In 1972, the luxury watch industry was enlightened with a luxury steel watch from Audemars Piguet released at the annual Swiss Watch Show (now known as Baselworld). The timepiece – the Royal Oak’s unique, revolutionary octagonal design and integrated bracelet drew immediate attention.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak became a massive international success and continues to be one of the most iconic luxury watches ever produced.
Stepping Back in the 1970s
In the early 1970s, Audemars Piguet passed through disturbed financial conditions, like many other Swiss watchmakers. Japanese watchmakers produced quartz watches, resulting in a dramatic sales drop in the Swiss watch industry. You might be familiar with this period that is known as “The Quartz Crisis”.
The demand for quartz timepieces increased, posing a threat to traditional watch manufacturers producing costly mechanical watches. In such an instance, Audemars Piguet realised that they have turned up with an extraordinary innovation to eliminate the financial collapse.
The watchmaker took some feedback from the Italian market regarding the desirability of luxury steel watches. Based on it, AP decided to produce an entirely new sporty and elegant timepiece that the watch industry has never seen. However, many speculated that the brand would opt for introducing a more complicated and better quartz watch.
But the new AP timepiece was utterly different and revolutionary.
Interestingly, Audemars Piguet allotted the design task of the new concept timepiece to the legendary designer of Geneva, Gerald Genta. Born in 1931, this Italian designer was already renowned for its famous watch designs at that time. His successful watch design list included Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse and Omega Constellation.
And the design of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Reference 5402ST came to light within a day.
The Design Story of the Iconic Royal Oak
Georges Golay was the managing director of Audemars Piguet at the time. He called Gerald Genta on the eve of the 1971 Basel Fair and acknowledged him about the expectations of the Italian industry. They were expecting an extraordinary steel watch, and AP needs a design for it by the following day.
Gerald Genta came up with the new watch design by the next morning, and the Royal Oak was born. He later said that the AP Royal Oak was the masterpiece creation of his career. Genta took inspiration from the conventional deepsea diving helmet and designed the Royal Oak. You can see its reflection on the watch’s octagonal bezel with visible screws and the blue tapisserie dial.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak appeared pretty big for that time featuring a 39mm case. However, what completed the revolutionary look was the integrated stainless steel bracelet.
The watch was named “Royal Oak” after England’s historical tree that proved to be a saviour of King Charles’s life. Since then, the tree turned to be an English political symbol in history.
The First Royal Oak Prototypes
Audemars Piguet produced the first Royal Oak prototypes in white gold. It was pretty challenging to machine the high-grade stainless steel according to the watch’s specifications. Moreover, it was much expensive at that time, which was not justifiable for the prototypes.
The watchmaker chose the exquisitely finished Calibre 2121 for the Royal Oak. And this self-winding movement is still powering the Royal Oak Jumbo Reference 15202 today. However, AP designed Calibre 2121 based on Calibre 2120.
Nonetheless, the self-winding Calibre 2121 beat at 19,800 vibrations each hour and had an anti-shock system. This makes the movement suitable for a sports timepiece like the Royal Oak.
In 1972, Audemars Piguet was ready to launch the Royal Oak at the Basel Fair.
The Release of the Iconic Royal Oak
Audemars Piguet introduced the unprecedented steel watch at the 1972 Basel Fair at 3300 Swiss Francs. You might be astonished to know that the timepiece was costlier than a yellow gold Patek Philippe watch. And interestingly, it cost ten times more than the Rolex Submariner.
However, the Royal Oak’s quality, allure and unique design won over a selective audience and collectors. Eventually, it became a huge success and the signature model of Audemars Piguet. AP produced the first series comprising 100 pieces, referred to as the A-series of Ref. 5402.
The watchmaker could sell all the first Royal Oak models within over one year. Over the years, AP has released several versions of the Royal Oak in precious metals. They are also available with different strap options and new technicalities.
In 1981, AP introduced the first-ever Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar. It is known as the world’s thinnest watch of its kind. The model had a mechanical memory that tracks all calendar variations, including leap years. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak collection today includes many other iconic models that are highly coveted among collectors globally.