How the Royal Oak Audemars Piguet made history

Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a bi-weekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting stories and unexpected influence. This week: the Royal Oak Audemars Piguet.

To refer to Audemars Piguet Royal Oak as a simple icon, it is almost intentionally ignoring the importance of the watch, the line it inspired, even the genre it gave birth. Few, if any, timepieces have changed the industry or impacted our conception of watchmaking as much as the Royal Oak, and for good reason. This timepiece didn’t just save a business. He single-handedly created a whole new class of watches.

To understand the importance of the Royal Oak, one must first understand the era leading up to its creation. The 1970s were a time of turmoil in the Swiss watch industry, with many legendary manufactures on the verge of bankruptcy; that is, if they had not already succumbed. The reason for this problem was the advent of the cheap quartz watch from Japan, which found favor with the buying public not only for its affordability, but also for its superior precision and sturdiness. This period has been called the “quartz crisis,” and a crisis is exactly what it was. Audemars Piguet is no more immune to its effects than its competitors.

A Royal Oak in white gold with a salmon dial seen at SIHH 2019.

Henri phillips

Audemars Piguet was founded in 1875 in the heart of the Swiss watchmaking region, La Vallée de Joux, by friends Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet. By the early 1970s, it had reached the highest levels of watchmaking thanks to its mastery of complications (complex functions beyond simple timing) and its exquisite know-how. None of this, however, could prevent the manufactory from moving ever closer to the precipice of financial ruin. Drastic measures were needed, even if their form would take the industry by surprise. In fact, it was an urgent request from an Italian distributor that ignited the flame that would become the Royal Oak.

For the record, on the eve of the 1971 Basel Fair, Georges Golay, then Managing Director of Audemars Piguet, contacted a watch designer and asked him to design an “unprecedented steel watch” in response to the request of the company. ‘Italy. It was four o’clock. The next morning, the Royal Oak was almost born. The quick turnaround time can be attributed to the designer Golay commissioned this project: the legendary Gerald Genta. By 1972, Genta was well known in the industry, with several high visibility projects to his credit, such as the Universal Genève Polerouter, the Omega Constellation and the Patek Philippe Ellipse. The Royal Oak, however, would prove to be a departure for him, and also his magnum opus. It was unlike any watch designed before, and it would define Genta until his death in 2011, 40 years after sketching the design for the first time.

gerald genta
Gerald Genta, the master watchmaker.


As designed, the proposed watch would affect a nautical allure, with an octagonal bezel and exposed mounting screws meant to evoke a commercial diver’s helmet. The exposed rubber seal served to reinforce this theme, which also extended to the name “Royal Oak”, which was a reference to historic British warships of the same name (which, in turn, were named after after the oak that provided shelter to King Charles II as he fled the Roundheads during the English Civil War in 1651). The meticulously finished and equally thin strap has been incorporated into the design of the case. The latter had such a generous diameter (39 mm) that it would be called by collectors and fans the “Jumbo”.

At the request of the Italian distributor, the watch would be made of steel, something unheard of in a high-end watch. Ironically, this made the watch several orders of magnitude more difficult to make than gold, as steel turned out to be a much more difficult material to finish by hand to Audemars Piguet’s exacting standards. In fact, the first prototypes were in white gold. Imagine this: using gold, because steel was too difficult to finish properly. This would only be one of the conventions that the Royal Oak would upset.

No matter how different the intent, design or size of a given Royal Oak may be, it is connected to the rest of the line through the revolutionary design of the original.

Ultimately, it would be the finish that would set the price for a then astronomical amount of $ 3,000. To put that perspective, that figure was about 10 times more expensive than the Rolex Submariner of the time. Experts took this as proof that Audemars Piguet was offline and the watch would be an instant failure, and it looked like naysayers would be right, as the Royal Oak turned out to be anything but a runaway success. It took almost three years to sell the first series of 1000 pieces.

Nonetheless, the first Royal Oak production, the 5402 A-Series, which made its official debut at the 1972 Basel Fair, stunned the industry with its bold, angular design and incredibly slim case. At just seven millimeters, the Royal Oak hugged the wrist and affected an elegance that belied its decidedly masculine lines. This was made possible by their movement, Caliber 2121. (In fact, Patek Philippe used that same movement in their initial version of the Nautilus, a watch that was their answer to the Royal Oak – and also designed by Genta.)

ap royal oak 15202 green
A manufacture AP movement with self-winding gold rotor.

Diode SA – Denis Hayoun

Over the years, the Royal Oak would spawn an entire lineup within Audemars Piguet’s portfolio that would include perpetual calendars, dual time zones and more. The most notable departure, however, would be the Royal Oak Offshore, which debuted in 1993. This watch adopted the octagonal bezel and integrated strap of the original, but was oversized with a much thicker case that housed a Magnetically shielded chronograph movement and was water resistant to 100 meters.

Designed by Emmanuel Gueit, the original Offshore was a massive affair made from stainless steel. It will eventually define the luxury sports watch in the new millennium, just as the first Royal Oak defined the genre before it. The Offshore found favor with affluent actors, sportsmen, rap artists and collectors, not at all because it was so close to the original formula, but with an extra dose of testosterone, which clearly indicated the direction in which the industry was on the move. In fact, one of Offshore’s most ardent fans was none other than actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, who owed his fame and popularity in large part to his personification of the very qualities that made Offshore so appealing. . Schwarzenegger’s contribution to the design of the now classic “End Of Days” Offshore – which featured prominently on his wrist in the film of the same name – helped kick-start acceptance of treated black cases on luxury watches.

Detail of the Royal Oak Offshore self-winding chronograph watch
Royal Oak Offshore self-winding chronograph: a gray dial with “Méga Tapisserie” motif, white gold applied indexes and Royal Oak hands with luminescent coating.

Audemars Piguet

Today, the Royal Oak line encompasses everything from rugged and officially certified diving watches made from exotic materials such as titanium, ceramic and forged carbon fiber, to delicate haute horlogerie pieces that can guess the difference between mean time and star time. Yet no matter how different the intent, design, or size of a given Royal Oak may be, it is connected to the rest of the line through the revolutionary design of the original. The “Jumbo” has remained in Audemars Piguet’s repertoire over the years, always sought after by die-hard collectors and true aficionados of the brand. To this day, it continues to receive regular updates and new compelling variations. No matter how much things may change, it would seem that in the end, they stay the same.

Long live the Royal Oak.


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