Looking Back: The History of the Iconic Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
“It takes more than money to wear the Royal Oak” A quote from Audemars Piguet’s marketing scheme for their Royal Oak in the 1970’s.
The early 1970’s was a tough time for the Swiss watch industry. The “quartz crisis” crafted by the Japanese and their production of accurate, reliable and affordable battery watches held the Swiss watch industry in a head lock, with none of the Swiss brands having any idea of how to stop the dire drop in sales. Even the largest commercial brands such as Omega, Heuer and Rolex had no direct response and were slowly slipping into a state of financial despair.
In 1971, Audemars Piguet were also in a difficult position much like these other brands. Audemars knew that without a drastic change the brand would soon be extinct and be just another name in the Swiss history books, they needed to act rapidly. A disruptive change was required, a change that would alter the brands DNA and help them delve into a new and profitable market. After intense market research around the world, it was the Italian watch industry that caught the brands eye, the market called for a luxury steel watch and AP felt that they could deliver the answer.
Gerald Genta was the man given the responsibility of the designing process, his previous back log of designs was extremely impressive with designs such as the Omega Constellation and the Patek Phillipe Golden Ellipse been some of his most influential and commercial successes. In 1971, the evening before the Annual Swiss Watch Show (Known today as Basel World), Georges Golay, the MD of Audemars at that time contacted Mr. Genta at 4pm and told him that the Italian watch market was expecting a new “unprecedented steel watch” for which he would need the designs for the next morning. He demanded a steel sports watch with the most beautiful finishes ever seen.
By the next morning Mr. Genta had designed a watch that would become the iconic Royal Oak, a watch that even himself called the masterpiece of his career.
The original design of the Royal Oak still is still resembled in the Royal Oaks of today, the watch is inspired by a classic divers helmet and carries iconic characteristics such as the octagonal bezel secured by eight gold screws and a tapisserie dial. The original watch was only 7mm thick yet was considered large due to its 39mm case. However, arguably the most iconic feature of the watch was its integrated and complex bracelet which is still used on Royal Oaks today.
The original movement used in the Royal Oak was the calibre 2121 which is in fact still used by AP today in the 15202 Royal Oak models, it’s a simple two handed movement with a date function. The 2121 movement is very similar to the 2120 movement that was used by AP, the only difference being the addition of a date function. The 2120 was crafted in 1967, the project was in fact led by Jaeger Le-Coultre and received assistance from Audemars Piguet, Patek Phillipe and Vacheron Constantin. The aim was to craft an ultra thin automatic movement. After the movement was created, each brand made minor adjustments to the movement leaving JLC with the Calibre 920, The Patek movement 28-255c used in the Nautilus, a direct competitor of the Royal Oak and the Vacheron movement 1120 used in the 222 watch, the predecessor of the Overseas another direct competitor. The 2121 movement was well ahead of its time and was fit with a anti-shock system, a suitable partner for this revolutionary steel sports watch.
The name of the watch also follows suit with the watches nautical theme. The name Royal Oak came from eight British Royal Navy Vessels that were also called the Royal Oak, the inspiration of the name came from a tree that Charles II hid in following the battle of Worcester in 1651. After all these details were put in place the first initial prototypes were produced, it is interesting to note that the prototypes were actually made of white gold, this was simply because it was in fact cheaper to machine the difficult specifications of Genta’s design in white gold than high quality steel.
One year after the initial design process began, at The Annual Swiss Watch show in 1972, the Royal Oak was revelaed to the world. As soon as the watch was revealed it was subject to nothing but absolute criticism with many saying it would lead to the death of Audemars Piguet completely. How wrong were they? The watch was initially slammed for its monstrous price tag of 3300 Swiss francs, in today’s money this would be considered a very reasonable price for such a quality watch. However in 1972 that it was more than ten times the cost of a Submariner which was considered the best commercial steel sports watch at that time. The revolutionary design was considered too disruptive to the brands DNA and the idea of being able to see screws and gaskets was also not well received.
Eventually, to the shock of many, the watch came into its own and was adopted and adored by well informed yet controversial time piece enthusiasts. The Royal Oak slowly became a success for AP and became their symbol of ground breaking horological design and their ability to make steel a luxury material. Initially AP produced only 1000 pieces of the 5402 original Royal Oaks which took over a year to sell out. These are known as the “A series” editions due to the serial number beginning with A. Once the first 1000 A series models sold, AP continued to use the letter A for another 1000 models before moving onto B,C and so on. The A series models are the most popular with collectors due to the iconic AP Logo being placed at above 6 o’clock compared to the rest which held the logo at 12.
Eventually the Royal Oak became AP’s best selling collection and to meet demand they began introducing the Royal Oak with new complications such as chronographs and new materials such as rubber straps, leather straps and even a selection of precious metals models. The Royal Oak really was AP’s saving grace.
After 20 strong years of the Royal Oak, Audemars decided to rock the boat once more. To mark the 20th anniversary of the Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet asked Emmanuel Gueit to design a new adaption called the Royal Oak Offshore. A watch to appeal to a younger more rebellious generation, AP had managed to cause a stir with the original Royal Oak and their ambition was to do that again, and they definitely succeeded.
According to Audemars the key word to the offshore collection was “deconstructed”. This meant stripping the watch back and making it bold and raw, such as the large visible black gasket and its size, 42mm, which was considered massive in 1993 and gave the watch the name of “The Beast”.
At Baselworld 1993 when the Offshore was launched it was not well received. Gerald Genta, the designer of the original Royal Oak, invaded the booth saying his Royal Oak had been ruined. Over time though, the original Royal Oak and the Offshore turned out to be a massive success for Audemars.
Fast forward to the modern day and Audemars Piguet are globally recognised as one of the main pillars in Luxury watch making, mainly due to the Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore collection. Audemars have used the Royal Oak name on many ground breaking pieces, mainly in their Royal Oak Concept collection. The Royal Oak concept collection uses the heritage of the Royal Oak name and combines it with Avant Garde designs and groundbreaking micro mechanics.
The first concept piece was launched to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Royal Oak in 2002. The design was bold, large and brimming with ground breaking technology such as a beautiful tourbillon. The case was made from a new metal called Alacrite 602 which at the time of its launch was the strongest material in the world.
The latest pieces from the Royal Oak Concept are even more revolutionary than the original, the latest model from the collection has a case made from sand blasted titanium, it has a flying tourbillon, something that can be considered a horological masterpiece due to the complexity of manufacturing this complication and to top off this piece of craftsmanship, a GMT function. The power reserve is 237 hours and has a colossal 348 parts.
In Conclusion, the Royal Oak Collection is the definition of a true love story for Audemars Piguet. The Royal Oak was the brands saving grace and since its launch has grown strength to strength to stand the test of time. From its original 39mm steel case to its most flamboyant gold and platinum 44mm cases, Audemars have proved that there is a Royal Oak to please every taste, to the discreet and elegant to the load and brash the Royal Oak is admired and adored. Whats next from the Royal Oak collection? Only time will tell, yet its a safe bet to say that Audemars will be taking the Royal Oak very far into the future with them and be developing this fine collection in years to come and that fact is very pleasing for nearly everyone.
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