Elegance. Sophistication. Consistency. These are just three of the words which spring to mind when one thinks of the flawless horology behind the output of Audemars Piguet; the fine watchmaking house which has repeatedly impressed, amazed, and rewritten the rule book of timepiece production across the decades. Indeed, Audemars Piguet are one of the founding companies of contemporary haute-horlogerie, with a history which stretches right back to the 1870s.
Founded in Swiss Jura by master craftsmen seeking to take the rarest complications to new heights of perfection, and with the same mantle carried today by a small and dedicated team of artisans, each and every one of their highly anticipated releases continues to send shockwaves through the timepiece industry. As such, there was - as one might expect - a great deal of anticipation surrounding the 40th anniversary of the iconic Royal Oak model. This key milestone saw the launch of an homage to the original, a timepiece which succeeded in reminding the watch collecting world just how spectacular, stylish, and groundbreaking this instantly recognisable design was when it landed, all the way back in 1972.
Of course, the question on everyone’s lips is this: how does the newer line of Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watches - released not merely as an homage and anniversary celebration of the original, but as a logical and stylistic continuation of a truly winning formula - compare to the 1972 trailblazer? The answer is, in true Audemars Piguet style, spectacularly. That’s not to say there aren’t some subtle differences to watch out for, however, wherein we can identify certain key trends in luxury horology and watch collecting, through the sparkling lens of forty years of flawlessness. Let’s take a closer look.
Stunning Consistency in Style and Finish
The original 1972 Royal Oak, designed by the deft hands of the legendary Gerald Genta, was a masterwork of uncompromising modernist design. Inspired by the portholes on board the megalithic battleship Royal Oak, its octagonal bezel and exposed screws were at once a revelation and a revolution in one fell swoop; a riotous riposte to the ever-slickening designs of its contemporaries. These almost industrial design features still hold up magnificently well today; as you can see on the 1970s 5402 series Royal Oak, there’s still something gleefully against-the-grain in this classic timepiece design; one that maintains its status as a must-have item for watch collectors seeking the most iconic models on their wrists.
The 2012 1520 Jumbo series effortlessly proves the timeless nature of this fundamental design, in that seemingly very little has been changed, and yet the re-imagining of the original maintains that same sense of modernity and contemporary cool, albeit with a delightfully retro twist brought about by the passing of four decades. All those most obvious key features of the 70’s classic are present and correct; the bezel remains octagonal and reminiscent of a battleship’s porthole. The screws remain exposed. The essence of minimalism and stripped-back charm remain very much intact. As far as homages to a design classic go, Audemars Piguet know full well not to trample on the dreams of their most ardent fans. In that sense, what’s not to love?
A Masterful Use of Materials
There were no shortage of reasons why the Royal Oak landed with such force and impact in 1972, but one of the key factors to its overnight and meteoric success came down to its savvy use of materials. In a market saturated and glittering with precious metals, with prestige watches of the age showcasing endless uses of gold, platinum, and other luxurious materials, the Royal Oak’s use of stainless steel - albeit stainless steel handled, worked, and brushed beautifully - was a powerful statement of intent. Again, the 1970’s and 2012 versions of the Royal Oak display this same commitment to stainless steel, with the bracelet and bezel resplendent in their cold, stark, and decidedly modern use of the metal.
Of course, the stainless steel in both era’s watches has another key benefit, too; it provides the perfect canvas, neatly framing the richness of the coloured dial with an icy counterpoint. This brings us to the iconic Audemars Piguet textured dial surfacing; the elegantly worked tapisserie pattern, on which the applied hands and hour markers sit. As one of the most recognisable features of the Royal Oak, it comes as no surprise to see this feature prominently intact in the newer 1520 range, although the latest runs include a range of colours including royal blue and salmon pink, as opposed to the classic and moody black of the original. On the dial, we can see another of the subtle adaptations made for the newer Royal Oak models. For example, the 2014 version features a stamp emblazoned with ‘Swiss Made’ either side of the six o’clock pointer, whereas on the 1972 model, this is reduced to just ‘Swiss’.
The flip side of the dial reveals perhaps the most striking change between the original Royal Oak and its millennial counterpart, and it is here we can see where tastes and trends have changed with the times. In the 1972 version of the Royal Oak, the exquisite movement was ticking away beneath a gorgeously industrial metal casing, hidden from the world. However, modern tastes call for more skeleton-oriented designs, meaning the 2012 model and those which followed boast a glazed sapphire caseback, allowing the mechanism to be admired.
Slight Differences in a Remarkable Movement
That visible, admiration-worthy movement hasn’t changed much, either. So reliable and groundbreaking were Audemars Piguet’s movements and mechanisms, and being such an integral part of the brand identity, very little adaptation or evolution has been necessary.
It’s worth pointing out that the 1967 calibre 2120 movement - that featured in many of the Audemars Piguet watches of the 1960s - were the thinnest automatic full rotor movements in the world. These led to the movements within the Royal Oak, which saw the thickness increased from 2.45mm to 3.05mm. The fact that the changes made for the latest flush of Royal Oak models is incredibly minimal is a testament to the excellence of this remarkable mechanism.
Gleefully Retro, yet Thrillingly Cutting-Edge
Essentially, the difference between the two comes down to one’s dedication to originality, and the importance and value one places on vintage excellence vs contemporary craftsmanship. Interestingly, the most significant difference between these two watches comes about as a subjective point, rather than any objective variations. The original was the last word in stark, steely, and brand-defining modernism. The newer version still exudes that modernist charm, but it also delights in a sense of retro class. With either choice, you’re guaranteed a truly trailblazing watch design, which is assured to make you stand out from the crowd.