The 1970s brought about plenty of enduring icons. David Bowie, Studio 54, Debbie Harry, Disco, Punk… the list goes on and on. When it comes to refined and luxurious timepieces, however, the undisputed king of this era was the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
With its distinctive slender build, octagonal bezel (supposedly inspired by vintage diving helmets), visible gaskets and petit tapesserie dial features, it was a design which came to define a new era in gentlemen's watchmaking. To this day, the AP Royal Oak continues to inspire and amaze, and it is rightfully recognised as one of the most enduring, stylish, and masterful watches ever to be released on the mainstream market.
But how did this classic design come to be, and how deep was the impact it made on an ever-changing, ever-evolving industry? Let’s cast our minds back to those heady days in 1972, and take a closer look at the genesis of this incredible piece.
A Turning Point in the Industry
By the late 1960s, the watch industry was at a turning point. New technology was carving out changes in the production of timepieces, and this was to change the way watches would be made forever after. Leading this transformation was the rise of the affordable, battery-powered watch. Offering great value for money, superior accuracy, and a high level of reliability, quartz watches were beginning to flood the market, and a vast number of consumers began abandoning their Swiss mechanical watches as a result. Plenty of Swiss companies at this time simply couldn’t compete, and more than a few classic brands simply ceased production, unable to offer products which could match the superiority of the latest quartz contenders.
Despite being a highly successful watch manufacturer in previous decades, Audemars Piguet became one such company whose days seemed numbered. By 1970, they were struggling to come up with new concepts and designs which could bring wealthy consumers back to their brand. As a result, they decided to undergo some deep market research, in an attempt to get back in touch with what their audience was looking for. It proved to be a game-changing approach; as a result of their investigation, they discovered that the modern Italian audience was seeking something quite different from their current offerings. The mood of the day was calling out for a more contemporary approach, using stainless steel as the material of choice.
This was a big deal at the time. Quality timepieces had always utilised precious metals for their designs - stainless steel was being used by Rolex and Omega to make watches for the everyday man on the street. However, desperate times called for a complete overhaul of their way of doing things, and so on the day before the 1971 Swiss Watch Show, George Golay (the MD of Audemars Piguet at the time) held a last-minute meeting with a Gerald Genta; a legendary and visionary watch designer, whose Omega Constellation model had made massive waves in the industry just a couple of years before.
Rising to the Challenge
The brief given to Genta by Golay was a simple one: the Italian market was ready for a new type of sports watch - one which was suitable for everyday use, and could be worn at any time and for any function, and yet which had a finish which took it above and beyond the competition. There was a snag though, the design had to be completed for the very next day.
Any other designer would have laughed off the idea of coming up with something special by the following morning, but Genta understood the importance of this potential contract. He immediately set to work, and the new design was delivered to Golay’s desk alongside his morning copy. Genta was calling his overnight design the ‘masterpiece of his career’ - and few would argue with such a claim. Indeed, the basic design he came up with has endured to this day with hardly any changes; he’d dreamed up an instant classic, and one which would restore Audemars Piguet as a company, and inspire plenty of other designers who followed.
A Game-Changing Timepiece
The original design of the Royal Oak was considered pretty drastic at the time. The watch had a diameter of 39mm, which was more or less unheard of in the industry, but its slimness and the intricacy of the bracelet - which tapered elegantly at the clasp - showed a boldness which was highly attractive to the contemporary market.
Interestingly, the first Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watches weren’t made of stainless steel, as was hoped. The equipment required to produce a steel watch of such intricacy was beyond the struggling budget of the company at the time, and as a result, white gold was used as a replacement. The original calibre to be prototyped - with considerable success, we might add - was a model made in collaboration with Jaeger-LeCoultre, ref 2120, which featured a truly exquisite finish, and an automatic winding movement which was the peak of sophistication and practicality. So well received was this initial model, it became the blueprint for all Royal Oak watches that followed.
An Instant Hit
The first Royal Oak watch as we know it today (that is, made from stainless steel, and featuring that iconic 8-sided design) was launched in 1972 to an eager and reinvigorated audience of watch collectors and everyday gentleman alike. It transformed the public opinion regarding stainless steel; suddenly, this material could be considered luxurious, and not simply one which the working classes could enjoy. Durable, beautiful, effortlessly stylish, and stunningly-made, it kickstarted a line of timepieces which had some serious staying power.
The first batch of a thousand watches made with the enduring 5402 reference became known as the ‘A Series’. This particular model is one of the most highly sought-after of all the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak series, and can be easily distinguished by the fact that the AP branding sits above the 6 on the face, rather than below the 12. As one might expect, certain design features have evolved, or have been added over the years; chronographs, ultra-thin perpetual calendars, and tourbillons have all featured on later designs, along with a wider array of colour schemes and metal choices.
While the basic design and distinctive shape of the AP Royal Oak essentially hasn’t changed since 1972, on the models produced after the 2000s, Royal Oak watches have clearly paid tribute to their earlier incarnations, and hark back to a more vintage look. This can be seen on beautiful examples such as Royal Oak XL Tourbillon Chronograph, which looks resplendent in rose gold, and the Royal Oak Boutique Blue, which really makes a feature of that bold, stainless steel bezel and classic feel.
All in all, the AP Royal Oak is a veritable icon in the world of luxury timepieces. Somehow elegantly straddling the classic and the contemporary, the stripped-back and the splendid, and finished with a degree of excellence which is almost unrivalled in the industry, it comes as no surprise that there remains a huge level of interest in this particular line of watches. With the magnificent pre-owned Royal Oak timepieces available from Xupes - such as this stunning gold watch, or this contemporary twist on the original steel design - you can carry this unrivalled icon around with you wherever you go.