Watches - Expert's Pick

Editor’s Pick: Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ladies

Our jewellery editor’s thoughts on a pre-loved watch she has her eyes on.

For the past two years I have been wearing a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso in stainless steel. That should tell you a fair amount about my watch taste. I go for classic models and in a relatively understated format. Both the Reverso and the Royal Oak stand out for their singular designs and that, I feel, is how they work best. While I have nothing against gold and a handful of diamonds, strong design speaks for itself.

For those who aren’t on first name terms with it, the Royal Oak is dear to the watch industry because it pretty much single-handedly revived it in the seventies, when the arrival of quartz movements had looked set to bring an end to it. The Royal Oak also founded the luxury sports watch category, which has since taken centre stage.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ladies

It was drawn up in a single moment of inspiration, when the legendary jewellery designer Gérald Genta caught a glimpse of a ship’s porthole. This, incidentally, explains the name, which, as well as being a symbol of Britain, was inscribed onto the side of a number of British Navy ships. Genta’s sketch had a handful of entirely original features, such as the octagonal bezel with eight exposed screws, the “tapisserie” dial, which looked like the print of a waffle iron, and the hexagonal crown.

It also had an “integrated bracelet”, which itself was a work of art. Here “integrated” means it blends into the watchcase, but also that it carries as much importance as the dial itself. Its links are seamlessly intertwined and the level of finishing far outstrips bracelets from rival houses. In fact, it’s still known as one of the best bracelets ever made. On the wrist it’s even more comfortable than my Reverso, which has a stunning brick-link bracelet. To me, the bracelet is all-important, especially in a ladies watch as it gives a watch identity and is a statement in itself.

In 1976, Audemars Piguet released the first ladies version, contracting the services of Jacqueline Dimier, one of only a few female designers in the industry at the time. The women’s versions were smaller, naturally, and came in gold, two-tone and, eventually, with diamonds, but they never hit the mainstream like the men’s pieces.

Nowadays of course women are far more likely to wear traditional “men’s watches” than they were in the seventies. While there are many modern women’s versions of the Royal Oak that are becoming increasingly popular, such as the “frosted gold” piece introduced last year, many of the men’s designs are now considered unisex.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ladies

Personally, I like a more neutral design, but I also like a smaller size, which is why I picked out this 27 mm piece from the early 2000s—newer editions are 33 and 37 mm, which are a little large for my tastes. I went for a clean white dial, which perfectly combines with the stainless steel to make a versatile watch that I can wear with just about anything (OK excluding maybe gym gear or an evening dress).

Although many people prefer the gold, this watch was originally made in steel and that’s how I like it. Up close you notice the satin-brushed finishing and bevelled edges, which give it more than enough detail. It also has one other subtle touch that ever-so-slightly edges it in a feminine direction—a cabochon-shaped dome protruding from the crown. This is a great detail for me and just enough pizzazz.

If there’s one downside it’s the quartz movement. Admittedly, unlike in the men’s market, this is unlikely to deter most women and indeed it’s not a dealbreaker for me as it also brings the price down. On that note, this is very affordable compared with the lion’s share of Royal Oaks!

In short, this Royal Oak Lady wisely retains all the lines and finish of Genta’s masterpiece, but yet its size and crown have given it the feminine touch. Would I swap it with my Reverso? Yes I would. For the sake of change more than anything, but also to wear a watch so radical that it rescued the fate of an entire industry.

For more watch reviews follow our magazine. For buying options you can shop pre-loved and vintage ladies Audemars Piguet watches on Xupes.