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The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watch has attained near-mythic status in the 40-plus years since it first sprang from the creative mind of designer Gérald Genta. In this time, it has saved a company from bankruptcy, established an entirely new genre of the wristwatch,
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watch has attained near-mythic status in the 40-plus years since it first sprang from the creative mind of designer Gérald Genta. In this time, it has saved a company from bankruptcy, established an entirely new genre of the wristwatch, and graced the wrists of everyone from royalty to rap stars. And yet in spite of all this, it remains controversial, a polarizing design with as many people singing its praises as not. Indeed, for every die-hard fan of the Royal Oak, you'll find someone else who can hardly stand its sight.
You got it right! One of the most iconic watches ever designed was created in a single day. The genius young watch stylist Gérald Genta was assigned to design the upcoming version of Audemars Piguet. Gérald Genta was a man who had already made a name for himself at companies like Universal Genève and Omega. He responded with the now-familiar octagonal case, replete with exposed mounting screws that would eventually become the Royal Oak. All in less than 24 hours.
One of the most contentious parts of the original Royal Oak was that it was crafted out of stainless steel, yet it still cost as much as, if not more, than contemporary watches made from noble metals like gold or platinum. And while it’s true that gold is well, gold, it’s a lot easier to work with than steel, which owes to its inherent softness and malleability.
In the run up to the Royal Oak’s debut back at the 1972 Basel trade show, Audemars Piguet was still exploring on steel, and as such, they didn’t have the time to develop the necessary tools to finish the Royal Oak’s complex case and bracelet to the exacting standards people had come to expect. So, what they did is going back on a metal that they had a lot of experience with. Gold.
Before the introduction of the Royal Oak, “sport” watches were anything but luxurious. Keep in mind that during ‘70s, timekeeping was serious business and since smart phones were decades away from apearing, a watch on the wrist was considered a necessity.
Watches of that period reflected this reality, and a Rolex Submariner or a Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms were designed to be easily and practically worn.
The Royal Oak was conceived from the outset to be a luxury item with a superlative level of hand-finishing previously limited to dress watches and haute horology pieces. It was also meant to be water-resistant to satisfy its jet-setting owner on adventures around the globe.
Before choosing Royal Oak as the official name, the prototype floating around Audemars Piguet’s office was nicknamed “Safari,” in part because of its overtly sporting pretensions that evoked images of desert exploration. No need to say this didn’t stick, as the powers-that-be didn’t consider this name to be representative for the image of the brand.
The model is based on the Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph, an oversized version of the original.
The royal oak, to be specific, as in the EXACT tree whose branches King Charles II of England had hidden behind to escape the Roundheads following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. There have also been eight British naval warships christened “Royal Oak,” which has led some to believe that the inspiration for the design of the wristwatch's bezel was inspired by a ship’s porthole.
Apparently after having received the design brief for what was to become the Royal Oak, Gérald Genta happened upon a diver emerging from Lake Geneva and thought to himself, If the screws holding the faceplate were strong enough to ensure a watertight seal on the helmet, surely they must be capable of doing the same for a watch.
The Royal Oak was anything but a runaway success, and indeed, many pundits in the industry predicted that it would spell Audemars Piguet's demise. After its official launch in 1972, a shocked world didn't know what what the hell to make of the angular design. A $3,600 price tag—in 1972, no less—was not only more than many gold watches, but also 10-times the price of a contemporary Rolex Submariner, the other steel icon on the market.
The first costumer was the Shah of Iran, a man known for his taste for the finer things in life—be they palaces, cars, or women. He saw the potential of the Royal Oak, and made sure that one graced his wrist. And he had to have it in white gold.
Please. The Shah of Iran wasn’t about to settle for any old Royal Oak. Never mind that part of the watch’s unique charm lay in its use of stainless steel, the Shah was very specific that his Royal Oak be made of white gold. No need to say, Audemars Piguet obliged with a custom watch designed just for him.
Albeit with a few qualifications. When the 2120 calibre debuted in 1967 at 2.5 millimeters, it was indeed the thinnest automatic movement the world had ever seen with a central rotor. In subsequent years, other manufacturers would manage to create ever such thin movements, but none of them would utilize a full-sized central rotor to maintain the power reserve. Untill today, the calibre 2120 is still considered one of the finest mechanical watch movements ever made.