Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chrono vs Rolex Daytona: Head-to-Head
by Owen Davies ; @86imaging | September 30, 2016
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph and the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona are among the most lusted-after watches on the planet. As well as adorning the wrists of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, they are highly respected in horological circles.
So those lucky enough to be in the market for a luxury sports watch of such a calibre, will surely notice these two floating across their radar. There is a healthy price gap between them—the Daytona costs on average £5,000 less—but my aim here is to help figure out whether to go with the Daytona, or save a little more for the Royal Oak.
Now, I love both watches, and before attempting this article I had no idea which one I’d go for, but, as usual, in order to arrive at such an ambitious conclusion, I broke down the decision-making into three criteria: aesthetics, movement and wearability.
These are two of my favourite designs in watchmaking so making a call here was painstaking.
The Royal Oak watch family is based on famed designer Gerald Genta’s iconic nautical-themed creation (we covered this in more detail in a previous Head-to-Head featuring the Royal Oak’s chunkier relative, the Royal Oak Offshore, which you can read about here). This model of the Royal Oak Chronograph, Ref. 26320ST.OO.1220ST.02, is made from stainless steel. It’s 41 mm in case diameter, but due to the fixed lugs and large bezel it looks surprisingly bigger than the Daytona, which measures just one millimetre less across.
The Royal Oak Chronograph’s porthole-inspired octagonal bezel and angled case are instantly recognisable. As is the silver dial with Audemars Piguet’s famous “waffle-print” finish. This fine grid design gives the dial a great three-dimensional look which changes with different lighting conditions. The sub-dials have the same seconds, minutes and hours layout as the Daytona, but also feature a date aperture between 4 and 5 o'clock. The Royal Oak has baton markers to display the hours, which gives the dial a minimal look. Well, minimal for a triple register chronograph at least!
The Daytona, Ref. 116520, as with all Rolex sports models, is based on the tried-and-tested Oyster case. At 40 mm wide, it has a compact and functional look to it and the mirror-polished bezel and lugs add a luxurious touch. The black gloss dial features the classic Rolex chronograph layout, which has been largely unchanged since its creation in 1965. The sub-dials show seconds, minutes and hours, and have a high gloss finish to them that reflects light like the back of a CD. I also like the lack of numerals, with Rolex opting for subtler hour markers to decrease the possibility of a cluttered dial—a common curse in chronograph watches.
The bracelets of both watches are, in a word, fantastic. The Daytona comes with a solid stainless steel oyster bracelet and features polished centre links, which really add a classy, luxurious feel to the watch. The Royal Oak, however, has a bracelet design that takes everything to another level. The finish of this bracelet really needs to be seen to be believed, and I’m not sure my images do it justice. Audemars Piguet has managed to create a bracelet that has a predominantly brushed finish, but reflects as if it were polished, looking almost as though each link illuminates as the light passes over it.
This is no picnic! I’ve always been a fan of the Daytona and I think it’s one of my favourite chronograph watches ever made. That being said, I simply can’t ignore the level of finishing and design that has gone into the Royal Oak. I love the sharp lines on the case and bezel, and for me, the iconic hexagonal screws are the icing on the cake. I notice something new that I like about the watch almost every time I look at it, and it manages to maintain the balance of looking like a luxury watch without appearing too flashy or obvious.
Don’t get me wrong, the Daytona is great, and a design classic in its own right, but I think the Royal Oak does it better in almost every department. If I had a single criticism of the Royal Oak’s design, it would be the lack of a tachymetric scale, which is something I feel a true chronograph should have. But in all honesty, it’s a small sacrifice to make and it’s pretty much forgotten whenever the light catches that bracelet. Round one to Audemars Piguet!
The inner workings of a watch are very important to watch enthusiasts. After all, it’s quite literally the beating heart of a timepiece. At the price point of these two watches you would expect a movement that is reliable, accurate and a little bit special. Thankfully, both the Daytona and the Royal Oak Chronograph deliver on all three fronts with aplomb.
The Daytona is powered by the Rolex calibre 4130—a self-winding movement manufactured at Rolex ‘s factory in Switzerland. It made its debut in the Daytona in 2000, replacing the calibre 4030 Zenith-made movement. Rolex spent five years developing the 4130 and created it with a vertical clutch system that enables incredibly precise starting and stopping of the chronograph function, with no effect on the amplitude of the balance wheel.
Inside the Royal Oak Chronograph ticks a calibre 1185 self-winding movement manufactured by F. Piguet. Despite the name, the movement is not actually made by Audemars Piguet, but by Blancpain, who is owned by Swatch Group. The 1185 features a similar vertical clutch system to the Rolex movement and is widely respected in horological circles. It really is a great movement, but the fact remains that it’s not made by Audemars Piguet.
Audemars Piguet does make an in-house movement with a chronograph module that powers the Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph, but this simply will not fit inside the Royal Oak’s casing and to do so would compromise the slim profile of the watch.
So, we have two fantastic movements, but for me the Rolex takes this one easily. Why? Because at the price point for either watch I would expect an in-house movement to be powering it. It’s as simple as that. Hopefully Audemars Piguet will decide to develop an in-house chronograph movement for the Royal Oak in the near future. But for now, it’s a win for Rolex.
As I mentioned earlier, both of these watches have brilliantly designed bracelets and, thankfully, they wear as good as they look.
The Oyster bracelet on the Daytona is solidly built and wears very comfortably—almost to the point that you forget you’re wearing it. I also found the Daytona’s slim profile a great fit for me and it didn’t get caught on my shirt cuffs. The deployant clasp is, as with all modern Rolex watches, excellent. I’m able to fasten and unfasten the clasp without any fuss and the whole thing feels very secure on the wrist. The chronograph pushers are nicely shaped so that they don’t dig into the wrist and the dial is very legible. If I had a complaint, it would be the lack of the glide-lock system that is fitted to the Rolex Submariner, which allows micro adjustments of the bracelet fit. I love this feature on the Submariner as it’s nice to be able to loosen the watch during a hot day. I’d very much like to see Rolex implement this in future iterations of the Daytona.
Unfortunately, I didn’t quite have the same experience with the Royal Oak Chronograph.
In 2012 Audemars Piguet increased the size of the Royal Oak range from 39 mm to 41mm. Now, this may not sound like a huge amount, but on a watch, it can make a considerable difference in how it wears. To maintain the shape of the watch and the bracelet, the Royal Oak’s first two links on either side of the lugs are fixed in position. On the 39 mm version this meant a perfect fit for my (admittedly skinny) wrists, but with the newer 41 mm it renders the watch practically unwearable. Even with a couple of links removed, I’m still left with an overhanging gap where the fixed links extend over the sides of my wrist. This made wearing the Audemars Piguet not only pretty uncomfortable, but it also meant it looked far bigger than it actually is. This was a big disappointment!
Besides the fit, everything else about the wearability of the watch is on par with the Daytona. The links are solid and don’t seem like they will stretch over time, the dial is highly legible and the double push-button deployant clasp is very easy to operate. I just can’t for the life of me understand why Audemars Piguet decided to discontinue the 39 mm version. Surely there’s room for both sizes on the market?!
Given the fact that I couldn’t comfortably wear the Royal Oak Chronograph, the Daytona wins the wearability round. For someone with larger wrists than I, the fit shouldn’t be a problem, but on the other hand that may also have the effect of making the Daytona seem too small.
With two wins out of three, the Daytona wins this showdown in my opinion. The high quality finishing combined with an in-house movement and a comfortable fit just couldn’t be ignored. It could have been a different story though, had I been blessed with larger wrists!
Let’s be clear, this was a narrow victory as both watches are absolutely fantastic. Each model has a tonne of history behind it and whichever one you picked, you’d be getting knowing looks from watch fans wherever you went.
The price difference is a stumbling block, and that brings me to my original question and the reason I chose these two watches to compare. If you have the money for a Daytona, should you buy one, or save a little more for a Royal Oak?
My answer to this question depends on the purpose of buying the watch in the first place. If it’s purely an investment purchase, I’d pick the Daytona every time. The residual values of Rolex’s chronograph are continuing to increase even with the announcement of the new ceramic bezel replacement.
Based purely on looks, I’d save the money and hold out for the Royal Oak Chronograph, as I think it’s worth the higher asking price despite the lack of an in-house movement. If you have the same sizing issue that I did, you could even save yourself some money and look for a pre-owned 39 mm model.