The Beckertime Rivalry Series: The Patek Philippe Nautilus Versus The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
With this edition of our ‘Rivalry’ series, it feels like we’ve finished sitting through the warm-up fights, we’ve enjoyed the spectacle of the undercard scrappers, and we are now fully into the main event.
Make no mistake, the Patek Nautilus versus the AP Royal Oak is about as heavyweight a battle as watchmaking offers.
Both are from around the same vintage, both can legitimately claim to have changed the course of the entire horology industry, each is made by one third of the Holy Trinity and both were originally penned by the same genius designer.
We are going to have to look pretty hard to separate these two, so let’s begin.
The Patek Philippe Nautilus Versus The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: History
The origins of these two watches have become very much part of the legend surrounding them. And thanks for that goes almost entirely to one man; Gérald Genta.
The Royal Oak
The Royal Oak came first, created in 1971 during the darkest days the mechanical watch industry had had to face up to that point. The Quartz Crisis was in full swing, decimating the traditional Swiss houses one by one, eventually bankrupting upwards of two-thirds of them by the time the fight back began. No brand was big enough or well-established enough to withstand the onslaught, not even Audemars Piguet, a manufacture which could trace its roots back to 1874.
It would be fair to say that the Royal Oak was set to be AP’s last chance saloon. Had it failed, it is likely the business would have crumbled like so many others around it. And the decision to make it, and the speed with which it was styled, only add to the extraordinary legacy.
Almost in desperation, AP knew they needed something out of the ordinary to win back a public now in love with the convenience, accuracy and cost-effectiveness of quartz. Yet all they had to go on was some indistinct chatter from the Italian market which suggested there might be some demand for a steel model tough and sporty enough to be worn everyday, but which offered something distinctive design-wise in amongst a sea of round cased, fairly standard-issue pieces from the likes of Rolex and Omega.
AP CEO at the time, Georges Golay, turned to Genta as the only person who could possibly save his company. That in itself would have been pressure enough. But famously, Golay explained what he wanted to Genta at 4pm the afternoon before the 1971 Swiss Watch Show and told him he wanted an ‘unprecedented’ concept sketch—to unveil the next day!
Genta, somehow, obliged, and the Royal Oak (and the category of luxury sports watch) was the result.
However, it was just an idea for now. The watch itself wouldn’t make its full debut until a year later with the ref. 5402 introduced at the 1972 show. Along with its looks (which we’ll come to in a moment) equally astonishing was its price tag. At a time when a Rolex Submariner could be had for around $300, Audemars Piguet was asking for CHF 3,750 for the Royal Oak. What’s more, it was in steel and cost about the same as a solid gold Patek Philippe dress watch.
As a result the first 1,000 units of the piece took a year to sell, as did the next 1,000. But, little by little, the RO started to gain favor, thanks, in many ways, to what was its initial downfall. Rather than trying to justify its cost, AP leant into it, acknowledging in one of their advertisements that, with its combination of rarity and expense, ‘It takes more than money to wear the Royal Oak’.
Before long, it became the brand’s flagship, inspiring a host of variations. Precious metal versions followed, as did complications. The perpetual calendar model arrived in 1981, followed by a moonphase two years later.
On the 20th anniversary, the Royal Oak Offshore put in its debut, kicking off the oversize watch trend.
Today, the collection consists of three different ranges. The classic watch has over 100 models to choose from, while the Offshore is up to around 50. Then the Concept series, about a dozen in total, is where AP’s designers get to let their hair down with materials, functions and colors.
The Royal Oak remains the jewel in Audemars Piguet’s crown, the watch that invented a whole new genre and inspired countless others to follow suit.
The Nautilus came along in 1976, from the same busy pen as the Royal Oak, and with much of the heavy lifting in terms of public acceptance already taken care of.
Visually, there was no denying the similarities with the RO, as you would expect seeing as Genta was the man behind both. But where it took the artist an entire evening to design that first piece, he reportedly had the outline for the Nautilus down in about 5 minutes. Legend has it Genta was sitting alone in the dining room of a hotel, when he spotted a group of Patek executives at another table. He completed his sketch, showed it to the company men and the rest, romanticized story or not, is history.
The parallels don’t end there either. Whereas the Royal Oak had been styled after the look of an antique diver’s helmet, the Patek carried on the nautical theme and was shaped to resemble the porthole of a luxurious ocean liner.
In addition, the original reference, the ref. 3700-1A, was also a steel watch and an expensive one. ‘One of the World’s Costliest Watches is Made From Steel’ read the ads.
And, again like the Royal Oak, the Nautilus soon went through a number of variants. Quartz versions and ladies models arrived in the 1980s. Yellow and white gold examples started to appear in the ‘90s, and the first complication—a winding zone indicator—was unveiled in 1998.
The most famous and most desirable reference, the ref. 5711, was introduced in 2006 and only discontinued last year. Possibly the world’s least attainable watch even while still in production, prices now start at more than $100,000 on the preowned market.
Currently, the full Nautilus collection is 27 models strong, arranged between men’s and women’s watches and with rose gold, white gold, two-tone and steel pieces available. Once seen as a major disrupting influence, the watch has now settled down into a dignified middle age, leaving all the anarchism to the upstart Aquanaut series.
But it still stands as one of the landmarks moments in horology history, a masterpiece of luxurious design and one of the most desirable watches in the world.
The Patek Philippe Nautilus Versus The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: Looks
Much as you can tell a painting is by a certain artist even if you haven’t seen it before, by its brushstrokes, composition and use of color, there is no denying there is a definite ‘Genta’ style shared between the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. And, in fact, by everything he drew.
The main identifying factors are those which have been taken up to represent the ‘luxury sports watch’ category as a whole; namely, a big, bold design, an overall robustness and, of course, the integrated bracelet.
Both our examples share all these elements. Arguably, the Nautilus is a more toned down alternative to the Royal Oak. The Patek has rounder edges and smoother flowing lines, as opposed to the AP’s angular, industrial look, with its exposed bezel screws and octagonal crown. The Nautilus also has distinctive ‘ears’ on either side, inspired by the large hinges on a ship’s porthole, which add a unique aesthetic.
Likewise up front, each watch has a dial design all its own. The Royal Oak receives Audemars’ signature petite tapisserie motif, a repeating pattern of small squares raised from the surface adding a fascinating texture.
The Nautilus doubles down on its seafaring origins with a dial finished with horizontal grooves, looking like the deck of a plush yacht.
Strangely, even though it arrived first, the Royal Oak still seems the more ‘futuristic’ design—in the way people in the ‘70s would have described what futuristic looked like. It is the kind of watch that would have looked at home in Fritz Lang’s epic ‘Metropolis’ from 1927, in amongst the fantastical skyscrapers and Art Deco cityscapes.
The Nautilus is more about pure extravagance, ‘sports’ watch or not. And considering where their relative inspirations came from, that still makes sense.
The Patek Philippe Nautilus Versus The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: Complications
This one is a bit of a no contest. The majority of the Nautilus range are simple time-and-date models, with the top end dominated by a few annual and perpetual calendars, chronographs and GMTs.
As for the Royal Oak collections, they have scores more models to choose from and also house extra functions, including minute repeaters, flying tourbillons and the ultimate, Grand Complications. But the AP dials it all up a notch with some spectacular open worked pieces, a few extra thin models measuring just 8mm in height, and ‘Double Balance Wheel’ examples which offer better rate stability and therefore, precision.
In addition, it’s Audemars Piguet who seem to have a greater initiative with materials. You’ll come across titanium, ceramic and platinum examples in amongst all the steel and three flavors of gold. The Nautilus can only be had in either rose or white gold, or steel.
In the end, what we are talking about here are two of the biggest horological celebrities in production today. The fact they both stem from the imagination of just one man is testament to both Genta himself and two brands with the courage and prescience to change the landscape of watchmaking forever.
If it was my money, and I could only choose one, I think I’d go for a Royal Oak. I love the rugged nature of the overall design (even though it is possible to get it dressed up in some very opulent guises) and I’m intrigued by the guilloche dial surface. On the preowned market, they are also significantly cheaper, with prices starting, for a steel men’s model, at around $20,000. While that might still sound like a lot, it is roughly half the starting price of a Nautilus.
But whichever you choose, prepare for some very appreciative nods from the more knowledgeable watch fans you come across.
— Featured Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.