A brief look into the past, showcasing how one of haute horlogerie’s most iconic collections was born, and how it evolved through the decades
Arguably one of the most recognisable watch designs, the Royal Oak by Audemars Piguet turned 50 earlier this year. The brainchild of watchmaking legend Gérald Genta, the Royal Oak caused quite a stir when it made its debut.
The origin story of the Royal Oak is also a tale of inspiration and collaboration. Genta famously drew the initial sketch of the watch in a single night, drawing inspiration from various sources, most famously a diving helmet that he saw as a child. Plenty of other geniuses of watchmaking poured their talent into the nascent Royal Oak. Geneva-based dial factory Stern Frères worked on the guilloché Petite Tapisserie dial, manufacturer Favre et Perret handled the steel case and Gay Frères – originally known as a producer of chains for pocket watches – took on the integrated steel bracelet, which is still known as one of the most intricate in the world.
Of course, Audemars Piguet’s own unconventional design language for watches played a pivotal part; as did the massive cultural shift of the 1960s and 1970s that swept through the arts.
Today, the collection is firmly rooted in the history of haute horlogerie while decidedly being a trailblazer with an avant-garde approach to watchmaking, as evident in the progression through
the more than 500 models introduced in its 50 years. As we near the end of 2022, we invite you to look back through the journey of the Royal Oak and revisit some of the most important milestones in the making of this icon…
The Royal Oak was first introduced to the public in April of 1972, during the annual Basel Fair. Reactions were mixed, to put it mildly. It was the most expensive steel watch on the market at the time and was reportedly difficult to manufacture. That being said, sales of the first Royal Oak set a new record for Audemars Piguet and marked the beginning of a commercial success story.
During the next four years, only one single reference – the 5402 – was produced. In 1976, however, a Royal Oak for women was introduced. 1977 saw the 5402 and and the newer 8638 models reinterpreted in yellow gold, white gold and a two-tone combination of steel and yellow gold. A 35mm version also joined the line-up. By the end of the decade, the Royal Oak was a proper collection.
1980s: Breaking New Ground
The Royal Oak continued to expand with new sizes and also new materials. The aforementioned family of yellow gold, white gold and two-tone hues were joined by platinum and pink gold. An even more interesting dynamic happened in terms of movements. On the one hand, due to popular demand, Audemars Piguet adopted quartz movement into the Royal Oak, eventually producing 59 quartz watches in sizes ranging from 26mm to 36mm. At the same time, the Royal Oak collection championed the revival of classic complications.
A day date Royal Oak model (5572) was introduced in 1983, followed in 1984 by a model (5554) equipped with what at the time was the world’s thinnest selfwinding perpetual calendar movement with central rotor – the Calibre 2120/2800. Then 1986 saw the debut of the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Openworked version (Model 25636).
In a way, the Royal Oak’s development in its second decade showcased its most beloved quality: The collection was in tune with the times, but was also a champion of traditional watchmaking.
1990s: Beyond Daring
The Royal Oak’s expansion throughout the 1980s was followed by more extreme and radical turns throughout this decade. Case in point would be the Model 14800, the very first Royal Oak with a leather strap – designed by German artist, designer and watch manufacturer Jörg Hysek.
The early nineties also saw the release of the Royal Oak Offshore, which embodies the extreme lifestyles so emblematic of the decade and naturally appealed to a younger generation of watch enthusiasts. Quite fittingly, the designer behind the Royal Oak Offshore, Emmanuel Gueit, was only 22 when he was approached by Stephen Urquhart, CEO of Audemars Piguet at the time, to create the model.
Other highlights of the decade include the debut of openworked models for women as represented by the likes of the Royal Oak High Jewellery Openworked (Model 15073) and the establishment of complications in the collection, punctuated in 1997 by the Royal Oak Tourbillon. All in all, almost 200 new models were introduced throughout the 1990s.
2000s: Something Old, Something New
For the Royal Oak family, the third millennium marked a return to the collection’s origins as well as cutting-edge advances. A definite highlight for the decade, the Model 15202 showcased a reinterpretation of the Royal Oak’s aesthetics – most famous of which is the incorporation of the new guilloché Grande Tapisserie dial. The overall size of the collection also grew, from up to 36mm in the 1990s to up to 39mm by 2005.
Meanwhile, representing the cutting-edge side of things was the Royal Oak Tradition d’Excellence N°4. This limited-edition timepiece featured a chronograph, a tourbillon and an incredible 10-day power reserve. It was certainly the kind of futuristic design that the public came to expect during the early aughts.
And speaking of limited editions, the decade also saw a rise in collaborations with athletes and public figures that resulted in exclusive and limited releases. While partnerships like these started back in the 1990s, it was in this period of time that celebrity collaborations came to the forefront through, for example, a 2005 Oak Leaves model featuring the signature of Michelle Yeoh and 2008’s Royal Oak Sachin Tendulkar celebrating the now former captain of the Indian national cricket team.
The 2010s opened with a new 39 mm “Jumbo” 15202 model which remains highly sought-after even today. Another notable highlight would be the Royal Oak Extra-Thin Tourbillon (Model 26510), which comes in a 41mm case in either stainless steel or 18K pink gold. And yes, the 2010s also marked an increase in terms of size, with a majority of Royal Oak models for men measuring more than 39mm.
A more emblematic model of what the decade represented for the Royal Oak, however, would be the Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked, which houses a patented mechanism incorporating two balance wheels and two hairsprings assembled on the same axis. Another example would be the Royal Oak Selfwinding Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin, the world’s thinnest automatic perpetual calendar wristwatch of the time.
Essentially, the 2010s marked a move towards refined aesthetics blended with technical mastery, as the Royal Oak celebrated a period of time brimming with aesthetic and technical evolutions.
2020s: In The Now
Finally, we come full circle to the present day, as Audemars Piguet celebrates the Royal Oak’s golden jubilee. Celebrations for this milestone began with the release of a new generation of 39mm Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin models, the ref. 16202, featuring a new selfwinding extra-thin movement, the Calibre 7121. Another model highlighting an extra-thin movement is the Royal Oak Extra-Thin Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon, whose appearance is further elevated by a Petite Tapisserie dial in the iconic Bleu Nuit, Nuage 50 hue.
On the one hand, these new models retain the core aesthetics that has defined the Royal Oak for half a century. At the same time, they showcase how the collection is able to reinvent itself, time and again, with the promise of more surprises and further innovation in the years and decades to come.