The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
While you probably didn’t come here for Benjamin Franklin quotes, I’m going to start with one anyway, because it perfectly encapsulates how we ended up with the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: ‘Out of adversity, comes opportunity’.
At the start of the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry was facing nothing but adversity, and Audemars Piguet was no exception. The quartz crisis was running rampant, shuttering anywhere up to two-thirds of the country’s traditional houses and causing those clinging on for dear life to either jump on the battery-powered bandwagon or else find some other way to adapt.
As for AP, a manufacture with roots dating back to 1874, their hand was forced into one great all-or-nothing gamble. They knew they needed something very special in order to survive and so didn’t just come up with a new watch, but managed to invent an entirely new category of watches.
The Royal Oak was a phenomenon on its release, and is still recognized as one of the most innovative and avant-garde models today.
Below, we explore the origins of this genre-defining piece and take a look at the current extensive range.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: History
By as early as 1971, it was obvious the writing was on the wall for even the most revered and well-financed Swiss watchmakers.
In dire need of something, anything, to capture the imagination of the buying public, Audemars Piguet hung much of their hope on some fairly vague rumblings from the Italian market. There was, said the feedback, the possibility of some interest in a steel watch; one tough and sporty enough to be worn everyday, but also with a certain unconventional elegance to set it apart from the usual suspects doing the rounds from the likes of Rolex and Omega.
It was a tall order, leaving the brand’s CEO, Georges Golay, with only one place to turn. Legendary designer Gerald Genta, fresh from triumphs penning popular models for Universal Genève and Patek Philippe among others, was drafted in to come up with a piece which could slip into the entirely uncharted territory of the luxury sports watch.
And when we say drafted in, Golay explained the concept to Genta at 4pm the day before the 1971 Swiss Watch Show (soon to become Baselworld) and told him he wanted an ‘unprecedented’ design to unveil by the morning!
Underlying his genius, Genta obliged. In just a few hours, he came up with sketches for a model dubbed the Royal Oak, one unlike anything else available at the time.
The Royal Oak Visuals
Genta took his styling cues from the look of an old fashioned diving helmet.
The unusual octagonal bezel was secured by eight exposed hexagonal screws and the whole watch tapered into its own integrated bracelet—one of the most complicated elements of the entire build. Up front, the blue dial was finished in AP’s signature petite tapisserie motif; a repeating pattern of minute squares raised from the surface to give the face depth and texture.
At a large-for-the-time 39mm, but only 7mm thick, it was an extraordinary looking watch, one which Genta would go on to describe as his career masterpiece. In an era where round cases and soft curves were the order of the day, the Royal Oak was all sharp angles, even down to the winding crown.
The name, continuing the nautical theme, came from the British Royal Navy, which has christened a total of eight of their warships The Royal Oak over the years. They, in turn, were titled after an ancient oak tree in which King Charles II hid to escape the parliament-supporting Roundheads during the English Civil War in the 17th century.
But, although there was a significant amount of perplexity and relatively little enthusiasm for the new watch shown at the event, as with many radical deviations from the established, Audemars Piguet decided to press ahead.
The Royal Oak Goes Into Production
The first prototypes of the Royal Oak were actually produced in white gold, as Genta’s design was so complex that trying to achieve them in hard steel would have proved too difficult and costly.
Inside, AP selected their own Caliber 2121 to run the show, essentially the same as their Caliber 2120 but with an added date module. That latter mechanism was a joint project between Jaeger-LeCoultre and the Holy Trinity (Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin) in 1967 to create an ultra thin automatic movement. Each maison would go on to modify and rename the caliber for their own needs and the built-in anti-shock protection meant it was perfect for the Royal Oak. In fact, the self-winding movement, beating at 19,800vph and sumptuously finished, was so well made you will still find it in the contemporary collection today.
Exactly a year after Genta managed the impossible by designing a groundbreaking watch literally overnight, the Royal Oak was ready for its debut.
It was unveiled at the 1972 Swiss Watch Show, with the original reference, the ref. 5402, selling for an extortionate CHF 3,750. This was an incredible amount of money for a steel sports watch, especially when you consider a Rolex Submariner could be had for around $300 at the time.
It was something of an audacious gamble for AP, who possibly saw it as one final hail Mary before the receivers moved in. If they were going out, as the stilted initial reception to the Royal Oak seemed to imply, it was going to be on their own terms.
The watch buying public, however, was confused. Why would they pay more than the price of a gold Patek Philippe dress piece for some bizarre, anarchic model where you could see not only the screws holding the bezel down, but also the waterproofing gasket?
But although it was a slow burn on its release (and we can only imagine the consternation at the top of AP’s hierarchy), the Royal Oak’s qualities could not be denied forever. The design, and more importantly, the exactitude in which it was carried off, put the watch in a different league to the majority. And, in a trick which didn’t go unnoticed by most of the manufacturers still in business today, the exorbitant price tag started to work in its favor.
‘It takes more than money to wear the Royal Oak’ declared one of the ads of the era, emphasizing the exclusivity behind the watch. Only those with a discerning taste, and most likely good connections, were going to be able to source one, no matter how well off.
Watch connoisseurs then were as they are now, always searching for something to set them apart from the herd. The Royal Oak’s star was in the ascendancy.
The Royal Oak Over The Years
The first 1,000 pieces took more than a year to sell out. AP then produced another run of the same amount and the extremely limited total of 2,000 watches together are classified as the A Series. Each has its own number preceded by an ‘A’ engraved on the case back and are, of course, the most desirable examples of this extraordinary watch, selling for equally extraordinary sums.
Following the growing and continued success of the Royal Oak, AP diversified their new golden egg by utilizing precious metals in the construction, as well as adding various complications and functions.
In 1981, the brand was able to issue the model with a perpetual calendar and, powered by the Caliber 2120/2800, it was the thinnest watch of its type ever made.
A moonphase version arrived a few years later in 1984, by which time the Royal Oak was steaming full pelt towards iconic status.
In 1992, Audemars Piguet celebrated the 20th anniversary of one of horology’s, and the brand’s, greatest achievements by releasing the Royal Oak Offshore series.
Designed by a 22-year old Emmanuel Gueit, the first of the so-called oversize watches took the styling codes of the standard model and expanded on them, creating a 42mm, hugely unsubtle model quickly dubbed ‘The Beast’. Just as with the original Royal Oak, the Offshore got off to a rocky start. Lovers of the traditional piece were unimpressed, including Gerald Genta, who reportedly stormed the AP booth at the 1993 Baselworld, yelling that his vision had been completely destroyed. Just another example of AP being ahead of its time, the Offshore series is now one of the marques bestsellers.
The Current Collection
Today, there are three Royal Oak collections to choose from.
The classic watch has 117 variations, ranging in size from 33mm up to 44mm and carrying everything from simple time-and-date pieces, through chronographs, minute repeaters, perpetual calendars and tourbillon models. Materials vary from steel, three flavors of gold, platinum, titanium and ceramic.
The Offshore series has more than 50 unique examples, in either 37mm, 42mm, 43mm or 44mm. Each comes with a similar choice in complications and materials, but in a bigger, bolder, more imposing fashion.
Finally, there’s the Royal Oak Concept range. This is where AP comes to have some fun and experiment with a few outrageous designs and color schemes, aimed very much not at the shy and retiring.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is now firmly established as a legendary chapter in horology’s story. A pioneering watch, one which gave us an entirely new classification of timepiece, it has inspired and been emulated by legions of others. Created by one of the industry’s heavyweights, it has stayed upmost in many collector’s wish lists for nearly half a century, without ever going out of fashion. Worn by the great and the good, it remains a must-have for discerning buyers from all walks of life.