Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
To refer to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak as a mere icon is to almost willfully ignore the importance of the watch, the line it inspired, or, indeed, the genre that it gave birth to. Few, if any, timepieces have so thoroughly altered the industry or impacted our conception of watchmaking as the Royal Oak, and for good reason. This timepiece didn’t just save a company. It single-handedly created an entirely new class of watch.
To understand the importance of the Royal Oak, one must first understand the era that preceded its inception. The ‘70s were a time of tumult in the Swiss horology industry, with many storied manufactures on the brink of bankruptcy; that is, if they hadn’t succumbed already. The reason for this trouble was the advent of the inexpensive quartz watch from Japan, which found favor with the buying public not only for its affordability, but also for its superior accuracy and robustness. This time has been referred to as the “quartz crisis”, and a crisis is exactly what it was. Audemars Piguet was no more immune to its effects than its competitors.
Audemars Piguet was founded in 1875 in the heart of Switzerland’s watchmaking region, La Vallée de Joux, by friends Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet. By the early 1970s it had risen to the highest tiers of horology through its mastery of complications (complex functions beyond mere timekeeping) and its exquisite craftsmanship. However, none of this was able to prevent the manufacture from edging ever closer towards the precipice of financial ruin. Drastic measures were needed, though their form would take the industry by surprise. In fact, it was an urgent request from an Italian distributor that sparked the flame that would eventually become the Royal Oak.
As the story goes, on the eve of the 1971 Basel Fair, Georges Golay, then Audemars Piguet’s managing director, contacted a watch designer and asked him to design an “unprecedented steel watch” in response to the request from Italy. It was 4 p.m. By the following morning, the Royal Oak was all but born. The quick turn-around time can be attributed to the designer that Golay tasked with this project: the legendary Gérald Genta. By 1972, Genta was well-known in the industry, with several high-visibility projects to his name, like 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 conceived before, and it would come to define Genta until his passing in 2011, 40 years after he first sketched out the design.
As conceived, the proposed watch would affect a nautical mien, with an octagonal bezel and exposed retaining screws that were meant to be evocative of a commercial diver’s helmet. The exposed rubber gasket served to reinforce this theme, which also extended to the name, “Royal Oak,” which was a reference to the historical British warships of the same name (which, in turn, were named after the oak tree that provided shelter to King Charles II as he was fleeing the Roundheads during the English Civil War in 1651). The meticulously finished and equally slim bracelet was integrated into the case design. The latter of which had such a sufficiently generous diameter (39mm) that it would come to be referred to by collectors and fans as the “Jumbo.”
Per the request of the Italian distributor, the watch would be crafted from steel, something unheard of in a high-end watch. Ironically, doing so made the watch several orders of magnitude more difficult to manufacture than gold, as steel proved to be a much harder material to hand-finish to Audemars Piguet’s exacting standards. In fact, the first prototypes were made from white gold. Imagine that: using gold, because steel was too difficult to finish properly. This would be just one of the conventions that the Royal Oak would upend.
Ultimately, it would be the finishing that would set the price of a then-astronomical $3,000. To put this perspective, that figure was approximately 10 times dearer than the Rolex Submariner of the era. Pundits seized on this as evidence that Audemars Piguet was out of touch and that the watch would be an instant failure, and it seemed that the naysayers would be right, as the Royal Oak proved to be anything but a runaway success. It took almost three years to sell out the first production run of 1,000 pieces.
Nonetheless, the first production Royal Oak, the 5402 A-Series, which made its official debut at the 1972 Basel Fair, stunned the industry with its bold, angular design and impossibly slim case. At a mere seven millimeters, the Royal Oak hugged the wrist and affected an elegance that belied its decidedly masculine lines. This was possible thanks to its movement, the calibre 2121. (In fact, Patek Philippe would use this same movement in their initial version of the Nautilus, a watch that was their response to the Royal Oak — and designed by Genta as well.)
Over the years, the Royal Oak would spawn an entire line within Audemars Piguet’s portfolio that would come to include perpetual calendars, dual time zones and more. The most impactful departure, however, would be the Royal Oak Offshore, which made its debut in 1993. This watch adopted the octagonal bezel and integrated bracelet of the original, but was super-sized with a much thicker case that housed a magnetically-shielded chronograph movement and was water-resistant to a full 100 meters.
Designed by Emmanuel Gueit, the original Offshore was a massive affair crafted from stainless steel. It would eventually come to define the luxury sport watch in the new millennium, much as the first Royal Oak defined the genre before it. The Offshore found favor with actors, sportsmen, rap artists and well-heeled collectors alike, not in the least part because it hewed so closely to the original formula, though with an added dose of testosterone, which pointed distinctly toward the direction the industry was moving. In fact, one of the Offshore’s most ardent fans was none other than actor cum politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, who owed his fame and popularity in no small part to his personification of the very qualities that made the Offshore so appealing. Schwarzenegger’s input in the design of the now-classic “End Of Days” Offshore — which featured prominently on his wrist in the movie of the same name — helped kick off the acceptance of treated black cases on luxury watches.
Today, the Royal Oak line has encompassed everything from robust, officially certified diving watches crafted from exotic materials such as titanium, ceramic and forged carbon fiber, to delicate haute horology pieces that can divine 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’s connected to the rest of the line through the breakthrough design of the original. The “Jumbo” has remained in Audemars Piguet’s repertoire throughout the years, consistently sought after by die-hard collectors and true aficionados of the brand. To this day it continues to get regular updates and compelling new variations. No matter how much things may change, though, it would seem that ultimately, they remain the same.
Long live the Royal Oak.