Secrets revealed: the legend of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watch

Music fame aside, what do Jay-Z, Justin Bieber, John Mayer, and Stormzy have in common? The answer is a shared love for the Royal Oak timepiece, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. With more than 500 iterations to date, this sporty favorite, known for its octagonal case with eight hex screws and named after a trio of British warships, was introduced by Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet with the aim of changing the course of watchmaking history.

It did so with panache and imagination – in fact, such is the continuing interest in this model that it now has its own section on the brand’s website called AP Chronicles, a massive online encyclopedia with more than 100 chapters that input from ten people required, including historians, archivists, watchmakers and special collectors.

To say that people are passionate about this watch is an understatement. It is without a doubt one of the most coveted objects in the history of luxury design. And yet it started out as a kind of wild card. Designed in 1970 by the late watchmaker Gérald Genta (who later conceived Patek Philippe’s equally iconic Nautilus model alongside other chart-topping watchmakers), the original 5402 model was designed as a disruptor to shake up a flagging market. The quartz crisis had brought almost the entire industry to its knees, and the only mechanical or automatic watches worthy of a higher price were cast in gold. It was an incredibly bold and bold move by Audemars Piguet to champion a prestige watch hewn from steel at a time when steel tool watches were increasingly being powered by batteries.

The gamble paid off, albeit gradually and over the course of a decade. In fact, it was not until the early 1980s that the model – industrial yet elegant, sporty yet smart – was seen as the driving force behind a paradigm shift in watch design. Nicknamed the “Jumbo” due to its 39mm case, considered oversized for the time, the Royal Oak 5402 was known for its two-piece monocoque case, integrated bracelet, ultra-thin mechanism, and criss-cross transverse “tapestry” dial. Since its inception, there have been all kinds of dial colors and sizes for both men and women, with versions in gold, platinum, brushed gold, steel and gold, or set with diamonds.

To celebrate the golden anniversary, the watchmaker has launched a range of anniversary models, including four versions directly inspired by the original Jumbo 39mm style. Available in stainless steel, platinum, and 18k rose and yellow gold, these models each feature a special Royal Oak ’50 Years’ sweep that matches the hue of the case. Most notable is what remains hidden from view: for the first time in five decades, the Royal Oak Jumbo is powered by a new ultra-thin caliber, known as the ref. 16202, which increases the power reserve from 40 hours to 55 hours. In total, there will be 72 anniversary editions throughout the year, including openwork models, chronographs, diamond-encrusted pieces and skeletonized flying tourbillon masterpieces.

The special flywheel for the 50th anniversary

“Royal Oak opened the door to countless interpretations”

To delve deeper into the roots of this cult classic, The Week spoke to Sebastian Vivas, Heritage and Museum Director at Audemars Piguet, who explains the mythology of this very special design.

Is it true that Gérald Genta sketched the Royal Oak in a single evening?

When we began studying the origins of Royal Oak, we gathered all available sources, including firsthand archives, orders, registers, publications, testimonies and interviews. Gérald Genta’s personal testimony formed the backbone of the article devoted to the creation of the Model 5402, published in AP Chronicles. All sources of information have been carefully checked to establish the facts. Your readers will discover in this small online encyclopedia that reality is always more surprising, complex and nuanced than expected. To answer your question, all sources come together to confirm that the watch was designed overnight – simply because that was the usual way Genta did it. We have good reason to believe Genta when he tells us that a diving Scaphander inspired the visible screws on the bezel. But contrary to popular belief, the design’s octagonal shape was not inspired by the portholes of Royal Oak warships, as the watch shape predates the watch name by more than a year and a half.

Why is it called Royal Oak?

From the first drawing in April 1970 to mid-1971, the watch was often called “Safari” and sometimes “Excalibur” internally. Genta advocated a name inspired by the world of diving. On September 3, 1971, a meeting was organized to find a perfect name reminiscent of sport, width, or masculinity. Among the suggestions we find “Grand Prix”, “Surfrider”, “Kilimandjaro” or “Oxford” – nothing really convincing. All contemporary witnesses agree that it was the Italian agent Carlo de Marchi who came up with the name “Royal Oak”. it was brilliant Royal Oak opened the door to myriad interpretations, including naval battles, naval conquests, fine armor and tree salvation. It commemorates the story of Charles II, King of England, who owed his life to an oak tree which protected him from Cromwell’s troops and which later became a symbol of strength and beauty. [This act of elevation] is a bit like how watchmakers refined steel by working it very finely.

Royal Oak 50. Jumbo editions in gold and classic steel
Why was a women’s model so crucial to the success of the Royal Oak?

Even at Audemars Piguet, many people didn’t remember that the first Royal Oak, model 5402, released in 1972, was not modified for the first four years of its existence. It was 39mm, cast in steel, with a dark blue dial and an ultra-thin caliber 2121. Who would launch a revolutionary watch today, backed by a dedicated campaign and calendar of events, without evolving or changing it for so long ? Georges Golay, the former CEO of Audemars Piguet, understood that the ‘enfant terrible’ of fine watchmaking needed time and space to exist and be accepted. Designed by Jacqueline Dimier and launched in 1976, the women’s 8638 (29mm) was the very first variant of the Royal Oak. It sparked a second wave of surprises by becoming the brand’s most masculine watch for women. His success opened up all sorts of possibilities. It showed that the Royal Oak could evolve and become a creative playground. A gold version was introduced the following year, as well as a mid-size model with a 35mm case.

Why was a luxury steel watch such a bold move in 1972?

Although society was changing rapidly in the late 1960s, the world of watchmaking was still very traditional. Casual luxury didn’t really exist in the watch industry. Sports and trend watches were made in large quantities, made of steel, signed by Omega, Rolex, Tag Heuer and many others. Luxury watches were in gold signed by Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. The Royal Oak has bridged these two worlds. The oversized case is inspired by sports. Its ultra-thin, prestigious movement and refined dial belonged to the world of tradition. Both worlds collided in the high-end finishes of the extremely complex steel case and tapered bracelet. This level of sophistication has never before been achieved in a steel case. Since steel is much harder than gold, this required the development of new know-how. It was so difficult to manufacture that the steel Royal Oak was more expensive than many gold watches. The market soon realized that there was value in the craftsmanship. The watch was warmly welcomed as it was the first to be worn both on a sailboat and in the boardroom. Cool and formal at the same time.

Royal Oak 50th Jumbo Editions in gold and platinum with a green dial
Which model did Gérald Genta wear himself?

Gérald Genta wore the first jumbo model, 5402 series A175. In a recorded interview in 2011, he explained that he had replaced the bezel on his steel watch with a yellow gold bezel: “Georges Golay [then managing director of Audemars Piguet] I didn’t know about this gold bezel but I made one for Les Ambassadeurs [a famous Geneva retailer].” Evelyne Genta, the designer’s widow, has decided to sell this watch at Sotheby’s Geneva in May 2022 to fund the Genta Foundation and give young designers the opportunity to realize their projects.

Sourcing pieces for the AP Museum and researching for the AP Chronicles must have brought some interesting characters to your attention…

That brings me back to the first question. Listening to the long interview recorded by Gérald Genta in 2011, a few months before his death, went beyond the search for information. It really allowed us to connect with this incredible personality. His deep voice, his slow tone, his energetic Genevan accent, his dark humor. we felt very close to him. When we met Evelyne Genta, who was not only his wife but had run the Genta company for many years, this personal dimension deepened. She told us some great stories. Genta was an artist with a strong personality, a genius. He often designed watches for specific clients with their character in mind. Apparently, when the customer asked to change the design slightly, he just left the discussion and said that they could design the watch themselves, whether they were simple entrepreneurs, sultans or kings!

Tell us something most people might not know about the Royal Oak

We just discovered that most [vintage] Royal Oak models were produced in very small numbers. This is a real surprise. Of the 86 models that we examined individually and extensively, only 18 were produced in quantities of more than 200 pieces and only eight have a production volume of more than 1,000 watches. 52 models were produced in numbers of less than 50 – 37 of them make up ten watches each. And the rest – that’s 19 – are unique! Although the Royal Oak 5402 was the first watch to be mass-produced by Audemars Piguet, numbers have always remained relatively limited, particularly to preserve our craftsmanship. Secrets revealed: the legend of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watch

Fry Electronics Team

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