Audemars Piguet: Royal Oak 50th￼ Anniversary￼26 January 2022
«I won’t be a rock star. I will be a legend», Freddie Mercury once said. Now let’s play a game. Let’s replace “rockstar” with “watch”: who could have uttered this sentence? Probably Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak. If it is true that there are watches that have turned into legends over time, one of them is undoubtedly the Royal Oak. A legend that in 2022 turns half a century of life.
A legend whose success may perhaps surprise non-enthusiasts, but which is clear if you look at the idea which led to the Royal Oak project. Even if the success of what would become Audemars Piguet’s workhorse was neither obvious nor immediate. But let’s go step by step.
THE THREAT OF QUARTZ
It was the 70s and the Swiss watch industry was floundering, overwhelmed by the quartz crisis and the waves of super-precise, well-finished and above all cheap watches coming from Far East. Audemars Piguet’s management, as well as other brands’ ones, realized that a stroke of genius would be needed to prevent a permanent damage and so the then general manager, Georges Golay, made a clever first move: he looked to Italy.
At that time our country was still a trend setter in the field of watchmaking and it was rightly thought that what worked in Italy would work in the rest of the world. Reports that arrived to Golay told our market was looking forward to a high-end, luxury steel sports watch. And Golay made a second right move: he called the guru of watch design, Gerald Genta, to commission him that “mission impossible”.
ROYAL OAK: INTO THE NIGTH
But that was not so impossible, since legend tells that Genta literally completed it overnight. It was on the eve of the Basel fair and Golay called him one afternoon explaining that the Italian market was waiting for a steel watch never seen before, a sporty one suitable for every occasion, even elegant, with top finishing. He would have liked the drawing in his hand the following morning.
No sooner said than done. Over one night or so, Gerald Genta put on paper the stylistic details that would have characterized an era, not just the Royal Oak: the octagonal bezel, its eight hexagonal fixing screws, the clearly visible gasket, the integrated bracelet of the highest workmanship, the dial with “petit tapisserie” motif. The case was 39 mm (which earned him the still current nickname of Jumbo, given the standards of the sizes of the time) and the watch was 7 mm thick.
That reduced thickness was made possible casing the automatic caliber 2121, derived from 2120 with the addition of the date window. A movement of 19,800 vibrations / hour, 3.05 mm thick and protected by an anti-shock system to make it suitable for casing in a watch with a sporty vocation.
Audemars Piguet had to manufacture the prototypes of the watch using white gold: the specifications given by Gerald Genta for the production of hi-grade stainless steel pieces were so detailed that with the machines and materials of that time it would have been too difficult and above all too expensive to work them. An unacceptable cost for what should have just been prototypes.
«I was given the green light straight away to begin work on the prototype. I completed the prototype myself within a year. In 1970, I designed the watch. And it took one more year before industrial production, which finally came about in 1972», later told Gerald Genta.
THE ORIGIN OF THE NAME
Having conceived the watch, they needed to find a name for it. Since Genta admitted to having drawn inspiration for the design of the case and bezel from a diver’s helmet, in Audemars Piguet they decided to stay in the marine world and chose Royal Oak: it was the name of eight famous Royal Navy warships, built between 1664 and 1914. Eight as the sides of the bezel.
In turn, the warships took their name from the oak in whose hollow trunk the future King Charles II of England hide to escape the Roundheads (supporters of parliament during the English civil war), who wanted to kill him after the battle of Worcester of 1651. Three hundred twenty-one years after the battle and one year after Gerald Genta’s sleepless night, Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak made its market debut at the 1972 Basel fair.
A DIFFICULT START FOR AUDEMARS PIGUET
It was not a very lucky debut, to tell the truth. Like every revolution, even the Royal Oak was not immediately understood. It was severely criticized, especially for its design. The screws and the gasket in plain sight, the integrated bracelet, the choice of steel but also and above all a price positioning seen by most as crazy: 3,300 francs, a sum with which ten Rolex Submariners would have been purchased at the time.
It took Audemars Piguet over a year to sell the first thousand pieces of the Royal Oak, the series A of the reference 5402. A highly sought-after series by collectors, which stands out for the position of the AP logo at 6 o’clock instead of 12 o’clock. After the first difficulties, however, enthusiasts began to understand that the brand had created something truly disruptive; the same communication chosen by the maison for its new product aimed to enhance its exclusivity: it wasn’t just the price that made it a luxury watch.
ROYAL OAK TIME-ONLY
Over the years, Audemars Piguet has included many complications in the Royal Oak family, but in this quick overview of the 50 years of history we have chosen to focus exclusively on the 39 mm three hands references, leaving aside the Off Shore, launched at Baselworld in 1993 and now a must have for fans. Otherwise, we would be drowned in the sea of the innumerable variations introduced from 1972 to today.
And, speaking of three hands, one cannot but start from the reference 15202, the quintessence of the modern Royal Oak. A reference presented 10 years ago, replacing the previous 15202, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the watch and which this year will be discontinued in its steel version, the 15202ST, as announced last year by the CEO of Audemars Piguet François. Bennahmias.
The reference 15202 has kept the diameter of 39 mm and houses the famous caliber 2121 derived from Jaeger Le Coultre. The modernized details are small but cannot escape the attentive eyes of enthusiasts, starting with the positioning of the AP logo above 6 o’clock, as in the original 5402, and the blue background of the date disc that matches the color of the dial.
And we cannot forget the limited edition of 75 pieces of the Royal Oak Extra-Thin in white gold and salmon dial presented in 2019. Aside the seductive and unusual tone of the dial, the watch meets the classic standards of the 39 mm Royal Oak Extra-Thin, with the recognizable “petite tapisserie” motif, white gold indexes and hands and a date window at three o’clock. Hidden inside the white gold case is the caliber 2121 with a 40-hour power reserve.
Although the Royal Oak was born as the sports steel watch par excellence, the reference 15202 launched in 2012 has seen several variations of materials, including pink, yellow and white gold and the titanium-platinum mix. The platinum dressed the 15202 only last year, in the Royal Oak Jumbo Extra-Thin Platinum Green Dial (ref. 15202PT).
PLATINUM AND GREEN
We recall, however, that in 2000, as part of the celebrations for its 125th anniversary, Audemars Piguet created eight pieces of the reference 14802 with a platinum case and bracelet and a grained stone dial, while more recently a piece in platinum (ref. 15206) with diamond indices and stone dial was made for Yoshida, a Tokyo retailer.
Last year’s 15202PT is therefore a turning point for the Royal Oak references for the choice to include a completely platinum watch in the current production. The details are classic: 39 mm in diameter and 8.1 mm thick, vertically brushed flat surfaces, polished angles and sides of the bezel, white gold screws with polished heads, water resistance up to 50 meters, integrated platinum bracelet. The real novelty, however, is in the dial.
If the timepiece retains most of the classic details, as mentioned above, one of them disappears: the “petite tapisserie” motif on the dial, which has now on a shaded color. It is not an absolute novelty, as evidenced by the titanium version of the Royal Oak from 2018, with a smoky blue that harmonized very well with the luminous case. It is precisely the disappearance of the classic decoration of the dials that makes this reference something special.
In addition to the choice of green, of course, worked with a sun-brushed motif that makes the color in the center of the dial come alive, turning it almost to black on the periphery. All contrasting to the coolness and vividness of the platinum case and bezel. If we exclude the Frosted Gold with mirrored dial and the skeletonized, the choice not to use the “petite tapisserie” motif on this Royal Oak has already made it a sought-after watch by enthusiasts.
DIFFERENT MATERIALS, SAME EXCELELNCE
Talking about platinum, we can also tell the materials that dressed this Audemars Piguet’s symbol during its first 50 years. Among these, there was the combination of tantalum and rose gold used in the 90s also for a perpetual calendar; bezel, indexes, hands, crown and pink gold connective elements of the bracelet contrasted strongly with the intense gray of the case, bracelet and dial creating an impactful effect.
The platinum-titanium pairing also featured some references of the three hands Royal Oak (in addition to the Extra-Thin Tourbillon and the Chronograph) including the 15403IP, created specifically for the 2017 AP QEII Cup, or the 15202IP of 2018, with a mirror polished titanium bezel. Not to mention ceramic, widely used in grand complications (perpetual calendars and tourbillons) but also in some interesting three hands watches, mostly in the Off Shore Diver line.
THE 50th ANNIVERSAY MODELS
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the watch, Audemars Piguet introduced the newest generation of 39 mm Royal Oak Jumbo Extra-Thin (ref. 16202), which houses the Manufacture’s new selfwinding extra-thin movement, Calibre 7121. The collection comprises four models in stainless steel, platinum, as well as 18-carat pink and yellow gold.
The stainless steel version has retained the aesthetics of the original Royal Oak from 1972. The hand finished case and bracelet, with satin-brushing and polished chamfers, are complemented with the watch’s iconic “petite tapisserie” dial and Bleu Nuit, Nuage 50 hue, originally developed by Geneva-based dial maker Stern Frères.
The new pink gold and yellow gold models are both enhanced with the trademark “petite tapisserie” dial in new smoked shades. The 18-carat pink gold model is contrasted with smoked grey hues, while the 18-carat yellow gold version is illuminated with smoked yellow-gold tones. The two dials’ colours have been obtained through galvanic bath.
Reserved for the AP Houses, the platinum reference contrasts case and bracelet with a smoked green dial, whose base – without the “petite tapisserie” – is decorated with a sunburst pattern. This combination introduced last year, was rewarded the best “Iconic” timepiece prize at Geneva’s Grand Prix d’Horlogerie. The vivid green shade is obtained by adding drops of green colouring to the dial’s protective varnish. The smoked effect on the dial’s periphery accentuates the colour’s intensity, while giving it more depth.
THE CALIBER 7121
All models are animated by Calibre 7121 which measures 3.2 mm in thickness; it has been specifically conceived and produced by Audemars Piguet to fit in the extra-thin 8.1 mm Jumbo case without altering its aesthetic and thickness. Five years of development were necessary for the realization of the new Calibre 7121, which is endowed with more energy than its predecessor – 55 hours of power reserve – thanks to its new construction. Its larger barrel confers it more power, making it more precise for a longer period of time.
Finally, all the new Royal Oak Jumbo Extra-Thin timepieces are fitted with the dedicated anniversary openworked oscillating weight in 22-carat gold, which features the “50 years” logo and the engraved Audemars Piguet signature. The oscillating weight has been matched to the colour of each case and will be fitted to the Royal Oak anniversary models throughout 2022.
THE OPENWORKED JUMBO
Moreover, Audemars Piguet introduced a brand new generation of Royal Oak Jumbo Extra-Thin Openworked (ref. 16204) on the occasion of the collection’s 50th anniversary. Available in either stainless steel or 18-carat pink gold, this watch houses the new dedicated selfwinding extra-thin openworked movement, Calibre 7124, as well as the Royal Oak’s “50-years” anniversary oscillating weight visible through the sapphire caseback. The watch’s highly contemporary design reflects the Manufacture’s ever-more creative reinterpretation of age-old techniques attuned to the Royal Oak’s spirit.
Calibre 7124 is the openworked derivative of the Manufacture’s extra-thin selfwinding movement, Calibre 7121, which powers the newly released 16202 references. Both calibres were developed in parallel, which means that the position and geometries of the different components equipping both movements have been meticulously conceived from the start to obtain a harmonious and well-balanced openworked version.
Calibre 7124 brings together precision, performance, age-old openworking expertise and extra-thinness. Measuring a mere 2.7 mm in height, this extra-thin selfwinding openworked hour and minute movement contains more energy than its predecessor Calibre 5122 (3.05 mm), thanks to its larger barrel.
Just for the sake of completeness, we remind you again that these Royal Oak Jumbo Extra-Thin will be produced only for one year with the oscillating weight with the “50-years” logo. Prices. Ref.16202ST.OO.1240ST.01 (steel): € 32,600; 16202BA.OO.1240BA.01 (yellow gold): € 69,400; 16202OR.OO.1240OR.01 (pink gold): € 69,400; 16202PT.OO.1240PT.01 (platinum): € 112,300; 16204ST.OO.1240ST.01 (skeletonized steel): € 89,000; 16204OR.OO.1240OR.01 (skeletonized rose gold): € 116,200.
THE NEXT 50 YEARS
As we have seen, in 50 years Audemars Piguet has really made its Royal Oak lack nothing. A bit like the ugly duckling that becomes a swan, the watch took some time to be appreciated and understood, but then its rise was unstoppable, both in the variations and, above all, in the dreams of the fans. And also in the auction prices.
And now, what the next 50 years have set aside for us? We have seen that for the first 50, the brand has not spared creativity and technical solutions. Because in addition to the three-hands Jumbo, Audemars Piguet has also launched new chronographs and tourbillons. But calm down, and on Watch Insanity we will also talk about the other news step by step. We certainly cannot fire all our shots today, otherwise we would take away the taste of waiting…
By Davide Passoni