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  1. Wealth
March 29, 2019

‘Clichés tend to be clichés because they are true’ – Nick Foulkes on Genta and the art of relaxation

By Spear's

Sometimes we just have to switch off and relax – for without time for contemplation, there can be no invention, writes Nick Foulkes

I admire those who can come up with unanswerable excuses for not taking calls. Apple has done its bit: when the telephone rings I am presented with a range of reasons not to take the call. I could be on my way, or simply sorry that I cannot talk right that moment – but these are the nursery slopes of call evasion.

My favourite was vouchsafed me by the late Mark Birley, or rather Elvira, his housekeeper. I had rung Thurloe Lodge to speak to Mark; she had picked up the receiver and explained that he could not be disturbed: ‘I am afraid that Mr Birley cannot come to the phone because he is busy relaxing.’ What sort of relaxation – a cigar, some sort of postprandial beverage, or a game of backgammon – was not specified, but as relaxation was a religion for Mark, I daresay that it was restorative and enjoyable.

He thought of everything. He even had Hermès make his backgammon board with a tapestry playing surface so as to muffle the raucous rattle of dice on wood that is so often the aural accompaniment of more energetic games of backgammon. I wish I had asked exactly what sort of relaxation Mr Birley was refining on that long-gone afternoon: maybe he was soundproofing a chess set, or perhaps he was contemplating one of the works of his portrait painter father, Oswald Birley.

For some reason, ‘I am busy relaxing’ or ‘I can’t talk I’m experiencing an attack of Stendhalism’ does not appear on the Apple menu. But I am going to lobby for their inclusion, as these situations do arise. Take, for instance, the time Gerald Genta received a call from a Sultan in the East.

He picked up the phone and said: ‘Sorry, I can’t talk now as I’m contemplating a blue Picasso. Call this evening, Your Majesty.’ Genta could have said to the Sultan with equal validity that he was rapt in contemplation of creations of his own genius: he is often called the Picasso of timepieces. If you know a little bit about watches, you will have heard of Gerald Genta (pictured).

Born in Geneva but of Italian descent, he felt destined to work in watches. His widow, the fabulous Monégasque ambassador in Great Britain Evelyne Genta, put it this way: ‘He would always tell you he got into watches because he was Swiss! To him it was applied art.

So maybe if he had lived in Paris, he would have done clothes, or if he’d lived in Italy, he would have done cars.’ Genta was the de facto inventor of the luxury sportswatch (as opposed to the toolwatch – too long to explain here) with his creations, the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet and the Nautilus for Patek Philippe.

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Indeed, it could be argued that the Royal Oak’s debut at the Basel Fair of 1972 caused the same sort of sensation that attended the first exhibition of Cubist painting by Picasso inter alia.

Both the Oak and the Nautilus are more than 40 years old, and I don’t think anyone would dispute that the two hottest luxury watches right now, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, are… the Oak and the Nautilus. But to view Genta as just the inventor of the Royal Oak and the Nautilus is a little like classifying Picasso as just a Cubist.

One who knew Genta well said he could do 50 designs a day and they seemed to ‘flow from his pencil like water from the source’. His long career saw him design for Universal, IWC, Omega, Cartier, Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels, and his own eponymous brands, Gerald Genta and Gerald Charles. But even that was barely more than the exposed tip of a creative iceberg.

He just adored unique commissions. One collector requested a series of pieces that displayed the positions of the Kama Sutra, while Baron Philippe de Rothschild asked Genta to make the famous wine labels created by the world’s greatest artists in precious metals.

The man had range. His brushes and pencils may now stand idle in their pots, but his vision lives on in thousands of beautiful sketches, gouaches and watercolours, some depicting designs for such famous timepieces as the Bulgari Roma, the Royal Oak and the Nautilus, others depicting timepieces imagined but as yet unmade.

His entire oeuvre, not just one or two timepieces, deserves recognition – and things seem to be moving that way, as I discovered when Evelyne called to ask me to join the committee of the Gerald Genta Heritage Association, something to which I agreed with a speed and eagerness that gives a new definition to the word alacrity.

To describe joining this committee as an honour is to use a hoary old cliché, but clichés tend to be clichés because they are true. How lucky that I was neither busy relaxing nor contemplating a blue period Picasso when she phoned.

Nick Foulkes writes for Spear’s 

This article is published in issue 67 of Spear’s magazine, available on newstands now. Click here to subscribe

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