Upon release on April 15, 1972, the Royal Oak designed by Gérald Genta created a stir with its large body of hand-finished stainless steel, its octagonal bezel secured with visible hexagonal screws, its highly stylised integrated steel bracelet and its extra-thin selfwinding mechanism. Inspired by the cultural and industrial revolution of the 1970s and launched in the early years of the quartz crisis, this watch combining sportiness with ancestral know-how heralded the beginning of a new fine watchmaking era in tune with changing lifestyles.
Over the years, the Royal Oak gave rise to a full-fledged collection with new sizes, materials, styles and movements. 50 years on, over 500 Royal Oak models have been created, turning this iconoclast into a cultural icon within and beyond watchmaking. Let’s look back at some of its highlights.
In 1970, three of Audemars Piguet’s distribution agents perceived clients’ new sensibilities and challenged the brand to respond. Georges Golay, Audemars Piguet’s then Managing Director, gave this challenging task to Gérald Genta, a trained jeweller and experienced watch designer, with the brief to design a sports watch in stainless steel never seen before. Genta drew the Royal Oak sketch in one night, taking inspiration from diverse sources beyond the diving helmet he remembered from his childhood. While Genta’s creation continued in the footsteps of Audemars Piguet’s unconventional wristwatch designs debuted in the 1930s, it also resonated with the cultural groundswell sweeping the worlds of contemporary art, design, architecture and music in the 1960s and 1970s.
An extraordinary collaborative process with the industry’s best watchmakers and artisans followed: Stern Frères worked on the guilloché Petite Tapisserie dial, Favre & Perret on the steel case and Gay Frères on the integrated steel bracelet. The watch was so complex to craft in hard steel that the first prototype was made in white gold, a softer material. The integrated bracelet alone comprised 154 components, including 20 tapering links, making it one of the most intricate steel bracelets in watchmaking history. In addition, the alternation of satin-brushed and polished surfaces adorning the steel case and bracelet was so elaborate that the final finishing touch was done in Audemars Piguet’s workshops.
“The Royal Oak was conceived in 1970, at the suggestion of general agents who had reservations about the marketing value of gold alone for the promotion of high-prestige timepieces – a view which I believe is no longer valid. They did ask us to design a stainless steel wristwatch more in tune with the way we live today. We had to invent a model both sporty and stylish in spirit, suitable for evening wear and for the daily activities of today’s man of taste.”
Interview from 1982
In April 1972, the most expensive steel watch on the market was presented at the Basel Fair where it caused a sensation, stirring a range of strong reactions including criticism. Between sceptical clients and the difficulty of manufacturing and delivering the watch’s first examples, the early days were tough. Nonetheless, sales reached 490 units as early as 1972 – a record for Audemars Piguet that marked the beginning of a steady commercial success.
For four years, Audemars Piguet cautiously produced this single reference only – the now famous 5402. It was not until 1976 that the first women’s Royal Oak in 29 mm (Model 8638) designed by Jacqueline Dimier was launched. As early as 1977, these two models were both reinterpreted in yellow gold, white gold and a two-tone combination of steel and yellow gold, giving rise to a collection. The brand also added a 35 mm intermediate size, Model 4100, which asserted itself as the new benchmark for men’s watches. No longer an outlier, the Royal Oak had a promising future waiting ahead.
TESTING NEW GROUNDS
The Royal Oak revealed an adaptability in the 1980s that was as unexpected as it was extraordinary.
Moving further away from Model 5402, Audemars Piguet explored new aesthetic possibilities for the Royal Oak with new sizes and materials. White gold, yellow gold and two-tone models (yellow gold and steel) were soon complemented with versions in platinum and pink gold. These precious timepieces were often accompanied by a gemset dial or bezel.
Diversifying the collection also meant exploring new possibilities in terms of movement. In tune with its time, the Royal Oak witnessed the introduction of quartz mechanisms in 1980. While originally reluctant to use this technology in the Royal Oak collection, Audemars Piguet gave way to the market’s demand after testing this technology on a closely related line – the so-called “Quartz” (Model 6005) debuted in 1978 – whose transgressive character lent itself well to this disruptive technology. Although this watch borrowed some aesthetic elements from the Royal Oak, including the geometric case and the integrated bracelet both finished with satin-finishing and polished chamfers, its bezel was neither octagonal nor punctuated by eight hexagonal screws. In ten years, at least 59 Royal Oak models were created, equipped with six different quartz movements and ranging from 26 to 36 mm in diameter.
While the brand experimented with quartz technology, it also played a crucial role in the revival of classic complications. In 1983, the Manufacture released its first day date Royal Oak model (5572) presented in a 36 mm case available in four variations: steel, yellow gold, white gold, as well as a two-tone combination marrying steel with yellow gold. This watch with multiple calendar functions was followed in 1984 by Model 5554, the first Royal Oak equipped with the world’s thinnest selfwinding perpetual calendar movement with central rotor of its time, Calibre 2120/2800, which the Manufacture had revealed in 1978 in Model 5548. In 1986, Audemars Piguet expanded its offering with a Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Openworked version (Model 25636). This 18-carat yellow gold timepiece introduced the first Royal Oak openworked design, as well as the collection’s first sapphire caseback to give centre stage to the record-breaking mechanism it contained. Appealing to lovers of fine watchmaking tradition, these early Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar models ushered in a new era of reinvention for the Royal Oak.
A DECADE OF EXTREMES
The proliferation of Royal Oak styles, diameters and movements continued well into the 1990s, reaching new technical and design milestones as the decade unfolded.
On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the Royal Oak took more radical turns, announcing the rest of the decade. 1992 not only saw the first limited edition (Model 14802) paying tribute to the so-called 39 mm “Jumbo” Royal Oak from 1972, this time fitted with a sapphire caseback. It also witnessed the first Royal Oak on leather strap – a controversial 36 mm timepiece (Model 14800) developed extra-muros by independent Swiss designer Jörg Hysek. Its case middle was hollowed out in the centre so as to attach the strap by means of mobile pivot bars. Interpreted in nearly 20 material and dial variants, this atypical Royal Oak took even greater liberties in the years that followed.
The Royal Oak reached another extreme in 1993 with the launch of the Royal Oak Offshore – the embodiment par excellence of the extreme lifestyles taking precedence in the 1990s. Imagined by Emmanuel Gueit, this sturdy and muscular reinterpretation of the Royal Oak in a dramatic 42 mm case size quickly appealed to a younger generation which saw in the “Beast” an ideal accessory for an adventurous lifestyle. This new take on the Royal Oak quickly followed its own path and gave rise to a collection unto its own.
While the Royal Oak expressed its masculine side more freely in the 1990s with an array of more extreme designs, women’s models equally bloomed with creativity. The first openworked women’s models made their debut in the early 1990s with the historic ultra-thin Calibre 2003SQ, measuring just 1.64 mm in thickness. Gemset models similarly gained ground, culminating in 1998 with the Royal Oak High Jewellery Openworked timepiece (Model 15073). The 18-carat white gold case, bracelet and hands of this 30 mm model were entirely paved with 446 brilliant-cut diamonds whereas the hour-markers were made of emeralds (~4.64 carats). Blending Haute Joaillerie and Haute Horlogerie traditions with contemporary design, this model ushered in a new wave of high jewellery timepieces in the early 2000s. The women’s Royal Oak reached another extreme in 1997 with the Royal Oak Mini (Model 67075), the smallest Royal Oak ever made. This quartz-driven yellow gold timepiece measured a mere 20 mm in diameter to sit comfortably on the slenderest wrists.
In addition, the 1990s consolidated the establishment of complications within the collection. In 1997, the Royal Oak Tourbillon saw the light of day on the occasion of the watch’s 25th anniversary in a limited edition of 25 pieces in steel. Pink gold, platinum and yellow gold variations were also issued in limited editions of five watches each. Fitted in a 40 mm case, Model 25831 was equipped with Audemars Piguet’s second generation tourbillon movement, Calibre 2875, slightly visible through the stylised octagonal tourbillon cage at 6 o’clock. In addition, in a nod to Audemars Piguet’s pioneering selfwinding tourbillon wristwatch released in 1986, this model featured the winding system on the caseback. The Manufacture also launched its first Royal Oak Chronograph (Model 25860, 39 mm) in 1997, as well as the very first Royal Oak Grande Complication featuring a minute repeater, a perpetual calendar and a split-seconds chronograph. This movement of 648 components was fitted in a massive 44 mm white gold case which provided a stark contrast with the Royal Oak Mini unveiled the same year.
From 1972 to 1999, Audemars Piguet created some 300 Royal Oak models, almost 200 of which were produced during the highly creative 1990s.
NEW DIRECTIONS FOR THE ROYAL OAK
The Royal Oak entered the third millennium with a new 39 mm version, Model 15202, which marked a turning point in “Jumbo” history. This timepiece reinterpreted the Royal Oak’s aesthetic codes with more freedom, with new dial colours as well as the return of the sapphire caseback. It also incorporated the new guilloché Grande Tapisserie dial, which was introduced in the collection a year before. Composed of larger pyramid bases (about 380 for a 39 mm dial vs. approx. 700 for the Petite Tapisserie dial), the Grande Tapisserie quickly became a new favourite across the Royal Oak collection at a time when the taste for larger watches had become more prevalent following the release of the Royal Oak Offshore in 1993. Indeed, the diameter of the Royal Oak’s core collection reached 39 mm in 2005, compared to 36 mm in the 1990s and 35 mm in the 1980s.
A repository of tradition and modernity, this version enjoyed renewed popularity and became one of the most highly coveted Royal Oak models.
However, more than a return to the origins, the 2000s was before all characterised by cutting-edge design and micro-mechanics in tune with the new millennium. Both the Royal Oak Concept, launched in 2002, and the Royal Oak Tradition d’Excellence N°4 (2004) testify to the avant-garde and futuristic vibe of the early noughties. Debuted in 1999, the Tradition d’Excellence cross-collection series went beyond the framework of classical watchmaking by combining complications innovatively. The Tradition d’Excellence N°4 (ref. 25969PT) couples a chronograph and a tourbillon in a 44 mm Royal Oak platinum case. This limited edition of 20 pieces was endowed with a remarkable 10-day power reserve thanks to its pioneering double barrel, visible through the partially openworked dial. The avant-garde dial also incorporated two power-reserve indications (10 days and last 24 hours) in addition to the tourbillon cage and the chronograph’s minute counters.
Last but not least, the Royal Oak took on a more human face in the 2000s with the rise of Royal Oak limited editions in collaboration with athletes and personalities. While the first collaboration dates back to 1990 with Nick Faldo’s Royal Oak Championship, other limited editions followed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as the Royal Oak City of Sails (1999) in partnership with Alinghi, the Royal Oak Sachin Tendulkar (2008) or the “Oak Leaves” featuring a model in collaboration with Michelle Yeoh (2005). Drawing inspiration from fields as diverse as sports, art, culture and architecture since its inception, the Royal Oak has greatly inspired in its turn the people who have being wearing it. Over the years, collaborations have come to play an instrumental role in conveying the youthful and creative spirit of this iconic timepiece.
INTERWEAVING DESIGN AND MASTERY
The bulkier and futuristic look of the 2000s slowly gave way to more refined models interweaving the watch’s original codes with highly contemporary aesthetics and ever-more performant mechanisms.
For the Royal Oak’s 40th anniversary in 2012, Audemars Piguet presented a selection of watches animated by the same daring spirit that saw it rise. Among the highlights was a new 39 mm “Jumbo” 15202 model, which created a tidal wave among lovers of the brand, accompanied by an openworked version powered by the new Calibre 5122. By 2012, a vast majority of men’s Royal Oak models presented a larger diameter than 39 mm, which enabled the new 15202 timepiece to become the sole model offered in this emblematic size. Its rarity has since played a fundamental part in its unwavering success. The same year, the Manufacture also revealed a 41 mm hand-wound Royal Oak Extra-Thin Tourbillon (Model 26510) in stainless steel or 18-carat pink gold, also available in an openworked 40-piece limited edition (Model 26511, Calibre 2924SQ).
This blend of refined aesthetics and technical mastery permeated throughout the decade, notably with the Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked launched in 2016. Conceived by Audemars Piguet watchmakers, the patented mechanism it houses improves a watch’s precision and stability. By incorporating two balance wheels and two hairsprings assembled on the same axis, the system oscillates in perfect synchrony. Visible on both sides of the case, the double balance wheel also confers a rare glimpse of the watch’s beating heart. This timepiece, first released in a 41 mm steel or pink gold case, has since been reinterpreted in an additional 37 mm size as well as in different materials including white gold, yellow gold and black ceramic.
The 2010s witnessed another technical breakthrough with the Royal Oak Selfwinding Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin (26586), whose prototype presented in 2018 is also known as RD#2. With a movement of 2.89 mm in thickness and a case of 6.3 mm in height, this watch became the world’s thinnest automatic perpetual calendar wristwatch of its time. To reach this remarkable thinness, Audemars Piguet engineers merged the perpetual calendar functions, normally arranged on 3 levels, into one single layer. Paving the way for a new generation of complicated watches balancing refined aesthetics, optimum ergonomics, ancestral savoir-faire and contemporary lifestyle, this timepiece brought down the curtain on a decade brimming with aesthetic and technical evolutions.
Paying tribute to 50 years of unwavering innovation, the latest Royal Oak models mark yet another milestone in the development of a collection that has crossed eras and trends. The 2022 offering brings it to new creative and technical dimensions with an array of refined and ergonomic aesthetics, materials, dial animations and latest generation movements.
Audemars Piguet kicked off the Royal Oak’s 50th anniversary with a new generation of 39 mm Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin models, ref. 16202, powered by a new selfwinding extra-thin movement, Calibre 7121, conceived to seamlessly fit in the 8.1 mm Royal Oak “Jumbo” case. Replacing the historic Calibre 2121 which had equipped the Royal Oak since its origin, Calibre 7121 brings increased performance, reliability and contemporary movement design to the Royal Oak collection. This movement has simultaneously been entirely openworked (Calibre 7124), as showcased in the newly released 16204 models.
Another notable turning point for the Royal Oak collection is the introduction of the Royal Oak Extra-Thin Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon – the Manufacture’s first ever flying tourbillon housed in a 39 mm extra-thin “Jumbo” case. Blending avant-garde with tradition, this watch plays with the Royal Oak’s original codes. Its stainless steel case is complemented with a Petite Tapisserie dial in the iconic Bleu Nuit, Nuage 50 hue, and a printed Audemars Piguet signature at 12 o’clock. With an eye to the future, its flying tourbillon cage offers a glimpse at the cutting-edge technology ticking within. Developed in parallel of Calibre 7121, Calibre 2968 met the added challenge of combining a selfwinding mechanism and a flying tourbillon without altering the proportions of the iconic “Jumbo” case. To do so, the teams completely rethought the tourbillon cage of Audemars Piguet’s existing 41 mm models. The result? A selfwinding flying tourbillon movement measuring a mere 3.4 mm in height, whose refined micro-mechanics has owed the watch the nickname of RD#3.
Pushing the envelope further, this 39 mm flying tourbillon model will soon be complemented with an additional Royal Oak Extra-Thin Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon in a 37 mm diameter – yet another first for the Manufacture!
It is this ability to constantly reinvent itself while retaining the essential aesthetics of the original watch that has enabled the Royal Oak to reach the status of cultural icon within and beyond watchmaking. Only 50 years young, this collection promises many more surprises in the years and decades to come.