Willi Geller – an exemplary dental technician, entrepreneur and visionary celebrated his 80th birthday in early August. I had the unique opportunity to exclusively interview him for the ZZS Zahn-Zeitung Schweiz (Dental Journal of Switzerland). And the life story I heard was exciting throughout.
Interview with Willi Geller. Text and photos by Marion Gredig
It is not that easy to arrange a meeting with Willi Geller. There is no getting around his employee Birgit Spitznagel. Friendly but determinedly, the e-mails asking for an interview are blocked. Birgit has been covering Willi Geller’s back for more than 20 years now. Only after continuously insisting that I know Mr. Geller from the past and with the help of the mutual friend Bertrand Thiévent, the date for the interview is finally agreed upon. And it turns out to be all the more cordial.
Willi Geller invites to visit him in his premises in Weinbergstraße in Zurich on a summery afternoon. His Oral Design laboratory is also in the gorgeous, manorial art nouveau villa. The characterisation «artist’s workshop» is definitely more appropriate here. High rooms, warm light shining through the large windows, pots, porcelain furnaces and brushes are standing around everywhere all in a tumble. This is where one of the most famous and most influential dental technicians worldwide lives out his creativity.
In the cosy garden we meet for coffee, amaretti, cheese and wine. Willi Geller invited some friends: dental technician colleague Bertrand Thiévent and dentist Dr. Steffen Ulbrich – and of course Birgit Spitznagel is also there.
A man with patience
We have to wait for Mr. Geller for a moment, he still has to cast an impression, as he lets us know from the plaster kitchen. I have to smile and think, even with almost 80 years, Willi Geller is still a thoroughbred dental technician. And the exceptional talent for porcelain produces his plaster models himself?
«Yes, I have always been diligent. And I have patience and perseverance, both is very important in dental technology. »
And it is also an advantage if you don’t have ten thumbs, he says with a wink. You can well revel in memories in the cosy garden in Weinbergstraße in Zurich.
Willi Geller’s creativity is admired in the industry. And the industry fears his sincere but merciless comment. The two gentlemen at the garden table got to know his commentary when they first met. Thiévent tells how he was given the opportunity to show Mr. Geller slides of his works when he was a young technician. But Geller only wrinkled his nose and sent Thiévent home with some constructive advice. Dentist Ulrich got to know Willi Geller the hard way, too.
«I showed him a nice, big workpiece. Mr. Geller asked: «Why such eggs?»Dr. med dent Steffen Ulbrich about the first meeting with Willi Geller
But neither Ulbrich nor Thiévent were demotivated by the devastating assessment. On the contrary. It motivated them. Ulbrich, as he didn’t want to see eggs but teeth by Willi Geller in the mouths of his patients, and Thiévent as he had the motivation to become as good as Geller, or at least to come close to this skill.
The exceptional talent
This talent, this gift for teeth, was with Willi Geller from the very beginning. Having grown up with five siblings, he realized after his screen printing apprenticeship that he could not live out his urge for creativity with that profession. By chance, or rather by his brother who was doing a dental technician apprenticeship and being unhappy there, Willi Geller came across dental technology and learned that profession, quasi instead of his brother. It was love at first sight, as he explains. «You have to be born for dental technology. And a little maturity is certainly not bad. Especially those who come to it later really want it.» Willi Geller has been married to a dental technician for 60 years, he has one son and three granddaughters – he could always count on the family.
The first Geller crown
I ask him when he realized that he is talented. «At the final apprenticeship examination we had to shape a tooth from wax. I was the first to finish a long time before anyone else and wanted to show my work to the exam expert. First he sent me back to the workplace with the statement that couldn’t be good in such a short time. I could persuade him to take a look. And from then on it was clear that I was talented.»
This talent was quickly recognized everywhere and promoted at work, «I was very lucky to always have good bosses», and it was soon realized by the industry. Vita Zahnfabrik became aware of the young technician, who had come to Switzerland from Austria, and started an advertising campaign. That was the time of jacket crowns and Vita 68. The first veneering porcelain experiments were started. Geller soldered works with the open flame. The idea behind it was to finish all the crowns individually and to connect them with soldering. That was around 1965, a time full of cracks and fissures in the porcelain. Willi Geller was frustrated by the existing range of porcelains and thought it had to work better and, above all, look better. Not that opaque and white. Geller didn’t want to make crowns, but teeth.
Creation of Création
Thus he aroused the interest of the industry. «The company Ivoclar contacted me and wanted to create a porcelain together with me. In the end, however, there was no cooperation I decided to invent something of my own together with a school day friend good at chemistry and another partner. We called it the Vorarlberg matter.» Basis were the Ivoclar porcelains. Geller invested 100 000 Swiss franc saved. Then the manufacturing process began. Kilograms of feldspar were ground, in a garage. Movie material. The porcelain was tested and ground again. And indeed, some day everything was perfect. Création was born!
«So I hit the road to Italy with the first Création test case in the 1980s. To the dental dealer Violi in Modena. He was immediately totally enthusiastic about the material and took over the sales of Création»
Willi Geller about the birth of Création Ceramics
Willi Geller explains the beginning of his business career. The dental technician Pepe Zupardi then was the first to ask Willi Geller whether he could call himself «Oraldesign». Thus the idea developed for an association that today includes 120 laboratories around the world, the «Oral Design members». The idée behind this union is to share knowledge and to create aesthetic dentures at the highest level. A kind of accolade.
Geller, the self-made man
So Geller is not only a exceptionally gifted ceramist but also a successful entrepreneur. I want to know if he had ever thought that he and his porcelain would be known all over the world. „No, really not. Chance dropped me off somewhere. And there I just did what I thought was right.» And if someone succeeds as well as he does, then it can cost something. It is common knowledge that Geller is the most expensive.
«I never asked for the money»,Mr Willi Geller about his success
he says shrugging his shoulders. Thiévent smiles and says: «Willi Geller has always been the most expensive of us, but that wasn’t bad at all. So we could ask for fair prices and still tell the patient, you know, at Willi Geller everything would be twice as expensive.» Geller has always been the pioneer.
Shade selection and try-in
It is also thanks to him that patients came to the laboratory for the first time in 1984 for shade selection and try-in. Before that time the dentist preferred to avoid the contact between patient and laboratory, recalls dentist Ulbrich. But Geller early recognized and advocated the necessity of seeing the patient himself in order to be able to create a perfect reconstruction.
That was not easy at the beginning, as he initially fell on deaf ears when he addressed his request to the former professor of the University of Zurich, Prof. Dr. Peter Schärer. In the end it was an either or. Geller said he could no longer work for the university without try-in. That was followed by an argument. But then the reconciliation, with Prof. Schärer agreeing to the try-ins in the laboratory. And he accepted Willi Geller as an honorary member of the EAED, the European Academy of Esthetic Dentistry.
Karl Lagerfeld of dental technology
Willi Geller has always been someone who deliberately teased and provoked. There were photos of scantily clad women at lectures that he would no longer show today as he admits. Or there was the rumour that he once threw a whole work a patient was not 100 % satisfied with to the floor and trampled it in a dentist’s surgery. Is that true? Geller laughs and says: «I can’t remember that.»
«Mr Geller always says what he thinks. Even if you might not like to hear that. But this creates a movement, a food for thoughts.»Bertrand Thiévent
This bestows enormous respect on Willi Geller in the industry still today. I can remember very well that we had a common dentist customer with Willi Geller in my father’s laboratory. The dentist’s wife had tooth 1 made by Willi Geller. And a few years later tooth 2 by us. My father assigned me this task and said: «You know, it’s a great honour to create a tooth next to Willi Geller’s.»
Visions and thoughts
Willi Geller’s creativity is admired in the industry. «I have patience and perseverance, both his very important in dental technology», Willi Geller ponders.
Dental technology has changed in the course of time. Willi Geller looks forward to the development with interest but with mixed feelings.
«It won’t work only digitally. The analogue knowledge must not be lost. I’m sure our profession will still be needed in the future.»Willi Geller about the future of Dental Technology
The most positive about himself?
«I often hear that I’m an inspiration to others. That I’m perceived like this is certainly the best thing. Once a young man came up to me and asked if I was Willi Geller. If he could shake my hand, that would be a great honour for him. That really touched me».Création founder Willi Geller
And what don’t you find so good about yourself? «Sometimes I’m trivially jealous of everything and nothing. You have to be self-critical. But sometimes you should also gloss over yourself, I had to admit that to myself».
Heart attack with 40
Like every film, the Willi Geller success story has its low points, too. Workaholic Geller suffered this shortly after his 40th birthday. At Lake Garda, he notices in his hotel room that something is wrong with his health. He thinks of angina pectoris. But the pain in the chest does not go away. Geller has to be flown to hospital by helicopter, heart attack. Afterwards he continues as if nothing had happened.
20 years later, at the time he was designing and developing the Creapearls prosthetic teeth, he was close to exhaustion: «Never again I want to have anything to do with teeth!“
Getting rid of old habits
Looking back he says:
«That was a time of weariness. Too much stress, too much food, too many cigars, I couldn’t go on like that. I had to pull the emergency brake.»
In his holidays, he travels to Sylt together with his wife. He gets on his bike, cycles to the hairdresser. And says goodbye to his famous curly mane, coming home with his head shaved. His wife doesn’t like the bald head at all.
She bemoans the loss of the curls. For Will Geller, however, it was a kind of liberation from the old life, from old habits.
Traditions and quality of life
But he has always kept certain traditions. His self-employment began with four laboratory places, with place 4 always being a guest place – until today. The international guests from Europe, Asia and South America enjoyed the advanced trainings and ensured a lively cultural exchange. Willi Geller’s understanding of quality of life also includes preparing a meal together every day, despite all the pressure and hectic pace. Even Korean technicians learned in Weinbergstraße how to cook pasta al dente.
Geller the myth
And sailing has been an integral part of Willi Geller’s life since he was a child. He has a magnificent old-timer sailing ship on Lake Constance. This category took part in the America’s Cup around 1920, he proudly tells. What is its name, I ask:
«Il mito, that’s what the Italians have always called me.»Willi geller, telling the story about name of his boat
This myth has decreased, but only in weight, not in class and influence. Geller looks a lot healthier than years ago, takes ginseng. He completely gave up smoking, the notorious thick cigar in his mouth, four years ago. «At some point you realise that it’s simply over.»
In his artist’s workshop there is a big workpiece on every table. I am very happy to see that this profession is far from over. Geller is now 80 years old. He spent most of his life in the laboratory. And he says
My interview with Willi Geller is now translated in French too and will be published in the magazin „Technologie Dentaire“
German Version in Zahnzeitung Schweiz ZZS 08/80;https://zahnzeitung.ch/news/detail/news/herzlichen-glueckwunsch-80-jahre-willi-geller/
You can find a german version of this interview on my blog of course: Willi Geller Oraldesign
On May 18, 2022 Mr Geller spontaneously invited me to his garden and I once again had the opportunity to experience an extraordinary, unique afternoon
All photos and text by Marion Gredig, Labor Gredig Boniswil, Switzerland