The Saga of Steel: The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

It was the watch that many thought would sink the company. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is today one of the world’s most iconic and recognizable watches, and one of the most successful watch designs of all time, but when it first came out it represented an enormous risk for Audemars Piguet–one that many in the watch industry thought would be a fatal one.

In 1972, there were winds of change blowing through the world of watchmaking. Only three years before, on Christmas Day, 1969, Seiko had released the first quartz watch, and though quartz watches were still relatively rare it was already clear that the new technology would change the face of the watch industry. And it was a difficult time for Audemars Piguet as well. The company still enjoyed the high reputation that made it one of the revered “Big Three” of fine Swiss watchmaking (along with Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe,) but it recognized that in order for it to maintain its position, it needed more than the conservative, thin gold dress watches and expensive high complications that it had made for much of its history. In short, it needed to reinvent itself.

To that end, Audemars Piguet enlisted the aid of a man named Gerald Genta. Genta was a fitting choice for the task of bringing a new vision of watch design to the company. Temperamentally he was a maverick– though he’d originally trained as a goldsmith, he became disgusted with the routine at a very early age, as well as with the experience of working as an employee, and at 20, threw his tools into the Rhône (which winds through the city of Geneva) and swore to never work for anyone again –nor to ever work again as a goldsmith.

 The name of the Royal Oak reflects the nautical inspiration– no fewer than eight ships of the British Royal Navy have been named “Royal Oak.”

The vow proved to be prophetic, because it was in the rejection of the notion of gold as the preeminent precious metal that is the genesis of the Royal Oak. Genta’s inspiration was to make a watch out of a material which, up until that moment, had been regarded as only suitable for utilitarian “tool” watches: stainless steel.

There was a precedent for the idea– the use of stainless steel as a noble material, exploited for its decorative rather than its structural properties, went all the way back to the Art Deco era (many masterpieces of Art Deco architecture are characterized not only by the fascination with geometry and lavish luxuriousness so typical of the period, but also by an extensive use of stainless steel;) and after World War II, the combination of glass and steel was to characterize the design of the Modernist architecture into which the skyscraper aesthetic of the Deco period evolved. In watchmaking however, gold was still king. The ultimate luxury dress watch was still thin, flat, simple …and gold.

A more radical departure from custom would have been difficult to realize. The design of the Royal Oak was equally radical, however –it had the appearance of a porthole, but Genta was to later claim that he had been inspired to create the signature octagonal screwed down bezel of the Royal Oak by the sight of a diver emerging from the waters of Lake Geneva, who was wearing what’s called “standard diving dress”–the canvas suit and brass helmet of the hard-hat diver. The name of the Royal Oak reflects the nautical inspiration– no fewer than eight ships of the British Royal Navy have been named “Royal Oak.” The name comes originally from a famous oak tree in which King Charles II hid while fleeing England during the English Civil War.

A superstitious person might have thought it an ill-omened name. The last British naval vessel to have carried it was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1939 while at anchor in Scapa Flow, with the loss of a great part of the ship’s company, and King Charles II was to eventually lose his head, hollow trees notwithstanding. But then, neither the design nor the decision to use stainless steel were products of a risk averse mind. Still, the initial reaction at Audemars Piguet was not encouraging. Jacques-Louis Audemars, a member of one of the founding families of the company, was not pleased. Historical accounts characterize him as initially “aghast” at what he must have undoubtedly seen as a design far too radical for the history and tradition represented by his company. However, he eventually relented, and in 1972 at the international watch and jewelry show in Basel, Audemars Piguet showed the Royal Oak for the first time.

The reception from the rest of the industry was equally skeptical, and Audemars Piguet Museum Curator Martin Wehrli has said that many who saw the watch for the first time made a token offer of congratulations at the AP exhibit and then “went around the corner and said, ‘They’ll be bankrupt in six months.'” It wasn’t just the unusual design or the unusual step of making a luxury watch out of a utilitarian material –the price was an astounding 3,650 Swiss francs, about ten times the price of a comparable stainless steel sports watch at the time.

Critics, however, would soon come to realize that there was some justification for the cost. For one thing, the movement inside the first Royal Oak was an exotic: the ultra-thin automatic calibre 2121, which was at the time, and still is, the thinnest full-rotor automatic movement in the world (there are a handful of microrotor automatic movements that are slightly thinner.) For another, the finish was incredibly elaborate –the highly polished, angled facets of the case and integrated bracelet were so difficult to make that the prototype Royal Oak shown in 1972 was actually made of white gold –much softer and much easier to work with. That first, prototype Royal Oak was eventually sold to the Shah of Iran, but it was the subsequent success of the Royal Oak that was to make both its reputation and Genta’s – and that of Audemars Piguet as well.

Thanks to the fanatical following that the original design engendered, one of the most successful follow-ups in the history of watchmaking was subsequently developed by Audemars Piguet in 1989. The Royal Oak Offshore was designed by Emmanuel Gueit, who when he first showed the design to Audemars Piguet’s executives, encountered the same reaction Genta had faced in 1972. “You’re crazy,” he was told. But once again, initial skepticism gave way to astonishing success, and in subsequent years and down to the present day, the number of variations of both the Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore models has proliferated to an almost unbelievable degree –from bold design statements crafted of exotic materials like forged carbon and high tech ceramics, to exquisite examples of ultra-highend complicated watchmaking, and everything in between, with no signs of the firm’s creative energy flagging.

But for the purist, the ultimate Royal Oak is probably the original –collectors still search the world for one of the 1,000 A-series Royal Oaks that made up the first production run. It’s for those purists that Audemars Piguet this year created a new watch: the Extra- Thin Royal Oak 39mm, which debuted at this year’s Salon International Haute Horlogerie in January. A near exact reincarnation of the original A-series, it features all of the very first Royal Oak’s signature elements, including the original 39mm case diameter and the distinctive octagonal bezel with its eight white gold screws; and it’s driven by the same movement – the elegantly flat calibre 2121. Though the Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore will undoubtedly continue to also be vehicles for a whole range of daring innovations, we’ve no doubt that the Extra-Thin Royal Oak 39mm will enjoy the same devoted following as its noble ancestor.