There is a fair number of watch designs that have earned the definite article by dint of remaining in production through decades and if the Royal Oak is one of the younger, at a mere 40 years old, it is certainly one of the more definitive.
The Royal Oak created a new category and ensured Audemars Piguet's future just as the Swiss watch industry was about to hit the rocks in spectacular style. It was a radically different watch in terms of design, manufacture and as a commercial proposition that required not only a visionary designer and a company that had the foresight to back the idea, but a large slice of luck to come into existence at all.
True to the design of the original from 1972, the Extra-Thin Royal Oak houses the same slim line mechanical movement in its 39mm case and is instantly recognisable as the successor by the distinctive petite tapisserie pattern on the dial.
As some hours of conversation with Michel Golay at the Le Brassus manufacture made clear, Audemars Piguet arrived at the end of the 1960s as the near sole inheritors of the Vallée de Joux' high-end watchmaking tradition (the other main contender being Jaeger-LeCoultre with whom AP had a symbiotic relationship). The early part of the century had not been kind to the area's specialisation in high-value watches, demand for which crashed with Wall Street and barely improved as war-time procurement demands were for simpler, higher-volume products. It was only in the 1950s that AP emerged, fit and in tact, and began to prosper in the following decade.
Sketches of the Royal Oak showing how its distinctive aesthetic has augmented to include additional features and movements.
The making of a brand
During the post-war period, Audemars Piguet, along with other companies, slowly developed into a brand name, where previously the company had been far more concerned with making and supplying. La Vallée's tradition being focused on higher quality, complicated movements (what used to be called haute de gamme) over quantity, AP was known in its key European markets of Germany and Italy for its gold dress watches and for a specialisation on jewelled watches (they were one of the few companies able to set jewels on watch hands). This reputation was reinforced by the distributor for these markets who also represented Omega (a brand catering to the middle value, more technical niches). Close ties with its distributors meant that AP was both responsive to its market's needs and confident in the volumes it could expect to sell - a crucial element in the genesis of the Royal Oak.
And it was the markets that set the ball rolling. The watch business had ended the 1960s on a relatively high note. The positive reception for the new automatic chronograph movements from Breitling, Heuer and Zenith showed that there was demand for higher-value watches, a development that alerted the retailers and distributors to an emerging gap in the market - even the unveiling of the first quartz movements for watches was still thought a positive. The Italians in particular asked AP to look into developing a luxury segment sports watch as an alternative to the formal, dressy gold watches that were AP's mainstay. They wanted a watch that they could sell as able to be taken seamlessly from office, to beach, to nightclub, that would be less obvious than gold - they even suggested stainless steel might be the material.
The watch that started it all, the original 1972 Royal Oak was thought of overnight but has lived on and is still making an impact four decades on.
The first cut
AP can have made little progress internally, as they were without a credible concept on the eve of a meeting with Carlo de Marchi, the Italian distributor, at the 1971 Basel Fair. AP's Managing Director, Georges Golay, apparently made the call to Gérald Genta the afternoon before, outlined the brief and asked for drawings to be delivered in the morning. That evening's work made Genta's reputation and determined Audemars Piguet's future.
Genta, who QP profiled last autumn, had earned a good reputation within the industry as what was then called a watch stylist, having worked already with Universal Genève and Omega (both of whom Audemars Piguet had close contacts with) and with Patek Philippe on the Gondolo in 1968. As the legend has it, Genta was inspired by the memory of seeing a brass diver's helmet with its glass visor bolted onto a rubber gasket. Alongside the diver's helmet concept, the drawings presented the next morning showed a novel simplicity in terms of the dial and the general lines of the watch, though perhaps the most important element was the tapered bracelet integrated into the case. De Marchi was impressed, as was Charles Bauty who looked after the Swiss market. AP's board, including Golay, was not. Nevertheless, the design had already been effectively sold.
Vintage adverts from the past four decades document the vast impact that the Royal Oak has had on design, style and watchmaking.
Putting reservations on hold, AP went ahead with developing Genta's design and working out how to manufacture it. Aside from the then outlandish look of the watch and the strange idea of having to develop a luxury steel watch, Genta's design was radically different in construction as well. The case is made from a single block of steel with the movement dropped in from the dial side and the only other apertures being for the crown and the screw-holes on the base side - almost as the original divers helmets had been made. The octagonal screws that you see on the bezel are blind nuts, the screw slots being purely decorative as the (headless) screws are driven in from below - a moment's thought tells you that you cannot drive a hexagonal screw into a hexagonal hole.
The prototypes famously had to be made from white gold as the machine tools AP had available were simply not up to working on the much harder steel. New machines had to be acquired for production along with new sets of skills and techniques, particularly in terms of creating the contrasting finishes Genta's design demanded. The Royal Oak's concept and, even more importantly, AP's identity as a top tier watchmaker meant that any steel watch with their name on absolutely had to be finished above the standards expected for a gold watch. Look closely and you can see that every angle of every facet of both case and bracelet is polished to perfection.
Audemars Piguet continues to make the Royal Oak at its manufacture in Le Brassus, Switzerland.
Fitted with the Calibre 2121 (still the thinnest full-rotor automatic movement in the world and still much regarded), the prototype was shown at the 1972 Basel Fair and it was announced that a limited edition of 1,000 would be made. Predictably, the reaction of the industry was polite horror, with many predicting that 1972 would be AP's last. Priced at the equivalent of about SFr.10,000 now, the watch was in the same bracket as gold dress watches and a then gargantuan 39mm in diameter, the Royal Oak (named as such by de Marchi in preference to the working title of Safari and just conceivably a reference to the night Charles II spent hiding in an oak tree in Boscobel Wood fleeing Parliamentarian forces) was clearly doomed to failure.
However, the Italian and Swiss distributors had committed to buy 400 watches each and so the watch went into production. And it has to be said that it was, at best, a slow burner. It was not until influential characters such as Gianni Agnelli (of Fiat fame) picked up on the watch that the ball started rolling. By luck, or Genta's prescience as I prefer to think, the Royal Oak caught the mood of the new generation of wealthy consumers. The smooth lines, simplified fonts and baton indexes were a clear step on from even the most radical of the previous decades' watches.
Limited to 40 pieces, the platinum anniversary edition of the Openworked Extra-Thin Royal Oak houses one of the thinnest tourbillon movements on the market.
By 1975, the Royal Oak had sold enough for AP to look at expanding the family. With Genta having already developed the concept for other clients, AP appointed Jacqueline Dimier as in-house designer, charged with applying the idea to a ladies watch and other variations. The first, and possibly most important, variation was the introduction of a bi-metal version using yellow gold for the bezel and intermediate links - this was to be one of the defining looks for the Royal Oak over the next decade.
While it took many years for Georges Golay to accept the Royal Oak as true Audemars Piguet, the process must have been eased by the successful introduction of more complicated movements into the collection from the mid-1980s, culminating in a superb perpetual calendar launched in 1987. Since then the Royal Oak has become so central to Audemars Piguet's expansion that the model has threatened to overtake the manufacturer in terms of brand value and recognition - there was even a discussion about spinning Royal Oak off as a separate brand.
AP's 2012 anniversary collection naturally includes a re-edition of the original, along with a greatest hits collection of RO variants. Precious metal or steel, unadorned to diamond encrusted and in 33, 37, 39 and 41mm versions, the once wild child Royal Oak is aiming to please everyone as it enters its fifth decade.
Further information: www.audemarspiguet.com