modern?”
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