Audemars Piguet Royal Oak at 50: The Evolution of an Iconic Watch

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak at 50: The Evolution of an Iconic Watch

On February 24, 2022 in Geneva, Christie’s auctioned off a piece of modern watchmaking history for the eye-opening sum of 546,500 Swiss francs ($590,000). What made this sale such an international milestone in the red-hot watch auction market was that the item in question was not actually a watch, but a sketch for a watch. Not just any watch, of course, but Gérald Genta’s original illustration for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. The buyer was later confirmed to be Audemars Piguet itself, the Swiss watch company that hired Genta, at the time an in-demand freelance watch designer, to create a new flagship model for the brand, one that ushered in a new era in watchmaking, and watch marketing, when it launched in 1972 — fifty years ago.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak - Gerald Genta sketch

In its half-century on the market, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak has become one of the unquestioned icons of the luxury watch world, unmistakable in its aesthetics and far-reaching in its appeal and influence. For Audemars Piguet, which could look back upon a long and proud history of timepiece milestones since its founding in 1875, even before Genta brought that seminal sketch to the company, the Royal Oak has become the watch around which its entire collection revolves.

THE ROOTS OF THE OAK

It is worth pointing out that the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, one of today’s most popular, valuable, and rabidly coveted watches, was far from a sure thing to ever be commercially produced, much less to be a success on the market. In 1972, the Swiss watch industry — especially venerable, traditional maisons like Audemars Piguet, which were still committed to making mechanical watches — were starting to feel the heat from lower-priced, mass-produced quartz watches from Asian competitors. The first watches with quartz movements had launched just a few years prior, in 1969, and a full-blown Quartz Crisis that would last through the 1970s and ‘80s and threaten the very existence of the Swiss watch industry was just starting to ramp up. Even the idea of the wristwatch as a luxury item was becoming increasingly passé.

Gerald Genta, designer of Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

All that considered, Audemars Piguet’s decision to release a steel sports watch with a mechanical movement, priced at the upper echelon of the market, in hindsight seems counterintuitive yet undeniably bold. Genta (above, 1931-2011), the Swiss watch and jewelry designer whom AP president Georges Golay approached for the project, already had an impressive track record in the luxury watch field, having contributed the designs of the Polerouter for Universal Genève, the Constellation for Omega, and the Golden Ellipse for Patek Philippe. (Genta’s more famous contribution to Patek’s portfolio, the Nautilus, came four years after the Royal Oak, in 1976.) Golay, who ran AP from 1966 to 1987, wanted a watch that would re-invigorate the brand, whose sales were stagnant and whose image was still rooted in the more genteel watches that were increasingly falling out of favor. On the eve of the Basel Watch Fair in 1969, Golay called Genta at 4 o’clock that afternoon and tasked him with designing a new sports watch at the urgent request of an Italian distributor. In one feverish all-nighter, or so he claimed, Genta came up with the concept sketch for Golay’s game-changing sports watch after looking at photos of historical divers’ helmets and being inspired by their rugged, angular shapes and visible screws. 

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak "Jumbo"

The idea of “making visible what had always hitherto been hidden,” was the driving creative idea behind the watch design, with its unprecedented, octagonal-shaped bezel sporting exposed hexagonal screws at each of its corners, its dial enhanced with a checkerboard textured guilloché pattern known as “grand tapisserie,” and its 39-mm case integrating smoothly into a meticulously designed, tapering bracelet with alternating finishes on its outer and inner links. Genta intended the watch to embody a nautical aesthetic, hence the dive-helmet elements and also the name: Royal Oak, a reference to the historical British naval warships named after the oak tree that sheltered King Charles II of England during the English Civil War. As per Golay’s directive, the watch would be made in steel rather than the gold or platinum that was used almost exclusively for fine watches. Because of the high level of hand finishing and tooling required to bring Genta’s complex vision to life, however, the Royal Oak in steel would be priced comparably with other luxury watches in gold. Again, counterintuitive yet bold.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak - tapisserie dial lume

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak bracelet

The sketch unveiled at the 1969 Basel Fair didn’t become a production model until 1972. The original Royal Oak (Ref. 5402), now fondly nicknamed “Jumbo” due to its large-for-the-time 39mm case diameter, contained what was at the time the world’s thinnest mechanical watch movement with a date indication, Caliber 2121, which measured a mere 3.05 mm in height and featured a number of technical elements in service of maintaining sport-watch sturdiness, such as a Gyromax balance and an anti-shock system. The slender movement allowed for an uncommonly thin case as well, just 7mm. As Golay and Genta undoubtedly both expected, the watch made a splash, albeit not necessarily a universally positive one at the time. Priced at 3,650 Swiss francs (around $3,000), it was more expensive than any steel watch the market had ever seen, pricier than a gold Patek Philippe dress watch and a Rolex Submariner. (Ironically, the prototypes for the watch had been crafted in white gold, which at the time was easier to work with in the construction process than steel.) Audemars Piguet leaned into the disparity in its marketing campaigns, determined to reach an affluent and forward-looking audience, but the message took a while to catch on: it was three years before the relatively scant 1,000 pieces from the original run of Ref. 5402 were sold.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak - movement

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Caliber - rotor

Though it was far from an overnight success, Audemars Piguet had essentially invented what we now know as the “luxury sports watch.” Its most groundbreaking design elements, like visible screws, octagonal bezels, textured dials, and integrated bracelets, would be emulated by legions of watches in the decades to come, some but not by any means all of them designed by Genta. As for the “Jumbo” itself, it would go on to spawn a large and substantial family of timepieces that today reside at the very pinnacle of both horological mastery and market dominance. Building such a collection, of course, and extending its appeal to an ever wider audience of collectors and enthusiasts. required Audemars Piguet to veer from what made the original model so historic, the use of exclusively steel for its case and bracelet. Today you can (at least in theory; you may have heard that some are rather hard to get) buy a Royal Oak in white gold, rose gold, platinum, titanium, and ceramic, some even with jewel-set bezels. At the entry level, you can even find a few with quartz movements. 

BRANCHING OUT INTO COMPLICATIONS

In 1985, Audemars Piguet melded its historical mastery of horological high complications with its most avant-garde timepiece design to produce the first Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar. As it had with the “Jumbo,” AP defied the usual expectations for such a top-shelf timepiece by casing it not in precious metal but in stainless steel. With the watch industry still in the throes of the Quartz Crisis, and expensive, highly complicated timepieces from heritage Swiss manufactures like AP increasingly scarce, the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar was notable for being one of the very few series-produced perpetual calendars on the market.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar

Audemars Piguet made its first perpetual calendar wristwatch, the Ref. 5516, in 1948, and that design exerted a heavy influence on the Royal Oak version. Like the perpetual calendars that preceded it from other AP collections in the years from 1978 through 1984, the watch contained Caliber 2120/2800, at the time the world’s thinnest self-winding perpetual calendar movement. As with the manufacture’s earliest quantièmes perpetuelles, the movement tracked the leap years but didn’t display them on the dial, making for a cleaner look. Also notable, and a contributor to legibility, was the dial’s lack of the familiar grand tapisserie pattern in favor of a sunbrushed surface underpinning the various calendar displays. (More recent models, however, have added the motif and made it work, as in the model pictured above.)

The perpetual calendar version of the Royal Oak has become an icon in its own right, albeit not as “everyday” a timepiece as a traditional three-hand “Jumbo.” In recent years, Audemars Piguet has delivered a breathtakingly finished skeletonized version as well as models cased in materials such as yellow gold and, just last year, titanium. And the Perpetual Calendar, of course, is not the only complication or high-horological flourish to be found in the vast Royal Oak collection today, which includes automatic tourbillons, skeletons, minute repeaters, and chronographs. The latter, interestingly, was one of the last complications to arrive in the core Royal Oak line, in 1997. For the first chronograph-equipped Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet had something bigger in mind — a line extension ideally positioned to grab the attention of a newly minted generation of watch mavens in the 1990s.

AP Royal Oak Offshore original

GOING OFFSHORE

By 1993, the renaissance of the mechanical luxury watch after years of quartz dominance was starting to show some promise. As it had back in 1972, Audemars Piguet was among the boldest leaders, introducing a bigger and brassier version of the Royal Oak that would appeal to the tastes and trends of a new generation, the Royal Oak Offshore. Whereas the “Jumbo” was notable for its thinness and its classical three-hand dial, the Offshore projected an aggressively sporty spirit, with a 42-mm case, an even more in-your-face tapisserie textured dial, and, for the first time ever in a Royal Oak watch, a chronograph movement. The design, which was executed not by Genta but by in-house AP designer Emmanuel Geit, spoke to a growing trend in the watch market toward bigger, bulkier designs.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and AP Royal Oak Offshore Genta himself went on record that he despised the Offshore, likening it to a Porsche that had been forcibly turned into a Hummer, but the market ultimately decided it disagreed with him, including a roster of celebrity wearers, including movie star (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Hummer aficionado) Arnold Schwarzenegger, auto racing legend Michael Schumacher, and basketball champ LeBron James, all of whom have collaborated with the watchmaker on their own specially personalized editions of the Royal Oak Offshore. Schwarzenegger, in fact, even worked directly with Audemars Piguet’s design team to create the watch now known as the Royal Oak Offshore “End of Days,” a massive, all-black timepiece that he wore in the 1999 blockbuster film of the same name. In keeping with the Royal Oak’s history of sparking trends, it was instrumental in ushering in an era of massive, all-black watches that would remain prominent in the first decade of the new millennium. Like its parent model, the Royal Oak Offshore has since proliferated in its complications, materials, and colorways and even spawned its own subfamily, the rugged, ISO-certified Offshore Diver, in 2010.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie

SOUND CONCEPTS

The basic design language of the Royal Oak has been reinterpreted not only in the Offshore collection but also, and arguably much more radically, in the Royal Oak Concept series, inaugurated in 2002. As their names imply, Royal Oak Concept watches are essentially prototypes that serve as proving grounds for avant-garde materials and technologies as well as new takes on traditional high complications; most of them eventually end up as commercial products within the Royal Oak or Royal Oak Offshore collections. Among the most noteworthy is 2015’s Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie (above), a minute repeater whose chiming mechanism achieves a sound 10 times louder than that of a traditional chiming watch by applying the principles of stringed instruments like acoustic guitars. Instead of the gongs being attached to the movement’s mainplate, which can dampen their sound, the Supersonnerie gongs are attached to a copper-alloy “sound board” positioned between the movement and the mainplate. The concept watch, which was the product of eight years of acoustic research in Audemars Piguet’s R&D workshops in the Swiss Vallée de Joux, emerged as a commercially available piece just a year later, in the rather hefty, angular case most often used for Royal Oak Concept models, and found its way into the more compact and classical Royal Oak case (42 mm in diameter, 14 mm thick) in 2021. Since one might make the case that the Royal Oak itself was something of a bold experiment back in 1972, it is fitting that the collection now hosts the most daring technical ideas that Audemars Piguet’s braintrust can muster. 

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak "Jumbo" 2022 Editions

THE MIGHTY OAK AT 50

For its 50th birthday in 2022, at the forefront of a slew of new releases that includes chronographs, openworked and self-winding flying tourbillons, and various Offshore models, Audemars Piguet has revisited the Royal Oak “Jumbo” in a manner that pays homage to its legendary ancestor while also bringing it into a more modern technical era, outfitting it with a new in-house movement, Caliber 7121. The latter is a particularly significant development, as it marks the first time in 40 years that the model is powered by a movement other than Caliber 2121, which was, to be pointedly honest, never a full-fledged manufacture movement from AP, as it used the Jaeger-LeCoultre Caliber 920, also used by Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin in their own sport-luxury models, as its base.

On the outside, the new watch, technically dubbed the Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin Ref. 16202, will be very familiar to fans of the 1972 original, as Audemars Piguet has resurrected the shade of blue used for the vintage piece’s dial, called “Bleu Nuit, Nuage 50,” which is darker than the tone used for more recent models. The “AP” appliqué has been subtly moved from its former position at 12 o’clock to a new home at 6 o’clock. The “Jumbo” steel case remains 39 mm in diameter and just 8 mm thick. Inside, however, the new self-winding movement offers better shock resistance thanks to its full balance bridge, an increased frequency of 28,800 vph, and a lengthier power reserve of 55 hours. As a bonus, the models equipped with this new caliber (which include references in rose gold, yellow gold and platinum, each with its own colorful fumé dial rather than the traditional blue one) use a version of it with a special 50th-anniversary rotor that will only be produced in 2022.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 50th Anniversary RotorThe impact of that original Royal Oak watch is difficult to overstate and next to impossible to ignore when one looks across the breadth of luxury sport watches that dominate the market today and some of the elements they have in common. The aforementioned Patek Philippe Nautilus, Genta’s other iconic brainchild, applies several of the Royal Oak’s signatures while also establishing several influential and much-emulated features of its own. Vacheron Constantin’s Overseas collection — at one point widely believed to be another Genta design but actually not — has come on strong in recent years as that high-luxury brand’s leader model. Beyond these two familiar examples, the integrated-bracelet, geometrical-bezel look pioneered by the Royal Oak has more of less exploded in recent years on models from a wide range of brands at a similarly broad variety of price points: the Girard-Perregaux Laureato, Chopard Alpine Eagle, Bell & Ross BR 05, A. Lange & Sohne Odysseus, Tissot PRX, Hublot Big Bang Integral, Baume & Mercier Riviera, and Frederique Constant Highlife are just a handful of modern timepieces that owe at least some stylistic debt to the Royal Oak. The only question that remains is, how many more timepieces might we be able to say that about when the Royal Oak turns 75 in 2047, or even when it hits the century mark in 2072?

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak - wrist

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