The story of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is one that takes a bold step outside of traditional norms to create something truly unique. Audemars Piguet debuted the now legendary watch at the 1972 Swiss Watch Show in Basel. The ambition of the Royal Oak timepiece was high. It was always to cause a stir and disrupt the watch industry–something it continues to hang its hat on to this day.
The Quartz Crisis
In the 60s, quartz watches dominated the market thanks to leading Japanese manufacturers such as Seiko. These battery-powered watches were seen as superior timepieces. They offered excellent accuracy and much better value on the money than their luxury counterparts. Naturally, many people abandoned their mechanical watches in favor of quartz watches. This period in the history of timepieces is known as the “Quartz Crisis” and it led to the downfall of many storied Swiss watch companies.
Many luxury watch manufacturers were facing troubling financial conditions including Audemars Piguet, whose history dates back to 1875. In the wake of the Quartz Crisis, the brand knew they needed to disrupt the current market in a big way. They needed a significant change that would allow them to appeal to a new and profitable market. After conducting a few months of serious market research, it was the Italian market that caught the brand’s eye. They noticed a demand for a sports watch durable enough for all occasions. But also with a beautiful finish–something they felt they could deliver on.
The Birth of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Audemars Piguet toyed with the idea of incorporating steel into a luxury watch. Which was an idea that seemed absurd at the time. During this period, most fine watches were made from precious metals. While steel was a material reserved for the working class. However, the aim of the Royal Oak was simply to create a new luxury sports watch that could be used for all occasions. Plus it had a marvelous finish to it. Steel as the material fit the bill and effectively meshed elegance and sporty into a single timepiece.
Gerald Genta was the designer that Audemars Piguet chose to tackle this gutsy task. His impressive resume spanned several best-selling watches including the Omega Constellation and the Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse. Georges Golay is the chief executive of Audemars Piguet. And the night before the 1971 Swiss Watch Show (known today as Baselworld), he called his friend Genta. He told him the Italian watch market was expecting an “unprecedented steel watch.” For which he would need the design by next morning. Genta agreed and hastily put together the design for a new sports watch with a gorgeous steel finish, which would become the Royal Oak.
Inspiration Behind Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Genta took inspiration from a traditional divers helmet to create the design of the Royal Oak. The steel watch had an octagonal-shaped bezel secure by eight visible hexagonal gold screws, visible water-resistance gasket and a dial adorned with an exclusive blue motif. The watch was massive by standards of the time. The most iconic feature was the compact and integrated stainless steel bracelet that’s still used on Royal Oaks today. The revolutionary timeless was extremely complex to build, but Genta went on to call it the masterpiece of his career.
Playing on the diving theme of the watch, Genta was adamant that the name itself had to be nautical-related. The name of the octagonal bezel, Royal Oak, came from a series of eight vessels belonging to the British Royal Navy. These ships took their name from the hollowed oak tree that King Charles II of England famously hid in to escape death during the English Civil War.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Redefined Luxury Watches
The Royal Oak was finally was for launch at the 1972 Swiss Watch Show. Audemars Piguet put forth a price tag of 3,300 Swiss francs, more expensive than a gold-dress Patek Philippe and ten times as much as the Rolex Submariner. “It takes more than money to wear the Royal Oak,” the first advertising campaign read. It was certainly a bold move on the part of Audemars Piguet. Unsurprisingly, the Royal Oak was an easy target for criticism with a disruptive construction. Along with it’s visible gasket and screws, and exorbitant price tag. However, the allure of the timepiece couldn’t be denied for long. It eventually won over the watch market and its naysayers. Audemars Piguet had successfully proved that haute horlogerie no longer relied on precious metals, but rather it was the quality in the design, execution and movement that really counted.
The first batch comprised 1,000 watches with the new 5402 reference, more commonly known as the A-series. These highly sought-after editions are easy to recognize with the AP symbol above the 6 o’clock rather than the 12 o’clock. The subsequent years saw them roll out a number of different variations of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. They incorporated everything from leather and rubber straps to an ultra-thin perpetual calendar.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary, Audemars Piguet put forth the Royal Oak Offshore. The watch remains one of the most iconic watches to this day. The concept of this special edition was to provide a “deconstructed” approach to the timepiece. That way it caters to a younger and more rebellious generation. For the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak’s 30th birthday, AP put forth a “lab watch” version. The watch embodied the pinnacle of performance through extreme resistance and technical sophistication. Born out of a necessity to stay alive, the spirit of the Royal Oak has grown to stand the test of time as one of the most recognize timepieces in the world.