The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak wristwatch is classified as one of the greatest deigns in the world of watchmaking. This year in 2022, the iconic timepiece turns 50 | Illustration by Holly Wiggins for The Market Herald

The Royal Oak: Celebrating 50 Years of Audemars Piguet’s Legacy

Starting operations in the home of master watchmaking, the Vallée de Joux or Jura Valley, Switzerland in 1875, Jules Louis Audemars and Edward had the vision to create fine mechanical timepieces and the company introduced the first ever minute repeating movement in 1881.

The Royal Oak is Audemars Piguet’s most celebrated watch design and one that has inspired and governed watch design more than any other timepiece in history.

Watch collectors around the world have been waiting for years to try and get their hands on this one-of-a-kind timepiece. Validated but its ever increasing value, adding one of these iconic timepieces to a watch collection is tricky business. The Royal Oak trades at 85 per cent above retail value in the current resale watch market.

Data released by Morgan Stanley estimated that Audemars Piguet outpaced Patek Philippe in sales for the first time in 2021, becoming the fourth largest watchmaking manufacturer in the world.

From its revolutionary stainless steel design featuring a hexagonal case and 8 exposed screws to the bigger more recent references with exceptional complications and technologies, we’re taking a look at the watch icon that has defined and positioned itself as the front and centre of luxury watchmaking over the past 50 years. This is The Royal Oak through time.

The Royal Oak, 1972

The Royal Oak had a stately reception from Georges Golay, the head of Audemars Piguet, who believed the timepiece was too much of a departure from traditional watch styles. The utilitarian, almost brutalist outline with revealed screws, a stainless steel case and a tapisserie pattern on the dial confined the norms of the watch manufacturer’s traditional and delicate timepieces.

Making its debut at the Basel fair, The Royal Oak was more expensive than a gold Patek Philippe dress watch and priced more than ten times the cost of a Rolex Submariner. Golay was worried the unconventional aesthetic of the watch for the time would affect the Swiss watchmaker’s image.

Illustration by Holly Wiggins for The Market Herald

These fears were demonstrated to be groundless as the iconic stainless steel Model 5402 accounted for 7 per cent of the total amount of timepieces created by Audemars Piguet from 1972 to 1976. The watch manufacturer achieved the impossible, introducing a robust timepiece that owed as much of its appeal to its revolutionary design as it did to its accuracy.

The fact that the watch caused as much of a fuss as it did is a testament to the work of its designer, Gérald Genta, who already has an impressive resume, counting the Patek Phillipe Nautilus and Cartier’s Pasha de Cartier amongst his creations, Christie’s Auction House describes Genta as the “the Fabergé of watches.”

Affordable quartz movements from Japan were generating a watchmaking crisis in the 1970s and many Swiss watchmakers folded. Audemars Piguet adapted and The Royal Oak revolutionised the luxury wristwatch industry, setting a standard that continues today.

The Royal Oak II Ladies Wristwatch, 1976

The success of The Royal Oak led Audemars Piguet to engage the services of accomplished designer Jacqueline Dimier in 1975 at a time when the watch industry was predominantly dominated by men. Not long after, she was appointed as the in-house head of design and was able to blueprint watch designs that adapted to the changing appetite of women.

Years in the making, The Royal Oak II ladies watch, Model 8638 was released in 1976. Featuring a 35mm gold model released the year after, Audemars Piguet had initial design drawings of a ladies Royal Oak from as far back as 1973, with production plans made in 1974. With the recent acquisition of Dimier, Audemars Piguet had the expertise to release a ladies’ watch that would appeal to the modern woman.

Illustration by Holly Wiggins for The Market Herald

423 examples of The Royal Oak II were sold in 1976, 756 in 1977 and almost 1,000 units in 1978. Considering the design of these watches was such a dramatic departure from traditional timepieces, these were encouraging sales numbers for Audemars Piguet, who now had two successful lines of luxury sports watches.

No one could talk about anything else, we were all in admiration, no matter what brand we worked for. The Royal Oak was a U.F.O. in watchmaking and completely broke the design codes of the time.

Jacqueline Dimier

The Royal Oak III “Jumbo” 1977

1977 was a big year for The Royal Oak. Stainless steel was replaced by gold, white gold and a combination of steel and gold and an intermediate size; the 35 mm Royal Oak III, Model 4100 was produced. From 1977 to 1981, no less than 27 new Royal Oak references were created for both men and women, some featuring gems, others with quartz movements but all sold incredibly well.

The lucrative Italian watchmarket responded much better to the Model 4100 or The Royal Oak III, with a smaller diameter and used the new calibre 2123 movement, which was more accurate and lasted longer. Accompanied by a beautiful marketing campaign, the watch enjoyed massive success, selling 5,720 Model 4100 timepieces from 1977 to 1979, with 15 per cent of these watches sold in Italy.

Illustration by Holly Wiggins for The Market Herald

The big cause of drama was the size of the watch, which was elephant-like compared to what people were wearing at that time, with Italian men favouring the Ladymatic. We came along with something so huge that it was simply not possible!

Gérald Genta

Two-thirds of the models designed during this period were made entirely or partially of gold. The iconic timepiece had turned a corner and future watches would be affected by this shift in aesthetic. The creators of the movements used in these Royal Oaks, Jaeger-LeCoultre were a stone’s throw away from the Audemars Piguet factory in the Vallée de Joux and the two companies formed professional, personal and even family ties.

There were several variants of Model 4100 produced mostly to accommodate the addition of precious stones, later in the 1980s, 35 mm models were equipped with a smaller mechanism, the Calibre 2131. There were minor changes to designs over the next two decades, increasing from 35mm to 36mm and incorporating a Calibre 2125 movement and its derivatives including the Calibre 2225.

Audemars Piguet had a big success on its hands, the world’s first true luxury sports watch had a rough start but were very popular as a result of the company staying true to its vision. A robust, go-anywhere timepiece that looked as much at home in the backcountry as it did in the ballroom now identified as a model with the best-designed movement and most precise measurements. The company decided it was time to add complications to keep The Royal Oak at the cutting edge of watch design.

The First Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar, 1984

When Audemars Piguet decided to create a Royal Oak with a perpetual calendar, they knew it would make or break them. The quartz crisis was in full swing and despite the success of The Royal Oak, they knew they needed to stay at the top of their game to survive.

Audemars Piguet introduced a perpetual calendar to appeal to the evolving market, creating a timepiece that offered the accurate day, month, and date while retaining the Royal Oak’s aesthetic appeal.

The base movement for the first Royal Oak with complications was produced by Jaeger-LeCoultre and the calendar plate was fashioned by a small firm, Dubois Dépraz in the small village of Le Lieu near the Audemars Piguet workshop.

Illustration by Holly Wiggins for The Market Herald

The Royal Oak Offshore, 1993

On the 20th anniversary of the original Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet decided it would release another collection of timepieces carrying The Royal Oak’s name. The Royal Oak Offshore is bigger than the original Royal Oak featuring a 41m diameter, sporty design, and a sapphire backing plate so you can see the movement.

Like the original Royal Oak, it took a while for the design of the Offshore to hit home with watch buyers. Many of the fans of the original Royal Oak considered it too bulky and the design heavy handed. Even the designer of the original Royal Oak, Gérald Genta said he was not pleased with Audemars Piguet using the name of the Royal Oak to push forth a design that had none of the essence or finesse of his original.

Illustration by Holly Wiggins for The Market Herald

In parallel to the release and reception of The Royal Oak in 1973, the Royal Oak Offshore slowly began to gain traction and started to appeal to the 90s watch market. Masculinity was based loosely around horology and luxury sports watches began to be recognised as status symbols, adorning the wrists of celebrities like Michael Schumacher and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who both owned the Royal Oak Offshore.

Again, many were mystified at a stainless steel reference with such a high price point, but the Offshore slowly began to be seen as the premier sports watch of the time. Iterations of the Royal Oak Offshore with perpetual calendars and other complications started to be produced and the legacy of the Royal Oak continued.

The Royal Oak Concept, 2002

Yet again, in the early 21st century, Audemars Piguet decided that bigger was better and released the gargantuan Royal Oak Concept. Featuring a 44mm in diameter, the timepiece features a bulbous shape and Kevlar strap, the case is made from Alacrite 602, an alloy of up to 60 per cent cobalt, with chromium, tungsten, nickel, iron, and carbon composing the rest of the material. 

The Royal Oak Concept features a tourbillon that is sprung at the bridge, and a power reserve indicator complete with a dynamograph at the 12 o’clock position.

Illustration by Holly Wiggins for The Market Herald

These additions helped it to achieve mainstream appeal as a watch that pushed the limits of watchmaking technology. The huge advancements in computer technology meant that more was expected from portable tech and there was nostalgia for the early days of mechanical sports watchmaking.

The snaking balance bridge gave extraordinary resistance to G-forces, enough to survive a crash in an F1 car and Audemars Piguet had designed a timepiece with modern technology that used modern techniques such as CAD (Computer-Aided Design) programs and CNC machining but retained the toughness and robust character that made The Royal Oak an icon.

The design of the Concept underwent various updates over the next two decades including the 2008 Royal Oak Concept Carbon, which took the watch into the realm we’re more familiar with today. Breaking down barriers between the case, dial, and movement with a darker colour scheme that made it easier for the human eye.

The 2011 Concept GMT Tourbillon introduced a GMT dial at 3 o’clock, appealing to a younger audience who were more likely to be jetting off around the world monthly and needed an accurate, durable timepiece that they could wear to a formal occasion or out on safari.

Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar with Week Indicator, 2015

Audemars Piguet had advanced The Royal Oak past its initial design vision, taking the necessary steps in the late seventies by adding complications to evolve with the market and improve its watches. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the watch manufacturer realised to solidify its importance to the wider and more diverse watch market of the day, they had to pay homage to its image-defining roots.

The 41mm Model 26574 was released to a new generation of watch buyers who wanted more from their investments, more refinement, more credibility and more value. With such extensive experience making accurate perpetual calendars the firm decided to play to its strengths and include one with a week indicator.

Illustration by Holly Wiggins for The Market Herald

The design was true to the original 1972 Royal Oak. It came in a range of materials including rose gold and of course, stainless steel, but in a slightly larger case to encapsulate the movement and complications. All the hallmarks of the original Royal Oak were present, giving this design more authenticity.

The tapisserie dial features a display that included the day, date, astronomical moon, month, leap year, and now the 52 weeks of the year on an outer chapter ring via a third, centre-mounted hand.

Model 26574s is a collector’s piece of the Royal Oak and the introduction of the week indicator complication was an all around success. This model has an impressive average valuation of A$255,799 in today’s secondhand watch market, with an average annual growth of +81.8% in the year to date.

Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie

Buoyed by the success of its nostalgic week indicator, Audemars Piguet refocused on the modern desires of the luxury watch market, which were changing quickly. To maintain momentum, they made an update to its most recent Royal Oak successor, the Royal Oak Concept and added a tourbillon and minute repeater.

Many still believe the legacy of Audemars Piguet is inexorably tied to The Royal Oak but the watch manufacturer has a long history of creating timepieces with difficult to produce complications way before the Royal Oak era, inventing the minute repeater movement back in 1881.

Illustration by Holly Wiggins for The Market Herald

The Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie is another example of the watchmaker’s willingness to take bold steps to ensure the brand maintained its relatively new image of dynamism by creating stylish, robust timepieces that are accurate enough to ensure they remain practical while playing to the strengths of an established, successful Swiss watchmaker.

The lessons of the quartz crisis were remembered, and The Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie further cemented the style of the timepiece as the preeminent design amongst luxury sports watches. It was a melding of an indestructible modern case, the centuries old technology of a minute repeater and the accuracy-increasing, constant movement of a tourbillon.

Considered a “high” complication, minute repeaters are a test of watchmaking skill and sound a chime on the minute, this chime must be painstakingly hand tuned to produce the right tone and sound.

Repeaters were traditionally featured exclusively on pocket watches and are a sign of incredibly well-designed timepieces. Good volume, a warm, pleasing tone of chime and a stately tempo are all indications of quality and are highly sought after by watch collectors.

The Royal Oak 50th Anniversary, 2022

The Royal Oak turns 50 years this year and the expectation is running high that Audemars Piguet will take the opportunity to release another Royal Oak inspired collection. Releasing the Royal Oak Offshore on their 20th anniversary and the Royal Oak Concept on their 30th anniversary.

With an enviable list of clientele that includes Gianni Agnelli, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Karl Lagerfeld and more recently musicians Jay-z and Ed Sheeran. The Royal Oak continues to be the timepiece of dreams and a sought-after collector’s item around the world.

Its initial reception, a simmering of interest, followed by an explosion of popularity in the 80s, 90s and up to the present day, make the classic tale of revolutionary design punctuated by bold modernising updates one that every watch owner would appreciate.

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