The Royal Oak came along at a moment in the early 1970s when Audemars Piguet, like the entire Swiss watch industry, was facing an existential threat. The so-called ‘quartz crisis’ — the emergence of inexpensive quartz-powered movements — spelled disaster for the Swiss maisons, all of which specialised in costly mechanical dress watches. And in the world at large, lifestyles were changing.
Customers were looking for a watch that they could wear all day at work, take out on the slopes, and then keep on for dinner — a practical piece of kit rather than a time-telling item of jewellery. What people wanted, did they but know it, was a sports watch.
For Georges Golay, managing director of Audemars Piguet, the realisation seems to have come as a sudden epiphany.
On the eve of the Swiss Watch Show in 1971, he asked Gérald Genta to design a new watch for the firm. It had to be stylish but democratic, made from steel not gold, innovative but attractive — oh, and the design had to be ready the next day.
Like Rumpelstiltskin in the fairy tale, Genta wrought his magic overnight. In the morning he handed Golay a finished sketch: octagonal bezel, visible screws — it was the Royal Oak on paper.
Soon after the watch went into production in 1972, it began to appear on the wrists of trendsetters such as Alain Delon and Karl Lagerfeld. Audemars Piguet was saved.
The Royal Oak turns 50 next year, an anniversary that is focusing attention on this mould-breaking piece of design. Many references and variations have appeared down the years, which means that there is a Royal Oak to suit every shade of horological taste and opinion.
At Christie’s upcoming Rare Watches sale, there is a chance to acquire an ‘A-series’ Royal Oak (below left). One of the first 1,000 ever made, it has the serial number 951. There are also more recent but perhaps even rarer finds, such as the ‘UAE limited edition’ (below right). This is one exemplar of an edition of 10, with a turquoise dial inspired by the ‘Yas blue’ of the Yas Marina Formula 1 circuit in Abu Dhabi.
It is often said that Genta was inspired by the metal collar of a deep-sea diving helmet, or the portholes of a battle cruiser. The name is certainly nautical; it was borrowed from Britain’s Royal Navy, which over the course of 300 years has seen eight vessels called the Royal Oak (fighting ships, like fine watches, go through many iterations).
The distinctive bezel now functions as a kind of picture frame, within which Audemars Piguet’s designers express their abundant creativity.
Over the years, the Royal Oak has appeared in references with every conceivable complication (perpetual calendars, chronographs, tourbillons). There is a range of candy colours, like the first iMacs. And there are versions that feature precious materials — Genta’s stainless-steel aesthetic notwithstanding — such as platinum, titanium, diamonds, and all the varieties of watchmakers’ gold.
The Offshore debuted in 1993, and caused almost as much of a commotion as the 1972 original. It was, by the standards of the time, huge: 42 mm in diameter and 15 mm thick. It was heavy, too — the platinum 26470PT reference came in at 431.9 grams.
Just wearing one was a kind of day-long workout, which is perhaps why Arnold Schwarzenegger took a shine to the Offshore, and sported one in the movie End of Days.
There have been some astonishing limited editions down the years, such as the black and brutal Offshore Survivor, which looks like it was designed for Batman’s utility belt. You can well imagine that, at the touch of one of those prominent pushers, out would pop a mini grappling hook or a metal-slicing bat-laser.
Because it has such a weighty presence, it is easy to forget that the Royal Oak is also an intricate and minutely detailed piece of horological design.
The ‘petite tapisserie’ of the dial, something that has been there since the beginning, makes it appear that the face of the watch has a warp and a weft, as if it were woven from some impossible alloy of silver and silk. The original tapering steel wristband was super-intricate — tough but flexible, like the tail of a baby dragon.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Elements such as the hands have evolved and changed from one reference to the next, but they have always had the elegance of a hand drawn in the sketchbook of a Renaissance master. The Royal Oak is, in a word, a masterpiece.