The Guardians of a Legacy

When the watchmaking industry was formalized in 1601 under the anvil of Calvinist teachings, the city of Geneva soon became its locus with trade flourishing exponentially and competition amongst watchmakers quickly becoming stiff. Some of them decided to relocate further north to the Vallée de Joux and even further up the Jura Mountains. With nothing much to do during the harsh winters, families would begin specializing in manufacturing watch components, effectively creating a cottage industry of part suppliers. Consolidation over the centuries has resulted in a multi-billion dollar revenue generating behemoth that seems completely removed from its once humble beginnings. Yet, there remains a few brands that maintain a certain familial feel. Storied families whose histories are uniquely intertwined with the industry itself, that continue to steward the brands under their charge – the Meylans, the Scheufeles, the Sterns.

Watchmaker working at home
Families specialising in the production of watch components were crucial to the nascent Swiss watchmaking industry in the 16th century.

There is another family that has been in charge of a brand with an incredibly rich legacy but unfortunately is seldom talked about. They are the Zivianis and the brand that they have guided since 2003 is Gerald Charles. When the 20th century’s most prolific watch designer, Gerald Genta, founded Gerald Charles (his first and middle names) in 2000, he had wanted another outlet to express his creativity independently. The first company he started had undergone two separate ownership changes and Gerald Charles would be the fresh start he needed at what seemed to be the twilight of his career. Genta was 69. However, three years later he would need support in managing the commercial operations of the company and the Ziviani family responded with Giampaolo Ziviani becoming General Manager of Gerald Charles. Following the introduction of new management, the brand’s direction from its founding till Genta’s passing in 2011 still remained very much driven by Genta’s voracious creativity. As his wife Evelyne would describe her husband’s work in a 2019 interview with A Collected Man, Genta was a “manufacturer of prototypes”, constantly moving from one design to the next. Bespoke creations for discerning clients fueled the Maestro (as he was affectionately known by his peers) through his 70s and even after he passed away at 80 years of age, the company would continue to produce watches in limited quantities from the vast design archive he created over 11 years.

It was in April 2018, when Giampaolo’s nephew, Federico, who was only 22 at the time, took over leadership of the company and with a new board of directors, Gerald Charles would redirect their efforts in creating a stronger brand identity. Having had an eclectic production output for almost the last 20 years, the first order of business was to pick a design that could be emblematic of the new direction the company was taking. As is often said in the culinary world, a diner’s overall impression of a meal is often solidified by the last dish that was served. Fittingly, the Maestro’s last design would be the dessert as it were, that both distills and defines his legacy but also propels his eponymous brand forward. Gerald Charles would name their choice after the great designer himself, which was inspired by the highly decorative Roman Baroque architecture of Francesco Borromini, a famed 17th century architect who coincidentally shares a Swiss-Italian heritage with Genta. It starts with an elongated octagon of unequal sides, that is both angular and curved in its geometry. It has a double-stepped bezel and a curved lip at 6 o’clock that is probably its most defining feature and reminiscent of the multi-layered façade of Borromini’s monuments. Like Borromini’s work, the Maestro case is inventive and idiosyncratic in its asymmetry, and a play on the classic geometric form of the octagon – a Genta favorite.

Maestro case
The Maestro case's entirely unique profile can be seen as an evolution of one of Gerald Genta's favorite shapes - the octagon.
Maestro case exploded
Despite its refined aesthetic and constitution of 18 separate components, the Maestro case is rated to an impressive 100m of water-resistance.

The second step was to take the Maestro case and present it to a wider audience of today. The brand’s new aesthetic code can be described as sporty elegance, with a refinement rooted in the Baroque but re-envisioned and made relevant for the styles of dress of the 21st century. While the Maestro case, as a demonstration of high watchmaking competence in the early years of the young Ziviani’s tenure, was released in precious metals and with a skeletonized tourbillon no less, the intention was always to create greater accessibility with an automatic, time and date only, stainless steel watch. The 2020 Anniversary watch that celebrated two decades of Gerald Charles was exactly that – the first Maestro case in stainless steel. Its sportiness and wearability came from pairing it with a rubber strap that was first seen on one of Gerald Genta’s earliest creations when he started the company, the suitably named Renaissance. It featured a Clous de Paris motif on the exterior, designed by Genta exclusively for Gerald Charles, and the ‘GC’ logo monogrammed on the inside layer that provide grip and breathability.

Ziviani’s adeptness at utilizing the digital tools of today also helped build a collector base on social media platforms such as Instagram, where the reach is global and immediate, and fans of the brand could share and re-share their passion for the product. The modern day equivalent of spreading by word of mouth resulted in the growth in appreciation of the brand being organic, familial, and genuine. Such proximity to their clients also enabled the company to better gauge demand and subsequent releases of the Maestro have done very well commercially.

With the foundations of a new product and communication strategy in place, Gerald Charles sought to build on it by gradually introducing a three-register chronograph, an ultra-thin model and by far the most technically impressive GC Sport in Grade 5 titanium with improved shock resistance and a left-handed crown. That is until May this year when Gerald Charles would bring back skeletonization to the Maestro with the 8.0 Squelette but accomplish it in a way that honors the memory of Gerald Genta. To do that, Ziviani reached out to an old family friend who just happens to be a designer of such stature, that many would regard him as the heir apparent to Gerald Genta during his 11 years spent at Audemars Piguet (AP), five as its Chief Artistic Officer. He was responsible for a holistic design approach at AP, and its continued rise with the success of the Royal Oak Offshore in the 2000s, introducing complications and different materials to the Genta icon. That man is Octavio Garcia.

Ziviani and Garcia
It was their friendship that brought Federico Ziviani and Octavio Garcia together, to conceptualize the new flagship model of the Gerald Charles lineup.
Maestro 8.0 Squelette
The new Gerald Charles Maestro 8.0 Squelette.

Garcia’s ties with the Zivianis stretches back to his stint at AP where he worked with Federico’s father, Franco, who was in charge of the Italian market. Despite being the elder statesman to Ziviani’s young upstart, the two became friends over the years and when he was approached to collaborate on a new Gerald Charles piece, it was this friendship that was the principal reason why Garcia accepted the challenge. Garcia himself had the opportunity to meet with Gerald Genta just before his passing, to gain insight on the Maestro’s creative process and his aspirations to potentially collaborate for the 40th Anniversary of the Royal Oak. That meeting gave Garcia a deeper understanding of Genta’s passion for watches, his perspective on proportions and his love for skeleton pieces with very thin bridges in particular. Probably the most iconic representation of that passion is the Gerald Genta Octagonal Perpetual Calendar Skeleton from the 1990s with bridges so thin, the movement seems to be barely held together.

Garcia elaborates, “As soon as I agreed with Federico to get on board with the project, I completely absorbed myself in the archives of Mr Gerald Genta. All of the work that he did with Gerald Charles is fascinating. There’s a lot to take in and this allowed me to really begin to sift through the different possibilities, working with Federico on different iterations. From the moment that Federico presented to me the idea of working on a skeleton piece, it seemed very logical. Because many of the more expressive pieces from the Gerald Charles collection are skeleton pieces, including the chronograph tourbillon which is absolutely stunning. It really I think, underscores Mr Genta’s understanding of what a skeleton [watch] could look like in the future. Up until that point I feel, skeleton [watches] were more designed by watchmakers. They had more of a classic approach and Mr Genta with his pieces, were much more cutting edge, more mechanical, absolutely pushing the limits of the finesse of what a skeleton [watch] could be. That for me was very inspirational in the work that I did with Gerald Charles.”

Garcia sketching
Garcia took many months to hand-draw hundreds of design sketches, exploring as many design iterations as possible.
Garcia sketching
The Maestro 8.0 Squelette is a fitting tribute to Gerald Genta's love for skeletonized watches.

A skeleton design was also chosen to give Garcia freedom of artistic expression as Ziviani explains, “Skeletonization allows a very large room for design exploration so we wanted to give Octavio the greatest possible freedom to integrate his own design with the design of Gerald Genta. In the Maestro 8.0 Squelette, you see a case designed by Mr Genta and everything else is designed by Octavio. Every bridge, the oscillating weight, the colors and materials, even the screws were designed by Octavio. There is a lot you can play with and it’s really a demonstration of the technical capabilities of a brand to be able to make a skeleton watch which meets certain aesthetic, legibility and technical criteria like ours.”

Maestro 8.0 Squelette
The Maestro 8.0 Squelette is paired with a classic black rubber strap embossed with the Clous de Paris motif.
Maestro 8.0 Squelette ice blue strap
An ice-blue strap is also available, exclusively for the Maestro 8.0 Squelette only.

Marrying a skeleton movement with the Maestro’s asymmetric case shape is no mean feat, both in terms of aesthetics and practical production considerations, but Garcia was adamant in maintaining the spirit of Genta’s design process, taking many months and producing hundreds of hand-drawn designs to explore possibilities. He explored more architectural iterations in the beginning but the final design was based on the very first impression Garcia had of an early Gerald Charles skeleton watch Ziviani was wearing, when they first met to discuss the project. The idea of skeletonized bridges in the form of a celestial sky chart – a theme Gerald Genta himself explored earlier in his career – eventually stuck. The groundwork was therefore set to work with movement partner Vaucher to bring Garcia’s vision to life.

Early and later design sketches
Some of the hand-drawn design sketches by Octavio Garcia.

The base Vaucher caliber GCA 5482, exclusive to Gerald Charles, is a play of light against dark, where the skeletonized bridges branch outwards to the edge of the dial, inset with 29 jewels and securing screws that bring to mind the constellations in the night sky. The gold-colored components of the movement are seen peeking through the open-worked structure, contrasting against the various finishes in silver rhodium and dark-gray anthracite, NAC-treated bridges. The skeletonized bridges with hand-polished bevels are straight-grained on the dial side while satin-finished on the other, and fully integrated with the rehaut. This singular piece is secured to the main plate with nine star-shaped screws arranged in an asymmetric fashion. On the reverse side, the gold micro-rotor with a contemporary hexagonal motif designed by Garcia, results in a movement that’s just 2.6mm thick, further reducing the standard Maestro case height from 8.70mm to 8.35mm. The rotor winds a single barrel efficiently on a ceramic ball bearing system to provide a power reserve of 50 hours, impressive for a movement this thin. The elegance of this design belies its practicality as the 18-part case with uniquely-shaped gaskets and a screw-down knurled crown ensures the 100m water-resistance guarantee of every Gerald Charles watch. Caliber GCA 5482 is notably designed to be able to house further complications, a highly likely possibility that Ziviani is keen to explore.

Vaucher cal. GCA 5482
The caliber GCA 5482 is exquisitely open-worked and finished, and made exclusively for Gerald Charles by movement specialists Vaucher.
The refined elegance of the Maestro 8.0 Squelette is comfortably wearable everyday.

For now, Ziviani and Garcia should be extremely proud of what they have accomplished. The Maestro 8.0 Squelette, in the way that it was conceived and produced, does complete justice to the man whom which it is named after. This watch puts the partnership of Ziviani and Garcia on the horological map and both gentlemen are motivated and committed to honoring Gerald Genta through the brand he started. There remains an untapped treasure trove of original Genta designs with many more stories to tell and while Gerald Charles has no plans to release those in the near future, one thing is assured, the legacy of Gerald Genta is in very good hands.

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